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

Archive for November, 2009

Love Makes Me Cry

A representative of Dutton Publishers graciously sent me a review copy of their new book entitled, Messenger: The Legacy of Mattie J.T. Stepanek and Heartsongs.  I got the immediate impression that there would be something special about the book as soon as I looked at it, because tears inexplicably came to my eyes.  I knew just a little of what it would be about, and the cover photo is touching, but that still doesn’t explain it.

The book is the remarkable story of Mattie Stepanek, whom you probably have heard of (but I hadn’t), the boy who became a messenger for world peace and a living testimony to the power of faith and the human spirit in overcoming enormous obstacles to living a full and productive life.  Mattie was the fourth of four children who all suffered and died from a rare disease called Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy.  He lived the longest, almost to 14, but his siblings died as infants or toddlers.  His mother Jeni, the author of the book, has the adult onset form of the same disease.

Mattie possessed extraordinary intelligence and depth of spirit, and he was writing and selling books of poetry even as a child (I think all of them made it to the New York Times best-seller list), and he became a sought-after public speaker and TV talk-show personality, both for his message of peace and his advocacy for the needs of the severely handicapped.  Yet despite his fame and remarkable accomplishments he remained an ordinary kid who liked his toys and who was a practical joker.  His own self-description, and how he wanted to be remembered, was as “a poet, a peacemaker, and a philosopher who played.” Yet he also knew what it meant to suffer deeply and to struggle just to stay alive.

There’s a kind of sub-theme in the book, which became for me the main theme, and this is where the tears came from—because love makes me cry.  This theme is the love between Mattie and his mother.  It seems that the main intention of the book is to give the world a greater insight into the life and thought and struggles of this exceptional boy, and to show how his extraordinary life has left a lasting legacy through his message of peace and his Heartsong poetry (one’s “heartsong,” according to Mattie, was one’s reason of being, that which is the inner source of one’s peace, happiness, and hope). “When I take God’s message and combine it with my own… that’s my reason for being—my Heartsong.”  His mother is Catholic and raised him in the faith, and that was the foundation of his life, the inspiration for his message, and his hope for eternal happiness.

For me, despite all the extraordinary things you will read about in the book, the most moving thing is the love of mother and son.  Without complaint, his mother made immense sacrifices for him (you have to keep reminding yourself as you read that she is in a wheelchair just as Mattie is, but without all the complicated life-support equipment he needed at every moment).  They were inseparable friends as well as mother and son, and they shared all the joys and sufferings, anxieties and hopes of life together.  We are granted entrance into the sanctuary of their relationship, the way they planned and spent their days, they way they dealt with poverty and then fame, with the fragility of a life that could disappear with barely a moment’s notice. There were many times when Mattie’s situation became critical and his life hung in the balance, and Jeni endured many sleepless nights at his side. It is difficult even to write about; there’s so much there.  You have to read the whole story (which is well-written and includes many photos) to get to know them both.  And when you do, you will not be able to restrain the tears when you read: “At 1:35 PM on June 22, 2004, I felt the last beat from my son’s heart.”

The story is a kind of pilgrimage through suffering to joy, through uncertainty to hope. It is a triumph of a noble spirit housed in a diminutive child’s disabled body, a life that wouldn’t give up until God decreed the moment of his departure to the place of eternal peace.

I heartily recommend the book, but in conscience I do have to point out two things that are not in harmony with the Catholic faith.  The first is a rather blithe dismissal of the teaching of the Bible concerning homosexuality (Mattie knew some “gay” people who, unbeknown to him, stuck a gay pride emblem on the back of his wheelchair; this was the occasion for bringing it up).  This takes up about a page and is never referred to again, and should not have survived the editing process.  The second is Jeni’s sterilization after Mattie’s birth.  Even though this act is one of the moral absolutes that cannot be made good by any circumstance, we can at least understand the anguish of her decision.  All her children were born with the fatal disease and died young from it, and all future children would, too.  She made the decision right after giving birth, in a state of anxiety and fear, so I’m sure she could easily be forgiven, and I trust that she is reconciled with God and the Church.  But a question must be asked: What if she had decided to be sterilized after her third child instead of the fourth?  Then Mattie would never have been born and the world would never have known his unique gifts and contributions to humanity.

I want to conclude this review, however, on a more joyful note.  The story is beyond merely “heartwarming,” though it is not calculated to be a tear-jerker in any melodramatic sense.  It’s just a powerful, true story, told by one who lived it and who loved heroically, beyond the ordinary call of maternal duty and care.  But if love makes you cry, you will cry.  You will love Mattie and his mom (who doesn’t hesitate to admit her own shortcomings) and will be inspired by what a child, hanging by a thread to life, could do, could give, could endure, could enjoy—and how he loved life, people, and God so much.

