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

Archive for January, 2008

It Hurts Him

In Michael O’Brien’s book, Island of the World, the main character, Josip (now an old man but seeing himself as a boy), has a mystical experience in which he meets Christ, who reveals to him something of the mystery of the love that led Him to the Cross:

“He is not yet able to meet the eyes of the Savior of the world, yet he can glance hesitantly at the large hands opened before him and look right into the holes in the palms. Put your hands into mine, says the voice. He obeys, but shame and grief and loneliness mingle into one sense, a conviction that this is not the way he should have been. For here again after all this time is the blood he has struck from the faces of others.

“Waves of love come to him from the hands of Christ, even as the boy realizes that his own hands are pressing the wounds. Does it hurt you? Josip asks. Yes, it hurts me, Christ gently replies. There is no reproach in the words, only an assurance that he desires to bear this for love’s sake.”

This echoes something Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in a novel, which I reflected on a couple months ago, but which I’ll reproduce here. A woman in the process of coming to repentance confronts the face of Christ in an icon:

“It was a completely human face, though its complexion was not of this world… The eyes held an enigmatic omniscience… knowing all, from the beginning to the end of time, things of which we never dream. A mind at ease might not have responded to these depths. But Zinaida, with her heightened perception, saw that Christ was suffering acutely, suffering yet not complaining. His compassion was for all those who approached him—and so at that moment for her. His eyes could absorb whatever pain there yet might be—all her pain, as they had absorbed many times as much before, and would absorb whatever pain was still to come. He had learned to live with pain as something inevitable. And he could grant release from all pain. A weight was lifted from her.”

jesus_hand_nailed.jpgWe are accustomed to the thought that Christ bore all our sins on the Cross, and perhaps we are also somewhat desensitized to the enormous price He personally had to pay so that our sins would be forgiven. We can fully grasp neither the pain our sin causes Him nor the love with which He bears that pain without complaint.

As Lent approaches, and as we thus enter more fully into the mystery of repentance and a thorough examination of our consciences, we ought to consider more carefully the nature and effects of sin. Sin is not merely breaking a law, violating a precept, doing something we shouldn’t have, or not doing something we should have. Sin is even more than offending the justice or honor or truth of the Lord. Sin hurts Him. When we commit sin we are pressing the painful wounds in his hands, to use the image of the above quote. True, He desires to bear it for love’s sake, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less, nor does that make our offense any lighter. The next time we are tempted by our favorite vice, we ought to think twice if we really want to hurt Jesus. Let’s not minimize sin. People nowadays commonly assert that they can do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. But it hurts Jesus. And it hurts our own souls, even if we are too spiritually dense to notice it.

We need to reflect on this aspect of sin and repentance and relationship to Jesus. It may be that we tend to complain about things and maybe even hold God responsible for not easing the troubles and sufferings in our own lives, or the endless tragedies and horrors all over the world. Like Job, we may think we have an argument against God. Yet if the pure light of truth were to shine on our souls for just a bit, we would realize that the more poignant (and pertinent) state of affairs is that we have been hurting Christ all along, pressing on his wounds, causing Him pain, while He has been silently loving and forgiving us. He has “learned to live with pain,” the pain that our sins constantly cause Him, but He absorbs it without complaint, for love’s sake.

This ought to be simultaneously a source of shame, consolation, and motivation for us. We ought to be ashamed of our smallness of spirit, our hard-heartedness, our self-pity and lack of awareness of God’s infinite love. Yet we ought to be consoled that despite our ingratitude and unrelenting sinfulness, the Lord is still willing to bear it all out of love, without reproach, without rubbing our noses in it. All this should motivate us to stop hurting Him! It should kindle a fire of repentance, love, and gratitude in our hearts, so that we resolve never to hurt Him again. All of our sins are held painfully in his hands, and they disappear into his wounds.

Let us decide, then, to see things differently henceforth, to change our hurtful behaviors, and to allow Christ to lift the burden of sin from us. He does everything for love’s sake, and it’s high time we did so as well. To learn to love as Jesus loves is to make the greatest possible contribution for the good of humanity; it is to perfectly fulfill our vocation.

