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

Archive for September, 2009

Whom do You Seek?

The meeting of Mary Magdalene with the risen Lord at his empty tomb is one of the more poignant passages of Scripture.  According to the Gospel of John, she was the first to go to the tomb. Then  she went to Peter and John and told them that the tomb was empty, but at that point she didn’t understand what had happened: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  The apostles ran to the tomb and discovered it empty.  We’re not told how Peter interpreted the phenomenon of the empty tomb, but we learn that John “saw and believed.”  Still, the apostles “went back to their homes” without having met the Lord at the tomb.

Mary stayed, and she wept.  If John “saw and believed” he evidently did not tell Mary what he believed about the empty tomb, because she was still under the impression that someone had taken Jesus’ body away.  Mary’s love kept her there and she would not be consoled.

She looked again into the tomb, and Jesus was still gone, but it was no longer empty; there were two angels sitting there.  This seemed not to faze the Magdalene in the least.  They asked her: “Woman, why are you weeping?” (knowing full well why she was weeping, and forcing back their smiles, for they knew what was to come).  Without questioning who they were or how they managed to enter the tomb without her seeing them, she gave the same answer she gave to Peter and John above.

Then she turned around and saw Jesus.  By this time the tomb was anything but empty!  She didn’t know it was Jesus at first.  This is a common occurrence in the post-resurrection appearances.  Jesus asked her: “Woman, why are you weeping?” (knowing full well why she was weeping, and forcing back his smile).  Then He said, getting more to the point and preparing the imminent recognition and reunion: “Whom do you seek?”  She didn’t answer his question, assuming that, whoever he was, he knew darn well whom she was seeking if she was standing outside his tomb.  And if he was the one who took her Teacher/Master (Rabboni) away, he had better take her to where He was.

Jesus and Mary MagdaleneThe next moment could take volumes to describe, if it could be described at all.  In fact, it is ineffable, and we feel it more than we can talk about it.  “Jesus said to her: ‘Mary.’” The last three years of her life must have flashed before her in an instant: meeting Him, being delivered from demons by Him, following Him, loving Him and being loved by Him, going to the Cross with Him and sharing in his agony, suffering the loss of Him, weeping at his grave.  “Mary.”  At the sound of the Master’s voice speaking her name, everything came back in a rush of wonder, fear, and joy.  No one took Him away from the tomb after all!  He left of his own accord—just as no one took his life from Him but he laid it down of his own free will.  “Rabboni!”  It was He, standing before her, making all things new.  Her fidelity and love were rewarded with the gift of being the first to see Him after He had risen from the dead.

A curious thing happened next, which I don’t know if anyone fully understands.  She must have rushed to embrace Him but he forbade her, saying, “I have not yet ascended to my Father.”  Why could no one touch Him before this mysterious ascension—which was not the same one which happened 40 days later and marked the end of his appearances?  It must have something to do with the completion of Jesus’ “glorification,” which, according to John’s Gospel, included everything from the Passion to this Ascension.  In any case, it was a mystical ascension, perhaps a profound personal “reunion” of the Son—in the flesh, bearing the wounds of his obedience—with the Father upon the completion of his mission.  We don’t know why Mary couldn’t touch Him before this was accomplished, but we know He welcomed the touch of his loved ones afterward: “Touch me and see…”; and again: “Put out your hand, and place it in my side.”

Mary knew whom she was seeking, yet in a certain sense Jesus might have been saying that she didn’t know fully.  Something happened at the resurrection that superseded all previous ways of relating.  It was Jesus, but not merely the kenotic Jesus, the one who had abandoned all his divine glory in order to be the Suffering Servant.  Risen from the dead, He clothed his humiliated humanity with glory.  So perhaps it was a kind of sign or symbol that Mary didn’t recognize Him right away.  He was glorified, but still not manifestly so, since she mistook Him for a gardener, but the point is that He was different.  And Mary would have to learn to relate to Him in a different way, though a way that would ultimately be better than anything she had ever known.  But it was a process: seeking, mistaking, then hearing his voice and recognizing, being temporarily restrained yet being granted a mission (“Go to my brethren and say to them…”), and finally—though this is not mentioned in the Gospel—going into his eternal glory upon her death and living in ecstatic love with Him forever.

If we are asked, in the context of our spiritual life, whom we are seeking, we may readily respond: “Why, Jesus, of course!”  But perhaps we ought to reflect a bit and see if we sufficiently understand who it is we are seeking.  Mary was seeking Jesus as she had come to know Him, but He was different and she didn’t recognize Him.  Perhaps we may be seeking an image of Jesus that we have either made for ourselves or have carried with us from childhood, but if that’s not really who He is, then we may not recognize Him even if He stands before us.  We are not the ones in control of our relationship with God; it’s not up to us to make comfortable images or settle into satisfying devotions—especially if that implies a lack of genuine openness to anything new or different the Lord might will for us.  We must always be growing, maturing, listening for the voice of the Master.  When He calls us by name, He is looking for a moment of joyful recognition on our part, and even if we cannot immediately enter into the fullness of love’s embrace this side of Paradise, He will most likely give us some sort of mission in the meantime.  And if we continue to seek Him throughout our lives, we can be sure He will call our name at the hour of our death and receive us into his everlasting joy.

So then, whom do you seek?  In what ways are you seeking Him?  What are your expectations?  Are you willing to be open to his reality, and not merely your own image of Him, even if that is based on genuine past experience?  Mary’s past experience of Jesus had been authentic, but He was taking her to a new level.  We should let the Lord take us to ever-greater levels of relationship with Him, in knowledge and love and sensitivity to his voice, that is, willingness to do his will.

May we at last be able to enter into his joy, like the Magdalene.  I wonder if, when she finally crossed the threshold of the Kingdom, she might have recalled these words, which summed up her whole life and her whole eternity: “I found him whom my heart loves; I held him and would not let him go…” (Songs 3:4).

On Fish, Fear, and Following Jesus

We’re beginning today the cycle of St Luke for the Sunday Gospels, as we do every year following the Sunday after the Feast of the Holy Cross.  Last Sunday Jesus said that whoever would follow Him must take up his cross.  Today Jesus takes the initiative to call those whom He wanted to be his disciples (Lk. 5:1-11).  So the following of Jesus is not entirely up to us.  It is a response to the divine initiative, a call to be his disciples.  Once we say yes to Him, it’s time to take up our cross and follow.  We might think, then, that the Sunday of the calling of the disciples should precede the Sunday in which the conditions of discipleship are laid down.  But Jesus doesn’t use the “bait and switch” technique.  He wants us to know the demands of discipleship even before He calls us, so that when He does we can make an informed decision, with open eyes, aware of what it will cost us to follow Him.  Of course, we can never know fully and in advance what the cost of discipleship will be—for then perhaps very few would risk the undertaking—but the Lord at least wants us to be aware that the path to the Kingdom will be arduous, and at the same time He wants us to know that his grace is sufficient and that all things are possible with Him.

