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

Archive for December, 2008

Goodbye, 2008

Well, there goes another one. For some reason I tend to be surprised clock-11-59that I make it through each year. Every new year that begins seems to announce that it’s my last. But maybe I’m just supposed to live it as if it were my last—with the fervor and the faith and the prayer and the selfless service of souls for God’s sake. Yes, for God’s sake, do all that!

This past year was something of milestone for me, since my 50th birthday happened in the middle of it. But what of it? Nothing is really different except that I’ve put on some weight so that my back hurts a little more now and I can take more pills to help me digest my food. Turning 50 will do that to you. Here at the monastery there are about as many fast days as there are non-fast days during the course of the year, so I don’t think I’ve been pigging out to drug myself against encroaching old age.

But a passing year is not just about growing a year older. We have to take a look at what has happened in the world around us—and especially in the world within us—and decide if there’s anything we can do about it. I used to have the habit (maybe I’ll do it again this year) of burning my trash on New Year’s Eve. It’s a sort of symbolic way of consigning my inner trash to the flames as well, every bit of junk, piece by piece, into the flaming fiery furnace. It would be much better simply to go to confession, and I’ll probably do that, too, but there’s nothing wrong with symbolic purgings, as long as we don’t leave it at that and think that thereby the job is done.

My computer is in its death throes. That’s something that happened in 2008. It’s freezing and jamming (sounds like things I used to do with fruits and vegetables) and giving me error messages I’ve never heard before, and I have no idea what they mean. Like: “A sharing violation has occurred while accessing an unnamed file.” I didn’t think I had any unnamed files in my computer. Don’t they all have to have names? By high-tech standards, my computer is hopelessly obsolete, which means it is about five years old. It still uses the “ancient technology” (I just read that) of the XP operating system. But I wouldn’t touch Vista with ten-foot mouse. Not that any of this is worth writing about…

This past year has been disastrous in some ways, like the ugly unmasking of unmitigated greed that is ruining our economy (and people’s lives) and will probably continue to do so in the new year. And like the presidential election (don’t get me started), with all that implies for the moral disintegration of our nation. The Proposition 8 passage in California was one bright spot, but the rabidly furious mobs of peace-loving, tolerant gay activists are swearing most indelicately to reverse it in 2010—after they rough up a few more little old Mormon ladies who made contributions for the passage of the proposition.

Actually, most of 2008 seems kind of like a blur to me, and I don’t remember much of it. Frankly, I don’t remember much of anything anymore; that’s another thing that happens after you cross the half-century mark. I didn’t write any books in 2008, but I’m hoping that I might write one in 2009, God willing. If only I could remember what it was going to be about…

Rather than bore you with more aimless rambling, I think I’ll just say good riddance to 2008, give thanks for what was good, and pray that what was bad will be dealt with by the righteousness and grace of God. It would be good if we could just press the delete button and have a bright new page for 2009, but unfortunately the messes we’ve made don’t just disappear as the page of the calendar turns.

There are some still-indistinct yet unmistakable apocalyptic rumblings in certain events of 2008 (I forgot I’d said I wouldn’t ramble anymore), and I sometimes wonder if I’m going to find myself living in those times in which God finally says, “Enough!” I hope not, though. The Lord said that in those days even the elect are going to have a rough time making it to the Kingdom of Heaven. I’d rather view it all from a safe and comfy vantage point On High. It’s a rather curiously unsettling thing that the Book of Revelation keeps saying, “Rejoice, you who dwell in Heaven!” and then immediately says, “But woe to you who live on Earth!”

In the final analysis, we simply have to keep our hearts and minds turned Heavenward and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, so at least we’ll be found facing God and not immersed in this passing world, rejoicing in what God has prepared for those who love Him even while woes rain down on us like cats and dogs (no offense to cat and dog lovers).

So, keep a stiff upper lip and all that. There’s always repentance and there’s always hope. After all, we’re a year closer to Paradise than we were when making our end-of-07 reflections. And closer to Paradise is all I want to be.

More on the Incarnate Word

Our liturgical celebrations of the Nativity of Christ continue, so I thought I would also continue to reflect a bit on the mystery of the Incarnation. It’s such a huge event in the history of the universe—nothing even remotely like it has happened before or since—that we shouldn’t just set it aside with the Christmas decorations that we store until next year.

On the Synaxis of the Mother of God, which we celebrated the day after Christmas, I reflected upon some of the images the liturgy uses to communicate her unique role in the Incarnation of the Son of God. I was meditating in prayer the other day about the incredible glory and honor it was to be chosen as the sole human being to be the personal instrument of the incredible act of God becoming man. God looked down on the countless number of human beings in the world and chose one, the one who would be mother to God-made-man. God then entered into Mary and came out a burning_bushman! How did she even survive this? One of the common Old Testament images for Our Lady, which happened not to be included in that text I explained a few days ago, is that of the burning bush on Mt Sinai. As the fire blazed in the bush without consuming it, so the Fire of the Divinity burned within the womb of Mary without utterly consuming her. It was a miracle that she was able to bear that Divine Fire in her womb, a mere creature carrying God bodily within her. This is different than the presence of God in the rest of us—though we should never minimize this awesome mystery. God not only was present within her; He used her very flesh and blood to fashion the human body of his eternal Son. The “flesh” that “the Word became” was taken from the body of Mary.

Pope Benedict XVI also had some reflections (of course!) on the mystery of the Incarnate Word. He wrote: “To many people, and in some way to all of us, this seems too beautiful to be true. In effect, here it is reaffirmed for us: Yes, there is meaning, and this meaning is not an impotent protest against the absurd. The Meaning is powerful: It is God. A good God, who is not to be confused with some lofty and distant power, to which it is impossible to ever arrive, but rather a God who has made himself close to us and to our neighbor, who has time for each one of us and who has come to stay with us.”

We should be aware that the Greek word Logos, translated “Word” in the Scriptures when referring to the Son of God, can be understood in several different ways. That’s why the Pope capitalized “Meaning”; this is another dimension of Logos. So Christ is the Word of God not only in the sense that He was begotten or “spoken” by the Father, but also in that He is the Truth, the ultimate Meaning and Rationality of the entire created universe. Yet this Meaning, infinitely exalted and infinitely profound, reaching the height and depth of the universe and every corner of Heaven itself, is not, as the Pope said, a “distant power… but rather a God who has made himself close to us.” It’s interesting also that he said that God Incarnate “has time for us” and wants to stay with us. How often do the great and mighty of this world “have time for” the poor and lowly? God’s power is not the power of this world, but the power of love, which is much more far-reaching and enduring and rich in blessing.