Joy and Gladness

There are some prayers in our Liturgy that I wonder about sometimes. Not that they aren’t good prayers, but that they are prayers that seem to ask for what is impossible, and I wonder why the Church insists we pray them, knowing that they will never be fully realized in this life. One of them is the prayer that we will be able to live “a quiet and tranquil life, in all piety and dignity.” I really pray this with fervor, and I’ve done so for many years, and I’m still waiting for it to be answered! Even a monk, it seems, has way too many problems, stresses, demands, and other unnerving situations to deal with to ever be able to live “a quiet and tranquil life.”

happy.jpgBut that’s not the text I’m mainly concerned with today. There’s another prayer in which we ask the Lord to “fill our hearts with joy and gladness, at all times, both now and forever.” If we just asked for joy and gladness, I think I could say that this prayer is answered from time to time, and I wouldn’t now be writing this post. But at all times? Is it even remotely possible for anyone to be filled with joy and gladness at all times? Sometimes I modify it and say that I’ll settle for “some of the time.” Yet somehow that doesn’t seem to be what the Church is asking me to do.

One clue came to me recently as I was reflecting on Psalm 33(34). It begins with, “I will bless the Lord at all times.” As I was praying with despair the prayer for constant joy and gladness in the Liturgy, a Voice from On High suddenly spoke to me, saying: “You nitwit, how do expect to receive joy and gladness at all times if you don’t bless the Lord at all times?” Now I don’t know if this is the complete answer to my confusion in this matter, but it is a significant piece of the puzzle. Joy is not something that is miraculously poured into us like water from a pitcher. It has to find something in us to “connect” to, something that works with the gift to make it bear fruit. If you’re taking some sort of medication, for example, it has to find certain “receptor cells” in your body that interact with it so it can have its beneficial effect. Our souls have to have “receptor cells,” so to speak, that make it possible to respond to God’s gift of joy and gladness. Blessing the Lord at all times opens our spiritual receptor cells, enabling us to experience joy and gladness. No psalm says, “I will grumble unto the Lord at all times,” for the simple reason that that will close us up inside, and any joy that God would like to give us will find no reception and simply pass on by.

Every Office in the Byzantine tradition opens with: “Blessed is our God, at all times, both now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” Saying this several times a day doesn’t actually constitute blessing Him at all times, but at least it affirms that God ought to be blessed at all times, and probably is, if you would check the activity of every soul in the world at any given moment. So at least here we have a reminder that we are supposed to be blessing the Lord at all times (so we can remind God that this means He’s supposed to be giving us joy and gladness at all times!).

But then another question would be: Just what do we mean by “joy and gladness”? Are we asking for pleasure, euphoria, mirth, exhilaration, thrills, effervescence, and happy experiences at all times? Even blessing the Lord at all times is not going to secure that for us. So I don’t think that the Church is referring to that in her prayer. This joy and gladness is something more interior, and hence more profound, though this does not exclude a certain measure of manifest good cheer and light-heartedness, or a bright disposition. Our joy and gladness are based mainly upon the three theological virtues, faith, hope, and love. Our sense of joyful well-being does not come from external stimuli, but rather from the interior awareness of God’s love and of everything He has prepared for those who love Him in return. We walk by faith, we live in hope, and our joy has its primary source in the Kingdom to come.

The prayer doesn’t read: “Grant us to feel good at all times,” but rather, “fill our hearts with joy and gladness at all times.” Joy can still be an interior state of being when our attempts to lead “a quiet and tranquil life” are endlessly frustrated. There can still be a bit of hidden gladness even in the midst of illness, hardships, setbacks, or sorrows. That’s because the joy and gladness that are gifts from God do not depend upon our emotional fluctuations or the external turmoil of our lives. If we can manage to bless the Lord in the midst of trials, the gift of joy will find sufficient “receptors” within our souls to take root and bear fruit.

This is not something that happens overnight. It is something that is cultivated through diligent and consistent practice. But if you know someone who radiates inner joy even when you know they are suffering, you know that you want whatever it is they have. I think I know their secret. They are blessing the Lord at all times, and He is filling their hearts at all times with joy and gladness. It just might work for you, too. So give it a try. There’s nothing to lose (except despondency and a sour puss), and there’s joy and gladness to gain!

