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

Archive for February, 2010

He Knows his Sheep and his Sheep Know Him

We have arrived at the second Sunday of Lent, and hopefully by now we are well into the work of repentance that Lent requires.  I’m doing something a little different on this Sunday.  Usually if I preach on this Sunday my task is to give yet another homily on the healing of the paralytic, which comes up all too often in the liturgical year.  To spare myself that difficulty, we have read in addition to that Gospel the one that is prescribed for the saint who is celebrated every year on the second Sunday of Lent, Gregory Palamas.  The Gospel prescribed for his feast is the common for bishops (Jn. 10:9-16), which is the Good Shepherd reading from the Gospel of John.  I often have to preach about the paralytic, but rarely do I have the opportunity to preach on the Good Shepherd, since it doesn’t usually occur on Sundays, so I thought I’d make use of that opportunity today.

I think the mystery of Christ as the Good Shepherd is appropriate for Lent, perhaps even more so than the mystery of his healing the paralytic. Let’s try to see why. There are actually two main images of the Good Shepherd in the Gospels, even though John is the only one actually to use that term. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus doesn’t explicitly call Himself a shepherd at all, but rather tells a parable in which it becomes clear that He is in fact the shepherd of his flock.

There the image is of a shepherd who goes out in search of the lost sheep.  This is quite an appropriate Lenten image, since we can all identify with a lost sheep, due to our sins.  I would hope that none of us is so filled with pride as to think he or she is safely among the righteous who need no repentance.  Our consolation and our confidence therefore are not based on our own goodness or faithfulness but on the mercy of Jesus, who comes looking for us when we inevitably stray from his word and end up lost in the wilderness of sin and selfishness.  When He finds the lost sheep He returns rejoicing, and He says the angels of Heaven rejoice with Him. We too ought to rejoice when we discover that the Lord has been searching for us, and thus our return should be something like that of the prodigal son: aware of our sins and unworthiness, yet glad and grateful to be received back into the Father’s house.

When we look at the image of the Good Shepherd in John’s Gospel, we see it is more powerful still.  Here the shepherd is described not as one who goes in search of his sheep, but one who lays down his life for his sheep.  Here our Lenten journey already looks ahead to the Passion of Jesus.  This aspect of the Good Shepherd goes beyond that of one who simply searches for his lost sheep, for it manifests the fullness of his love.  “Greater love has no man,” Jesus would later say, “than that he lay down his life for his friends.”  Here we also see that Jesus considers his flock to be his friends, not merely the objects of his responsibility.

Let us see what else Jesus has to say about Himself in the Gospel of the Good Shepherd.  He first of all establishes the intimate relationship He has with his flock. There are three ways He expresses this.  First of all, Jesus says that He calls his own sheep by name.  This is a way of saying that He knows them personally and that He has special regard for them.  When Moses begged the Lord to help him lead his people, God responded by saying: “This very thing that you have spoken I will do; for you have found favor in my sight and I know you by name” (Ex. 33:17).  So that is where we start: Jesus knows us by name, we are special to Him; He calls us by name, as the Gospel says, and leads us as a shepherd his sheep.

The next expression of his relationship with his flock is that they follow Him because they recognize his voice.  So it is not only that He knows his sheep by name; He is well enough known by his sheep that they recognize his voice.  They don’t follow strangers, because they don’t recognize the voice of strangers.  That is, we are able to distinguish good from evil because we can tell the counsels of the Lord from the temptations of the devil.  We don’t follow the voice of the tempter, because we know he hates us and intends to harm us.  But we follow the voice of the Good Shepherd because we know He loves us and intends to do only good to us.

The final expression of the Shepherd’s relationship to us is the most simple and intimate: “I know my own and my own know me.” This is related to the language of mutual abiding that we find often expressed in the Gospel of John: “Abide in me and I in you.” In biblical language, this is the deepest meaning of knowing and being known.  Eternal life itself is expressed by Jesus in terms of knowing the Father and the Son (see Jn. 17:3).