So the Pope continues: “Thus the question spontaneously arises: How is such a thing possible? Is it worthy of God to become a child? To try to open one’s heart to this truth that enlightens all of human existence, it is necessary to yield the mind and recognize the limits of our intelligence. In the cave at Bethlehem, God shows himself to us as a humble infant to overcome our pride. Perhaps we would have submitted more easily before power, before pride; but he does not want our submission. He appeals, rather, to our heart and to our free decision to accept his love. He has made himself little to free us from this human pretension of greatness that arises from pride; he has incarnated himself freely to make us truly free, free to love him.”

The God who has time for us is not one who has come to overpower us into submission. I detect here a subtle critique of Islam, which itself means “submission.” That is the relationship of Muslims to Allah: submission. Allah commands, you submit—or go to Hell. But Pope Benedict says something different about the true God. “He appeals, rather, to our heart and to our free decision to accept his love… to make us truly free, free to love him.” This free decision will come as a result of abandoning our pride and its foolish pretensions. It is true that there is also a kind of submission in love. But it’s not the kind of submission given to one who is more powerful than we are and threatens to crush us with that power if we don’t submit. The submission of love is free precisely because it is born of love and not fear. The submission to dominating power lasts only as long as the power is exercised or used as a threat—without that threat, there is no need for submission anymore, and one wishes it good riddance. But since the submission of love is free, and since is it part of a relationship to God who loves us with everlasting love, one wants to give one’s whole self to the beloved, and will do so for all eternity. God is love and will never withdraw this love from us.

That is why the mystery of the Incarnation is essentially an invitation to mankind. Those who recognize it will invite others: Come, let us adore Him. Some people who were expecting the apocalyptic “day of the Lord” with the advent of the Messiah could perhaps not understand the message of the Divine Child. Where was his power, and where his judgment? Oh, these will be manifest surely enough, but not until we’ve all had plenty of chances to respond to the Invitation. With the birth of God in the flesh the Inaccessible One became the Accessible One. He invites us freely to love Him. Love will indeed submit, but it must be in freedom.

Let us continue to reflect on the mystery of the Incarnate Word, the Incarnate Meaning of All Things. Let us realize that “Emmanuel” in not a word only for Christmastime, but for every day of our lives. God is with us. God has time for us. God wants to stay with us. God wants to “make us truly free, free to love him.”

Gathering Around the Mother

Christ is born! Jesus was the star of the Christmas celebrations, but the Byzantine Liturgy does not fail to honor the supporting cast, as it were. mother_of_loving_kindnessThe day after Christmas is a feast of the Mother of God, the Synaxis, or gathering, as it is called. We gather together to honor the one who gave birth to the Lord (in the old days any liturgical service was sometimes called a synaxis, simply because the faithful gathered together to worship the Lord). She’s no minor figure in this mystery, for without her the Incarnation, and hence our salvation, would not have come to pass.

The Epistle reading (Heb. 2:11-18) is a theological reflection on the Incarnation. It says that because the Son of God became man, He is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. Out of love He chose to partake of human nature, to stand with us and not only above us. Yet He did this so that He could do something none of us could do. The author of Hebrews says he became man “that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” So it says that He became man so that He could die! But not just to die, for we all do that and barely make a ripple in the common sea of humanity. Jesus’ death was a priestly sacrifice for our sins. The Apostle continues by saying that Jesus became “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people.” This is why He wanted to share our nature. This is the love which is greater than all others.

Now the Gospel for this feast (Mt 2:13-23) is about the flight into Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents, but since the same Gospel will be proclaimed in a couple of days on the Sunday After Christmas, I decided to use a liturgical text for the basis of my reflections on the Mother of God. Here’s the text:

“Let us sing to the new Ark and the Gate of Heaven, the holy mountain and radiant cloud, the ladder reaching to Heaven, the deliverance of Eve, the mystical Paradise. She is the great and glorious treasure of the whole world. In her, salvation came about and the world was freed from its ancient debt. Let us then cry out to her: ‘Intercede with Christ our God to grant freedom from our sins to us who adore your Son and bow down before Him.’”

Let us look at a few of the elements of this hymn and reflect on the holiness of the Mother of God and her place in God’s plan for our salvation. The Byzantine tradition delights in applying Old Testament imagery to the mystery of the Incarnation and hence to Our Lady’s role in it. She is called the “New Ark” because the old Ark of the Covenant was the place that enshrined the presence of God and certain evidences of his miracles, like the manna and the rod of Aaron that miraculously budded. So Mary is the new shrine of the presence of God, bearing not manna but the true and living Bread from Heaven.

Why is she called the “holy mountain”? This refers to a prophecy of Daniel (2:31-45). In the king’s dream, which Daniel interpreted as having messianic significance, a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and it crushed the pagan kingdoms and itself became a mountain that filled the whole earth. The Mother of God is likened to that mountain from which the stone was cut by no human hand. This means that Christ was conceived and born of her without the intervention of man. God Himself brought his Son forth from her and made of Him the Lord of Heaven and Earth.

The titles “Gate of Heaven” and “Ladder reaching to Heaven” probably refer to the same image, which comes from Genesis 28:10-17. That is where Jacob had his dream of a ladder set up on Earth but which reached into Heaven. The Lord stood above it and spoke to Jacob about his promises. After Jacob awoke from his dream, he said: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it… This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” Through the Incarnation, Heaven came to Earth, and Mary was the means by which this happened. The Lord stands above the ladder, meaning that He alone is the Lord, but He spoke his Word into flesh through the mediation of the body of the God-bearer. Surely, during the pregnancy of Mary, the Lord was in that place (that is, in her womb), but nobody knew it, except a very few who were initiated into the mystery. Thus she became a house of God and a gate of Heaven.

Mary is called “radiant cloud” in reference to the mystery of God’s manifestation on Mt Sinai (Ex. 24:12-18). A cloud covered the mountain, and within that cloud God manifested his presence to Moses. The glory of the Lord is described as having the appearance of a devouring fire, and hence the cloud that covered it radiated its light. Again, the connection with the Mother of God is clear. The presence of God and his glory dwelled within her as within the cloud on Mt Sinai and, being filled with the light of his glory, she herself became spiritually radiant by the power of his grace.

The titles “deliverance of Eve” and “mystical Paradise” are related by their reference to the Garden of Eden at the beginning of creation. Mary is called “mystical Paradise” because within her grew the new “Tree of Life” which is Christ Himself. Through communion with Him in the Holy Eucharist, we eat the fruit of this Tree and live forever. Mary herself is a kind of Paradise in the sense that in her there is no sin, just like the first terrestrial paradise which was pristine in its beauty and purity before the sin of Adam and Eve.

