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

Archive for July, 2008

Pieces of Eight

I thought I’d cover a few more bits and pieces of chapter eight of Romans, since it is such a rich source for reflection. I can only hit on a few high points here; a thorough treatment would have you scrolling down, down, down, for a long, long time! In my last post I got as far as verse 17.

The next verse is a reminder, something we ought to have always before us, because we may tend to doubt it in the midst of our struggles and trials: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” We should realize who it is that is speaking these words. He’s someone who had been regularly scourged, beaten, imprisoned, and more, all for the sake of Christ. So if he says the sufferings of this life are insignificant in the face of the glory of the next, we know this is not some ivory-tower theorizing. In the previous verse he indicated that our sufferings are actually a necessary pre-requisite for our glorification. He says we are “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” A servant is not greater than his master. The Lord said: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24:26). So our own sufferings, whatever they may be, are not only required of us, but they also pale into insignificance when compared to the glory we hope for in Heaven.

We have help for this. The Apostle tells us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” He says this because we don’t even know how to pray as we ought, let alone endure the myriad trials of life with equanimity and wisdom. I read a long time ago in a commentary on this passage that we should note that St Paul doesn’t say the Spirit helps us out of our weakness, but the Spirit helps us in our weakness. That may seem like splitting hairs, but there is a difference. We would probably want the Spirit to notice our weakness and then deliver us from it so that we will be weak no more. But since the Scripture says the Spirit helps us in our weakness, it means that God wants to be present to us in the midst of our suffering or inadequacies, and not merely make them go away. Paul spoke of this in his famous “sufficient grace” passage in Second Corinthians 12. The Lord told him that his power is perfected in weakness. So the Apostle was content to remain weak, so that Christ could be strong in him.

The next piece of eight is another famous passage, which can be variously translated. The usual way is: “All things work for the good for those who love God.” This is an encouraging and consoling passage, for it helps give us peace amidst the perplexing and even maddening experiences of life that tempt us to wonder if all the universe is just randomly spinning free as if it were some runaway vehicle hurtling toward a bottomless pit. Spiritual writers tend to emphasize (and rightly, I think) the “all.” All things work for the good, not just some of them, and not just the ones that we think have some clear potential for good. There’s another way to translate this verse, which is actually a little more accurate: “God works all things together (synergei) for good…” The first translation may give the impression that in the end all things will somehow turn out for the best, which is OK in itself. But the second one seems to give God a more active role in the events of our life, yet without staging everything and thus threatening our freedom. The “things” are there already as the facts of our world and the elements of our experience, but God works with them—and with us (“those who love God”)—to bring about the good He intends for us. God didn’t cease creating on the “seventh day,” but as Jesus said: “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn. 5:17). So God is continuously busy with “all things,” working with them for the good, inviting us to share in his creative labors, so that we can realize that all things can be worked with unto good, and so we don’t despair when nothing seems to be working for the good!

Finally, we’ll advance to the glorious conclusion of the chapter. The Apostle offers another pithy saying to reflect upon: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” That thought kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? He asks a few more rhetorical questions to the effect that if God gave us the greatest gift (his own Son), is He not able to take care of smaller matters for us as well? If we’re secure in God’s grace, can anything threaten us? This is a call to put our trust totally in God, to put into effect everything St Paul has been telling his readers about faith in the first seven chapters (though if the seventh still makes you dizzy, stick to the first six!). The righteous live by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus; we stand in grace, for divine love flows into us by the Holy Spirit; the gift of God is eternal life in Christ.

So then, Paul’s final eloquent challenge: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” He goes on to describe all the things that one might think could separate us from Christ—tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, war, etc—and he bowls them all over like tenpins. All these things and more cannot separate us from God. Why? You guessed it—because God works all things for the good for those who love Him! Paul’s conclusion: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It may burst your bubble if I say that sin can separate us from God—and this is the only thing—but keep your bubble intact, because God has a remedy for that as well! This has also been clearly explained in the previous chapters of this Epistle. The remedy for sin is repentance based on faith and love for Him “whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood” (3:25). OK, then, having confessed our sins and received mercy from Him who loves us, we shall not be taken down by anything that the world, the flesh, and the devil hurl against us, for those whom God justifies He also glorifies (8:30).

Let us then not fear suffering (it is necessary) or weakness (the Spirit helps us). Let us not fear anything (God works all things for good), but rather rejoice in the love of God granted to us in Christ Jesus our Lord!

Set Your Mind on the Spirit

The eighth chapter of St Paul’s Letter to the Romans is one of the most densely-packed chapters in all of his writings. I usually read a chapter a day of Scripture, but I only made it halfway through this one, since there was so much to reflect upon. I’ll just offer a few random comments here.

This chapter follows upon the notorious seventh chapter, which I dare anyone to try to interpret! That is one of the most obscure sections in all of Scripture, and even though some admirable attempts have been made, and have produced some generalized conclusions, I’ve never seen anyone give a satisfactory verse by verse explanation. Anyway, once St Paul finished saying whatever it was he was trying to say (in such a tortuous manner) in chapter seven, he begins a more positive and slightly easier to understand chapter (though he, like the other biblical authors, did not write in chapter and verse; the texts were divided up that way only centuries later; in fact, the original authors didn’t even use spaces between words—tryfiguringouttextsinthatwayandseeifitiseasy!).

Oneofthemainthemes—oh, sorry, I’ll get back to modern usage—one of the main themes of this chapter is the contrast between flesh and spirit. This too is difficult to interpret. I’ve written before about Paul’s use of “flesh”—which refers to the whole range of attitudes and behaviors that are in opposition to God and all He stands for—but there’s also a difficulty with “spirit” since it’s not always clear if he means “spirit” or “Spirit.” In some cases it is clear, as when he writes of the “Spirit of Christ,” but it’s not so clear in the juxtaposition of flesh and spirit.