So Jesus calls us by name and leads us, and we follow because we recognize his voice, and this is because we know Him and He knows us.  The fruit of all this is that Jesus loved his sheep enough to lay down his life for them.

But why did He need to lay down his life for us?  It’s because there is an enemy threatening the flock. The enemy is first characterized as a thief, whose intention is to steal, kill, and destroy.  Jesus’ intention is just the opposite.  He came to give life, and give it abundantly.  The enemy is then likened to a wolf, who snatches whatever sheep he can and through his ferocity scatters the rest of the flock.  Since Jesus is the Good Shepherd and not a hireling who runs away at the first sight of danger, He fights to the death to save his flock.

Jesus’ characterization of the enemy as first a thief and then a wolf gives us some indication as to the identity and the tactics of the devil.  The image of the thief is what we might first encounter.  The thief is slick and deceptive and does not let on as to what his real intentions are, for he wants to catch us off guard and rob us while we’re not paying attention.  He robs us of virtue and destroys the life of our souls.  But once we have either unmasked him or simply succumbed to his deceptions, his true nature is manifested.  He doesn’t need to play the con man anymore; he is just a ferocious beast, and when he no longer needs his finesse, he just goes straight for the kill.  But the Good Shepherd is there to protect us and fight for us, if we will choose to stand with Him and not succumb to the wolf out of weakness or fear.  This moment is the one in which we most need to recognize the Master’s voice, and to take refuge in the fact that we know Him and He knows us.

This Gospel is read for the feast days of holy bishops because they are called to do for their flocks what Christ does for his.  This is not an easy task, as anyone who has ever attempted to lead others knows all too well. It has been said that it is impossible to get sheep to walk single file; they will resist all your efforts to get them to follow in any sort of orderly fashion. Each wants to go his own way. You’re lucky if you can get them to walk more or less in the same direction.  This is what individual leaders of small flocks have to contend with, and what the Leader of the universal flock has to contend with.  But the Lord will give life to whoever chooses to follow Him, all those who recognize his voice and refuse to follow the soul-snatching thieves and wolves.

The bishops who have become saints have done so because they were faithful in imitating the Chief Shepherd and cooperating with his grace.  But there’s a deeper reason still: their personal love for Jesus.  If they were not first sheep who knew Jesus and recognized his voice and followed Him, they could not be shepherds of others. Jesus showed us this when he commissioned his very first and primary shepherd, St Peter.  Jesus had first to draw from Peter his threefold profession of love, and only then did He say, “Feed my sheep.”  Note too that Jesus made it clear that they were his sheep, not Peter’s.  Peter was a shepherd, but only as a delegate of the one true and Good Shepherd.

So how shall we benefit from the message of this Gospel as we continue with our Lenten efforts?  The first thing we have to establish is the quality of our relationship with the Good Shepherd.  Are we able to recognize his voice as He calls us by name, and do we follow Him? Or do we carelessly follow the voice of strangers who try to deceive us into doing things not consistent with the word of the Master?  He knows us, but do we know Him—and how well do we know Him?  He has laid down his life for us; do we know and love Him well enough to lay down our lives for Him?  We might say, sure, I would die for Him, just make it quick and painless.  But it’s easier to die for Him than it is to live for Him. That is because living for Jesus requires a daily dying to sin and to all that is suggested by the voice of strangers and thieves. Day after day, year after year; it’s not easy. It requires making a constant choice to do what our vocation demands, and not just taking the easy way or rationalizing to ourselves that we are in fact among the righteous who don’t wander away.

Following the Good Shepherd is safe and secure, but it is not easy.  If we are not constantly listening for his voice we will be deceived by other voices, and there are plenty of other voices out there.

So let us stay close to Jesus.  We have the words of the Scriptures, the teachings of the Church and her sacraments.  We have the spiritual means of prayer and fasting to purify our hearts so that we can more easily recognize the Master’s voice.  Jesus loved us enough to die for us.  Let us love Him enough to live for Him.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  The only way to do this is to have it in Him. For Jesus said that He alone is the door to the sheepfold, that is, the only way to Heaven.  If we enter by Him, we will be saved.  Safe in the hand of the Good Shepherd, no thief will deceive or rob us, no wolf will snatch or devour us, but there will be one flock of the blessed, one Shepherd, one Spirit of truth and love and joy, to the eternal glory of God the Father.