According to St Luke, the call of Jesus’ favorite three apostles—Peter, James and John—happened on a boat at sea.  Jesus was preaching on the shore, but the crowd was pressing in on Him so much He thought they might end up inadvertently pushing Him right into the water, so he asked the veteran fisherman Simon—who was just cleaning his nets after an unsuccessful night of fishing—if he would allow Him to use his boat as a pulpit.  Simon obliged, and Jesus taught the people.  So far, nothing really extraordinary had happened.  But then Jesus asked something extraordinary of Simon.

Jesus and Peter and fishEvidently the best fishing was at night, and Simon had already finished his night’s work, with nothing to show for it, and was about to go home and get some shuteye.  But Jesus asked him to go fishing now, when the sun was already high in the sky and Simon was exhausted.  “Put out into the deep,” said the Lord, “and let down your nets for a catch.”  To his credit, Simon didn’t respond with a stream of curse and invective, though he did complain just a little: “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!”  The fact that Simon called Jesus “Master” (as well as not telling Him to take a hike when Jesus wanted to use his boat for preaching) suggests that this was not Peter’s first encounter with Jesus.  He must at least have known who He was and something of his reputation, even if he hadn’t had personal contact with Him.  So after Simon’s initial balking at Jesus’ command to go fishing, he said, “But at your word I will let down the nets.”  Even if he didn’t quite realize who Jesus was, he respected his authority enough to do his will even when it seemed to fly in the face of common sense (something we all ought to ponder in our own lives).

Once Simon decided to obey the Lord, he was handsomely rewarded.  He instantly caught so many fish that even two boats could not hold them all without beginning to sink from the weight of them.  Suddenly, Simon saw Jesus with new eyes, and so he reacted to Him in a way he never did before.  There are three things to notice here.  First, he fell down before Jesus.  Knowing what we do of Simon from later accounts, and what we can guess about a grizzled Galilean fisherman, Simon was likely unaccustomed to falling down before anyone—except perhaps God Himself during worship at the Temple.  Second, Simon changed his way of addressing Jesus.  When Jesus asked him to put out into deep water, Simon had called Him “Master,” which is the same as saying “Teacher.”  After the miraculous catch of fish, he called Jesus “Lord.”  Finally, he did something we might not expect: He asked Jesus to leave him, and this is what we’re going to examine a little more closely.

That response of Simon Peter shows that for him that unexpected catch of fish was on the level of religious experience.  If he were nothing more than a fisherman out to make a good living, nothing more than a man of the world with worldly values, the shekel-signs would have lit up in his eyes and he would have seen in Jesus the goose that laid the golden egg.  He would immediately have signed up Jesus as a partner in his business, and it would have been smooth sailing for the rest of his life.

Yet he begged Jesus to leave.  The religious dimension is expressed in the reason Simon gave: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  If he were a mere mercenary, what would it have mattered to anyone that he was a sinner?  But Simon became suddenly and terrifyingly aware that somehow when he was in the presence of Jesus he was in the presence of God.  It is like the experience of Isaiah when God revealed Himself to him in the Temple.  Isaiah didn’t say, “Wow, this is great!”  Rather, he cried out, “Woe is me!”  The reason he gave was quite similar to Simon Peter’s: He suddenly realized how unclean he was when he was ushered into the presence of the Lord of Hosts, before whom angels sang: “Holy, holy, holy!”

The Gospel doesn’t say explicitly that Peter was filled with fear, but it clearly implies it, since Jesus had to say to him: “Do not be afraid.”  We ought to try to understand this fear a little, for there are different kinds of fear.  It was not the fear of revulsion, which one might experience upon seeing some horrifying sight, like a mangled corpse.  It was not the fear of imminent danger to one’s life and limb, as a monk of Mt Tabor might experience when seeing a mountain lion as he’s walking up the path.  It was also not the vague but pervasive dread of some unknown disaster one might have a premonition of happening.  It was a holy fear, no less terrifying than other kinds, but a fear that goes to the root of one’s being, a fear that exposes one’s contingent creatureliness, as well as one’s flaws and failures, in the face of God’s absolute sovereignty and self-sustaining eternal existence, and his blinding holiness and purity.

That is what Isaiah felt in the Temple and what Simon felt in the boat.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, says the Scripture several times, and it is also the beginning of our understanding of who we are before God.  It is not the fullness of understanding, since it does not yet convey the tenderness of God’s compassion and love.  Yet it is essential that we have something of this holy fear in our experience of God, for if we don’t we will never truly understand or fully appreciate the mercy and love of God. If we only project upon God our own concept or experience of human compassion and love, we will never properly know God and hence will not relate to Him as He desires.  It is only when we experience that standing-in-awe before the Holy One, the trembling awareness of our sinfulness and radical insufficiency before the Mysterium Tremendum that is the ineffable glory of the Divine Nature, that we can begin to grasp the magnitude of mercy and God’s limitless love, and the incomprehensible gift of God’s desire to enter into a personal relationship with us in love and joy.

There are many who believe in God’s transcendent glory but not in his desire for intimate communion with us.  Two Iranian women who became Christians were recently put on trial and imprisoned simply for converting.  One of their “blasphemies” was believing that the transcendent God actually spoke to them.  The Muslim prosecutor bellowed: “It is impossible for God to do such a thing!”  They replied: “So are you saying, then, that God is not Almighty?”  The prosecutor changed his tactic and then said: “You are not worthy.”  They responded: “It is up to God to decide whether or not we are worthy.”  So it precisely because God is Almighty that He can lower Himself to speak with sinful creatures.  And it is not for sinful creatures to decide their worthiness or unworthiness to stand before God.  We come because He calls.

So Simon started from the right position of the holy fear of God, but at that point He didn’t know God well enough to accept the mercy and the invitation that Christ was offering.  But it didn’t take long, for soon the miraculous catch was left behind, and Simon was following Jesus, ready to learn the secrets of the Kingdom of God, and then discovering, in the Person of Jesus, dimensions of the mystery of God he could never before have imagined.

What shall we do, then, in order to have the right relationship with God?  Well, before we can enter into experiences of holy fear and love, we have to do what Simon did: let down our nets into the deep and wait for the Lord’s word to be fulfilled.  “Letting down our nets” can be an image of contemplative prayer, going into the depths of silence, of our own inner lives, into the peace beyond understanding in which the Lord abides.  To let down our nets is also to drop our defenses, to come to the Lord with childlike simplicity, honest contrition, and a certain vulnerability undergirded with trust.  This is how we must approach the Lord.  Then it is up to Him how He wishes to manifest Himself to us, how He wants us, at any given stage of our spiritual lives, to know and experience his presence.

To know Him fully we need to experience both the fear and the love, the judgment and the mercy.  The danger of focusing only on love is that it can easily degenerate into familiarity or sentimentality, which is then a departure from reality.  For God will always essentially be above and beyond our grasp, the Burning Bush, the Glory in the Temple, the Face shining like the sun which illuminates every dark corner of our souls.  On the other hand, the danger of focusing only on the fear of God is that one might be tempted, like Simon, to beg Him to depart, to forget that through the Incarnation God veiled his blinding glory so that his tender compassion could be manifested in his self-sacrificing love.