Here Comes the Judge

We’re just about a week away from the beginning of Great Lent, and the Church continues to help us prepare through the Sunday Gospels. This Sunday’s Gospel (Mt. 25:31-46) is the bottom line of the whole of our lives. If no gavel-2.jpgother instructions, encouragements, or admonitions have worked up until now, the Church clearly places before us the reality of our accountability in this life, for there will be a divine judgment, after which our destiny is eternally sealed. We can spend our whole lives deceiving others and deceiving ourselves, or being lazy or mediocre or selfish or just plain hard-hearted and mean, and perhaps we can even try to cover all this with a thin veil of piety, so that people think we are righteous. But on Judgment Day all masks will be removed, all veils lifted, and the whole truth and nothing but the truth will be known to all. This Gospel is meant to be a wake-up call. God is not mocked, says the Apostle, we reap what we sow—and this truth is clearly expressed in the mystery of the final judgment.

The services for this feast are quite intentionally terrifying, full of images of raging and unquenchable fire, of the undying and tormenting worm, of the outer darkness and all the torments of the damned—along with the exposure of our evil deeds and the endless lamentations of those who did not repent and do the will of God in this life.

This has been the common approach for centuries in both East and West, and only in the past few decades in the West has the pendulum swung—to the opposite extreme. Nowadays, God has become “non-judgmental,” so there doesn’t need to be a Judgment Day anymore. We have redefined sin, ostensibly with God’s permission, so most of the things that used to be considered offensive to God are now just morally neutral elements of the learning process. With a wink and a nudge, God lets us know that our sins are no big deal, and that in the end He’ll be passing out awards to all indiscriminately. Just seek your own happiness, follow your feelings, be good to yourself, and all shall be well. Very comforting, very non-threatening, this, but I’m afraid it’s a huge load of baloney.

Now it may be said, and for the most part rightly so, that we ought not try to scare people into Heaven by warning them of the just punishments due to sinners. (Though frankly, if nothing else were to work, I’d rather be scared into Heaven than lulled into Hell.) We’ll look at the positive side of things in a moment, but let’s first look at the salutary possibilities of a bit of well-placed fear. We heard an interesting reading from St Augustine the other night. He was writing about the terrifying manifestations that Scripture says will accompany the Second Coming of Christ. He says that when something is terrifying, it’s actually OK to be terrified! Now what does he mean by this? He says that if we are terrified we will be vigilant, and if we are vigilant we will be secure. If we think that Judgment Day is going to be a stroll in the park, then we will make no effort to prepare for it. If we think there are no eternal consequences for our sins, we will heedlessly go on committing them, not taking repentance too seriously. If God is a benign, non-judgmental old Grandpa, then we can pull the wool over his eyes and sneak into Heaven—or, better yet, since we have taken it upon ourselves to ignore Scripture and create a god according to our own fancy, we can dispense altogether with the scary talk of judgment and Hell and devils and punishments. We try to “tame” God by reducing Him to size that we can control or be comfortable with. But since God is a God of truth, He will have to resist our efforts, for our own good. God is who He is, and it’s no use trying to give Him a 21st-century American makeover.

In addition to the Bible and the teachings of the Church, we have the testimony of the saints. I’ve just started reading the writings of St Padre Pio, arguably one of the greatest saints of the 20th century, and certainly one of the most gifted and intimate with God. I can’t go into much detail here, but suffice it to say that even though his heart was on fire with love of God, and he knew well the Divine Mercy, he was under no illusion that all would automatically be saved or even that God is harmless and soft and easy with us. He loved God because God is God—and God’s will, manifested in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, was all that mattered to him. He wrote, concerning an affliction that God sent to him: “I silently adore and kiss the hand of the One who strikes me.” So we accept in faith the word and will of God, whether or not it seems pleasant to us.

Even a great saint such as Padre Pio, who received the stigmata and had many heavenly visions and mystical experiences, did not presume his own salvation, but he knew it must be worked out day by day. He wrote: “The thought that at any moment I may lose Jesus distresses me in a way that I cannot explain; only a soul that loves Jesus sincerely can understand what this means.” So it would be quite arrogant for any of us lesser Christians to assume that we’re just going to coast into Heaven without the harrowing experience of the Cross and of the painful purification of our souls. To love God is not to create a sentimental and harmless image of Him so that we can artificially calm our fears; to love Him is to keep his commandments, as Jesus repeatedly said. We won’t know for certain our eternal destiny until we hear it from the mouth of the Lord at our own judgment. A Jesuit from a former time once wrote: “Our life will not be a success until we are actually in Heaven; and it won’t be a failure until we are actually in Hell.”