But the important thing to know is that flesh and spirit (or Spirit) are opposed (see Gal. 5:17). Perhaps the key text in this part of chapter eight is: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (v. 6). Just as “flesh” doesn’t mean merely the body or bodily lusts, “death” here doesn’t mean merely the cessation of biological functioning. Usually when Paul speaks of death is it eternal death, the “second death” of Revelation, the ultimate and everlasting separation from God and hence from all that is holy and good and beautiful and joy-giving. Throughout the first part of this chapter, the Apostle is trying to tell us that if we live by the Spirit, i.e., in accord with the grace of God, we can be free from “the law of sin and death” and hence be set securely on the path toward “life and peace.” If you live by the flesh you will die, he says, but if you live by the Spirit (“putting to death the deeds of the body”), you will live forever in the glory of God.

The basis for this assertion is discovered in what the Spirit of God does for us. We have eternal life through the Holy Spirit because it is through the Spirit that we are made and proclaimed children of God. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God… When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (vv. 14-16). So to choose spirit over flesh, i.e., the life of grace over the life of self-indulgence and rebellion against God, is to acknowledge that we belong to God. We are children of God and hence heirs to Heaven with the Child of God, the only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

It seems simple enough, but nothing in the realities of 21st century life in America is very simple. That is because the “flesh” infiltrates our thinking and acting to such a degree that we find it difficult not only maintain the radical opposition between flesh and spirit (and hence the clean break with the flesh in our behavior), but it becomes hard even to see where is the division between the two. A striking example of the confusion of the two is in the perverse and bizarre assertions of some people who call themselves “gay.” They say that their dis-orientation is a “gift of God” and hence should be embraced and celebrated and acted out. Thus they try to mingle “spirit” and “flesh” instead of acknowledging, as does the Apostle, that they are polar opposites. They are trying to force a marriage of sin and righteousness, which is not only impossible, it is blasphemous. Regardless of sentiment or politically-correct rhetoric, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot…” (v. 7). “Those who live ‘by the flesh’ experience God’s law as a burden, and indeed as a denial or at least a restriction of their own freedom. On the other hand, those who are impelled by love and ‘walk by the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:16), and who desire to serve others, find in God’s law the fundamental and necessary way in which to practice love…” (Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor).

If we really want to be children of God, and if we want the Spirit to testify along with us that such is the case, then we have to set our minds on things of the Spirit, and not of the flesh. We have to be free from the law of sin and death, free from the “flesh” that is opposed to the word and will of God, free from the mentality of self-indulgence and easy gratifications that make us in reality “hostile to God.” Some people may insist that they are not hostile to God by their disobedience or perversity (for they don’t “feel” that way), but the Spirit will not testify along with them, for the truth will require Him to testify against them.

So then, let us cry out “Abba! Father!” and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, with whom we desire to be co-heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven. And let us be led only by the Spirit of God—and not the deceiving spirits of the present age—so that we will in the end be recognized as true children of God by the only One who can rightly make that recognition, the Father Himself. When we know the outcome, it is clear what our choice ought to be: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

The First and Second Sons

There’s a parable that can be found in the 21st chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew that is found nowhere else. It’s not one of Jesus’ most well-known parables, but it bears a message we would all do well to heed (we can, of course, rightly say the same for every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord!).

It is about two sons of a vineyard owner. He asked the first son to go to work in the vineyard, but he refused. Later, however, he repented and went to work after all. The father asked his other son to go to work, and this one readily agreed—but he never did go to the vineyard. So Jesus’ question to his listeners was this: “Which of the two did the will of his father?” The chief priests and elders, to whom He was speaking at that time, correctly answered that the first one did, even though he was initially the rebel.

After telling that parable, Jesus gave these men—who were the “professional” religious, the righteous men, the sacred authorities—a rather unsettling wake-up call: “The tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the Kingdom of God before you!” How that must have stung and humiliated them, and probably delighted anyone else who was listening, especially the repentant publicans and harlots who had become Jesus’ disciples! For that was the whole point, as Jesus went on to explain. These common sinners were like the first son. They initially said “no” to the heavenly Father and his divine commandments—that’s how they became public sinners. But when John the Baptizer (and later Jesus) appeared, preaching repentance—for the Kingdom was at hand—they believed and repented and changed their lives. Thus even though they first said “no” by their sins, they ended up being the ones who actually did the will of God through their repentance and subsequent following of Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, are like the second son. They said “yes” to the commandments of God, but since they didn’t believe in John or Jesus, and even despised those who did, they ended up not doing the will of the Father.

Jesus kept the momentum going by telling another parable about the wicked tenants of the vineyard, whom God would reject because they killed his servants and even his beloved son. The scribes and Pharisees were livid by that time, and the evangelist said they would have arrested Jesus then and there, but they feared the crowd, who recognized Jesus as a prophet.

As I mentioned in my last post, and have done so on a few other occasions, it is clear from the Gospels that Jesus is more interested in deeds than in words. It is those who actually do the will of the Father that are saved, not those who say they will do it, and then don’t. Likewise, it is not enough to say we believe in Christ; we must prove it by how we live.

But this parable is not meant only to reproach the self-righteous and admonish those who are not doers but mere hearers of the word (see Rom. 2:13 and James 1:22-25). Jesus also means to offer hope to the present-day “publicans and prostitutes,” that is, those who have said “no” to the commandments of God. He is telling them that even though they have said “no”—which is undeniably wrong—if they repent and believe in Him and henceforth live by his word, they can still be counted among the “first sons,” those who ended up actually doing God’s will.

All that really matters is how we end up. If we have been sinners all our lives, we can still repent and be saved (though it is thoroughly rash and stupid to decide to wait to repent until we are old or dying—if we do that, chances are we’ll be so hardened by that time that we’ll despair instead of repent, and our smug calculations will have backfired, with eternal consequences). And if we present a righteous façade and talk a good game but don’t actually live the Gospel, we can still be lost. Often Jesus’ words are for the encouragement of the weak, the lowly, and the despised, and for the admonition of the powerful and the “righteous.” As it has been said, He came “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

So if we want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, let us make sure that our “faith is completed by works” (James 2:22), i.e., that we believe in Christ, repent of our sins, and then go about actually doing the will of God. We don’t want to be among those “yes men,” the “Eddie Haskells” (OK, so I really am getting old!) who are compliant and agreeable in words but negligent or disobedient when it comes to deeds. To initially say “no” but then repent is eternally more beneficial than to initially say “yes” and not follow through, or to end up turning away (see what St Peter has to say about that in his Second Epistle, 2:20-22).