God is love, but a full awareness of that infinite and relentless love still ought to make us tremble in the realization of how poorly we love Him in return.  So yes, we still need to fall down before Him—but not begging Him to depart.  Rather, we beg Him to stay and to have mercy on us, to teach us how to love Him in return, to reveal to us the mysteries of his Kingdom.  Then, like Peter, James, and John, we leave behind our nets and boats, that is, our former ways and our own inadequate ideas of God, and we get up and follow Jesus.

Cats and the Kingdom (Part 2)

The Lord calls us to trust, and to not worry. But it should also be clear, though, that the Lord didn’t say, “Do not work”; He just said, “Do not worry.”  So it’s not a matter of saying, “I’ll sit here and just trust in God all day, and then I’ll go down to the mail box and pick up a bunch of checks, and everything will be fine!”  Well, it doesn’t work that way, because, as St. Paul also says, “If you don’t work, then you shouldn’t eat.”  And he says, in several places, that you should earn seek ye firstyour living by working quietly—and don’t be a problem for anybody else. We do have to make an effort, we do have to provide for ourselves, for our families, but there’s a big difference between working anxiously for your daily bread, and working for your daily bread with confidence and trust in God that the Heavenly Father knows what you need.  When you seek first his Kingdom and live out of the grace of the Holy Spirit and in response to the love which is poured into your heart, then all things will be given you—all things that you need, not necessarily all things that you want, all things that you fancy!

That’s another thing, because this life is just not going to be a picnic, you know; there are going to be struggles here.  St. Paul points that out, too, when he talks about his sufferings.  Yet, because he had that attitude and awareness of God’s love that had been poured into his heart by the Holy Spirit, he says, “We rejoice in our sufferings!”  He gives a list of virtues that come from that: the endurance, the character, and the hope—and this hope is realized and expressed in that outpouring of God’s love in our hearts in the Holy Spirit.  He makes this point: hope does not disappoint us, and this is very important.

We sometimes think of hope as a sort of wishful thinking:  “Well, I hope this happens; I hope that happens.”  St. Paul doesn’t talk about hope like that.  Hope is something that he says “does not disappoint.”  Not “ought not” disappoint, or “shouldn’t” disappoint, but “doesn’t” disappoint.   This is because it is God Himself, present within us through the grace of the Holy Spirit.  So we can even rejoice in our sufferings, rejoice in those things which it seems—at the moment, perhaps—that the providence isn’t coming through as quickly or as much as we’d like it to.  We still do not, because of that, become “people of little faith” and start “chasing cats” again.

We have to hold on to both of these truths: the fact that there are going to be sufferings and difficulties in life, but also that we can go on rejoicing, believing, trusting, even in hard times, because God is our Father and takes care of us, provides for us, and is not going to abandon us. The Father knows all that we need.  But seek first his Kingdom, his righteousness (his “way of holiness” is another translation).  Seek to live according to the ways of God, according to the word of God, because that lifestyle is the one that opens us to the blessings of God that He wants to give to us.

If we do an examination of conscience, we might come to realize that we don’t really rest assured in God.  Maybe we’re not entirely sure that God cares for our lives, that God is going to provide for us, that He loves us, that He’s for us as well as with us.  We may sometimes look at the evidence around us, or our own lack or need or sufferings, and our own subjective sense of “God not being there” or something like that, and so we say, “Well, you know, probably He’s there, and it would be really good if He is, but just in case, I’d better get out there and make it happen myself.”   But that’s still not good enough.  As I said, we’ve got to work, and work hard, and sacrifice ourselves for those who are entrusted to us, but there has to be the mentality that without God we can do nothing, but with God all things are possible.  So again, we have to hold that together as well and go on with our lives, doing what we know to be right but having our priorities straight, trying to connect with that truth, that reality of God’s love that’s indwelling us through the Holy Spirit, that the Father is providing for us out of his love for us.

We turn to God the Father who is the universal Provider for all creation: of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air and us poor little human beings running around like ants on the face of the earth. He wants to provide for us, He wants to do good for us.  In another place, Jesus says, “Don’t fear, because it pleases the Father to give you the Kingdom.”   He doesn’t begrudge it to us, like “OK, I guess if I don’t give you food you’ll starve to death, so, here…”   God is not like that, and that’s not his approach to us.  He’s a generous, loving Father, but He also makes certain demands of us, which He has a complete right to do, because He knows that if He doesn’t make certain demands of us, we’re just going to retreat into our concupiscence and laziness and go the path of least resistance, and we’re not going to grow as persons into mature men and women of God: children of the Father, who are adult in the sense of their maturity and the strength of their faith and their trust and love.

So He has to place some demands on us, but once and for all we have to give God the benefit of the doubt, that He loves us, that He’s for us, He wants to do good for us and He’s with us, and He sends his Spirit to us, and He’s sent his Son to us to suffer and die for us.  It’s as if St. Paul is saying, “What else can He do? What else do you want? Here you are, enemies of God, you’re offending Him and living according to your own will and your own corrupt desires, and what does He do?  Wipe you off the face of the earth?  No; He sends his Son to die for you so that you don’t have to pay the price of your own sins!”

This is God’s gift to us, and so Paul says, “This proves the love God has for us, in that when we were sinners He sent his Son to die for us.”  So let us embrace Him, in his love and in his providence, and decide today that we are going to rest assured in the fact that God cares for our lives, that God takes care of us, that He loves us, that He’s put his Spirit into our hearts, and then we can seek his Kingdom first, and everything else will be given us besides.  The little cat will come home and nestle right next to us, and as we serve God, the one Master, happiness and blessing will be ours, in this age and in the age to come.

Cats and the Kingdom (Part 1)

[This is a homily I gave about five years ago.  It’s on the famous text from Matthew’s Gospel on trusting in God as do the wildflowers and the birds—and I suppose also the cats.]

cat at feet resizeHappiness is like a cat, as it is said.  If you chase after it, it will flee from you; but if you sit and work quietly, it will come to you, and curl up next to you.

I read that a while back.  It’s the theme of the Gospel of God’s providence—sort of—because Jesus says here that unbelievers are always running after the things that they think will make them happy.  The food and clothing are just symbols for all sorts of material possessions, or the mammon that the Lord said we cannot serve and also serve God.  The unbelievers are chasing happiness—chasing the “cat” of material goods and pleasures, but true happiness eludes them all the time.

Our whole life can seem to be a chase after happiness, but the Lord is telling us today—when He says, “Seek first the Kingdom, and you’ll be given everything besides”— that if you serve the one Master, blessings will come to you all by themselves, and you will not have to chase them down.

The Lord begins today by saying that no one can serve two masters, which is true, I think, in our own experience.  He says you cannot serve God and mammon—mammon being a term that refers to wealth particularly, but generally to anything you rely on or put your trust in.  You can’t put your trust in anything besides God—except to your own peril.  Even Bob Dylan, in his “saved” period, said, “You gotta serve somebody” in your life, which is true.  If you don’t serve God, you’re going to end up serving mammon.  You’re going to find another master—you’re going to find another idol that you’ll pursue and (in effect) worship, because you become enslaved to it.

Jesus says, whoever sins is a slave to sin, so whatever idols we make for ourselves become our masters.  But Jesus said there’s only one Master, or should be only one Master in your life.  In fact, there is, which will be proven at the end, but for our own individual lives, we have to make that choice to serve the one Master.  Jesus lays it out here for us, that the Heavenly Father is going to take care of us—if we get our priorities straight and serve the one Lord and Master.