Speaking of Eve, since she listened to the serpent and disobeyed the command of God, that first “mother of the living” fell from her original sinlessness and hence was in need of deliverance, of rescue from her fall. Mary was called by the early fathers of the Church the “New Eve” because her obedience to God in welcoming the incarnate Son of God into her womb was the “antidote” to the primordial disobedience of Eve, whose sin made it necessary for a Savior to be given us. In the sinless paradise of the body and soul of Mary, God began his work of the new creation and the redemption of the human race.

That is what we mean when we say of Mary in that text: “In her, salvation came about and the world was freed from its ancient debt.” In her, that is, in her womb, salvation came about, because that’s where the incarnate God came about. Of course, his sacrifice was accomplished on the Cross and stands perpetually before the face of the Father, so that people of all times and places can share the fruit of it, but it all began when a Jewish girl said “yes” to the Angel of the Lord.

Finally, we say to her: “Intercede with Christ our God to grant freedom from our sins to us who adore your Son and bow down before Him.” No matter how lofty our mystical reflections and devotions may be, we always come back to the simple yet painful truth of our spiritual destitution. We theologize and liturgize and hymnographize, and our meditations may even be sublime, but if we are living in the truth we still must realize that we are poor and wretched and in constant need of help. The first awareness that one usually has when one comes into contact with the holiness of God, is that of one’s utter unworthiness to be in that immaculate and glorious presence. The prophet Isaiah lamented as much when he beheld the glory of the Lord in the temple. His first words were not “Blessed are You!” but rather “Woe is me!” (6:1-8). But then the Angel of the Lord came and purified him and announced to him that his sins were forgiven, so now he was able to stand in the presence of the Lord and serve Him.

Likewise, after our high praises of the Mother of God in the mystery of the Incarnation, we say, “Intercede for us!” Why? That Christ may grant us forgiveness of sins. For we are those who bow down to Him and worship Him, like the shepherds and the Magi. But, like Isaiah, and like the whole human race, we are unworthy of Him and we cannot stand on our own in his all-holy presence. We need the prayers of her who held Him in her womb and in her arms, who alone among all human beings was deemed worthy to become the Mother of the Son of God.

So let us today, in our synaxis, our gathering around the manger of the Savior to worship Him and to honor his holy Mother, do two things. Let us praise her with hymns befitting her, recognizing how the mystery of the Incarnation was prefigured for many centuries in the events of the lives of the chosen people and God’s revelations to them, and also let us beg her intercession and vigilant protection of us, her children. For despite all the glory God has given her, she is not simply a Queen far off or high up on an inaccessible pedestal. She is a Mother close at hand, who cares for us and who wants to share with us the treasures of the Mystery she knows so intimately.

The Light has Come!

Christ is born! Let us “rejoice exceedingly with great joy” as did the Magi when they saw the star over the place where the Child lay. For we have already received—those of us who were here at the vigil Liturgy—the message of the Angel from Heaven who brought us tidings of great joy, that a Savior is born unto us. And this is our joy today—not that we think the Son of God has again in our time been born as a baby, but that because He did so 2000 years ago, we have cause for perpetual joy. For the incarnation of God means our salvation, our hope for eternal life, and this message never grows old—it has to be the center of our lives every day until we finally attain its complete fulfillment in the glory of Heaven.

As I pondered some time ago how best to present this mystery of God breaking into our poor and sinful world, I thought of the star that the Magi saw—not so much as a guide to the location of the Child, but as a light penetrating the deep darkness of the night, a light which is but a metaphor for the true Light, Christ our God, who was born into this dark world in Bethlehem so many years ago. As the days passed before Christmas, various newsletters and greetings came in with their own reflections on the mysteries of Advent and Christmas. I noticed that the majority of them were talking about the Light coming into the darkness of this world. My first thought was: “Hey, they’re stealing my homily theme!” My second thought, which was a much better one, was: “This must be something that the Holy Spirit is telling the churches, and we all had better listen.” Several individual letters and cards had also come in, with people saying: these times are dark. So I think this is the moment to welcome the Light of Christ our Savior.

St John, more than the other evangelists, speaks of Christ as the Light, and he does so right in the beginning of his Gospel, in the profound Prologue. He speaks of Jesus, upon his coming into the world, as the “true light that enlightens everyone.” Why did he have to say true light? Well, it should be obvious that there is such a thing as false light, or that which presents itself as light but is nothing more than satan in disguise, as St Paul wrote (2Cor. 11:14). Perhaps today more than ever there are spiritual counterfeits that try to lead us away from the True Light. You hear a lot of talk from “new age” speakers and writers about “the light,” but you hear very little about Jesus, and nothing ever about the Cross or the Holy Eucharist, or other essential things He has revealed for our salvation. This tells us right away that their light is a false light, or rather nothing more than spiritual darkness disguised with the terminology of light. In his first Epistle St John makes it clear that whoever does not accept the full reality of the Incarnation—the eternal Son of God becoming true man for our salvation—has the spirit of antichrist (4:1-3), which can be another way of saying the devil in disguise.

nativitySo Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, is the True Light who came into the world, who was born in Bethlehem and worshiped by shepherds and wise men. He alone can conquer the darkness of sin and falsehood and all manner of evil in this world. In the icon of the Nativity, the interior of the cave is black. This is not merely for the sake of contrast with the brighter colors of the icon. It symbolizes the darkness of this world into which Christ was born. On the icon, a light from Heaven penetrates this darkness, and there we see the Christ Child.

St John says in his Gospel that the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it. There’s only one way for the darkness to advance and get stronger in this world, and that is if the light diminishes. Darkness, whether material or spiritual, has no substance of its own. If you want to darken a room, you don’t add more darkness to it; you dim or extinguish the light. Darkness can only increase to the extent that light decreases. This means that if these are indeed dark times, and the ominous cloud of still darker times hangs over us, it is solely because the presence of light has diminished.

Now Christ the Light as such will never know any weakening of strength or intensity. For the Apostle says that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all (1Jn. 1:5). None. At all. Which means that in Himself there isn’t the slightest diminishment of Light, in all its splendor of truth and beauty and goodness and love. But He has handed over a great responsibility to his Church, and hence to us as individual members. If the Church is not faithfully carrying the torch of Christ, as it were, then by default the powers of darkness will grow stronger and invade territory that doesn’t belong to them. Let us hear two complementary teachings of Jesus about the light, which support what I’m saying here. First, He says of Himself: “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12). But then He looks at us and says: “You are the light of the world” (Mt. 5:14). Of course, we could not be the light if He were not first the Light and if He did not communicate this grace to us. But the fact is, He has given us a mission and He expects us to bring his light to the world, to “walk in the light as he is in the light” (1Jn. 1:7). St Paul agrees when he exhorts us: “be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life” (Phil. 2:15-16).