I’d like to finish with a few lines from a poem Mattie had written to his mother for Mother’s Day, which she never saw till after he died, but which expresses something of his heartsong in relation to her, his gratitude for her love which helped make him the little miracle he was.

For thirteen years, you’ve gently taught me,
You’ve celebrated life with me and brought me
Each strength and joy that a child could know,
All guided with love—a maternal rainbow.
It was God who made me to be who I am—
A messenger with Heartsongs to offer His lambs,
But then it was you who said ‘Yes’ to our Lord,
And chose my first gift—the chance to be born…
You shaped my being from God’s humble clay—
You led me, inspired me, with wisdom each day…
We’ve played and prayed through the storms and the good,
Together we’ve grown just as God knew we would.
And I am who I am, now, because of your touch—
And for that I am grateful, and I love you so much…

Let love make you cry.  Read about Mattie and his mom and the message.  It will enrich your humanity and perhaps even open your heart a little more to God, who stands ready to write a song upon it.

Eucharisto to Theo

Thanks be to God, it’s Thanksgiving Day!  This is the holiday on the civil calendar that has the closest connection to our liturgical feasts.  When St Paul says, “I give thanks to God,” it reads in Greek, Eucharisto to Theó, so already we see the connection with giving thanks in Thank-Godgeneral to giving thanks for the greatest of God’s gifts, that of the Body and Blood of his only-begotten Son, who gives Himself mystically and sacramentally to us in the Holy Eucharist, that we may abide in Him and He in us.

But as we liturgically give thanks, let us also look at the whole mystery of Thanksgiving in the context of today’s readings (1Tim. 6:6-11, 17-19 and Lk. 12:22-34).  St Paul begins with a statement that is a kind of truism, yet that most people seem routinely to ignore: “We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of the world.”  Besides the obvious truth of this fact, what does it mean?  It means that we are meant to see all things as gift.  If we can neither enter this world with what we need to live in it nor leave this world with what we have amassed in it, then we have to acknowledge that we depend ultimately on others, and especially on one Other, to provide for us.  If we learn to see all things as gift, then we will easier be able to give thanks.

The Apostle goes on to say that if we have food and clothing we ought to be content with these and not cultivate a desire for riches and superfluous possessions, for these things “plunge men into ruin and destruction,” as well as causing many to fall away from faith in God.  There’s a kind of simple logic here: if God provides you with all you really need, and if your desire for riches leads you to fall away from God, you will end up without God and without his gifts, being thus left with only your “senseless and hurtful desires.”  So the Apostle counsels us to trust in God for the necessities of life, and for the rest: “aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness.”  This echoes the message of the Gospel: seek the Kingdom of God and all that you need will be given you.

So we are to avoid the desire to have more than what God actually gives.  But God is not miserly, so we don’t have to resign ourselves to lives of deprivation, for the Apostle goes on to say that rather than trust in uncertain riches, we should trust in God, “who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy.”  It is perhaps another cliché that we should give our primary attention to the Giver and not merely the gift, but since this is the message of the Gospel, we still must strive daily to put it into practice.

Today’s Gospel reading is not only about Divine Providence, but about our trust in Providence, the laying aside of our anxieties, knowing that if we seek first the Kingdom the Lord will grant what we need to live this temporal life.  But it’s not always easy to trust in God, as the experience of many people (and perhaps at times even our own experience) shows.

There’s a story about trust and lack of trust that perhaps you’ve heard before, but it’s worth repeating, for it exposes our usual approach to trusting in God.  A man accidentally fell over the edge of a cliff and grabbed on to a protruding tree branch.  He was still hundreds of feet above the ground and was unable to pull himself back up to safety.  He wasn’t particularly devout, but people tend to think of God when in life-threatening situations.  So he called out in desperation: “Is there anyone out there?”  God answered and said, “I am here, and I will save you.”  The man said, “What do I have to do?”  God replied, “Let go of the branch and I will catch you.”  The man thought for a moment and then said: “Is there anyone else out there?”

God is ready, willing, and able to help us, but we aren’t always willing to let Him help us, on his terms.  We’d like to arrange for our security in a way that doesn’t involve much risk, but God asks us to take a risk when He requires our trust.  We’re supposed to be seeing life and all that is in it as God’s gift, for which we should be grateful, but the more we exclude God from the equation of our contentment, the less inclined we will be to give thanks, and the more inclined we will be to be anxious about what we need for this life.

The rich Thanksgiving dinner that is part of the usual celebration of this holiday in America is a symbol and expression of God’s bounty.  But we are not to rest in such things alone.  The Lord explicitly says in the Gospel, “Life is more than food,” more than clothing or any other material good.  We are called to give thanks for material blessings, but we are always to remember the “more than.”  Gratitude both presupposes and flows from trust.  It’s a virtuous circle.  So do not be anxious, says the Lord.  The “more than” is the Kingdom of God, which the Father graciously gives to those who put their trust in Him by seeking his Kingdom above all else.