Now, after recognizing the value of a healthy fear of God and a sober acceptance of the accountability of our lives—which we must recognize unless we are to ignore large portions of divine revelation—we can look at the criteria that Jesus uses for judging us at the Last Day. It boils down to love, expressed in concrete, practical ways. We might be correct if we assume that our judgment will include more elements than what Jesus explicitly mentions in this Gospel, but that can only be speculation. It’s always best to stick to what Jesus has actually said, what God has actually revealed through Him. So Jesus says that if we want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we have to treat others as if they were Jesus, for He has chosen to identify with them. To feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the sick, and provide in whatever way for those who are in need, is to minister to Jesus Himself, and this, according to Him, will gain for us entry into Heaven.

This is one of the points on which Christians fail most often. Those words of Jesus—“You did it to Me”—should be burned into our consciousness. “You did it to Me”: if we helped someone or if we hurt someone, we did it to Jesus. If we attended to someone or ignored someone, we did it to Jesus. If we honored someone or despised someone, we did it to Jesus. If we loved someone or if we hated someone, we did it to Jesus. All of this will be made manifest on Judgment Day.

We ought also to remember that fear of God and love of God are two sides of the same coin, as are God’s justice and his mercy. Only one who loves Him deeply can fear Him rightly. We dread the smallest offense against Him, for He is holy and loves us immeasurably. We shouldn’t fear being punished for our sins. We should expect that, because we deserve it. We should fear only to grieve God by our sins. Thus our fear is a form of love. We can’t divide up into camps and say, well, the fear approach is pre-Vatican II (though let’s remember that the entire history of the Church, except the last 40 years, is pre-Vatican II), and that the loving mercy approach is post-Vatican II. Any approach that doesn’t take both into account is a false one. Just because God loves us doesn’t mean He won’t punish us for our sins; and just because He punishes us for our sins doesn’t mean He doesn’t love us. His punishments—in this life, anyway—are therapeutic and didactic. They are meant for our healing and instruction. If the Gospel of the Last Judgment inspires fear in us, let us transform fear into vigilance unto spiritual profit. But let us also recognize that the fear of the Lord, properly understood, is not merely an immature stage in the spiritual life. In fact, St Paul tells us to “make holiness perfect in the fear of God” (2Cor. 7:1). Can’t go much further than perfect holiness! St John does say that perfect love casts out fear, but he can only mean the servile fear that is not a virtue. The “fear of the Lord” is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and love does not cast out gifts of the Holy Spirit!

As we prepare to enter into an intimate and loving communion with Christ through the Holy Eucharist, let us remember how we are invited: “Approach with the fear of God and with faith.” No one is asked to approach with warm fuzzies and with faith. Let us approach the Lord as He is: both Judge and Savior, all-just and all-merciful, offended by sin but willing to forgive, who can neither deceive nor be deceived, who dwells in inaccessible light and also in our poor hearts, and who is coming to judge the living and the dead.

It’s always better to stick to reality. Life might be easier if we weren’t accountable for our actions. But just face it, we are, so let’s live accordingly and strive mightily toward the Kingdom. The Gospel is a sobering tonic, full of grace and truth. So let us drink to our spiritual health and salvation!

I Will Bless the Lord at All Times

Some of the early monastic fathers advised, in the matter of how to pray, to use a certain passage of Scripture repeatedly in order to bring one into the presence of God and to let the wisdom of the word of God sink in. This is the beginning of the method used for the later development of the Jesus Prayer.