As for me, I want to both say “yes” and do it, but if I’m ever stupid enough to say “no,” you can be sure that I will soon repent and get busy doing God’s will! And I’m sure that you will, too…

Grace is Gift

There are a few passages in the Bible that can perhaps be considered concise summaries of our faith, at least of the essence of it. The following is as good as any, and perhaps better than most: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23-25). There are several indispensable elements of the Christian faith here, and I’ll briefly take a look at them.

First of all, the dark side: all have sinned. We have to begin here because redemption is meaningless if we are not sinners. From what, then, would we be redeemed? To deny the fact of sin is to undermine the whole of Christian revelation, for if there is no sin we would have to assert that there was no need for a Savior (as many do today, to their ultimate ruin), thus denying the intrinsic and essential value of Jesus’ precious and all-sufficient Sacrifice. That denial is a truly diabolical position to maintain; it is the reason satanists like to turn crucifixes upside down.

So we start with our existential sinful state—a sorry and dreadful state that is so serious as to be able to exclude us forever from the joys of Paradise. To sin, in terms of the above passage, is to “fall short of the glory of God.” That is, we are unworthy of God, unable on our own to raise ourselves to the level at which we could be considered acceptable to the King of Heaven. Nothing defiled can enter his Kingdom, and through sin we “fall short” of that necessary perfection. The bottom line is that we, as sinners, simply cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

What hope, then, do we have? We have already failed, fallen short, proven ourselves unworthy and ineligible for eternal happiness. Sin ruins our relationship with God, but what can make us “right” with Him again? Only this: God’s grace as gift. St Paul says that we are “justified” (that is, made just, made righteous, put into a right relationship with God) by divine grace as a gift. We can’t work ourselves into this position, this standing with God. We have already ruined everything and we are powerless to “fix” it. We are free to choose to disobey God, but it is impossible for us to “reel in” the consequences of sin as if it never happened. It’s like opening Pandora’s Box or starting a forest fire. So then, if we are to be restored to friendship with God, He has to will it, He has to provide what is necessary to accomplish it.

Paul says that God in fact has already done this, but how? “Through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood…” We cannot bear the weight of our own offenses; we cannot rid ourselves of our guilt. Only God is powerful enough to eradicate the effects of sin, to reverse the just judgment that stands against us as if written in stone. He did it by the bloody sacrifice of his only-begotten Son, which alone could atone for the enormous accumulation of all human sin, and which alone was the acceptable sacrifice for this purpose. We were utterly without hope and doomed to an eternity of painfully useless attempts to “pay” for our own sins.

But how do we make this incredible divine gift ours? How do we make that impossible leap from the just judgment of our sins to the gift of grace that takes them all away? As you have seen above, it is a leap of faith. St Paul says that this great revelation of God’s everlasting love manifested in the redemption wrought by Christ’s blood is “to be received by faith.” It almost sounds too easy: just believe that Christ has done this for you, and you are delivered from your sins; you need not fall short of God’s glory again. It may sound easy, but look how many people today still refuse to do it! They don’t (or don’t want to) believe that God in Christ has made this incredible gift available to them, perhaps because in their pride they refuse to admit sin and hence the need for redemption. Or perhaps they simply despair, thinking their sins are too great even for God to forgive.

The gift, however, is always offered, and will be until our dying breath. Yet we who receive this blessed revelation by faith are not thereby excused from living by faith once we accept what the Lord has given us and done for us. To believe is not to make a one-time act of assent or profession of faith. To believe in Christ is to become his disciple, with all that entails on a daily basis. Otherwise, our “faith” is an empty word, even a lie, and it will not gain us access to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus made it clear that those who enter his Kingdom are those who do the will of God, who put their faith into practice (see Mt. 7:21-27; 25:31-46, Lk. 10:25-28, Jn. 5:28-29, etc).

We have to avoid both extremes—faith without works, and works without faith—in the living out of our relationship to God. But I think many of us may need to reflect more upon the mystery of grace, the ineffable love of God that redeems us as a gift, when we had fallen irretrievably short (humanly seen) of the glory of God. We sometimes speak of “graces” as various gifts of God which help us in our needs and enhance our spiritual life. There is truth in this, but we shouldn’t think of grace merely in terms of some transaction by which we gain something from God in return for some prayer or effort on our part. Essentially, grace is God’s initiative, his offer, his very presence in our lives. We receive our redemption by faith; we accept the revelation of his gracious gift by faith, and by faith we hear God’s word and keep it.

If we ultimately find ourselves excluded from God’s eternal Kingdom of Joy, it will only be because we have refused the gift, refused to believe, refused to take up our crosses and follow the One who took up his Cross to save us from our sins. We are “made righteous” by God’s grace as a gift. Let us then live by his Spirit, and bear the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24). Thus the Lord will recognize us as those He has redeemed by his precious blood. And so He will not say, “I do not know you” (the most horrifying words we could ever hear from the mouth of God), but rather, “Come, enter the joy of your Lord.”

Drawn Irresistibly

Now that I’ve attained the dreaded half-century mark in this land of exile, my thoughts tend to gravitate toward the Heavenly Jerusalem, which looms larger on my horizon with each passing day. I think more about preparing for the Kingdom and what I need to do to be ready to meet the Lord when He comes for me at last (what’s taking Him so long?). I want to make sure there’s plenty of oil in my lamp when the Bridegroom arrives! (see Mt. 25:1-13)

I recently came across an interesting quote from the 14th-century Orthodox theologian Nicholas Cabasilas. Because we receive Christ in the Holy Eucharist, we are united intimately to Him and this mystical union is manifested at the Last Day. Having been sacramentally united to the Lord on earth, we will be drawn irresistibly to Him when He comes to gather his elect, for He will thus recognize Himself in us.