There’s another side to the coin as well.  Even though trust and gratitude are essential elements in our relationship to God, especially in the context of all his bountiful gifts to us, they are not sufficient for the Christian life.  If one is truly seeking first the Kingdom of God, then gratitude and trust will be expressed in generosity to others.  As soon as Jesus tells us to seek the Kingdom, which the Father’s good pleasure desires to give us; as soon as He assures us that God will provide all we need, He says, “Sell your possessions and give alms”!  That’s really the risk of trust, but it is the message of the Gospel.  We aren’t allowed to sit back and say, “God is good; look at all this wealth He has granted me,” while Lazarus is outside starving at our gate.  “Freely you have received,” said Jesus to his disciples, “now freely give.”

Speaking of coins and freely giving, a little while back I recalled that many years ago someone had freely given us a gold coin.  I was “saving it for a rainy day,” and those storm clouds always seem to be approaching.  But I thought to myself, I have these uncertain riches set aside for an uncertain future, but families are starving today.  Why should I be sitting on a piece of gold when it could buy hundreds of pounds of food for the desperately needy?  So I did what Jesus said: I sold the gold and freely gave alms.  Maybe it’s good that I kept it this long, though, because I was able to sell that tiny coin for about a thousand dollars, so I gave a thousand dollars to the poor.

Not only does Jesus say that it is more important to seek the Kingdom than to pursue material security, He says (as an extension of this) that our treasure must be in Heaven, for where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.  Jesus wants our hearts to be in Heaven, that is, with Him where He is, but they won’t be there if the goods of this world are at the top of our list of priorities.  In further witness of this, the First Great Commandment enjoins us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength.

We heard recently the Gospel of the rich fool, who had his heart and his treasure on earth, in the abundance of his possessions, but the Lord warned us that not only did he miss the meaning of life, he also missed out on the eternal destiny for which God has created us, if only we will acknowledge the priority of his Kingdom and live accordingly.

So if our hearts are not wholly with God, there will be a certain ambivalence to this holiday.  We will see it as a celebration of earthly pleasure and bounty, and perhaps of a material security, which is actually a false security.  How many people who trusted in wealth and in their financial savvy lost most or all of it as the economy came tumbling down, and banks and brokers went out of business!  These are the “uncertain riches” that St Paul warns us about, and such is not what is meant to be celebrated on Thanksgiving.

We should begin by thanking God for his mighty works on our behalf, the greatest of which is his sending his Son into this world to bear our sins and die for us that we might be forgiven and find salvation.  Then we thank Him that we can daily enter into the grace of this saving mystery, eating and drinking the price of our redemption, as St Augustine said.  As we receive the Holy Eucharist, we should say with St Paul, Eucharisto to Theó, I give thanks to God.  The list of things for which we can give thanks goes on and on.  We should walk through our days awake and aware of all that God does for us, all that He gives us, all the things from which he saves and protects us, all the things He has prepared for those who love Him. We should also thank Him for the good that He brings out of things that don’t seem like gifts: the various trials and sufferings of our lives, for He allows nothing to happen to us without planning to bring good out of it, or to make of it an instruction for living more faithfully the life that belongs to those who seek first his Kingdom.

Then, once we are rooted in thanksgiving and trust, let us be generous to those who are in need, in whatever way it is possible for us.  We have many more material advantages than most people in the world, so we shouldn’t be stingy about parting with some of them for the sake of those who have so little.  But even if we are poor, we can give of ourselves to those around us.  Jesus said that we are to give alms from the things that are within.  We give alms through charity, through forgiveness, through a smile, through sacrificing some preference of ours for the sake of someone else.  If we really trust God and are really grateful to God, this trust and gratitude will be manifest in the way we regard and treat others, the joy and blessing we bring into the lives of others.

So let us enjoy the gifts of God and be eager to share with others.  Let us give thanks in the Eucharist and in all other ways.  Let us receive the Kingdom from our loving Father’s hand, having secured our treasure, and thus our hearts, in Heaven.

More on Trusting

There’s a little more I’d like to share on trust from Fr Williams’ book, Can God be Trusted? One of the things that is often a factor in our trust-jesusability (or lack thereof) to trust in God is whether or not we think He has let us down at times, especially at times when we most needed Him.