When He talks about food and clothing and goes into the analogies about the birds and the flowers and all the rest, Jesus says if God can do all this just for grass and birds, well, how much more will He do for you—and then, “O you, weak in faith!”  In Matthew’s Gospel, we see that a lot.  Jesus is often saying to the apostles: “You weak in faith!”  “You men of little faith!”  “Where is your faith?”  because He knows who He’s dealing with.  Perhaps He could have summed it up simply by saying: “What’s wrong with you?” But as St. John said in his Gospel, He already knows what’s wrong with us: “He knew what was in the heart of man.”  He knows how we think, how we feel, and what our fears and anxieties are, and so He’s saying: listen, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Those of little faith, as it says in a note in my Bible, are those who do not rest in the assurance that God takes care of their lives.  We have to develop that mentality, that awareness and that trust, that faith, and build on that: God is going to take care of our lives.  When we believe that and embrace it, then the blessings begin to come to us.  But if we start running after the Cat of Happiness, then we’ve broken from that faith and that trust. God wants to see it in us, so that He can bless us with his goods for both body and soul.  “The Father knows that you need this stuff.”  Jesus is not saying, “You don’t need food; you don’t need clothes; just believe in God and pray.”   He says, “I know you need this, and God the Father knows you need this, but get your priorities straight: seek first the Kingdom of God.”

Perhaps we should ask next: What does He mean here by “seeking first the Kingdom of God”?  What is the Kingdom of God?  Does He say go on a pilgrimage to the Land of Oz or something, and there we’ll see an Emerald City, a Kingdom of God?  Well, no.  In the Book of Revelation the heavenly Jerusalem is sort of described like that, symbolically in terms of gold and precious stones and the like—but whatever that is, that part of it is at the end.  Now He’s talking about the Kingdom today, because if He says that you have to seek the Kingdom ahead of food and clothing and material needs, and because material needs and food and clothing are something that belongs to our needs of today, of this time, it means that seeking the Kingdom belongs to today, to our own time, and to our own practical lives.

So the Kingdom is something that’s immanent, that’s here with us, because the Kingdom is wherever the King is, and Jesus dwells in our hearts, in our lives.  He says in the gospel, “The Kingdom of God is in your midst,” and this can even be translated, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” That works when we’re talking about the Holy Spirit. We should note that some manuscripts of the Our Father in the Gospel—not very many, but a few, which some of the fathers had access to and used in their commentaries—instead of saying, “Thy Kingdom come,” they say, “Let Thy Spirit come.”

There’s a connection between the Kingdom within you and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and that brings us to something that St. Paul has said.  If you want to get right down to it, this is what the Kingdom is, now. He says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”  This is the Kingdom of God.  This is what we are to seek, to develop, and to live in every day.

When he says, “Seek first the Kingdom,” that means to seek the love of God which has been poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit, and live out of that.  Live out of the love of God, and put your faith in the love of God, the love of God which will manifest in the providence of your daily bread and all of your needs, but will also manifest in the ultimate providence of providing you eternal happiness in the Kingdom of Heaven.

To be continued…

Made in China

I’m sure you’ve been breathlessly waiting for this, and now it has finally come: the Chinese translation Chinese versionof my book Joy Comes with Dawn!  You might wonder why it didn’t first come out in Spanish or French.  The simple answer is: no Spanish or French publishers approached me!  But a fellow from Hong Kong, who works for the Chinese Christian Literature Council, read my blog and obtained a copy of my book.  Then he asked for permission to translate it and publish it in China.  The rest is history, and hopefully some interested oriental souls will be getting a fresh take on the Gospel.  I assume you prefer reading books in English instead of Chinese, but in case you know someone who would like one of these, let me know.  It it available only from the publishers in Hong Kong, and they ship via slow boat from China, but if you send me an e-mail, I can give you the ordering information. On my end it’s sort of a novelty, but if any Chinese souls come a little closer to God by means of this book, then it’s all for his glory.

This might be a good opportunity to remind you to pray for the Church in China.  Government assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, there still is very little religious freedom in China, and outright persecution in some places.  That’s why I’m glad to be able to contribute something to the spiritual well-being of those for whom being a Christian is a costly sacrifice.

Grow up, Shut up

I noticed something I don’t recall noticing before when reading the First Epistle of Peter.  It’s a rather curious phrase, but perhaps an important one.  He is likely addressing the newly-baptized in this letter, so he compares them to “newborn babes” who are nourished by “spiritual milk.”  Why do they need this?  So that they may “grow up to salvation” (1Peter 2:2)—and that is the phrase I’m talking about.

Grow up to salvation.  That in itself should put an end to all assertions of instant salvation once one puts one’s faith in Christ.  We may be “born again” by baptism and faith, but that doesn’t definitively secure our salvation.  According to the word of God, we have to “grow up to salvation.”  But how do we do this?  The answer would entail the whole of spiritual life, but St Peter focuses a lot on self-denial and suffering, which has the potential to move us quickly from a state of pampered childhood to the state of spiritual maturity.

Here are a few instances of his exhortations on the subject.  “Gird up your minds, be sober… do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance… purify your souls by your obedience to the truth… abstain from the passions of the flesh… do not return evil for evil… resist the devil… Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps… if you suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed… do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that comes upon you… rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s suffering… suffering is required…”  These are not counsels for the timid, but for those who are ready to take up their crosses and follow Christ, that is, to grow up to salvation.

Now this brings me to another point.  If we are to grow up in Christ, we have to take our licks courageously, suffer patiently, and not complain.  That’s why I wonder if something might have been left out of Jesus’ original exhortation to bear the cross.  I think He might actually have said that he who would follow Him must “deny himself, take up his cross, shut up, and follow Me.”  A cross-bearer cannot at the same time be a complainer.  A friend of mine, who knows me just a little too well, recently sent me a plaque (and you’ll only get this if you do know me) that reads: “The more you complain, the longer God makes you live.”

outofsortsI’ve recently been given yet another opportunity to shut up and carry my cross.  I was just diagnosed with something called Syndrome X (sounds ominous, doesn’t it?), which is a pre-diabetic condition and a risk factor for heart disease.  I won’t go into all the symptoms, but it does at least explain my otherwise inexplicably burgeoning “spare tire.”  I don’t really have to do anything about it except change my entire lifestyle.  Aside from having to exercise (a lot)—I’m one of those who, whenever he gets the urge to exercise, lies down until it goes away—I can’t eat anything I like anymore.  Even though monastic cuisine has traditionally never received high ratings, after all the other renunciations a monk makes, food is usually the last pleasure left.  And now I’m condemned to eat nuts and berries like a squirrel for the rest of my life.  Wah, wah, wah.  Thus says the Lord: “Grow up and shut up!”