Cabasilas writes: “On that day the righteous will shine with one brightness and glory. They will become bright by receiving that light, He imparting it. For this bread, this Body, for which men in this life come to the Table in order that they may bring it therefrom, is that which will then appear to all eyes on the clouds (cf. Mt. 24:30) and in one instant of time will display its splendor to the east and to the west like lightning… [our bodies] will rush to Christ with an irresistible motion in order that they may receive their proper place. Accordingly Paul, as he shows that this rush cannot be restrained, calls it a ‘carrying up,’ for he says, ‘we shall be carried off in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air’ (1Thess. 4:14). The Savior says that He will take them to Himself…”

I’ve begun to pray in that vein as I receive Holy Communion: that my communion in the Body and Blood of Christ will enable me, when I leave this world, to fly to the Lord swiftly, immediately, and without hindrance, like a tiny iron filing drawn to a powerful magnet. Having become inseparable from God during this life (let us hope!), through faith and grace and sacramental communion, I want to rush unrestrainedly to the full and eternal union with the Lord, as a member of his Body, never to be severed from Him.

This is possible through Holy Communion, for the Lord said: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him”; and again, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:54-56). Since we thus abide in Christ and He in us in this life—though somewhat obscurely, at least as far as our own perception and experience go—this mutual indwelling will endure beyond death and will be fully manifested and enjoyed in the Kingdom of Heaven. He gives us life, the life of the Kingdom (through grace) here and now, so that He can raise us up on the last day, recognizing us as those who have eaten his flesh and drunk his blood in the Holy Mysteries of the Eucharist.

In one of his homilies, St Ephrem also links our contact with the Eucharistic Body of Jesus to our ability to escape from eternal death. When we receive Him in the Holy Eucharist, He communicates his very life to us, a life that makes us immune to the “second death” (Rev 20:14; 21:8). I quoted St Ephrem on this point last year, but it’s worth repeating here: “Fire threatens me, O Lord, but concealed within me, O my Deliverer, is Your reconciling blood. Gehenna waits to torture me, but your life-creating body is intimately united with mine. I am clothed in the garment of the Holy Spirit, and I shall not even be singed. When the river of fire begins to rumble, threatening vengeance, then will the fire be extinguished, smitten by the scent of your flesh and blood.”

This is something we ought to reflect upon. The Holy Eucharist is not only a “means of grace” for this life, a way to become united to the Lord for the sake of knowing and loving Him more and being healed of our spiritual maladies. Its value goes beyond this life and is fulfilled in eternity, in the Kingdom of Heaven. It is that which makes us so “akin” to Jesus that we are drawn irresistibly toward Him in love and joy, pulled by the all-attractive power of his love and joy, for we are at last fulfilling the reason for which He created us: eternal union with Him in the ineffable blessedness of the All-holy Trinity. A link, a bond, is forged with Jesus when we receive Holy Communion, and it can be strengthened every day if we respond to his call to come to Him as often as possible.

When we pass from this world to the next, the Lord will recognize those who are his. That bond will be manifested as unbreakable, and every worthy Communion will serve to speed us into his presence—safe at last, our reason of being fulfilled, entering upon a never-ending adventure in the inexhaustible mysteries of God. Let us now be drawn by the gentle invitation of the Holy Spirit, and approach freely, that we may be irresistibly drawn into everlasting happiness when we cross the mysterious threshold of eternity.

Stuck in Hell

St John Bosco once had an extended vision of Hell (or perhaps more than once; I’ve only read of one). This was not only for his own further enlightenment, but for the sake of some of his young charges who were heading there if they would not repent and change their lives. The saint was led by an angelic guide to various levels of Hell, and he saw some young people he knew tumbling into its foul and fiery depths. I won’t give all the details here, but there are a couple of points that need to be made.

The way down to Hell began pleasantly enough—a rather wide and agreeable pathway, one that he noticed, however, went ever so slightly downward with each step he took. It didn’t look like it led downward; one only noticed the gradual descent the farther one would proceed. By time anyone became fully aware of where it was going, it was already too late. Those who passed by the saint on the way down were practically running, since the road had become suddenly steep, and they couldn’t restrain their downward rush. Finally they just leapt or tumbled into one or another of the chambers of Hell, depending on what their sins deserved. First lesson: don’t even start on that wide and easy road, because it will be difficult, if not impossible, to return once it starts spiraling dizzily downward.

But I titled this post “stuck” in Hell for the following reason, which is based on one of Don Bosco’s observations of the condition of the damned. I had never thought of this before, and it’s just one more reason that I’m trying to avoid at all costs going there after I die. He said that when those he saw flying by him finally entered their eternal infernal abode, they were stuck forever in whatever position they landed, however awkward or twisted. He said several times that whether they were being burned with fire or ravaged by the undying worm or other hideous vermin, they were “motionless.” His angelic guide explained to him that those who are in Hell have lost all freedom. All freedom. They are not even free to move.

That is a terrifying thought, and it contains a bitter irony as well. One of the main reasons that people disobey the commandments of God is that they find these commandments too restrictive, and so they say they want to be free. Free to be me, free from rules and regulations, free from “archaic” divine prohibitions. This pseudo-freedom, which is nothing more than slavery to sin and to one’s own desires, will eventually get them stuck in Hell forever, where all freedom will forever be taken from them. At that point, the strictest of God’s laws will seem like a carefree romp through Paradise in comparison. They don’t realize now how the phony freedom of independent self-expression imperceptibly binds their souls a little more tightly each day, until they finally realize when they come before the judgment seat of God that they have tied themselves inextricably in knots that can no longer be untied, and they will remain in paralyzed, motionless torment for all eternity. Even though they know they can’t run from their fate, they finally realize they don’t even have the ability to try.