The problem seems to be that we don’t really know what we need, and so when we don’t receive what we think we need, we assume that God has let us down, didn’t come through for us.  But God doesn’t give us a stone when we ask for bread. In fact, He will only give us bread even when we (unwittingly) ask for a stone!  If we persevere in trust, despite the “evidence” of God letting us down, we will usually be able to see, at least in hindsight, that God was with us all along.  One of the interviewees the author quotes said: “There were times when I thought God let me down… When I look back I realize I felt a sense of anger toward God.  Yet now I see they were blessings and have made me the person I am today.”  The psalmist (Ps 118/119) says something similar: “It was good for me to be afflicted, to learn your statutes… Before I was afflicted I strayed, but now I keep Your word” (vv. 71, 67).

We may not be content with God’s timing, either, and so we may think his “delays” are due to his not loving or caring for us as we think He should.  But He will always prove, in one way or another, and perhaps only at the end, that everything He has done for us has been done at precisely the right time and in precisely the right way.

It may be a source of discouragement for us, and hence a reason for us to abandon trust, that God doesn’t give us what we ask for.  The author spends a couple chapters talking about what God has promised and what He has not promised.  There’s no sense in getting angry with God for not doing something that He never said He would do!  Among the things God has not promised are: perfect justice on earth, an explanation for his own actions, a problem-free existence, foreknowledge of life’s twists and turns, and warm, fuzzy feelings.  It’s likely that if we are tempted to lose trust in God, it is related somehow to one of these “nonpromises” of God.  We simply want things to be other than the way they are, and we get mad at God for not rearranging reality to suit our sensibilities.

The above things that God has not promised belong mainly to the “small picture,” when He really wants us to look at the big picture and realize that what He does promise is much more important, even eternally so, than what He doesn’t.  What God does promise, according to Fr Williams, are the following: He will always tell us the truth, He has always loved us and will never withdraw his love, He will give us everything we need to reach Heaven, He will ask of us only what we can give, He will be with us always, He will give meaning to our lives, He will be our final reward.  It’s clear that these promises are much more profound than the “nonpromises” we tend to expect or demand from Him.  God always has our best, that is, our eternal interests at heart, and so what He promises will always be in some way for the sake of our salvation and eternal happiness.  And in this we can trust.

It seems to me that much of our ability to trust in God hinges upon what we can trust in and what we can’t, that is, knowing what He has promised and what He hasn’t.  We can’t just blithely say, when desiring a certain gift from God or a certain favorable state of affairs: if I just trust God, He will give me what I ask for.  Remember, if from his perspective what you’re asking for is equivalent to a stone, then He will only give you bread, because that is what is best for you.  So we can’t always trust that God is going to grant all the particulars, which means that when He doesn’t, that is no reason to give up trusting in Him.  We trust Him for the things that really matter, the things that have eternal significance, the things that He has in fact promised. This doesn’t mean that He will not answer our prayers for smaller, temporal things, for He often does. But our trust in Him means that whether He does or not, we will not fall away but rather remain faithful to Him who promises eternal life to those who trust in Him.  A good example is found in the words of the three young men threatened with a fiery death if they did not worship the king’s idol: “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.  But even if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods…” (Dan. 3:17-18).

Their fidelity to God did not rest on his answering a particular prayer of theirs—even an urgent one!—but rather on the faithfulness of God Himself, who does as He wills, but always for the ultimate good of those who put their trust in Him.

So, the bottom line is: it’s worth it.  Trusting in God is all gain, despite what might have to be endured in the short term, and not trusting in God is all loss. Be it known, then, that come what may, we will not serve anyone (or anything, like our own desires, preferences, perspectives, comforts, or plans) but the true God, who loves us and has prepared marvelous and everlasting blessings for those who choose to believe in Him, trust in Him, and love Him to the end.

On Fools and Kingdoms

Today’s Gospel passage (Lk. 12:16-21) is a short parable, but it is situated in a context that covers most of chapter 12 in Luke’s Gospel.  We’ll try to understand it within that context.  I received a little help from a commentary I found in cyberspace by someone named Hampton Keithley IV, and I’ll incorporate a couple of his insights here and there in this homily.

This parable is commonly called the “Parable of the Rich Fool,” appropriately enough, since it is about a rich man whom God calls a fool.  Now God rarely calls anyone names (especially in the New Testament), so this man, or rather what this figure in the parable represents, must really have been worthy of reproach.

The occasion for telling this parable is given just before the selected reading of today’s Gospel.  Jesus had been teaching the people about relying on the Holy Spirit to speak through them when they were called to witness to Him before hostile authorities.  Some fellow, who was obviously concerned with other things besides Jesus’ teaching, then comes up with a non-sequitur: “Teacher, bid my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”  The only case in which an inheritance would need to be divided is that of the father’s death.  This son doesn’t seem to have been in a state of mourning, but he was doing what many heirs do when their parents die: contest the will and fight over the inheritance.