The passage would be short and easily remembered, and it could even pass into silence as one went more deeply into prayer. I recently adopted, for my own prayer, a selection of eight verses from Psalm 33(34) which I found to be helpful. This is much longer than the short verse recommended by the fathers, but it didn’t take me long to memorize it, and I seem to need to get the saturation effect of a longer text. In any case, it may be a text that can help bring peace or at least withdraw the soul temporarily from its spiritual turmoil, long enough to get a little perspective and renewed grounding in grace. So, then, here it is:

I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth…
I sought the Lord and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears…
This poor man cried and the Lord heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those
who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good!
Happy are those who take refuge in him…
The Lord is near to the broken-hearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all…
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Just pray that slowly about 20 or 30 times and you will have a blessed prayer experience! There are several elements of it that work for the refreshing of the soul. Right from the beginning we affirm that we ought bless and praise the Lord always. If we’re blessing the Lord at all times we can’t be simultaneously grumbling or complaining or questioning or doubting or agonizing, or being anxious or fearful. It’s good to get that straight from the outset. It also helps us to affirm that we bless the Lord not simply because the Scripture tells us to, but because it is fitting and right and beneficial to do so. To bless the Lord always puts us in a position of receiving a better knowledge of Him and his goodness, love, and compassion.

Much of the rest of these verses, in one way or another, are meant to bring peace through the affirmation of the presence of the Lord and his power to console and to save. He delivers us from our fears, saves us from our troubles, frees us from our afflictions, and comforts us when we are broken-hearted or “crushed in spirit.” The Lord even sends his angels to “camp” around us for added protection!

My usual approach is to point out to God how He in fact hasn’t delivered me from this or that fear or affliction, thus effectively impeding any grace that would have been granted for those very purposes. I sometimes have to remind myself that if the Lord is going to deliver us from afflictions, we have to have some in the first place! But I think the point that the psalmist is making is not that we have to inventory our afflictions and note the ones from which we haven’t yet been delivered. Rather, he is simply saying something about the Lord: this is who He is, this is what He does—and He is here. Everything else has to be worked out in the Lord’s own way and time.

o_taste.jpg“O taste and see that the Lord is good!” This is a basic theme for the whole psalm, and everything else is an expression of it. This verse is used, quite appropriately, as the Communion verse in our lenten Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts. Perhaps Lent is a better time than others for this encouragement, for during the days of fasting and penance we may be seeking the Lord’s help and crying out to him more than usual, that we may be delivered from troubles, fears, and afflictions.

Finally, we call upon the Lord as Redeemer, and make our bedrock assertion: “None of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” If we come to Him for refuge in the storms of life, even in the storms of our sins, we will find a safe haven. Of course, we must repent of our sins, for God’s judgment is true and just, and He does not offer sanctuary to unrepentant evildoers (though He does plead with them to give up their sins and come in!).

Our society is deeply marked by alienation, fear, and self-hatred, which are then psychologically “compensated” for by all manner of sinful behaviors. Deep down, I think people know they deserve a just condemnation, but rather than listen to the liberating gospel of repentance and salvation, they bitterly reject any person or church who would dare remind them of the wounds they are trying to forget or to smother with self-indulgence. But the Lord redeems those who take refuge in Him, and He will not condemn them. This is the last word of the psalm and, in a sense, the bottom line of the Gospel. People want to escape condemnation by chanting the phony mantra that there’s no such thing, rather than by looking squarely at reality and then embracing the Savior. We bless the Lord at all times because He alone can save us; we don’t take or leave Him because we think we can get along fine without Him.

I guess we really do need to have afflictions and troubles after all; we need to recognize our poverty and distress and turn to the only One who can deliver us. Otherwise people might think they have no need of a Savior (or that it’s a fantasy to expect one). Or, suffering from afflictions but being unwilling to embrace the hope of salvation, they think that somehow they can deal with their existential angst through the myriad forms of self-medication that an affluent and decadent society provides.

Perhaps I went off on a bit of a tangent there, but let’s return to the psalm. “Seek peace and pursue it.” If we are blessing the Lord and trusting Him for consolation and deliverance, these will indeed be granted. We have to be deeply rooted in this trust, however, or our prayer might just be a bit too desperate or high-pitched, and we might be counting the minutes until our expected deliverance (which we expect on our own terms). The repetition of these verses helps quietly root them in our lives, in our conscious awareness and in the depths of our souls, in spiritual reservoirs that will provide grace and peace in time of need. Then we simply accept that Jesus is near, that He understands very well our need and our struggle, and that He is inviting us to take refuge in Him.