St Ephrem the Syrian, in his Letter to Publius (4th century), offers a powerful and dramatic image of unrepentant sinners standing at their judgment (how “free” they were in this life to do whatever pleased them!). He asks the reader repeatedly to “notice” what is happening, that is, to take heed! “Notice the twelve thrones that are fashioned for judgment. Notice how the tribes stand there trembling and how the many nations stand there quaking. Notice how their bodies shake and their knees knock. Notice how their hearts palpitate and how their minds pine. Notice how their faces are downcast and how their shame is thick upon them like darkness. Notice how their souls languish and how their spirits flicker. Notice how their tears overflow and soak the dust beneath them. Notice how their complexions are changing to green. One takes on that color and hands it on to his companion. Notice their faces, which used to be joyful, have been transformed to look like soot from a cauldron. Hear their many groans and their wailing moans. Hear their sighs of grief and their churning innards.” [Just think how violently those innards are churning if you can hear them!]

St Ephrem is not done yet. “Notice their deeds: those that were in secret have now become manifest; those that were done in darkness now shine forth like the sun; those that they committed in secret now make their complaint with loud voice. Notice how everyone stands, his deeds before him justly accusing him in the presence of his Judge. Notice how their evil thoughts have now taken on shape [a very sobering specter] and stand before their masters to accuse them. Notice their slanderous whisperings crying out in a loud voice, and how the snares once hidden are now revealed before them.”

You get the message. One of those “snares once hidden” is the illusion that freedom means self-indulgence and self-expression that are contrary to the word and will of God. St Ephrem says that the Gospel of the Lord is a “polished mirror” that reflects back to us who we really are. It is the beginning of our judgment, but at least now we have time to repent if the Gospel reveals to us our sins. St Simeon prophesied to Mary about her Son the Christ: “this child is set for the fall and rising of many… that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35). The mirror of the Gospel reveals to us who we are and what we have to do in order to please God and avoid the just punishments merited by those for whom “freedom” equals disobedience.

Let us soberly meditate on true and false freedom. Let us know the difference, for it is crucial. It is ultimately the difference between laughing and dancing and soaring through the heights of Heaven—and being stuck in the depths of Hell.

Unrighteous Indignation and Righteous Prayer

We have another bunch of readings for this Sunday’s Liturgy. Along with the usual Gospel for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (Mt. 17:14-23), we have readings for the feast of the great and holy Prophet Elijah, whom we celebrate this year on the same day (James 5:10-20 and Lk. 4:22-30). Those readings were chosen, predictably enough, because the name “Elijah” appears in them.

At least this gives me a chance to preach on a Gospel that doesn’t occur in the rather limited selection of Sunday Gospel readings in the Byzantine liturgical year. We don’t have several cycles of readings as they do in the Roman Rite, only the same one each year, and even within that one cycle there are several repetitions of Gospel accounts. So the preacher always welcomes the freshness of a change!

Let us look first at the Gospel chosen for the Prophet Elijah. For this, though, we’ll have to back up a little. It begins with the people in the synagogue at Nazareth speaking well of Jesus and marveling at his gracious words. What words? This selection doesn’t tell us, so we’ll go back a few verses. They were the words that Jesus found in the scroll of the writings of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (this is read, appropriately, on the first day of the new liturgical year).

According to the evangelist, the people were waiting in rapt attention for Jesus’ homily on that passage. He began with the solemn pronouncement: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” They were all happy about that, sensing that some great revelation was about to be given. But what Jesus then went on to say filled the congregation with indignation and wrath. You see, Jesus was not a mere crowd-pleaser. He didn’t say what people wanted to hear just so he could receive their praise and be well thought of and well spoken of by everyone (in fact, He would later say: Woe to you when all speak well of you; that’s what they do to false prophets). Well, Jesus was no false prophet. He spoke only the truth, whether or not it would be well-received.

What the congregation didn’t like about his homily was the fact that He seemed to delight in pointing out God’s choice of Gentiles over Jews in a couple of well-known events of the Old Testament, one of which featured the prophet Elijah. Jesus did tend to emphasize certain role-reversals (and the Gospel writers, especially Luke, delight in pointing that out): the first shall be last, the rich man and Lazarus, the beatitudes, etc. One of the points that St Luke likes to make, since he is writing mainly to Gentiles, is that salvation is open to all, both Jew and Gentile, and that through faith in Christ, all have an equal status before the face of God. I think that Jesus was also trying to curb an excessive Jewish nationalism or elitism as well.

So He said: there were many widows during the great drought in Elijah’s time, but he was not sent to help any of the Israelites, only a Sidonian woman. And in the time of Elisha, there were many lepers in Israel, but God healed only a Syrian officer. Jesus does not want to say that the Jews are not God’s chosen people, only that they are not exclusively God’s chosen people, because once the Holy Spirit would descend upon the disciples at Pentecost, people from all nations would suddenly be eligible to be numbered among the elect.

The people in the synagogue were not pleased with the implications of Jesus’ words, to say the least. The Lord might well have said to them what he said to the people in the other Gospel reading for this Sunday: “O faithless and perverse generation! How long am to be with you? How long can I endure you?” But according to St Luke, Jesus didn’t have time even to say that, for the congregation, filled with wrath, rose up against Him and expelled Him from the synagogue and even from the city, attempting to throw Him down the hill on which their city was built—but since his hour had not yet come, He walked through their midst unharmed.

We see how fickle the crowd was, and we might rightly criticize them for being so. But let’s not be too hasty, since we may end up having to point the finger at ourselves as well. The people admired Jesus not for who He was or what He stood for, but simply for the fact that He initially pleased them with appealing words. As soon as his words were no longer attractive to them—since they were a thinly-veiled call to repentance from their narrow-mindedness—they turned against Him. They would respect and honor Him only as long as He spoke words that pleased them. It was with them as it often is with congregations in today’s Church, in which people prefer entertainment to truth. They want to hear cute or interesting stories that don’t strike too close to home. But when a preacher calls them to repentance, or otherwise touches a nerve that disturbs their complacency or rebukes their tolerance of sin, they are filled with wrath and indignation.