Just when I thought I was already at the end of my rope and not able to bear one more proverbial straw, this!  I’m reminded of the joke about the Russian pessimist and optimist.  The pessimist says (you have to use a Russian accent): “Tinks are so bed, dey kent get any vorse.”  And the optimist says: “Oh yes dey ken!”  So then, the Lord giveth pasta and fruit juice and chocolate—and now the Lord taketh them all away!  Blessed be the name of the Lord!  I’m sure He and I will have a good laugh about this (once I’ve forgiven Him) as we stroll along the shores of Paradise, eating processed foods and peanut-butter cups.  But for now, I just have to shut up and grow up.  I had read a short time ago, with a rather strange sense of foreboding, the following passage: “When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are older… another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (Jn. 21:18).  I was afraid (rightly) that this might apply to me, but wasn’t sure just “where you do not wish to go” was going to be.  Well, now I know, though this may only be the first stage of the process.

I’m also being tested for stomach ulcers, but the results aren’t in yet.  I wouldn’t be surprised if I had one.  Nowadays they say ulcers aren’t caused by stress but by h. pylori, but stress can still aggravate them.  I remember once, quite a few years ago, when sitting in the oncology clinic, waiting for that day’s blast of radiation, a woman sitting next to me asked me my occupation.  When I told her I was a monk, she replied (to my surprise, but with rare insight): “I can’t think of a more stressful occupation!”  Speaking of stress, I also was told I’m suffering from “adrenal exhaustion,” which means the adrenal glands are producing too much of the “stress hormone” cortisol (can’t imagine why).  So I guess it’s a good idea that I go in for a physical, every 25 years or so, whether I need it or not.

I read something recently by a Croatian priest, Fr Zlatko Sudac, which I’m not sure is theologically defensible, but it makes sense in practical experience.  He said the following: “We might have been able to escape the Cross if we hadn’t put Christ upon it, if we had accepted Him when He came.  But since we didn’t accept Him, the Cross remains as the only door by which we are saved.  The Cross is the destiny for each and every one of us—because we continue to be sick, we continue to suffer, and we continue to die.  The only explanation for the meaning of our suffering is the Cross.  We believe that Christ will return, but until that happens, we will always be going through turmoil and growth, battles and purification.”

So, according to Fr Sudac, if Christ’s Gospel was well-received in the first place, the Cross would not have been the only alternative He had to save us.  But now, since He had to suffer in order for us to be saved, we have to suffer, too.  Maybe this is why St Peter said that Christ, by suffering, left us an example to follow, and that suffering is required. Growing up to salvation could have been easier, but now it’s really hard, and there’s no turning back the clock, so we just have to shut up, take up our crosses and follow Jesus.

Now I don’t mean to place the whole of our salvation or spiritual life in terms of an attitude one might find on the streets of New York.  My counsel here is only for slackers and complainers and fainthearted fellows like me.  But there may just be something of the whiner in each of us, something that wants the easy way, wants life to be comfortable and fulfilling and not too disagreeable, let alone painful, anguished, or utterly exhausting.  But we don’t get to choose our crosses, we only get to choose Him who was crucified on the Cross, for He is the only Way to salvation.  Once we have chosen to follow Him, He takes over, and most of the rest is out of our hands, except the reiterated “yes” to all He sends or permits.  So if we’re going to grow up to salvation, we have to be prepared for trials and hardships.  Milk is good for babies, but the time comes for us to endure vegetables and all manner of tasteless, unsatisfying things, while we are simultaneously weaned from the sweet and rich things that have fueled our passions and addictions for so long.

Ultimately, Heaven is all that matters.  Toward that luminous land we must walk with perseverance, listening all the while to those bracing, saving words: “Deny yourself, grow up, shut up, take up your cross and follow Me!”

Consider Him

There’s a reason for all the admonitions and encouragements in the twelfth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Chapter 12 begins with a look back to the “cloud of witnesses” described in the previous chapter—those who persevered in faith even before hearing the Good News of the Incarnation and Resurrection.  While not having “received what was promised,” they still somehow had “seen it and greeted it from afar” (11:13).  But we have a better reason to hope.  It’s Him.

christoncrossAfter the first exhortation to lay aside our sins and “run with perseverance the race set before us,” the author of this epistle tells us to look to Jesus, who endured the Cross for us.  Then it gives us the key to our running with perseverance.  “Consider him…”  What about Him?  He “endured from sinners such hostility against himself.”  This consideration is enjoined “so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”

This section of this epistle is perhaps one of the most explicit instances of the Scripture calling us to imitate Christ.  It gives us good reason for this, and even a mild reproach, for the author is well acquainted with the weakness of human nature and perhaps also with the complaints of some of the faithful.  He reminds them, as he asks them to consider Him who suffered for them: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”  This gives us some indication as to how deep the struggle must go, and how little we may have thus far engaged in it.

Another reminder: “Have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons?”  This exhortation is a quotation from the Book of Proverbs: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him.  For the Lord disciplines Him whom he loves and scourges every son whom he receives.”  Jesus Himself corroborates this message when He says to St John in a revelation: “Those whom I love I reprove and chasten” (Rev. 3:19).  It must be that I don’t sufficiently “consider Him,” for I sure do “lose courage when [I am] punished by him”!  But I must remind myself that He does this to those whom He loves, pruning the vine, as it were, to get it to produce more and better fruit.

So when we are “scourged” by God, it must be regarded as paternal discipline.  The author of Hebrews explains all this in some detail, for he is aware that “discipline seems painful rather than pleasant.”  But its purpose is this: “it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

This is not merely a theory of spiritual life or an excuse for its demands.  Remember, we are to consider Jesus in all of this, so that we do not grow weary of suffering and struggle.  Jesus was “punished” and “scourged” too, though not for any sin of his own, but for ours.  Yet He accepted this “discipline” of the Father so that his example of obedience would be perfect.  Earlier in this same epistle we read: “He learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8).  God was “treating him as a son” (12:7), so we must also accept God’s discipline if we do not wish to be considered bastards (Greek nothoi, 12:8) in the eyes of God.  Those who are to be his legitimate children must accept the house rules, so to speak, and receive the necessary (and sometime painful) training that will make them fit for the responsibilities of faithful discipleship.

So then, “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees… so that what is lame… may be healed.”  He really does know human nature (it may in fact be our lame excuses that need to be healed as much as any other infirmity!) We are often prone to weariness and discouragement, but the Scripture is trying to get us to see that the struggle is necessary if we are to obtain the reward.  It’s not a matter of indifference whether or not we give it our all: “Strive for… the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”  The author then launches into a terrifyingly eloquent description (vv. 18-29) of that to which we are called, and the glory of Him who calls, with the admonition: “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking… His voice then shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heavens’… For our God is a consuming fire.”  Therefore we are called to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.”

Perhaps in all our own personal struggles and sufferings and questionings we do not consider Jesus enough, do not realize what He accepted to suffer for us.  Perhaps we have forgotten that exhortation which addresses us as children who need to be corrected and disciplined by their Father.  Not many of us can say we have resisted sin to the point of shedding our blood.  So we have a long way to go.  But if we can accept in faith that divine discipline “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness,” and that our persevering endurance will, by the grace of God, bring us “to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,” there to be inserted into the ranks of “the spirits of just men made perfect,” it will all be shown to have been more than worthwhile.  To be “made perfect” is one of the themes of this epistle, and it doesn’t mean becoming immaculately flawless, but rather being made whole, fulfilling our reason of being, bringing to completion that which has begun in us, arriving at the goal for which God has created us.  The “discipline of the Lord” is an important element of our being “made perfect.”