Just Admit It (Part 2)

Perhaps the spiritual counterpart (in its ultimate manifestation) to the one who manifests “malignant narcissism” is the one who is “perfectly possessed” by the devil.  This concept is briefly treated in Malachi Martin’s harrowing collection of accounts of actual exorcisms, Hostage to the Devil.  Unlike most of those who are possessed, and who retain some control of their own will, even if only sporadically—they can still cry out for help—the perfectly possessed have wholly given their wills over to evil and hence are under total control of the devil.  They are beyond violent or dramatic reactions to holy things or prayers of exorcism.  You can throw holy water on them or bless them with a crucifix and they will give you a cold, blank stare, or perhaps a contemptuous sneer.  They cannot repent.  They will not repent. Only an extraordinary and direct divine intervention can save them.  They are “people of the lie” in its complete and total expression.

After this little excursus into psychology and demonology, let us return to the rank and file sinner, who has perhaps lost the sense of sin or at least the fear of any real consequence of sin.  “Deep in his heart the sinner hears the whispering of evil, and loses sight of the fear of God; flatters himself with the thought that his misdoings go undiscovered, earn no reproof” (Psalm 35/36:2-3).  The first half of that quote is a concise expression of the essence of the dynamic of temptation and sin. Unfortunately, the lack of good catechesis over the past few decades, along with the reluctance of many priests to hear confessions or to give the straight truth about sin and its consequences, have contributed greatly to this loss of the awareness of sin and hence of the practice of repentance.

I’m focusing a lot on sin and repentance here, and traditional Christians tend to be accused of focusing too much on these “negative” aspects of life (sometimes rightly).  The focus on sin should be brief and to the point, so it can be quickly rid of for the sake of enjoying the life of grace and peace that Christ died to give us.  But if you don’t deal seriously and effectively with sin, then all the rest becomes corrupt or superficial or distorted. We cannot serve two masters; if we do not repent of sin, we cannot be accepted as servants of the Lord.

We have first to train ourselves to recognize and admit—humbly, clearly, and without excuses—our sins, and then walk away liberated!  The process of self-deception, of finger-pointing, of avoiding the issues, of making excuses, of creating a righteous persona while not dealing with the “dead men’s bones” within us (see Mt. 23:27-28), will only turn us into “people of the lie,” and if this becomes habitual, we will have a very difficult time ever returning to the light of truth and grace and love.  The attention to sin can be brief and precise, but the practice of repentance is ongoing, for it is a way of life—the Christian way, the way that consists of continually turning more completely, more faithfully, more permanently to God.

So the program is simple: recognize your sin, then simply admit it (to yourself and to God), confess it in the presence of a priest and receive absolution, enter into the freedom of the children of God, and then do whatever it takes to maintain your standing in his grace and peace.

The liturgical texts of the Byzantine Churches help us shear away all hypocrisy, self-justification, and beating around the bush—by simply getting right to the point without making excuses.  For example, this text from Vespers: “O my God, I now confess before You all the sins which I have committed against You in thought, word, and deed!  For I have wasted all the time of this whole day and, filled with sin, I have come to the beginning of this night.  Thus I bow down before You, crying out: ‘O my Lord and Savior, I have sinned against You!  Grant me forgiveness and save me!”  That is the kind of prayer God readily hears, the kind of person He readily forgives, for this prayer is from the heart and filled with true compunction.  It’s an honest admission and a sincere cry for help. As for the “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach to morality, no mercy is forthcoming for that.

God has so much to give us, such rich grace to lavish upon us, such joy and peace to impart to us, but He must withhold it because of our lack of repentance and efforts to return to Him.  The fatted calf was ready for the prodigal son’s return, but if he never came to his senses and repented of his sin before God and his father, the celebration never would have happened.  The lost would not have been found; the dead would not have come back to life.