The only way we can be sure that we are in the True Light is if we are in a personal relationship of faith and love with our Lord Jesus Christ, and the clearest proof of this (mere words are insufficient) is if we are doing the will of his Father in all things. Another sign, which is a fruit of believing in Jesus and doing the Father’s will is, as St John again tells us, our love for one another. He writes: “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in the light… But he who hates his brother is in the darkness… and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1Jn. 1:9-11).

So now I’m going to tell you to do something that I’ve never told anyone to do: Take the advice of King Herod. I hasten to qualify this, so you don’t think I’ve suddenly fallen into the darkness. There is only one thing Herod ever said that is worth doing, and even though his intentions were evil in this case as well, God meant it for good. He said to the Magi: “Go and search diligently for the Child.” This is what we have to do, starting on this blessed feast of Christmas. Search diligently for the Child, make it your life’s quest to find the Savior, to meet Him personally, to embrace Him within your hearts, to follow Him all the days of your life—even unto the Cross—and thus to enter with Him into the glory of his heavenly Paradise.

For this we have to pray much, meditate upon the Holy Scriptures, receive the sacraments, and set our hearts and minds on things of Heaven, as the Apostle counsels (Col. 3:1-4). But there is still more. To diligently seek the Child is to seek to be like the Child. Jesus told us on several occasions that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the childlike, that is, those who humble themselves and break their pride—which is the scourge of all who have lost the innocence of spiritual childhood—and who trust in God as a loving Father: without guile, without calculation, without suspicion, without fear. In order to present their gifts to the Child, the Magi—who belonged to an elite and highly honored class of men—had to lower themselves. They prostrated before Him, the Gospel says. No one who is proud will ever find the Child, because such a one will never see Him! He doesn’t lower himself enough to recognize Him in the poor and lowly and small. Such a one walks not in the light but is lost in the darkness, even though he knows it not.

The Light has come into the world, says St John, but men loved darkness rather than light. They don’t come near the Light because they don’t want to be exposed as sinners (Jn. 3:19-20). But that is precisely why we must come to the Light! St John tells us in another place what happens when sinners come to the Light: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1Jn. 1:7). It is right to admit that we are sinners, for the Apostle goes on to say that if we say we have no sin, we are liars and are deceiving ourselves. So sinners shouldn’t fear to come to the Light but must come, so that the Precious Blood of Jesus can cleanse them from all sin.

The Light has come but we must have eyes to see. For the Light of Christ is a spiritual light. We were talking the other day about how, when the sun came out and started melting the snow that had recently fallen, it had caught some of the water droplets just right, so that they acted as prisms and burst forth momentarily in all the colors of the spectrum. Such things happen all around us, but if we aren’t looking or paying attention, we won’t see them. Likewise, the brilliant beauty of the Light of Jesus is present, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by those who are looking for Him. And those who seek Him will find Him.

So Jesus invites us to come to Him, come to the Light, the only True Light, not merely one among many counterfeits in the world today. The Angel of the Lord directed the shepherds to Him, so in this way God invited the chosen people to accept their Messiah. God sent a star to the pagans (who did not know any better at the time), and in this way He called all the Gentiles to believe and worship the true God.

Let us worship Him as well and come to the Light, knowing that the darkness can never approach if the Light is shining brightly. By the power of the Word of God, that is, the Incarnate Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, we can be instrumental in shining his Light in this darkening world. Let us resolve to be bearers of the Light of Jesus Christ.  All it takes for the darkness to envelop us is for us not to shine with the divine Light. Therefore search diligently for the Child, worship Him, follow Him, and rejoice with exceeding joy, for the Light has come into the world!

Contemplating the Nativity

As we begin our celebration of the Nativity of Christ, the mystery of the manifestation of the Word made flesh for our salvation, the Epistle reading (Heb. 1:1-12), gives us a dramatic introduction: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

I noticed something interesting in the Office of Matins two Sundays ago. It is about the prophets foretelling the coming of Christ, but in a way that is unique. The text mentions that Mary bore Christ in her virginal womb, and speaking of the Lord it says, “Whom the prophets had once foretold through their contemplation.” I found that quite remarkable. The prophets foretold Christ through their contemplation. This puts the mystery of prophetic inspiration in a new context. The prophets weren’t simply seized by a divine interruption in their lives which imposed visions and messages upon them. They were able to receive the word of the Lord because they were already contemplating his mysteries and thus were well-disposed to recognize and embrace the prophetic revelations.

It seems to me that Christmas is the ideal feast for contemplation, more so even than the Feast of feasts at Pascha. Perhaps this is because the mystery is first unveiled beneath a starry sky in the silence of the night, and it is hidden from all except the specially chosen. So I think we should try to enter this feast with a contemplative spirit and a listening heart.

On the same Sunday that I had prayed that text about the prophets’ contemplation, I went for a walk up the mountain before the Divine Liturgy. I wasn’t in a particularly contemplative spirit at the moment, having more pressing things on my mind than I should have during a time of prayer. As I came to a clearing where there is a little roadside shrine, I brought my troubles and miseries to the Lord, somewhat distressed over his customary silence in the face of my snow_flakespleading. I looked up and noticed that it was snowing. It was really the perfect snowfall, at least for the time I was on the mountain. Not a wet, wind-driven storm, but soft, thick flurries without so much as a stirring of the air.

The moment was utterly silent and still. It was as if the whole world had held its breath to allow the snowflakes to settle peacefully upon the pines and firs, and upon a lone monk enraptured with the beauty of the moment. Suddenly I heard what sounded like a rush of wind, but the snowflakes were still gently falling, undisturbed. I looked around and discovered a huge flock of doves overhead, who silently took their places in a nearby pine. Then came another rush, and another flock appeared and settled in the same tree, so that it looked more like a dove tree than a pine tree. And I stood in wonder over the grace of that unusual morning.