Jesus responds rather ironically: “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” In fact, Jesus would eventually be the Judge of this man’s immortal soul, but the man at this point seemed less concerned with the state of his soul than with the state of his finances.  Jesus this nightdidn’t come to settle disputes over material assets, so he did not fulfill the man’s request, but rather made use of the issue to tell a parable about the uselessness of riches to secure one’s true happiness.

He preceded it by saying: “Beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  People without money often think that money will buy happiness, and people with money often realize that it doesn’t.  The wealthy heiress Christina Onassis once said, “Happiness is not based on money, and the greatest proof of that is our family.”

So the Lord told a story to illustrate his teaching.  The land of a rich man produced such a plentiful crop that he couldn’t even store it.  We get the impression that the man’s wealth isolated him from the rest of society.  Important decisions in that time and culture were discussed at the city gate.  Major issues affecting any individual always had some effect on the wider community and so it was normal that the community would take part in the discussion.  But in the parable it says that the man reasoned with himself, consulting no others, not sharing either his dilemma or his abundance with anyone in his own community.  Having reasoned with himself, he came to his own conclusion, which benefited only himself: “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and all my goods.”

Notice that in reasoning with himself he never suggested to himself that perhaps he ought to give his excess to the poor, who don’t even have what they need to live on.  What he said to himself was this: “You have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.”

Too bad he only reasoned with himself and didn’t invite God into the discussion.  As we see in the parable, God invited Himself into the discussion and said to the rich man: “You fool!  This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  Here we return to the original setting of the parable.  A man had died, and the question on the lips of his heirs concerning his possessions was: Whose will they be?—meaning, they had better be mine!  But the goods were utterly useless to the man who died, and all that resulted was conflict and division over their distribution.

Jesus concluded the parable by saying: “So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich in the sight of God.”  This in turn provides the context for his famous teaching on the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, on not being anxious about food and clothing but instead seeking the Kingdom of God.  He ends up counseling the exact opposite of the rich man’s reasoning.  Instead of storing up possessions for a comfortable life on Earth, Jesus said sell your possessions and give alms, thus providing treasure in Heaven.

Let’s go back and see where the rich man went wrong.  He was guilty of three basic and grave errors.  The first was that he thought that an abundance of material goods would bring him happiness and contentment.  He was missing the point of the meaning of life and reduced it to earthly pleasures and the satisfaction of the senses, which also led him to a false sense of security when he did in fact enjoy all those things.

The second error was that he was concerned for no one but himself.  If he believed that happiness could come from wealth and possessions, why didn’t he think to make others happy by sharing the excess that he didn’t need?  Not only did he seek happiness in perishable things, he hoarded them all to himself so nobody else could benefit from them.

The third error was the worst one. He didn’t factor God, death, and the afterlife into his plans for happiness or into his understanding of the meaning of life.  He could have repented of his misdirected values and his selfishness, but once he died without God all his chances were lost.

All three of his errors are succinctly indicated in God’s words to him.  First: “This night your soul is required of you.” This refers to the greatest of his errors.  Everything is lost; suddenly the rich man becomes a poor man before God and has nothing to show for his life.  He completely missed the meaning of life and proved himself a fool for ignoring the wisdom of God and taking counsel only with himself. Next: “The things you have prepared…” This refers to the man’s belief that material things could make him happy, content, and secure.  The nature of this fragile and ephemeral life—along with the nature of material things, which cannot ultimately satisfy human nature with its innate longing for transcendence and immortality—proved what a lie he had fallen for.  And finally: “…whose will they be?” refers to his selfishness and refusal to share his goods with the poor.  He had a chance to do some good with his material wealth, but he hoarded it for himself instead.  Elsewhere Jesus actually counseled us to “make friends through unrighteous mammon.”  He knew that material goods cannot win salvation, but they can still help others in need and in this way serve the purposes of the Kingdom.  That’s why Jesus said to give alms so that our treasure would be in Heaven.  If our treasure is on Earth, what will become of us when the Lord says: “This night your soul is required of you”?

The rich man was trying to make for himself a kingdom, as it were, on Earth, made of wealth and possessions.  But in doing this for himself he got it all backwards, and he also didn’t understand about the true and eternal Kingdom.  In the extended context of this parable, Jesus says to those who would seek such things as the rich man did: “Fear not… for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”  The Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, the imperishable, incorruptible Kingdom, the Kingdom you never have to leave behind, the Kingdom that fulfills the meaning of life and in which alone is found true happiness and contentment.  But it’s a radically different Kingdom than what earthly-minded people envision.

First of all, we don’t have to build it ourselves.  It’s ready-made, and the Father simply wants to give it to us.  But in order to receive it, our hands have to be open and not clenching all manner of lesser things.  So in order to receive the Kingdom we have to sell our possessions (at last our superfluous ones) and allow our treasure to be in the Kingdom of Heaven, because our hearts have to be there too if we are to be able to receive it from the Father.