So God says to the sinners who still refuse to repent: “Hear, O my people, while I admonish you… if you would but listen to me! …I am the Lord your God… open your mouth wide and I will fill it.  But my people did not listen to my voice… O that my people would listen to me [and] walk in my ways!  …I would feed you with the finest of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (Ps. 80/81:9-17).  The Lord wants to do good to us.  In one of our liturgical texts He is described as the One “whose delight it is to bestow gifts upon us.”  But we have to be capable of receiving his gifts, and we will not have this capacity without repentance.  God will do everything short of removing our freedom, but He cannot do that without at the same time destroying his image in us, and that He will not do.

The sweetness and the fire of divine love await us.  The riches of the Kingdom of Heaven stand ready to be granted to us.  The divine indwelling is one act of repentance and absolution away.  What are you waiting for?  Do not deceive yourself.  If you do not take repentance seriously you are not living in the Holy Spirit, even if you fancy that you are, due to some vague spiritual feelings or to being deceived by “enlightened” teachers who tell you that sin is an outdated concept and that God would never send anyone to Hell.  Well, they may be right about that last part, but God may have to stand by as you send yourself to Hell, when you at last see what your soul looks like in the pure, searching Light of divine truth. At that moment you’re quite clear on where you have to go, and you’ll need no one to send you there!  You’ll fly there yourself as fast as you possibly can, to escape “the face of Him who is seated on the throne” (Rev. 6:15-17), whose infinitely tender love you have scorned through perseverance in sin, and whom you now cannot bear to look upon for a moment, because of the dreadful anguish and shame which all eternity will be insufficient to erase.  Then you’ll have endless ages to say: “If only I had just admitted my sin!  I could have been happy forever!”

I hope for better things for you and for me, but Heaven doesn’t come automatically.  We have to have the capacity to receive it.  We all have sinned.  Just admit it.  Turn to Him who is always turned toward you and whose delight it is to bestow gifts upon you.  Then there will be rejoicing among the angels and saints in Heaven, and the object of their rejoicing will be you!  So much blessing and bliss await us, if only we will abandon our ignorance, pride, or that bitter satisfaction of holding on to our grudges or pet vices just to assert our narcissistic autonomy.  Autonomy from God is slavery to the devil.  Choose repentance and choose eternal life!

Just Admit It (Part 1)

I’ve had a lot to say about repentance in the past, and ‘tis the season to say a little more.  Since repentance is one of the essential elements of the Christian life, it’s hard to exhaust all that can be said about it.  We already know that repentance is more than just feeling sorry for our sins, and more than just words of remorse or confession.  We also know that it is about changing one’s way of thinking and living, embracing a new direction that is more perfectly focused on God, his commandments, his invitation to holiness, his loving-kindness and mercy.

But there is more still.  Repentance is not just about us, our sins, and the direction of our inner lives.  Repentance is about God, too, and about his response to our response to his invitation!  We perhaps aren’t sufficiently aware of what it means to God that we repent of our sins and change our lives.  Perhaps we also aren’t aware of how impatiently (if I can use that term in God’s case) He waits for us simply to recognize our guilt, admit it, and enter into the joy of our Lord.

You have probably read in the Gospels that there is great joy in Heaven over the repentance of a single sinner.  We aren’t given an indication as to just how God rejoices over a repentant sinner (except perhaps for the image of the banquet celebrated by the Father of the prodigal son).  But how about this: “Rejoice and exult with all your heart… The Lord has taken away the judgments against you… The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more… the Lord your God is in your midst… He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will renew you in his love; He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. ‘I will remove disaster from you [says the Lord], so that you will not bear reproach for it… I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown… when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,’ says the Lord” (Zephaniah 3:14-20).  That is how the Lord feels about your repentance; that is how glad it will make Him to make you glad!  He rejoices over us with “loud singing” when we return to Him.  Did you ever think of God’s joyful voice echoing throughout the universe and commanding the stars to dance just because you repented of your sins?