God must be a Poet. Who but a poet would have answered my very practical petitions with snowflakes and doves? But perhaps his answer was but an invitation to prophetic contemplation. Perhaps He was actually saying, as the Christmas Angel said to the shepherds: “Do not fear. I bring you tidings of great joy. Unto you is born a Savior.” Sometimes that is the only message we really need. Though I keep burdening the Lord with my troubles and concerns, and hoping that He’ll solve them in short order—since He can if He chooses—I think He’s trying to get me to focus on the main thing, the really important thing: Unto us is born a Savior; He is Emmanuel, God with us. Once we are deeply and confidently rooted in this fundamental reality, we will know peace. And in this peace we’ll either be properly disposed to have our petitions answered, or they will simply fade into insignificance.

The prophets foretold Christ through their contemplation, and I wonder if the shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem were able to receive the revelation through their contemplation. Scripture doesn’t tell us if they were of a mystical temperament, though I think we can assume that even if they weren’t, they at least were not evildoers. They were probably among the simple and pious people who lived in poverty but in hope for the coming of the Messiah.

Perhaps they were, like burdened monks trudging up mountains, lost in their own thoughts and concerns. They couldn’t have known that this night was going to change their lives forever. Maybe they began to contemplate the beauty of the night sky, sprinkled with the diamond dust of myriads of stars—sort of like bright snowflakes suspended on the midnight-blue backdrop of the boundless universe.

And then it happened: God answered their prayers. Not in the way they expected Him to answer them, for their prayers mostly concerned their families, their livelihood, and their countrymen under the yoke of pagan powers. No, God the Poet answered in his unique way: with light, with color, with an angelic apparition, and with the glory of the Lord shining all around them! They must have been rubbing their eyes and looking back and forth to each other and to the sky. Is this for real? Like the prophets and saints before them, they were terrified to look upon God, for no one shall see Him and live, as the Scripture testified.

But the first thing the Angel of the Lord said to them was: “Do not be afraid.” This means that all shall be well, that this glorious manifestation was not a harbinger of divine judgment but an annunciation of divine favor and blessing, of deliverance and salvation. God was doing something new. In days of old, one could not look upon Him and live. But behold, the angel is telling them that they must go and look upon Him! Now we must see Him if we wish to live, and now we can see Him, because He has made Himself visible and tangible and approachable. This is the gift of the Incarnation. This is God with us, Christ in our midst. Here is the sign, which is the ultimate answer to all prayers: “you will find an infant lying in a manger.” It is the answer because of what it means. That’s the way the Divine Poet answers prayers. We ask for daily bread but He first casts a seed which we must receive and cultivate until it bears fruit a hundredfold, not merely of the “food that perishes,” but that which “endures to eternal life,” which He Himself gives us (Jn. 6:27).

The Child is the answer, for He is like a seed planted in this world that will grow unto the salvation of millions and (hopefully) billions of souls—all who will receive Him, all who will wait in quiet contemplation while the pagans run after their pleasures, while the unbelievers in their self-absorption do not look up to the night sky, whence their help comes from, or do not pause to notice the stillness of snowflakes, or do not hear the hymns of dove-wings.

Christmas is a paradoxical feast. It lends itself readily to deep and quiet contemplation, yet it is almost always characterized by frantic activity and noise and self-indulgence. As Christians, we ought to reduce the frenzy and increase quiet prayer and reflection. We ought to listen to the voice of the Lord within us—a voice, says the psalmist, that speaks of peace. If we don’t, we may just miss the answers to our prayers. Then we’ll get impatient with God, who is not checking things off our list with sufficient speed and efficiency.

Let us return to the shepherds, whom God found worthy of his revelation and his glory. Having seen the choirs of Heaven singing hymns to God, they went to find their Savior, the mysterious Child they were told would be found in a feeding trough for animals. They came to “contemplate a marvelous and incredible mystery,” as we sing on Christmas—“the cave becomes Heaven, the Virgin becomes the throne of the cherubim, the manger becomes the place where lies the unplaceable Christ our God. To Him we sing praises!”

The shepherds found everything just as the Angel told them, and they glorified God. But there’s something else they found there: another contemplative. She is Mary, of course, the Mother of the Incarnate God, the Mother of the One who emptied Himself of heavenly glory so that he could share the squalor of the human condition and save his lowly creatures from the terrible mess they’d gotten themselves into.

Mary, says St Luke, “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Mary’s contemplation was different than that of the prophets who foretold her Son. They were given visions from afar, and cryptic words whose deepest meaning would be clear only centuries later. What they foretold, Mary held in her arms, after holding Him in her womb. What they could only dream of, Mary kissed with her lips and nursed at her breast. We can hardly begin to know the contemplation of the Son by the Mother. Yet she gives Him to us as our salvation. Or rather, through Mary, the Father gives his Son to us. Mary, along with offering Him to us as our Savior, offers her own contemplation to us, bequeaths it, as it were, to the Church as a treasure, so that all the generations who will call her blessed can, by the grace of God, see at least a little of what she saw, feel a little of what she felt, know a little of what she knew.

May our celebration be fulfilled in contemplation, our liturgical hymns in the peace that passes understanding. For Christ is born as the answer to the deepest longings of our hearts, and He delights in writing his poetry across our lives, as we offer them to Him. Come, let us adore Him.

Waiting for the Glory

Well, Christmas is almost here. Some people can’t wait for it to get here, and others can’t wait to get it over with. But what precisely are you waiting for? Ultimately, there’s only one thing that Christians are supposed to be waiting for, and that is the return of the Lord in the glory of the Father and the holy angels. If perchance He doesn’t return for the definitive Parousia this Christmas, we still have his renewed presence among us through the liturgical celebration of the Mystery of his Nativity, communicated to us most profoundly in the Holy Eucharist. And through our contemplation of his everlasting love and humble self-emptying for our salvation, we create a kind of interior manger for Him in our hearts, where we hope He will be pleased to come and find at least a little warmth of love and faith.

maranathaBut since the Maranatha, the “Come Lord Jesus” that characterizes the spirit of Advent worship, originally meant only “Come again and take us where You are, as you promised,” I would like to look at a few texts from the Book of Revelation. It’s good Advent reading, and if it doesn’t scare you too much, it might actually rouse you to deeper worship and a longing to enter into the everlasting joy of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Since the mystical coming of the Savior at Christmas is imminent, I guess we’ll have to hurry to end of the Book. We have to keep reminding ourselves that all the mysteries of Christ, all his great feast days—Christmas, Easter, and everything in between—find their fulfillment and meaning in the ultimate ingathering of the elect and the glory of the heavenly Paradise. Everything Christ has done for us points to the End, that is, to the Beginning of our true and eternal life in Heaven. For, as the Apostle remarks, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable of men” (1Cor. 15:19).