This Gospel and its entire context tell us what life should be like for those who wish to follow Jesus and receive the Kingdom from the hand of the Father. In the Epistle reading (Eph. 4:1-6), St Paul urges us to “lead a life worthy of the calling” which we have received from God.  The life and mindset of the rich fool are not worthy of the Christian calling.  That’s why the Lord refused to get involved in disputes over money, because they are not worthy of his call to discipleship, to take up the cross and follow Him to the Kingdom.  That’s why the Lord said to beware of all covetousness and to realize that life means much more than possessions.

As for us, we may not be wealthy and building big warehouses to store our possessions.  But we still have to pay attention to the “bottom line” of this parable.  The day will eventually come when the Lord says to us: “This night your soul is required of you.”  How then shall we stand before God?  What will we have to show for ourselves?  Will we be shown to have stored up treasure in Heaven through a charitable and self-sacrificing life and thus be rich in the eyes of God?  Or will we be shown to have thought only of ourselves, our comfort, our security, our insulated niche in life, our having things our own way, which constitute, in Jesus’ words, laying up treasure for ourselves?

Let us then not take counsel merely within ourselves, but let us consult the word of God and such people as can give us a perspective and insight we cannot achieve on our own. Original sin has made us all innately selfish, so we have to make a sustained effort to come out of ourselves and our narrow perspective, so that we can lead a life worthy of the call of the Gospel.

We’re a week into Advent now, so our minds and hearts should be looking toward the Kingdom that the Father wants to give to us, the Kingdom that is revealed in the person of Christ.  He has not come to solve our petty problems but to speak to us the word of life, to reveal the mysteries of the Kingdom, to show us how to walk the narrow but invigorating path to the fullness of life.

Let us then look toward the holy night—not only the night on which we celebrate the birth of Christ, but the night on which our souls shall be required of us.  Let us begin now to grow rich in grace and charity, that we may please the Father, whose good pleasure it is to give us the Kingdom.

Mary and the Mystery of Consecration

[The feast is actually on the 21st, but since I’m also preaching on the 22nd, I’m publishing this a day early, to get as much mileage out of it as I can!]

As we celebrate another solemn feast of the Mother of God, a feast that should be dear to all those who are consecrated to God, I would Entrance of the Mother of Godlike to reflect a bit on the person of Our Lady before going into the details of the particular mystery we are celebrating: her entrance (or presentation) in the Temple of God.

Mary of Nazareth is one of the most fascinating and attractive persons in the whole of human history.  The mystery of her person and unique mission has inspired endless devotion, love, works of art and music and literature for millions of people in all cultures and walks of life.  We might even say that she has captured the imagination of humanity as much as Christ Himself has, though we can only say this in a very specific sense.  I say this simply because we expect Christ—God-made-man come from Heaven to Earth—to be mysterious, incomprehensible, and infinitely fascinating.  But who is this woman so intimately associated with the divine mystery, playing an indispensable role in our salvation, yet coming not from Heaven but from Earth, a human creature like we are?  How is she so caught up in the mystery of God that well over a billion people in this world throw themselves at her feet in devotion and supplication?

We even have a liturgical text that literally asks the same question.  It goes like this: “Who is she?  Who is this woman so close to God in truth that she surpasses in dignity the orders of heavenly angels?  She is the only Mother who shone with the radiance of virginity, for she brought the Mighty One into the world.”

All of Mary’s mystery and glory and appeal come, of course, from her relationship to the God-Man, our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore all of her feast days in some way refer to her receiving the Son of God into her womb and giving birth to Him for our salvation.  Some people seem to consider Our Lady’s role as a merely temporary and utilitarian one.  If the Son of God wanted to be born as a man, he needed a human mother, so He chose one, and when the job was done He said, “Thank you very much,” and moved on to other things.  But this mystery deserves much more reflection and devotion than that.  God does not deal with us merely according to our usefulness for his plans.  He deals with us personally, lovingly, and He reserves rich rewards for all who cooperate freely with his will.

Mary is really the ultimate masterpiece of God’s human creations.  He envisioned her alone from all eternity as the one who would give flesh to God, who would give the Savior to the world in a unique, unprecedented, and unrepeatable manner.  This goes far beyond the Jewish hopes for the coming of the Messiah.  For all the superlatives lavished upon this prophesied figure, no one dared imagine that the Messiah would actually be the very same God who brought their ancestors out of Egypt, worked countless miracles and made a covenant with his people—and that God would incomprehensibly humble Himself to be born as a man from the flesh of a young Jewish woman, who was actually little more than a girl!  We’ll never be able to grasp or imagine what it must have been like for Mary to hold God in her womb and feel Him moving and growing as her own child.  But we should give this incredible mystery all the devotion and praise it deserves.