So let us bless the Lord at all times. We’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain. If we seek Him, he hears and answers; He delivers and saves.

In the Desert

The fourth chapter of St Luke finds Jesus in the desert, fasting and fighting with the devil. Luke rather gently says that the Spirit “led” Jesus into the desert, while Mark asserts that the Spirit “drove” Him into the wilderness, quite forcibly, it seems. In any case, before Jesus began his public ministry He entered the wilderness of struggle and temptation.

The order of the temptations in Luke differs from that found in Matthew. I prefer Matthew’s version, since it the_temptation_of_christ.jpgculminates in the most audacious and horrendous of temptations—Satan’s bargain that if Jesus would worship him, he would give him the kingdoms of the world—and Jesus’ decisive expulsion of the devil. In Luke’s version, that is the second temptation, followed by the one in which the devil tries to get Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple. That one seems somewhat anticlimactic, so we might wonder about this order in the Gospel according to Luke.

Two things may explain it. One, the basic plan of Luke’s Gospel is to depict Jesus on a long march toward Jerusalem, where his death and resurrection would take place as the culmination of his life and ministry. So in the last temptation He is taken to Jerusalem, as the culmination of temptations. Also, the response of Jesus to the devil after this temptation seems to put a lid on any further ones: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” (But I still think the dramatic “Begone, Satan!” found in Matthew is a better ending.)

The three temptations in Luke seem to correspond to the “threefold concupiscence” described by St John as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1John 2:16). The lust of the flesh is symbolized by hunger for bread, the quest to satisfy bodily needs and desires. Some of these, of course, are legitimate and must be satisfied if we are to go on living, but even these, Jesus shows us, should not be satisfied on the devil’s terms but only according to God’s will. The devil will approach us at moments when these desires are strongest in us, and he will try to get us to satisfy them in sinful ways.

The lust of the eyes is symbolized by the vision of all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, which the devil showed Jesus. This temptation was accompanied by a lie. The devil said that all of it had been given to him, so he could give it to whomever he pleased. Not only does the devil excite in his victims the lust for power and glory and riches, he promises what he cannot deliver, and so we are doubly defeated if we follow his lure. We are always cheated if we follow the devil’s temptations. Always.

Finally, the devil tempts Jesus with the “pride of life,” in this case a kind of spiritual pride, a presumption to do rash or self-aggrandizing things while assuming that God will honor such foolishness and guarantee that no harm will come of it. Here the devil even buttressed his argument with a quotation from Scripture, so we ought to be aware that Scripture has to be rightly applied to whatever situation we may be in, for if is it wrongly applied we can still be following the devil even when quoting the word of God.

Another point to realize is that the devil doesn’t give up easily, even when he is effectively rebuffed. He’ll be back, for he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by ceaselessly hammering us with temptations. Even after Jesus sent Satan away, Luke remarks that the devil “departed from him until an opportune time.” There are a couple of virtues the devil possesses, even though he doesn’t use them for good. One is perseverance, for his doesn’t give up his efforts to achieve his evil ends, and the other is that he does not become discouraged over defeat. He’ll just go away to await an opportune moment and begin his attacks anew.

So we have to stand with Jesus at all times and not become complacent if we happen to overcome a certain temptation. The devil will return at an opportune time, when he finds us weakened or distracted or otherwise off guard. The struggle goes on as long as we live, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit and the faithfulness of the Lord Jesus we can consistently unmask the diabolical deceptions, and continually say no to the devil and yes to God. Thus we will emerge victorious, and the devil’s “virtue” will be all for nothing. In Christ is our strength in the desert of this life, and we shall be renewed in his Spirit. “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit…”

The Word of God Comes

In the third chapter of St Luke’s Gospel we leave behind the infancy and childhood of Jesus and go directly to the ministry of St John the Forerunner, and thus to the ministry of Christ. St John seems to have a message well-suited for both Advent and Lent, and at the moment we’re right in between these two important seasons, so we can look both behind and ahead a bit. John tends to fade somewhat from view come Easter, so let’s hear him while we can!