So here’s where Christmas is pointing us: “Alleluia! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just… Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great” (Rev. 19:1-5). Get ready, for the shouts of joy are just beginning, and increasing in intensity. Listen: “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying: ‘Alleluia! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns! Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure’—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are true words of God’” (vv. 6-9).

“And I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (21:2-5). This is why we cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Come and rescue us from our crying and our pain; bring us to the Wedding Feast of joy and gladness, safe from all threat of suffering, sorrow, and death—the Paradise of peace which you bestow on those who love You and who ceaselessly call upon your name!

It is all waiting for us, “kept in heaven,” as the Apostle says, “for you who by God’s power are guarded through faith for salvation…” (1Peter 1:4-5). Christmas is an annual reminder that because He has come He is coming. It’s a little foretaste of Heaven, for we find angels (singing “Glory to God in the highest!”), and saints (Mary and Joseph), and the Son of God Himself as the center of attention. But at that first coming only a few knew about it, and at our annual celebrations the coming is still veiled in sacraments and interior graces. All of it, though, is ordered toward the Final Coming, when “every eye will see Him” and when nothing will be hidden but all will be manifest, and there won’t be a fool left who says “there is no God,” for every knee will bow to Him and the multitudes will cry out like thunder and leap for joy—because the endless Wedding Feast will have begun!

The Scriptures are given to us to help us see, help us pray, help us long for the True, the Beautiful, and the everlastingly Good. Let us embrace the hope of glory, no matter how dark or painful the present times may be. The Lord wants us to celebrate his birth because He wants us to believe in his Coming. He wants us to order everything in our lives toward that end—I don’t mean hoarding supplies and running off to the hills to wait, but living here and now in such a way that says Heaven is what is most important to us, that communion with God is the sine qua non of the fulfilled and blessed life, both here and hereafter.

So wait for the glory. We don’t have long to wait for the celebration of the Lord’s birth, and we don’t know how long we have to wait for his Second Coming. But there’s nothing in this whole universe that is more worth waiting for.

…of Whom Jesus was Born

We have in today’s Gospel (Mt. 1:1-25) a kind of a sneak preview of the mystery of the birth of Christ, which we will celebrate in full in just a few days. But before we look at the events which immediately precede his birth, the Gospel invites us to reflect on a centuries-long history of preparation for the coming of the Christ, so we have first the testimony of his genealogy.

In most Bibles, the translation of the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew reads, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ…” But literally it reads, “The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ…” So right away the Gospel of the New Testament is placed in relation to the Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures begin with the Book of Genesis, that is, the genesis of the world and of the chosen people; the Christian Scriptures begin with the genesis of Jesus Christ.

matthews-accountWhat follows after this solemn introduction to the Gospel is a list of mostly unknown and sometimes unpronounceable names—those who constituted the lineage of Jesus. In that time and culture (and in many others, even to this day) one was known by one’s family line. A lot depended upon who one’s father and grandfather were, and even much farther back, if one’s entire family line was noble or illustrious. As for me, my awareness of my genealogy goes back only as far as my grandparents. I never knew my great-grandparents, and even though my parents told me something about them many years ago, I do not even remember their names (though I do commemorate the souls of all my departed ancestors at the Divine Liturgy).

We don’t need to be familiar with all the names in Jesus’ genealogy, but there are three of particular importance: Abraham, David, and Joseph. Abraham was the progenitor of the race of the Hebrews, the one to whom God appeared and promised innumerable descendants, the one with whom God made a special covenant to set aside Abraham’s descendants as God’s own people. So through Isaac—the son of the promise—and Jacob, the people of Israel came to be, the people from which would come forth the Son of God in human flesh, as Savior and Redeemer.

Through Jacob’s son Judah the line continued down to David, the “man after God’s own heart,” the King of Israel whose dynasty, said the Lord, would endure forever. The Lord didn’t specify, however, precisely in what form this kingdom would endure. It is obvious that the Davidic dynasty according to the flesh has long since ceased to be. But as the Archangel Gabriel said to Mary about her Son, “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32-33). David stands as the archetypal king of Israel, and every legitimate king after him was known as a “son of David.” After the exile to Babylon, when there were no more kings, all hope was placed in the coming Messiah, who would be known as the “Son of David.” Indeed, when the poor and afflicted of the land saw Him pass by, they recognized Him at once and cried out, “Son of David, have mercy on us!”

As we read a bit farther on in this Gospel, we may be surprised to hear the Angel address St Joseph as “son of David.” What, is Joseph the Messiah? No, but he was of David’s tribe, the tribe of Judah, and the Angel was stressing the messianic significance of his message.

But let’s go back for now to the genealogy. It ends with Joseph, but in a way that sets him apart from every other member on the list. He doesn’t follow the pattern that everyone else does. Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob… David was the father of Solomon, Solomon the father of Rehoboam… Matthan the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born. Joseph wasn’t the father of anyone, according to this genealogy. Joseph was the husband of Mary. Of Mary was Jesus born—Mary alone, not Mary and Joseph, which is why she is here introduced into the genealogy that concludes with the birth of Christ.

Was Mary also of the tribe of Judah? The Scriptures do not tell us, though the liturgical services repeatedly insist that she is. The most we can say in that regard is that she may have been half of the tribe of Judah. The other half would be of the tribe of Levi, for Scripture does say that Mary was a blood relative of Elizabeth, whom Scripture does say was of “the daughters of Aaron,” that is, of the tribe of Levi.

But as far as the evangelist Matthew is concerned, all that is irrelevant. Jesus’ genealogy is traced through Joseph, for Jewish genealogies are not traced through the mother. Matthew knew very well that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, but what matters is that in the eyes of the law he was his father, and hence performed the functions of a father, like naming Him (see v. 21). So it is because St Joseph was a son of David that Jesus too was the Son of David. Jesus would have been the spittin’ image of his mom, since He would have had none of Joseph’s physical traits passed on to Him, but it is because of Joseph that Jesus could claim David as his ancestor and hence could be recognized and accepted as the promised Messiah.

So it’s clear what Joseph’s relationship was to David, but what about his relationship to Abraham? Is it the mere fact of being a Jew, as all Jews could claim Abraham as their father, through Isaac and Jacob? Erasmo Leiva suggests an additional kind of relationship, a more spiritual one. To understand this, we have to look at what God was asking Joseph to do.