Just see what happens in most parishes if a preacher dares to speak against abortion, artificial contraception, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, or the “gay” lifestyle: people get up and walk out in protest, or complain to the bishop or write nasty letters—simply because the preacher reminded them of the moral teachings of the Faith they are supposed to be practicing! Well, thankfully, the congregation doesn’t usually throw the preacher bodily out of the church, but I did read of one case in which that actually happened when a preacher was bold enough to say from the pulpit that homosexual activity was sinful!

While it is obvious in this Gospel that the congregation was acting in a wicked and self-serving manner, we must notice in the other Gospel that even Jesus’ own disciples did not fare very well, and also came under the Lord’s reproach. Jesus had given them the power to heal and to cast out demons, but when a boy was brought to him in need of healing and exorcism, they couldn’t do it! They were certainly not of such bad will as the congregation that ejected Jesus from the synagogue, but as Jesus told them, they were lacking faith.

In this case, I think we can see that faith is closely related to righteousness. In the epistle selected for the feast of the Prophet Elijah, St James remarks—referring to the prophet’s ability to work wonders through his prayer—that the prayer of the righteous is powerful in its effects. To be righteous, as we know, means to be in right relationship to God. Scripture says that the righteous live by faith. Jesus said the disciples couldn’t help the possessed boy because they lacked faith.

Let’s put this all together. If you lack faith, then you cannot be righteous, because genuine faith is precisely that which puts us in right relationship to God. If you are not righteous due to lack of faith, then your prayer will also be ineffective, for Scripture says that it is the prayer of the righteous that has powerful effects. So Jesus was right after all (to the surprise of no one, I’m sure!): you have to have faith; this will make you righteous; then you can pray in the name of the Lord and you are thus quite likely to have your prayer answered favorably. Somehow the disciples were not at that time in the dynamic, conscious, and consistent relationship with God through faith that would have made their prayer for healing and exorcism effective. But after the Holy Spirit powerfully descended upon them at Pentecost, they had gotten it down: even their shadows cured the sick as they walked by! That is because they were so completely filled with God’s grace, so in tune, as it were, with the Holy Spirit, that the divine power to heal flowed freely and abundantly through them.

Let’s go back one step in this “faith-righteousness-effective prayer” process: St Paul says that faith comes through hearing. So we have first to hear the word of the Lord—the whole and complete word, not just that which we find appealing or easy or compatible with our present opinions. The congregation in the synagogue never even got to the point of faith—let alone righteousness and effective prayer—because they refused to hear the word of the Lord: the word that called them to repentance, the word that was something different than what they would have preferred to hear, the word that cuts through soul and spirit like a two-edged sword. It is only because this word is so sharp and penetrating that our sins can be exposed and cut away, and that room can be made within us for God’s truth and love and peace to dwell.

So let us hear the word of the Lord, whether it is easy or demanding, pleasant or painful, because whatever it is, it is for our salvation. Having heard his word, let us believe, and then, by putting our faith into practice, we shall become righteous men and women and can therefore expect our prayer to be powerful in its effects. By the grace of God, we can do this. St James says that Elijah was a mere man like us, but look what he accomplished. For the Spirit of the Lord is upon us as well, and so every year can be the acceptable year of the Lord; every day can be the day of salvation.

The Holy Spirit Will Teach You

I’ve mentioned before that it is my custom to jot down a passage from my early-morning Scripture reading, as something to reflect upon during prayer and perhaps to guide me through the day. A couple weeks ago I was reading the twelfth chapter of the Gospel of St Luke, and I noted the following: “Do not be anxious…what you are to say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (vv. 11-12).

I wondered what I might need to say that day, for which I would have to rely on the Holy Spirit. Maybe He would just give me some inspiration for a blog post. Then I remembered that I had an appointment with a certain fellow later that day, who was seeking spiritual direction. He had visited here a couple times many years ago, but as often happens with my advancing age, I didn’t remember him. I’m always a little anxious when people come to me for spiritual direction, anyway. This is partly because I’m rather introverted by temperament (and hence would rather flee from strangers), and partly because I just want to rend my garments and say, “Who am I that you expect to hear the word of God through me?”

Well, anyway, I was thinking of all this as I walked down the hill to my appointment, and I was also thinking of the word from the Gospel I noted in the wee hours. I asked the Holy Spirit to speak through me as the Scripture said. So we sat down to talk, and he gave me some background concerning his life experiences, falling away from the Church, re-conversion, present needs, etc. I found myself thinking to myself (as I all too often do): “I have no idea what to say to him.” He was doing all the talking, and I was nodding and tossing in a word or two here and there. Somehow I began talking about repentance and confession. I’m not sure why, but once we got on that topic I couldn’t seem to let it go, and I ended up giving him all kinds of analogies and insights into the meaning and necessity of repentance and reconciliation with God.

Finally it came out that even though he was trying to serve God, he somehow couldn’t recognize his sin very well and had been away from confession for quite a long time. After I had gone on and on about repentance, he sat thoughtfully for a while and then said, “Father, can you hear my confession?” He wanted some time to think about it, so he went to the church for about a half-hour and I returned when he was ready. He then made a good confession and decided that he would like to meet regularly for spiritual direction.

I thought to myself: I guess that really was a word from the Lord in this Scripture this morning. I didn’t know in advance what I would say to him, and I didn’t even know halfway through our meeting what I would say to him. But the Holy Spirit knew what He would say through me, and that was all that mattered. God saw, before I even set up the appointment in the first place, that this fellow needed to repent and confess his sins. So He must have stirred up his memory of coming to the monastery years ago. The man actually lives about four hours away, but he was on a job in a nearby city at the time. So the Spirit said to him (I’m guessing): “Why don’t you go back to the monastery? You had a good experience there before. Perhaps you could use a little spiritual direction at this point in your life.” So he did, and the clueless and somewhat timid abbot sat down with him, started talking about repentance and led him to the forgiveness of his sins.