Consider Him, then, and keep your eyes fixed on Him, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross.”  The joy is set before us, too.  So let us persevere, that we arrive at our goal, joining Him in the Heavenly Jerusalem.

What Happens

Practically everyone who is interested in living a spiritual life is also interested in knowing what God’s will is, and how to go about discovering it.  Well, don’t get all excited, I don’t have any original answers for you; I’m probably just as much in the dark as you are.  But whenever I hear something that might be even a little helpful, I generally pass it on.  Now “helpful” doesn’t necessarily mean that it will actually help achieve the objective, but it should at least help us know the score a little better.

The will of GodI’m sure if you do an internet search for discernment of God’s will, you’ll find all kinds of articles and books available on the subject.  The Jesuits traditionally are pretty good about this, since the discernment of spirits was one of the keys to St Ignatius’ spirituality and practical living of the Gospel.  A friend of mine, who is a Jesuit, told me something that an old, experienced Jesuit he knows said about discernment of God’s will: “You can read all the books you like on discernment, but the bottom line is that God’s will is what happens.  What actually does happen, that is God’s will.”

Now you may have a problem with this, and I may have a problem with this, but I still think there is some truth there.  The first objection, aside from it seeming to be a rather fatalist approach, would probably be that enormous evil atrocities have happened throughout history, and can these be God’s will, just because they in fact happened?  Well, yes and no.  God never directly wills evil, so He doesn’t sit around dreaming up genocides and horrible diseases.  The fact remains, however, that if God chose to exercise his full power to prevent some terrible thing from happening, the terrible thing simply wouldn’t happen.  And I’ll bet that should we be fortunate enough to arrive safely in Heaven, we’ll discover just what horrible things in fact didn’t happen, which would have if God hadn’t intervened to prevent them.

As far as I can see (which, admittedly, isn’t very far), there are three main reasons why God lets things happen, and hence why we can say, at least in a qualified sense, that what happens is God’s will.  You probably know them already.  The first is his respect for human freedom, which he created precisely to be free and which can only be such if He doesn’t meddle too much in our affairs (though we might heartily welcome a little divine meddling, given the usual results of being left to our own devices).  The second is his uncanny ability to draw good even from evil, and blessings even from disasters: the “you meant it for evil but God meant it for good” phenomenon (Gen. 50:20).  The third is related to the second (and perhaps to the first as well): the “big picture.”  The vicissitudes and even the horrors of this life somehow fit into the grand divine scheme of salvation history, the darkness and the light, the sorrow and the joy, the agony and the ecstasy.  You are I are nothing more than a blip on the screen of the whole of human history, and even though God knows and loves each of us individually, I can’t unfavorably judge the entire divine design simply because my life happens to be coming apart at the seams.  There’s a reason for what happens, and that reason is bound up with the will of God, whether directly or permissively (that is, simply allowing it for his own reasons).

There’s another element that I think affects our understanding of this inscrutable mystery: fear.  We might just be afraid that something bad is going to happen, and that this is going to somehow have to be attributed to God’s will, which tends to throw a wet blanket over our relationship with God.  It can be hard to cultivate a passionate love for someone who seems to be hurling sharp objects at you all the time.

We have to start, I think, with learning to trust that God is really with us whatever happens.  To trust God does not necessarily mean that we trust Him to make all our dreams come true or to keep all suffering far from us.  It means, more realistically, that God will not allow anything to happen to us that will inevitably result in the loss of our souls, that He will permit only things that somehow have a redeeming value, even if that value is not readily apparent to us when it happens, and that He is (despite appearances, as the case may be) working all things for our good, especially our ultimate good, which is our eternal salvation and happiness in Heaven.

I read something in a book by another Jesuit (though it is a quote from the philosopher John Macmurray), which, while it may not be entirely consoling, at least is true and hence ought to be helpful.  “All religion… is concerned to overcome fear.  We can distinguish real religion from unreal by contrasting their formulae for dealing with negative motivation.  The maxim of illusory religion runs: ‘Fear not; trust in God and he will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you’; that of real religion, on the contrary, is ‘Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of’” (from Persons in Relation, quoted in Finding God in All Things, by William A. Barry, SJ).

So relax, the things you fear probably are going to happen to you!  (At least that takes the suspense out of it.) But what happens to you happens within God’s will and providence, so it is nothing to fear.  I think that is a way of facing the hardships of life head-on, realizing that God isn’t some cosmic Sugar Daddy who is going make everything smooth and pleasurable for us, but a Father who will make sure that the hard lessons of life can be learned with great spiritual profit and growth toward genuine human and spiritual maturity.  The “bad” things that happen to us are meant to help form us in the image of Christ Crucified, and hence make us fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sometimes our efforts to “discern” God’s will might actually be subtle attempts to control God’s will, or at least to find the most palatable facsimile of it, that is, to try to forestall the trials and sufferings and to keep far from us whatever we fear, “trusting” that God would never let anything painful happen to us.  So maybe, on the whole, it’s best simply to let things happen and to find God’s will in what actually does happen, and then try to respond with faith and love, giving Him the benefit of the doubt.  That doesn’t mean we are entirely passive, for we have to fight obvious evil when it encroaches upon our lives, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with seeking guidance when we’re at some confusing crossroad.  But let’s not say that God has nothing to do with either mundane events or tragic ones.  He does.  “Let it be done unto me…” said the Maiden of Nazareth.  In times of blessing and in times of trial, God is there, secretly working things for your ultimate good, preparing you for his Kingdom.  Let it happen.

The Word and Wisdom of the Cross

The word of the Cross is the power of God for us who are being saved.  Thus declares the Apostle Paul in the Epistle reading for this great feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (1Cor. 1:18-24).  Mycontemplate-cross task today is to preach to you the word of the Cross, that is, the message, the meaning of the mystery of the Cross by which Christ has redeemed the world.  This cannot even begin to be adequately accomplished in one homily, but perhaps I can at least present a few aspects of the mystery for further reflection.  Since the Cross is so central and essential to the meaning of Christianity, we should reflect upon it as often and as deeply as we can.

First of all, we are immediately confronted with the paradox that the Cross—the instrument of the torture and execution of the Son of God, to which He was fastened by nails and exposed to the reviling of those who hated Him—is the “power of God.”  We might wonder what kind of God manifests his power in such a way, for St Paul says of Christ: “He was crucified in weakness” (2Cor. 13:4).  Indeed, what kind of God?  It can only be the kind of God who so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that all who believe in Him might not perish but have everlasting life.  He is a God whose power is perfected in weakness, as Jesus told St Paul.

The Apostle tells the Corinthians that by means of the Cross, God destroys the wisdom of the wise and thwarts the cleverness of the clever.  It is not genuine wisdom that God destroys, however, but only the sophistries of the worldly-wise, those who rely on their own intelligence rather than submit to the revelation of God.  In their eyes, explains the Apostle, something like the Cross can only be foolishness, precisely because Christ was crucified in weakness, and because the instrument of death is exalted as a fountain of life and salvation.  Yet Paul is not deterred by the incredulity and the arrogance of those who reject the Lord.  “We preach Christ crucified,” he maintains, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles,” but this same Christ is the “power of God and the wisdom of God.”