Luke sets the stage quite dramatically for the appearance of John. We’ve already read of his extraordinary conception and birth—yet his childhood, like that of Jesus, remains in obscurity, though we know that he “was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Lk. 1:80). Luke carefully situates the historical moment of the coming of the word of God to John, for this event was decisive in the history of salvation. He lists all the john-the-forerunner.jpgreigning authorities in the regions of Israel, and then solemnly declares: “the word of God came to John the son of Zachariah in the desert” (3:2).

What was it like, this coming of the word of God to John? We aren’t told. John had been living in the desert, perhaps as a hermit or perhaps in association with some pre-monastic group like the Essenes. In any case, he was waiting. He may not even have known precisely what he was waiting for. But it is likely that his father would have told him, when he was old enough to understand, what the Archangel Gabriel had said to him at the annunciation of John’s conception. John would be a prophet, going forth in the spirit and power of Elijah, to prepare the way of the Lord in the hearts of the people. So maybe John was waiting for his prophetic calling to be made clear to him. In the tradition of Moses and Elijah, then, he went into the desert, fasting and praying and waiting on the will of the Lord.

We still don’t know what it was like, but those words have always struck me powerfully: “the word of God came to John the son of Zachariah in the desert.” Did he have a vision? Did he hear an audible voice? Was there some sort of extraordinary natural phenomenon that God used to manifest his presence? In any case, John knew, he knew without a doubt that God had spoken to him, for he immediately left the desert, where he had been living for years. So there evidently was a specific instruction contained in this coming of the word of God. It must have been something like this: “Go into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” because St Luke says that immediately he “went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In the Gospels, when a divine command is given, the recipient of it generally carries it out in precisely the terms in which is was given.

But there was more to the word. John became aware that he was to be a voice crying in the wilderness, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. He was to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight, so that all flesh could see the salvation of God. But the word that God sent to John—although full of power, grace, and hope for salvation—was not a sweet and comfortable one. He called the people a bunch of snakes; he told them, in effect, “prove it!” when they said they wished to repent, and he warned them of the unquenchable fire which would be the lot of all those who did not bear good spiritual fruit, for the axe was already laid to the root of the tree.

I have to chuckle a bit at Luke’s comment after all this fire and brimstone preaching: “thus…he preached the good news to the people.” I’m sure many of them would have called it bad news! Yet they came, and they were baptized, and they confessed their sins.

Finally, the word of God again came to John, this time on the banks of the Jordan. This was the eternal Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, and He too wished to be baptized. St Matthew gives us the details of this meeting. John probably gasped and choked on his own preaching when out of the midst of the “brood of vipers” walked the Son of God, seeking the same baptism that sinners sought. John straightway entreated Jesus to baptize him instead. But there was a word that wasn’t given to John in the desert: the baptism of the Word made flesh was meant to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15). This time John heard the word of God from Jesus’ lips and consented to baptize Him. He knew he had done the right thing, for immediately the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended, and the word of God came to him once again: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

In one sense, the whole work of our lives is to stand and listen, waiting for the word of God to come to us. For Jesus repeatedly said that the vocation of his disciples is to “hear the word of God and keep it.” Once we receive the word, we must act on it. John wouldn’t have been content to have had an experience of God in the desert and then remain there, basking in the memory of that grace. The word of God told him to go to the Jordan, so to the Jordan he went.

Our great lament may be that, though we would like to hear it, we simply do not recognize the word when it comes, cannot discern the divine will. We ought to re-read the parable of the sower and see if perhaps we are not like the seeds that fall by the wayside, on rocky ground, or among thorns and weeds. Perhaps our lack of faith, our doubts and fears, our disproportionate attention given to the cares and pleasures of life “choke the word” (Mt. 13:22) and thus it is our own fault that we do not hear it when it comes. As Lent approaches we ought to resolve to remove all obstacles to listening to the word of God, so that we can recognize it and obey it. The Lord is much more willing to speak to those who are listening than to those who are not. And his grace will enable us to “bear fruits that befit repentance” (Lk. 3:8).

Finding Jesus

The finding of the boy Jesus in the temple is a unique episode in the Gospels. It is all the information we have of his childhood. There’s otherwise a long silence between his birth and his baptism, and we won’t know what jesustwelve.jpgtranspired in those years, this side of Paradise, anyway.