When the Lord says that his Spirit will speak through us, or teach us what to say, it’s really a rather quiet and subtle thing, which we more often than not recognize only in hindsight—by his fruits we shall know Him. I didn’t feel a rush of divine power, grace, or inspiration; I wasn’t seized by the Spirit like one of the prophets of old. I just tried to speak the truth to what seemed to be his need at that moment, and I probably would have been content to get up and leave when the hour was over and tell him to have a nice day. But when I noticed that he was moving rather quickly in his thoughts and words from a resistance to confession to asking for confession, I realized my day was not yet over, for the Holy Spirit was at work.

So I hope I will be able to trust the Lord a little more to make up for my own inadequacies and teach me in that hour what I ought to say. He will do the same for you, too, if you wish to be his servant and to speak the truth in love to whomever He sends your way. And the fruits will be good.

This Man has Done Nothing Wrong

In reading the Passion account of the Gospel of St Luke recently, I reflected a bit upon the words of the Good Thief, known to tradition as St Dismas. There are a couple points in that passage we’d all do well to keep in mind.

The first thing Dismas did was to rebuke the arrogant blasphemy of the Bad Thief. This evildoer had no use for the Messiah while He preached and healed and called all to repentance. He just thought he’d try to capitalize on whatever power He might still have had to get him out of this desperate jam—only to continue with his former way of life. “Are you not the Christ? Then save yourself and us!” But Dismas knew it wasn’t that easy, nor was the power of the Christ to be regarded or used so cheaply and ultimately so fruitlessly. He evidently was using his own dying hours to reflect upon his life—which he had wasted through evildoing—and he decided that he would finally come clean. The thief became an honest man who acknowledged his wrongdoing and sought forgiveness, so that if nothing else he could at least end his wretched life with a clear conscience.

So he tried to get his partner in crime to become his partner in repentance. “Do you not fear God?” We ought to ask ourselves the same question. I know that in recent decades the “fear of God” has fallen into disfavor, partly because of former exaggerations or caricatures, and partly because of a modern arrogance that flees accountability for sin and creates new caricatures in the opposite extreme of the rejected notion of the Intimidating God. But Scripture rightly says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, in that it starts us off on the right track: we have to know that God is God and we are not, that his word is truth, and that He has every right to judge his creatures whom He has endowed with intellect and free will.

Let’s look a bit more closely at the reason Dismas was so aghast at the blasphemy of the other criminal. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” He may have wondered how the bad thief could speak so roughly to an innocent man who was receiving the same punishment as the guilty. The question might have been put this way: “Are you completely devoid of any sense of justice, of all remorse, of all reverence? The Messiah of God is being executed like a criminal, and you, the real criminal—while unrepentant—are trying to press Him into your service as if He were no more than one of your own corrupt underlings!”

Dismas then manifests the fruit of his own examination of conscience: “we are punished justly, as the due reward of our deeds.” There’s something here we may need to consider. It has taken me quite a long time, but over the past few years I have finally come to the conclusion that whatever painful, unpleasant, or otherwise bad things happen to me I fully deserve them. Though initially I may resist or complain about unexpected misfortunes of whatever sort, I usually end up (when I calm down) realizing that, yes, I do in fact deserve whatever happens to me. Most people seem all too easily to minimize sin, its gravity and its consequences. Rather than become indignant that some mishap or disappointment or even tragedy should happen to me, it’s better to give thanks to God that He doesn’t give us what our sins really deserve, but that even in our trials and sufferings He is going very easy on us. “Could be worse,” I often say, and not only tongue-in-cheek, but as a real matter of fact. Dismas rightly came to that realization. In the agony of crucifixion, he looked back at his life and concluded: I deserve this; it is the due reward of my deeds.

Then he said to the other thief, underscoring his point: “but this man has done nothing wrong.” Isn’t it all too often the case in our own lives that we (surely unconsciously or unwittingly) play the role of the bad thief instead of the good one? When some misfortune or illness or disaster befalls us—and we don’t receive immediate relief—is not our prayer, in effect, something like this: “Aren’t you the Lord? Then come and help me!” We get a little impatient with Him while we hang on the cross and He doesn’t immediately take us down.

But there are two things we forget. First, we suddenly get amnesia concerning our sins. We forget that we deserve to suffer because of our disobedience to the divine commandments and our long record of selfish and uncharitable behavior. Do we ever say, in times of trial or suffering, “I deserve this, for I am a sinner”? You see, then, that we are more often like the bad thief than the good one. Second, we forget that “this Man has done nothing wrong.” It is almost as if we are putting God on trial, as the bad thief was. We criticize Him for not rushing to rescue us from every jam, even when it’s our own fault that we got into it. Hey, look, Jesus is not the sinner, you are—but do you not fear God, seeing that you are under the same sentence, that is, that He has chosen out of love to endure the punishment for your sin, the punishment that you refuse to admit you deserve? I think we don’t sufficiently reflect upon this. The Lord has chosen to suffer the punishment that we deserve, out of sheer, gratuitous compassion and love. This is divine grace; this is divine mercy. We have no right to tell Him to relieve us of our woes, though He is God and has the power to do so. It just might be, as a matter of fact, that He does wish to heal or deliver us, but we have to get things in order, so as to be living in the truth: we deserve whatever bad thing befalls us, for it is only the “due reward of our deeds”; we cannot in any way lay the blame, either for the thing happening to us or for our not being delivered from it, on the Lord, for “this Man has done nothing wrong,” and therefore it is not for sinners to insist He do what they ask.

Wait, though. There is one more indispensable point, and here is the whole essence and pathos of the story, as well as our connection to the loving Heart of Jesus and hence our salvation. Only when we honestly embrace justice (we deserve our punishment) and fear of the Lord (He doesn’t deserve our criticism, nor does He owe us anything), are we in a position to seek mercy: “Jesus, remember me when You come into your Kingdom.” Under these conditions the Lord will infallibly grant forgiveness and salvation. Indeed, He immediately promised Paradise to the repentant, trusting thief. When He was being crucified, the Lord could have read Dismas’ heart, and all the poor man would have had to say was, “Jesus, remember me.” But the Gospel was written for us and for our salvation, so we needed to see that fear of God and acceptance of just punishment have to precede the plea for mercy, if that plea is really to be genuine, truly from the heart—and not just a calculated pitch for temporal favors.