The Fathers of the Church, in their awestruck wonder at this profound and unique mystery, searched the Scriptures to see how God had foreshadowed it through the history of his chosen people, for if Christ is the eternal Word of God, then divine revelation, even in the Old Testament, had to speak of Him.  What we have in today’s Epistle reading (Heb. 9:1-7) are a few of the images the fathers used to speak allegorically of the mystery of Mary.  It’s all about the Holy of Holies, an appropriate image for the Mother of God, in whom God dwelled in a unique and utterly extraordinary way.

The reading begins with mention of an “earthly sanctuary.”  Our Lady is often called the sanctuary or temple of God, and that is especially appropriate for today’s feast of her entrance into the temple, and the liturgical hymnographers delight in saying things like, “Today the temple of God enters the temple of God.”  The reading from Hebrews goes on to describe the contents of the Holy of Holies. The main thing was the ark of the covenant, the specific locus of the presence of God within the temple.  Mary is often called the Ark of the New Covenant, for she herself was the locus of the presence of the Incarnate God as she carried Him in her womb.  Also there was the golden urn containing the manna.  Mary contained within herself Him who called Himself the Bread of Life, which He explicitly contrasted with the manna in the desert (Jn. 6:48-51).

Aaron’s rod that budded was taken by the fathers to refer to the virginal conception and birth.  And the tablets of the covenant, written in stone and given to Moses were another source of inspiration. There’s a beautiful text that says Mary is a scroll or a book upon whom the Word of God was written by the hand of the Father.  All of these are images and prefigurations of the mystery of the incarnation and hence of Mary’s role in it.

There is one more, and this indicates not only Mary as the Holy of Holies in which God dwelled, but her perpetual virginity as well.  The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that into the Holy of Holies only the high priest goes.  Elsewhere in the epistle Jesus is called the High Priest of the New Covenant.  So into the womb of Mary, chosen as the holiest dwelling of the Most High, only Christ went.  It is inconceivable that after God Himself passed bodily through the body of the Virgin, He would just tell her to get on with life, have many children and grow old in peace.  That would attribute to God that utilitarian attitude that has nothing to do with God as Love.  Rather, God would keep as a precious and inviolable treasure his Virgin Mother and allow her total consecration of body and soul to Him to bear abundant fruit for the life of the Church.

So now we finally come to this mystery of consecration which is essential to today’s feast.  The whole point of the narration of Mary’s entrance into the temple as a young child is that she had been consecrated to God from the very beginning of life.  We will see in a few weeks another of her feasts that makes it explicit that God did not go searching among girls of a certain age and place who might be suitable candidates for bearing his divine Son.  Mary was foreknown and chosen; she was created for this very thing and no other.

The details of the story of her entrance into the temple serve only to dramatize the essential mystery which in itself is something hidden and ineffable.  The story gives us a visual image of consecration to God, being set apart in a holy place for his service alone, for a specific mission chosen personally by God for this unique individual. In the common Gospel for feasts of Our Lady (Lk. 10:38-42; 11-27-28), we learn about hearing the word of God and keeping it.  Just because Mary was chosen from all eternity to be the Mother of God, and presented in the temple as an act of consecration to Him, we can’t assume that at the tender age of three she actually knew what her mission in life was to be.  But she went to the temple to hear the word of God, to be instructed in his ways, to learn how to love and serve Him.  When she was at length filled with the wisdom of the Holy Scriptures, and as the grace and love of God became very air she breathed, she was ready not only to hear the word of God but to do it.  And in her case that meant saying “yes” to the astounding annunciation of the incarnation of God, allowing the Word of God into her body as well as her soul, and then spending the rest of her life in loving surrender to the incredible living miracle that was at once her Son and her God.

As we contemplate the mystery of the Mother of God today, taking our place in the endless generations that call her blessed (see Lk. 1:42-49), let us revive our devotion, our wonder, and our love, and allow our eyes to be further opened to the reasons for her appeal, which has enkindled the hearts of poets and saints throughout the ages.  Let it all be an occasion for giving thanks to God, who so generously involves his beloved ones in his own mystery and mission, and who works all things for our joy and our salvation.

Let us also reflect on the profound grace of our own consecration to God, whether it is baptismal, monastic, or priestly (or, as the case may be, all three!).  For we have been set apart for God’s service.  As Jesus said, He has chosen us out of the world to be his disciples.  More than that, we are to be his dwelling places, his temples, as the Scriptures tell us.  Let us pray for the grace to live up to this awesome gift and mission, that we may be pure and holy temples of God, we who have entered this temple to worship Him.  That should be a sign, a dramatization of the inner mystery of consecration unto salvation.  Let us hear the word of God in our prayer and reading and worship, that we may do it in all the details of daily life.  Thus we can join the ranks of Mary’s devoted children, whom she unfailingly leads into that Holy of Holies which is the Heavenly Jerusalem, the fulfillment of all consecration and faithfulness, where God wipes away every tear and makes all things new.