Joseph and Mary were not yet married, though they were engaged. Suddenly, what seemed the worst possible dream-shattering, joy-destroying thing happened. Mary “was found to be with child.” Joseph, being a righteous man, and knowing the righteous requirements of the law, knew that his hopes for a blessed married life with her were now finished. If he were not a tender and loving man, as well as a righteous one, he could have exposed her to public shame and punishment. He wanted to spare her that, however, so he simply decided to quietly break their engagement.

But the Lord told him to do something else. “Suddenly,” writes Erasmo, “from the heart of eternity, the lightning of divine revelation interrupts Joseph’s human cogitations.” This is when the Angel intervened and started using messianic language: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Joseph is not only the son of David but also the son of Abraham in that Abraham also found himself in a predicament that threatened to destroy his happiness and hopes for the future. In Joseph’s case, God had brought Mary into his life and seemed to promise a blessed future only to have everything turned upside down with the advent of a child not sired by Joseph. In Abraham’s case, the child God had miraculously given him, on whom all his hope and happiness rested, was now demanded as a sacrifice. But in both cases God ultimately made his will clear, and it was not only for their personal blessing but, in God’s way and time, for the blessing and salvation of the whole human race.

Perhaps this is something we ought to learn from this Gospel as we stand on the threshold of the Nativity of Christ. God’s ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts, but his are always for our benefit and salvation, even though it may at times seem that He’s going out of his way to ruin our happiness or hopes for the future.

Let us learn still more from the prophecy that St Matthew says was fulfilled in the conception and birth of Christ: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” But didn’t the Angel just say his name was to be called Jesus? St Matthew was just filling out the picture under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The name “Jesus” signifies what He does (“He will save his people from their sins”). “Emmanuel” signifies who He is (“God with us”).

God is with us. If we remember nothing else from our Christmas preparations and celebrations, let us at least remember this: God is with us. God loves us. He came to us the hard way, the long, patient way, through a whole history, a whole ancestry, to show that He wanted to be one of us. Aside from a few bright lights, his ancestry is not a particularly illustrious one. There are ordinary people and even several nogoodniks in there. Jesus is telling us that we’re the ones He came to save, not only kings and prophets. He wants us all in his family. As the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, He is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters.

But let us also remember what Jesus said about his brothers and sisters. They are the ones who hear the word of God and keep it. Let us, then, hear the Word of God, the Word made flesh, God with us, who came to save us from our sins. Despite our lowliness and our failures, we can still point to our illustrious genealogy. Because the Son of God chose to become the Son of Man, we are not merely children of David or of Abraham. We are children of God.

Think About These Things

“The Lord is near,” says the Apostle (Phil. 4:5). That’s part of the Epistle reading for Palm Sunday in the Byzantine tradition, but it works just as well as we prepare for Christmas. In fact, there are several things in chapter four of the Letter to the Philippians that we would do well to think about as the day of Christ’s Nativity draws nigh unto us.

rejoice“Rejoice in the Lord always,” he says. And just in case we had written that off as a cliché or merely passed over it lightly, he immediately refers us right back to it: “Again, I will say: ‘Rejoice!’” Christmas is nothing if not a feast of joy. The birth of Christ was described as “tidings of great joy,” and when the Magi saw the star over the place where the Child was, they “rejoiced with exceeding joy.” So St Paul sets the tone for us as we prepare to receive anew the tidings of joy, the mystery and gift of “God with us.”

Joy is the positive element of these holy days, but in order to enter into it, we have to root out the negative. The Apostle goes on: “Have no anxiety about anything.” Easy for him to say! I’ll bet he wasn’t behind on his Christmas shopping, baking, housecleaning, gift-wrapping, and decorating! Well, since it is the word of God, we can’t just assume that it is impossible. But at least he doesn’t say, “just do it.” He gives us some indication of how it might actually be possible: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Ah yes, let’s not forget about praying to God while we’re preparing for the birth of his Son. It is supposed to be our communion with God that frees us from anxiety, because we trust Him so much—right? The fruit of such trusting prayer is this: “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Jesus is the Prince of Peace, remember, and that doesn’t just mean world peace. It means interior peace as well.

If the fruit of trustful prayer is peace, then the fruit of peace is contentment, and this contentment is the fruit—coming full circle now—of trust. The Apostle writes that he has learned how to be content, that is, at peace, whether he’s full or hungry, in abundance or in poverty, because he can do all things in Christ who strengthens him. That’s why he can tell us not to have any anxiety. He knows that nothing can separate us from the love and providence of God. But in case we’re still a little nervous about all that, he counsels us to revive our trust that “God will supply every need of yours according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

Finally, brethren, the Apostle says: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” If we’re going to have a pure heart with which to receive the Lord this Christmas, we can’t have a cluttered mind, especially if there is any injustice, impurity, or anything dishonorable or contrary in there. We’ll not be too successful in removing negative or otherwise unwanted thoughts by simply trying hard not to think of them. That only makes us pay attention to them. We have rather to replace them with “whatever is true, honorable, pure,” etc. Think about these things instead. Fill the mental space with goodness and blessing. Otherwise, once we’ve angrily forced one bad thought out, seven worse thoughts will come in and occupy our interior space (see Lk 11:24-26).

So keep in mind that the Lord is near, and therefore have no anxiety about anything. Pray with confidence and with gratitude, and God’s peace will come to you. In that peace you will be able to be content with any set of circumstances, since you know that God will supply all your needs. Think about all things holy and good, so that the stresses and demands of these days do not bring thoughts that produce anger or discouragement or unrest. “Then the God of peace will be with you”—and isn’t that precisely what we long for in the celebration of the birth of Jesus?

I will conclude this post as the Apostle concludes his Epistle: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with your spirit.”

The Prophet Motive

[This is an ancient article, going back to my “charismatic” days.  Now I’m just an old stick-in-the-mud. Since it has the word “Advent” in it, I thought I could get away with recycling it now. But hey, you never know when the Lord might want to do something new, and we had better be ready if He does!]

“This took place to fulfill what the Lord said through the prophet…” (Mt 1:22). Such statements abound in the Gospels, especially in Matthew. An utterly unique event in human history (not to mention a mind-boggling concept in itself), the advent of Jesus Christ was the ultimate goal of all messianic prophecy. Bridging the infinite chasm between Creator and creature, the divine and co-eternal Son of God came to earth. Yet He was known by most as “the son of the carpenter” or “the son of Mary,” since He came as a man.