We should not pass over quickly the mystery of the Cross as the power of God simply by saying that shortly after Jesus died He rose again, thus manifesting his power over death.  That, of course, is true, but we have also to see—especially on this day in which we exalt the Cross—how the power of God is manifested in the very thing in which Jesus’ weakness came to its full expression.  One can hardly seem more helpless than when one is fastened to a cross.

As we know, the greatest power in God is the power of love.  It takes more strength and courage to love one’s enemies than to destroy them.  God did not send his Son to condemn his enemies but to forgive and save them.  We know that this will not be complete without a freely-willed acceptance on the part of those whom He came to save, but for now let us focus on God’s initiative.

The power of love is not a coercive, threatening, or dominating power.  So already we might be wondering if the word “power” should be used at all.  But “power” doesn’t only mean force; it also refers simply to the ability to get something done.  So the power of love accomplishes something, but it does so without force.  It does it rather by invitation, by example, and by sacrifice.  Jesus was not unaware of where love, which by its very nature makes one vulnerable, would take Him; He knew it would take Him to the Cross.  He said explicitly that He had come to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many (Mk. 10:45).  And he knew how his love would be repaid by those who refused to believe in Him and to respond to his love in kind.

But He loved anyway.  This is the word of the Cross and the power of the Cross.  This is the wisdom of God that is folly to the world.  The weakness and the vulnerability of love are stronger than the brute force of hatred and arrogance. The power of the love of God was released through the self-surrender of Christ, so that his sacrifice acquired sufficient power to take away the sins of the whole world, bringing pardon and reconciliation with God to all who would receive it.  If Jesus used power in the way the world regards power, He could have destroyed all his enemies on the spot.  But what would have been the result?  A bunch of destroyed enemies.  This would not have saved the world; this would not have forgiven sin; this would not have reconciled us with the Father. It was only by Christ bearing in his own flesh the violence and evil of the whole world, bearing it willingly and out of love, that the ultimate weakness was transformed into the ultimate power, that the deepest humiliation was transformed into the highest glory.

St John was just as aware of all this as St Paul was.  That’s why when he speaks of Jesus’ glorification, he begins with the Cross instead of the Resurrection.  That’s why he made sure to record in his Passion narrative something none of the others did—Pilate’s words to the crowd (and to us) when He brought Jesus out, crowned with thorns and covered with bleeding wounds from the scourging: “Behold, your King!”  He is not our King only because He rose from the dead.  He is our King because He loved his own to the end and laid down his life freely for us.  John is also the one who tells us that Jesus, who knew whence He came and where He was going, knew also what was the essence of the New Covenant and when it was completed—for He said as He died: “It is finished.”

The New Covenant—this is also the word of the Cross and the power of the Cross.  Jesus said at the Last Supper: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”  This is God’s part of the covenant, the divine initiative, the expression of his sacrificial love.  This is the folly of the Cross that is the wisdom of God.  Jesus’ obedience unto death, death on the Cross, destroys the wisdom of the wise and thwarts the cleverness of the clever.  In the process, it provides eternal life for those who abandon the ways of the world and embrace the vulnerability of love.  It also provides the means for our continuing communion in the mystery of the Lord’s sacrifice.  We eat and drink the price of our redemption as we partake of the sacrificed Body and Blood of Christ at every Divine Liturgy.  It is Christ, both slain and risen, whom we receive, in the power of his sacrificial love and in his victory over sin and death.  All this is his gift to us, the One who did not cling to his divine glory but who emptied Himself and took the form of a servant and went to the Cross as a ransom for the many, proving that the power of love is stronger than hatred, stronger than pride, stronger than brute force, stronger than death.

One of our Communion verses, taken from the psalms, is: “I will take up the chalice of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”  In this same psalm we read: “How can I repay the Lord for all the good He has done to me?”  Perhaps that can be a kind of a theme song for us as we celebrate this feast.  For as we contemplate the mystery of God’s ineffable love for us, the lengths Christ went to forgive our sins and prepare our return to Paradise, we can only marvel and wonder how we can ever repay Him.

I hope to begin to repay Him by worshiping Him in joy and thanksgiving for all eternity, but I’m not there yet.  There’s much yet to be done in order to respond to this wondrous divine initiative, to fulfill our part in the covenant between God and man that Christ has inaugurated at the Last Supper and sealed in his blood shed on the Cross.

Of course, the first thing that is required is to believe in Him whom the Father has sent.  I wrote yesterday about what that faith entails.  So we know we have to live what we believe, put our faith into practice.  We come to church to express our faith through worship and communion with the Lord.  Then we must go on living in the mystery of the New Covenant.  We must give flesh, as it were, to the word of the Cross, manifest its wisdom and power in our daily lives.

We have to let the Cross deal with our sin; we have to be willing to give it up, let the power of Jesus’ love heal and deliver and reconcile us, even if it means our entering into the vulnerability and pain that are inevitable in the process of our purification and preparation for the Kingdom of Heaven.  St Paul said in yesterday’s epistle, meant to help us prepare for this feast (but which I didn’t manage to squeeze into yesterday’s homily), that by the Cross we are crucified to the world and the world is crucified to us.

In light of this, I discovered something interesting in Gerald May’s insightful book entitled Addiction and Grace.  (You don’t have to be an alcoholic or drug addict to benefit from this, for we all tend to engage in various types of habitual behaviors that are at least potentially harmful and keep us from living fully the life of grace and love to which God calls us.)  The author says that all addictions begin with attachments, and what I found interesting is that he explained the etymology of the word “attach.”  To attach is literally to nail to something.  He then explained attachments as nailing or fastening the power of our desire to some object to which we eventually become addicted.  So when Paul talks about being crucified to the world, we can say that we are thus nailing the power of our worldly or sinful desires to the Cross.  We ought to become attached to Christ in the mystery of the Cross rather than to anything else that would draw the desire of our hearts away from Him.

Let us, then, as we exalt the Cross on this day, attach our attachments to the Cross, for this is why Christ accepted to be crucified.  Since He allowed Himself to be attached, that is, nailed to the Cross, our desires can be detached from idols, that we might serve the living God, leaving the ways of worldly wisdom and embracing the ways of divine love and truth.  Thus we will understand the word of the Cross and the power of God.  We will enter the paschal mystery of sacrificial love, and when we have at length fulfilled our role in the New Covenant, we too will say, “It is finished.”  And we will be eternally glad and grateful that we have preached—and lived—the mystery of Christ crucified: Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Not Perish but Live

We’re getting ready to celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, one of the major feasts of our liturgical year.  Since the mystery of the Cross is so central to our faith, the Church gives us several opportunities to celebrate and reflect upon its meaning.  So we have a Sunday before the feast of the Cross, the feast itself, and a Sunday after the feast, the readings of which are meant to help us more fully understand and appreciate what our Lord has done for us, and what He expects us to do in return.

This Sunday is the Sunday before the Cross, and in the Gospel (Jn. 3:13-17) the Church invites us to hear what Jesus has to say about what is really the heart of the mystery: God’s love for us and his invitation to us to believe in his only-begotten Son.