I think of those words and never fail to be moved by them. I told my friend Laura, when she lay dying and unable to formulate prayers any more, just to say this: “Jesus, remember me.” There is such power in those words—the power of tenderness, of vulnerability that nevertheless trusts. And it is enough. He could read her heart. He can read yours, too.

The Lord wants to save us, and despite the heavy demands of taking up our crosses and following Him faithfully, He makes it as easy as He can, while not compromising truth. All He asks is that we approach him as the Good Thief did and not as the bad. He asks that we recognize that we deserve to suffer for our sins, and that He, as the Son of God, has the right to judge us in strict justice. He asks that we recognize that He is not the one to blame for the evils and sufferings of the world, for this Man has done nothing wrong. Then He asks that we recognize how much He loves us and does not wish to treat us as our sins deserve (see Ps 102/103), how He wants to see repentant hearts turned toward Him in hope and trust, saying: Jesus, remember me. That is, He wants us to be with Him in Paradise.

Of Heavens and Hells—and the One Behind it All

Some things are hard for my little brain to hold together. I’m thinking of things like the beauty of the world and the ugliness of the world, about ecstasies and atrocities, about rejoicing and weeping, about wonders and delights and horrors and agonies. All this was going through my head as I walked up the mountain a few days ago, praying for the recently-departed soul of the young nephew of a good friend of mine, and for his mourning mother. It seems that lately I am called to weep with those who weep. He was killed in a car accident, just as his father was some years ago, and in almost the same spot. How much grief can a wife and mother bear?

As I was thinking and praying, I looked up at the sky. It was gorgeous, with artistically formed and ordered cloud-puffs, and all seemed peaceful and blessed. I was, oddly enough, almost a little irritated with God for quietly going about with his beautification of the universe while so many people are rending their garments and their hearts in agony. It was almost as if I were saying: “How dare You throw beauty in my face when you know full well I’m supposed to be miserable!” I find these paradoxes in the Psalms as well. Just today I prayed both of the following: “Beaten down, bowed to the earth, I go mourning all day long… so spent, so crushed, I groan aloud in the weariness of my heart”—and: “the whole earth overflows with the Lord’s goodness… in Him our hearts find contentment, in his holy name we trust.” So I think He was trying to get me to see something beyond the veils. When I came down the mountain I dashed off the following poem, trying to come to grips with life’s endless alternation of beauty and pain. I call it “Of Heavens and Hells.” [For some weird reason, WordPress has decided to forbid me to write poetry in stanzas. As soon as I save it, it removes all space between them, no matter what type of formatting I use. I just noticed something else weird. I typed WordPress with a small “p” but they overrode that and capitalized it. Big Brother is watching. The following is supposed to be divided into 4-line stanzas.]

The sky is rich today
with liquid squirts of marshmallow clouds
all ordered neatly
like happy cookies on a clear blue pan.
A young man died today,
crushed by some oblivious machine.
His mother is beside herself,
sharp blades of grief taking her breath away.
Look close—no, closer—at a flower.
How intricate, how delicate
the divine design!
We walk in fields of wonders.
She came back from the doctor.
Crying. Cancer.
Four months. Maybe six.
The kids…
How lovely is the endless sea—
even more with a flaming star
sinking into her maternal bosom.
The peace passes understanding.
He’s gone again. For good.
Drink and drug and despair—dead.
She gathers her sniffling children around her.
It’s so cold in there, so cold.
Bare rock sprouts wildflowers
and tears water desolate soil.
Though heaven’s curtains seem to close,
eagles fly toward the sun—free.

That same day, as I was heading back to my cell in the evening after Compline, I paused to gaze at the sky once more. The scattered bits of cloud were waxing gold, and the evening-blue sky was softening into paler shades. With one deft brushstroke, a sliver of a crescent moon appeared on the cosmic canvas. A light breeze stirred the treetops and all was calm, all was bright. All the world seemed still, at rest, at peace.

I tried to let the silence enter my soul, but I couldn’t help but be aware that in many other places in the world at that very moment other people were crying, hurting, worrying, starving, suffering, dying—not at all at peace, not at all aware of sunsets and crescent moons and soft evening breezes.

It’s still a mystery to me. But as I continued to contemplate the remnants of the lovely sunset and the peaceful atmosphere, I recalled Dostoevsky’s words (though I don’t remember the context) to the effect that beauty will save the world. Perhaps they can’t be taken literally (or theologically), but they may mean that beauty is a sign of hope that the world still can be saved, will be saved, that there is still something that transcends the horrible tragedies of this life. If God were not preparing unimaginable blessings for those who love Him and who cling to Him—come what may—then there would simply be no true beauty in this world, for in that case beauty would only be a cruel mockery, a sign pointing nowhere, a momentary distraction from death. But as it is, the Lord still shines his sun and rains his rain on the just and the unjust; He still works his marvels in sea and sky and in labyrinthine souls. There’s a persistent Whisper behind it all: “Courage, fear not, I am with you, I am your salvation.”

So we go on, in the midst of joy and sorrow and pleasure and pain and triumph and tragedy. Let us remember: “Not for us to be afraid though earth should tumble about us, and the hills be carried away into the depths of the sea. The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold” (Ps 45/46:3-4). Yet He is more than just strength for us. God is a Splash of Color in the dullness of daily life; He’s a Crescent Moon and a Golden Sunset and a Gentle Breeze. He is Beauty and He will save the world. And once He wipes every tear from our eyes, He will open them to see what no eye has yet seen, the things He has prepared for those who love Him, who look for the traces of his passage through this weary world. His steadfast love has never ceased; his mercies are not spent, but are new every morning, for great is his faithfulness (Lam. 3:22-23).

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