So the evangelists, in preaching the Super-Great News (I think it’s much more than merely “good”), had to be careful to show that the doctrine of God-made-man in Christ was not just a novelty introduced by a controversial and charismatic rabbi. Rather, it was the eternal plan of the God of Israel, which He announced “in many and various ways…through the prophets” (Heb 1:1).

prophetThe time of Advent is designed for meditation upon, and celebration of, the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies in our Lord Jesus Christ. As a little reminder, from mid-October to mid-December, our liturgical calendar is sprinkled with feasts of prophets. The writings of the prophets help us to prepare interiorly for that coming-in-grace of the Son of God into the dark caves of our hearts.

Since all prophecies are fulfilled in Christ, and since He has already come, is prophecy now a dead letter? On the contrary, the spirit of prophecy is alive and active in all those who surrender to the Lord their lives and their lips, that He might speak through them the word of grace and truth to a world in desperate need of salvation.

Just what is a prophet, anyway? A prophet is literally someone who “speaks for” another—in the context of salvation history, this would mean speaking for God. And we have implied above that God is looking today for people to speak for Him. You might ask: how could I be a prophet?—since perhaps you are unskilled in speech or uneducated in all the mysteries of God. Such excuses didn’t work for Moses or Jeremiah, and they won’t work for you either, if the Lord does indeed want you to speak for Him in some way.

In your humility you may feel it is not your place to seek such a gift. But the Apostle exhorts you: “strive eagerly for the spiritual gifts, above all that you may prophesy” (1Cor 14:1). All you need is faith—“we believe and therefore we speak” (2Cor 4:13)—and confidence in the Lord: “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).

OK, you say, that is what Scripture tells us. But what will make me personally motivated to prophesy? What if God calls and I don’t want to speak for Him, and so I run away like Jonah? Well, your basic motivation should be your desire to do the will of God above all else, your desire that all souls hear the word of God and be saved, and your love for Jesus, which is so great that you will do anything He asks. But just in case you are slightly short of perfection in these areas, God still has an “ace-in-the-hole.” If God sends you the call and the grace to prophesy, and if there is the least bit of openness in you, you will be unable not to prophesy.

Consider the case of Jeremiah, and learn from his experience: “If I say, ‘I will not mention Him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot… O Lord of hosts, who try the righteous, who see the heart and the mind… to You have I committed my cause” (Jer 20:9,12).

So, let’s see what we need to do in the meantime. First, we have to listen to those who are already prophets. Read their writings in Holy Scripture, and pray for the wisdom (and do a little studying) to understand their message. Listen also to the prophets the Lord is sending even today, for his call to conversion and holiness is echoing to the ends of the earth. But remain in prayer and earnestly entreat the Holy Spirit, because there are also false prophets who say they speak for the Lord but in fact do not. The basic criterion Jesus gives in the Gospel is: by their fruits you will know them.

We must also be open to God’s grace and call in our own life. If He reveals Himself to us, and opens our minds and hearts to know his will, then what can we do except what the Prophet Isaiah did: cry out, “Here I am, send me!” And the Lord just might tell you: “Go and say to the people…” (Is 6:8-9).

As we go deeper into our reflection on the first Advent of Christ (being aware that prophets will be needed to announce his second), let us open our hearts to the word of God. The time of preparation for the Lord’s nativity is the time par excellence to listen, to create an inner silence in which the Word can speak. And what you hear in the dark, you may be called to speak in the light. This is to fulfill what was said through the prophet: “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his Spirit on them all!” (Num 11:29).

The Old Rugged Cross

You might wish to question why I’m writing about the old rugged Cross just before Christmas. I might wish to question it myself. But something struck me (don’t worry, I’m OK) during my Advent retreat while I was walking up the mountain and praying.

rustic-shrine-resizeHere and there we have little wayside shrines on the path up the mountain, some of which give new meaning to the term “rustic” (like the one pictured here). It’s about as poor an excuse for a “shrine” that you could find anywhere—just a couple pieces of battered and weathered wood nailed into a tree. But as I walked by I just had to stop and reflect on that for a moment.

We’re often confronted with the inescapable fact that Christianity is a religion that embraces sacrifice and suffering, poverty, chastity, and obedience, and that calls us to take up our old rugged crosses and follow Jesus. As I looked at that battered cross in the shrine, what little paint it had on it now peeling and nearly weathered away, in its stark austerity and poverty, I couldn’t help but think: “That is so Him!” St Paul says that Christ chooses the foolish, the weak, the low and despised, so that He alone can be shown to be our righteousness and our redemption. It’s just like Jesus to prefer a beat-up old wooden cross to a gold and jewel-encrusted one.

Some of us might find that maddening, since all the universe is at his disposal, and why shouldn’t we bring the richness of it to his service? Well, we can, and He will accept it, for He is worthy of the best we have to offer. But when given his choice, He chose poverty. But it’s not cheap quality in material things that attracts Him. It is people: people who are so poor that they seem to have nothing to offer to Him, who have only their hearts, their love, and perhaps only their helpless need. The poor cannot rely on wealth for security or happiness, for they have no wealth. Their treasure is in Heaven, their security is in their Savior alone. And Christ, who is love, is drawn to that emptiness which only He can fill.

There’s something else about that old rugged cross that is paradoxical. There’s something that Jesus likes to do with old rugged crosses: He likes to make his breathtaking glory shine through them. As I stood before that cross, somehow unable to look away, considering what a poor piece of junk it was, I was at the same time almost afraid that any moment a blinding light would burst forth from it. Because that’s the way He is. He delights in exalting the humble, raising up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.

So what does this have to do with Christmas? Quite a bit, actually. As the Lord of the universe, all options were open to the Son of God as to how He could make his entrance into the world. He chose poverty. He chose an old wooden manger that probably had the paint peeling off it (if there ever was paint on it in the first place). He chose the poorest of conditions, lacking all comfort and material security. But, darn it all, his glory shone through it as if the heavens had just ripped open and a multitude of shimmering angels poured through, singing. How does He do that?

This is the divine design. This is how Love manifests. He wants everyone to know that no one is a priori excluded from his Kingdom, from his favor. Therefore He restrains the blazing brilliance of his Divine Brightness so as not to intimidate the timid. He goes as low as the lowest, so no one will shrink from Him in shame. And He eventually took up that old rugged Cross to make a blood-pact with us, so we will know that He keeps his promises. He wouldn’t have it any other way, for love cannot stop giving until it has given all.

Jesus is with every poor and distressed soul who, in the utter anguish of life’s crushing burdens, takes two little sticks and nails them crosswise upon the wall, and calls upon his name in faith. In this cross He sees his own. And He will deliver them, for they put their trust in Him, in Him alone. A light will descend into their hearts, bringing tidings of joy, for their Savior is near.

That poor little shrine with the old, battered, rustic, rugged cross. How it shines!

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