Advent-Christmas Newsletter

SJV_Creche_lgOur Advent-Christmas newsletter is now available online.  In the Byzantine tradition, the “St Philip’s Fast,” which is the preparatory 40-day period before Christmas, begins on November 15.  So hurry, you’re already late!  You can access the newsletter by clicking here or on the newsletter link in the sidebar.  It should keep you busy for a few days.  Hopefully, along with what you read in the newsletter, I’ll have some reflections during this period to help you prepare spiritually for Christmas.

Downloading Righteousness

Reading Romans 3 a little while ago, I was confronted with the mystery of grace, of righteousness received by faith.  In a sense it almost seems too easy, and if one misunderstands it, one might think there is very little we need to do in order to be saved.  I wonder sometimes if some of St Paul’s letters would have turned out a little differently if he were not embroiled in controversies about the Law, which perhaps prevented him from a more irenic reflection on the revelation of God because of the urgent need of a polemic on grace vs. “works of the law” (i.e., circumcision and other specifically Jewish practices not required of believers in Christ; see 3:28-29).  But we trust that the Scriptures are as God would have them, and we take it from there.

The righteousness of God is communicated to those who believe in Jesus Christ.  Since we all have sinned, says the Apostle, and hence have no right to this righteousness, we “are justified by his grace as a gift… to be received by faith.”  So we receive this gift by God’s graciousness and our faith, but why then does Paul soon warn those who have thus been justified not to sin lest they perish?  If we have received righteousness, aren’t we home free?  Some would say so, but Scripture doesn’t agree.

I’d like to beg your indulgence as I indulge in another computer analogy, since, as you know, I’ve had to be dealing a lot with them in recent weeks and so the terminology is on my mind.  All analogies are imperfect, but some can still help us with our understanding.  Most people are fairly conversant on basic computer terms, so here goes.

Let’s say my computer is sick unto death with some sort of system failure (this represents my soul, me, a sinner).  It can’t restore itself and so needs outside help.  I discover that there is a program available online that is designed to remedy the precise problem that is ailing my computer—and on top of that, it is a free download! (This is grace as free gift.)  So I’m all excited about this and at least am able to get online before my computer utterly perishes.  Putting my faith in the one who promises that this program will indeed fix what ails my computer, I download the file.  Great, the saving program is now mine (justification by faith)!  See, it’s right there on my computer desktop!

Why, then, does my computnun_on_computerer still have the same problem?  Why isn’t it fixed?  It’s because the free download (the gift of grace) has to be installed if it is to be effective.  I have to play my part by opening it up and going through the installation process, and following whatever instructions are given by the Manufacturer so that it will actually work as promised and heal the fatal system illness.  Even though the program is mine and has been freely given to me, if I don’t follow the instructions for actually applying the remedy, the computer is still as good as dead.  Faith without works, says the Bible, is dead (James 2:26)

St Paul says the same thing in a slightly different way when he gives us the most concise summary I’ve ever seen of what Christianity is: “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Faith is a gift, like the grace of justification, but it doesn’t work except through love, that is, through putting it into practice in the way we live our lives in relation to God and our neighbor.

If this were not so, then St Paul would not have to tell people, who had already been justified by faith, that there were still things that could keep them out of Heaven.  About these he said, “I warn you… that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21; see also 1Cor. 6:9-10).  Such people have downloaded the file which is designed to fix the corrupted computer, but they haven’t installed it; they haven’t followed the user’s guide for applying the fix!

St Paul says similar things (though somehow he never thought of a computer analogy, despite the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—or perhaps because of it!) in Romans 6-8.  He’s writing to people who have already been justified by faith and who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. He still has to urge them not to sin, not to yield to temptations; he has to remind them that sin can still lead to eternal death, but the gift they have received is meant to lead them to eternal life.  There is still a war going on, and choices still have to be made.  “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (8:6).

It’s always important to take things in the proper context, and to see the writings of a particular biblical author (and even of Scripture as such) as a unity, so that certain teachings aren’t overemphasized at the expense of others.

So, yes, grace is a free and unearned gift, justification comes from the mercy and generosity of God and is received by faith, and the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.  But the gift will achieve its intended result only if we do the will of the Father, if our faith works through love, if we avoid what is evil and cling to what is good.

Download righteousness, then, for it’s free and will save your system from the scrap heap.  But don’t forget to install it, and be sure to follow the instructions.  Then your faith working through love will keep everything running smoothly until the time comes for the Ultimate Upgrade into the Kingdom of Heaven—where you will never hear another computer analogy again!

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