There’s no liturgical feast for this event, as far as I know (though we do read this Gospel on the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, so we can have something to read, for in the Gospel his circumcision and naming take up the whole of one verse). But we can learn a couple of interesting things from this episode in the life of the Holy Family.

We learn first that they made an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. That was no small or easy journey in those days. But they were among the devout, and they would not dream of being anywhere else but Jerusalem for the Feast of feasts.

They went as usual when Jesus was twelve. This seems to be the time of his “coming of age,” since he made an independent decision that indicated the course of things to come. A strange thing happened at this feast, or rather at the end of it. Jesus stayed in Jerusalem while his parents went home. Stranger still, Mary and Joseph weren’t even aware of it! Extended families being what they were in those days, and seeing the Boy among his relatives from time to time, they had just assumed that he had left with the relatives, and so they went leisurely from person to person, expecting to find Him somewhere in the group. We might think that, having been entrusted with the care of the Son of God and Savior of the world, they wouldn’t have let Him out of their sight for a second! But I think that his miraculous conception and birth was one of those things that Mary pondered in her heart without actually having at the forefront of her thoughts each and every moment. Theirs was, in all practical details, an ordinary family, living an ordinary small-town life. And they followed the ordinary customs, like letting their Kid come home with the relatives.

But fear struck their hearts when they discovered He was not there! Perhaps at that moment their grave responsibility did come to the forefront of their thoughts. They lost the Lord! So they hastened to return to Jerusalem to find Him. It took three days of anxious searching (and probably desperate praying) to find Him. St Luke probably means this to be a foreshadowing of his “disappearance” in the tomb, rising only on the third day. Mary Magdalen exclaimed at that time that the Lord was missing and they did not know where He was (Jn. 20:2).

When they found Him, He was both questioning and answering the elders of Jerusalem, who were amazed at his understanding. Mary came to Him in tears, asking why He had done this to them, making them search anxiously for him. Her exact words are interesting here: “Your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” This is another indication of the ordinariness of their family life. Both Mary and Joseph knew well that Joseph was not the father of Jesus, but it was Joseph’s vocation to be his father in all practical ways. Jesus probably called St Joseph “Abba” most of the time. (I’m sure the Child Jesus never said to St Joseph, pouting over some permission denied: “You are not my father; only God is my Father!”) But this event marked a turning point in the mutual understanding of their relationship. And Jesus handled this moment quite delicately as well as eloquently.

“How is it that you sought me?” He asked. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Some translations read, “about my Father’s business,” but neither are quite accurate. Literally, He said, “in the things of my Father,” meaning that all that has to do with the Father has to do with Him.) So He revealed here, as He evidently had not done before, that He knew who his true and eternal Father was. Jesus didn’t deny that Joseph was, for all practical purposes, his father on earth, but He made it clear that his first obligation was to the Father in Heaven, whom alone He would soon be calling “Father.”

The fact that Jesus hadn’t before spoken to Mary and Joseph about his awareness of his divine origins is indicated by St Luke when he wrote: “And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them.” So indeed, they had not fully grasped the entire meaning and import of the Incarnation, the joys and sorrows of family life being enough to occupy their energies. But here was a moment of light, of revelation, something else that Mary had to keep in her heart as her Son grew in age and grace and wisdom.

Even though this was a turning point in the understanding of Jesus’ identity and mission, not a whole lot changed immediately. Jesus didn’t say: “OK, now you know for sure. So you’d better realize that henceforth I take orders only from the Most High.” Rather, says St Luke, “he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them.” This was part of his self-emptying unto obedience unto the cross unto death unto glory. So life went on, but Mary and Joseph were given a little preview of what they could expect as time went on, and Mary perhaps recalled what Simeon had said about the sword of sorrow she would experience.

This event was apparently left to quiet memory as Jesus began his ministry, but it is good for us to see how his wisdom and gentle love for those his Father had given Him was manifested even as a child, even when He had to instruct his parents with a cryptic clue as to how things were going to have to be in the future. Let us be aware that Jesus treats us with the same firm gentleness, the same love, even when He has to speak a word that we might not immediately understand, that may forecast trials to come. Thus we too can grow in grace and wisdom.

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