Before we talk of divine love and human faith, let us look at an analogy Jesus gives concerning the Cross, or, more precisely, a bit of Old Testament typology.  Toward the end of his discourse on baptism and the Holy Spirit, Jesus says the following to Nicodemus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

We shouldn’t think that an analogous relationship is being established between Christ and a serpent.  A serpent is more commonly considered to represent the devil and not the Lord.  There are two things, however, about the incident of Moses raising the serpent in the desert that do apply to Christ.  The first is expressed in the term “lifted up.”  In the Book of Numbers (21:4-9) the Israelites were still in the desert and were complaining about the lack of decent food and water, so the Lord sent “fiery serpents” among them, whose bite was lethal.  When the people repented and begged to be delivered from them, Moses prayed to the Lord, who then told him to make a bronze image of the serpent and set it upon a pole.  If anyone who was bitten so much as looked upon this mounted serpent, he would recover and live.

So the subject matter of the image itself is not the important thing.  If the people were being killed by bee stings, for example, Moses would have raised up a bronze bee.  The point is the raising up of the thing as the focus of the people’s attention.  In Jesus’ time, “lifting up” was a euphemism for crucifixion.  So Jesus is saying: Moses raised up a bronze serpent for the sake of the healing of the people, who were suffering as a punishment for their sins.  The Son of Man will be lifted up on the Cross for the salvation of the world, which is in danger of eternal punishment for its sins.  Further, the word “exalt” also means to lift or raise up, and by extension to honor or glorify.  So on the feast of the Cross, we exalt the One who was lifted up on the Cross for our salvation.  Still further, during Matins of the Feast, as we exalt the Lord and his Cross, we literally lift up an image of the Cross and hold it aloft, blessing the whole world with it from the four directions.  So Christ was lifted up on the Cross to die for our sins, and therefore we exalt Him in our worship, as we lift up the cross and bless the world.

But we’re not done yet.  The second thing that applies to Christ in the typology of “lifting up” is as follows. The Book of Wisdom has a little commentary on the incident in the desert concerning the snake bites and the bronze serpent (16:5-7).  Here the description becomes more theological and hence points more directly to Jesus and his Cross.  Instead of merely saying that looking upon the bronze serpent effected the healing of the snake bites, the author of the Book of Wisdom says two important things.  First, he calls the mounted serpent not a means of physical healing but a “sign of salvation.”  Then he clearly takes our focus off of the serpent and places it on God when he affirms that “he who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw, but by You, the Savior of all.”  Getting back to Jesus’ words, then, we see that the lifting up of the Son of Man upon the Cross is meant to be a sign of salvation, for whoever believes in him can have eternal life.

God_so_loved_the_worldHere we move into the most famous of all Gospel passages: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  All of what I’ve been saying, from the healing from snake bites to the lifting up of the Son of Man, takes its meaning from the mystery of the love of God for this poor, sinful world.  God so loved the world, says the Gospel, because He created it and everyone in it, and even though all had sinned, He wanted to make all things new and capable of sharing his everlasting joy. God had been giving “signs of salvation” from his first promise of a Redeemer to Adam and Eve as they were being ushered out of Eden, to the advent in the flesh of the Son of God Himself.  Everything that Christ said and did, right up to his agonizing lifting up on the Cross, has been a manifestation of the love of God, and an invitation to believe in Jesus and be saved.

Since believing in Jesus is the key to not perishing but having eternal life, we should look at the mystery of faith more closely.  What does it mean to believe in someone?  The term is often used in human relations, but when I say to someone, “I believe in you,” I’m not merely saying: “I believe you exist.”  That person might not be too impressed or honored by that assertion.  “Gee, thanks for acknowledging the obvious, but even my enemies can say that.  What do I mean to you?”

Believing in Christ means much more than believing that He exists.  He has to mean something to us.  When we say we believe in someone we are saying that he is trustworthy, reliable, wise, good, or otherwise worthy of what we personally “invest” in him.  In the best of situations, it also implies that we have some sort of personal involvement with the one whom we believe in.

It has to be that way with the Lord.  Believing He exists is only the very first small step, and it can’t really be called faith.  In the New Testament, the usual way of expressing faith in Christ in the original Greek is not to say that we believe in Him, but that we believe into Him (eis auton).  That “into” Him suggests some mutuality, personal engagement, even intimate communion.  So, in more modern parlance, it’s quite correct to say that we are really into Jesus!

This is why God, in his love for the world, sent his only Son: that we might believe in Him and enter into eternal life.  The clear implication here (which is made explicit a couple verses later) is that if we don’t believe in Him we will perish and never experience what God has prepared for those who love Him.  Sending his Son into the world is not just icing on the cake, a little extra gift so we could learn more about God. No, it was absolutely imperative and essential for our salvation that the Savior would come and be lifted up on the Cross as a sign of salvation, so we could believe in Him and live.

Now the final verse of this Gospel is one that is quite comforting, at least at first glance: “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  Before we get too complacent, however, we have to gain some more understanding.  It doesn’t say that because God sent the Son into the world, the world (or any part thereof) therefore cannot be condemned.  It does say that God sent the Son not for the purpose of condemning the world, but for the purpose of saving it.  The actual outcome depends to a large extent on whether the people of the world meet the condition laid down in the previous verse: believing in Jesus, so that they might not perish but rather have eternal life.

Many people, especially those who give only lip-service (if that) to the justice of God, and who tend not to believe in Hell but in universal salvation, often quote John 3:17—“God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” I don’t know if some of them are literally blind or if they are perhaps willfully blind, but they always stop short of, or skip over, the very next verse, which comes from the same source as the previous verse: “He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, for not believing in the name of the only Son of God” (3:18).

So then, our reading of 3:17 is correct: God sent his Son not for the purpose of condemnation—for if that were the case, all without exception would be irrevocably lost, because we’re already burdened with the consequences of original sin and our personal sins—but for the purpose of salvation.  But, whether any given individual is in fact saved or condemned depends on whether or not that individual personally responds to God’s grace, that is, his invitation to believe in his Son and have eternal life.  The Son came into this world with the offer of salvation, and by his death and resurrection He provided the means of salvation, the sine qua non of the very possibility of our entering the Kingdom of Heaven.  The rest is up to us.  We have to believe in Him whom the Father has sent, the One who, as He said in the beginning of the Gospel, descended from Heaven, so that He could ascend the Cross, lifted up as a Sign of Salvation, that we might believe in Him and exalt Him as Lord and Savior.

As we prepare for the full celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, let us reflect on the love of the Father, who gave his only Son to suffer and die for our sins.  Let us also examine ourselves as to what extent we really do put our faith in Christ, that is, the extent to which we are personally “into” Him, engaged with Him, living in intimate communion with Him.  For, as St James says, even the demons believe He exists and know who He is, but that’s obviously not enough for salvation.  Faith isn’t complete without love.  It is love that takes us beyond mere belief and into a personal union with the Lord.  In gratitude, then, for what the Father has done for us, let us exalt the Lord Jesus in genuine faith and love.  Thus we can be confident that we will not perish but will have everlasting life.

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