Before we get too ecstatic, however, we need a little sober reflection. We have to realize that sin is the one and only obstacle to our eternal happiness.  And it is a major obstacle, the obstacle, the one that can forever plunge an immortal soul into the suffocating pit of black fire and endless howls of hatred, where all joy has fled and where the bitterest of sorrow and pain flood every soul with the sickening awareness that all is now irrevocably lost.  Christ descended into netherworld of the dead when He bore all our sins upon Himself, so that we wouldn’t inevitably have to reap the bitter harvest of our wrongdoing.  He bore the weight of sin and death and thus disarmed them, so that we would find the way out of our wickedness and all its consequences and be safely delivered into the Kingdom of light and joy.

Between the endless rejoicing and jubilant celebrations of the citizens of Heaven, and the crushing, painful despair of the damned in Hell, stands repentance.  That is what decides which will be our everlasting abode.  Therefore it is critical that we embrace it without delay, and the Lord anxiously sends us his grace and his angels to help us see what we desperately need to see.  For He deeply desires that we end up on the side of joy.

Why, then, are people so slow to repent, so reluctant even to admit they’ve done anything wrong?  Pride is often at the root of it, or unbelief, but perhaps there’s simply a lot of ignorance about life—that is, about God, faith, sin, virtue, Heaven, Hell, etc.  People are spiritually sleepwalking, absent-mindedly humming the tunes of the pied pipers of progressivism, with dulled consciences and egocentric myopia—all fruits of the general falling away from faith and the Church, of the uncritical acceptance of the default secular world-view.  It’s not as easy as one might hope to get people to admit their sins, turn to God for forgiveness and healing, and be set on a course for eternal life.

I have occasionally noticed a curious phenomenon in the confessional: people refuse to admit their sins even there!  There is the fairly common avoidance technique of confessing other people’s sins, I suppose as the justification for their negative reactions to them, but the confession ends up being a kind of protracted self-defense. I’m not surprised at all if nothing subsequently changes in their lives, because they haven’t really repented and opened themselves up to the grace needed for humility and the necessary practical changes.  Others seem to have such a poorly developed conscience that they are unable to recognize their sins.  If they haven’t committed murder or grand larceny, they think all is fine.  Sometimes I’ve asked people if they regularly go to confession, and I’ve occasionally heard this: “But why should I?  I don’t do anything wrong!”  Yet the saints have gone to confession weekly or daily.  Imagine, practically everyone today is holier than the saints!

With others the problem seems to go deeper.  Sometimes people have some sort of inner blockage as far as recognizing and admitting their own sins.  They make excuses for themselves; they say (in effect) that the devil made them do it, and they end up giving this impression: some unfortunate things happened, but it wasn’t their fault.  Sometimes I’ve really had to wrestle with them (if I would give them absolution), to enable them to admit they were personally guilty of something and not just the innocent victims of endless circumstances beyond their control.  But alas, they would sometimes still walk away untouched by grace, for they had not repented of their sins.  It seems that perhaps there is some deep-rooted psychological fear that prevents them from explicitly admitting that they have committed sin.

The psychological dimension of sin has been treated in some detail in M. Scott Peck’s fascinating study, People of the Lie.  He is a Christian psychiatrist, and he conducted a study of the mystery of evil from a psychological perspective.  It is clear that such a study cannot exhaust the universal and complex reality of human sin, but it does offer some helpful insights.  I will quote a bit from the book here, describing a few essential elements of a profile of the “people of the lie.”  They are usually highly egocentric and will go to great lengths to protect their polished external self-image, yet they live in terror of being exposed for who they really are.  But little by little, lie by lie, they begin to believe their own deceptions until it becomes a complete self-deception from which only a miracle can liberate them.  They are (unfortunately) often found among religious people, because religion provides a façade of respectability, and they will strike out viciously at anyone who dares pierce the veneer of their sham righteousness.

You will see from the following quotes why it is very difficult (and tragically so) for such people to repent:

“The central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it… As life often threatens their image of self-perfection, they are often busily engaged in hating and destroying that life—usually in the name of righteousness… [their] behavior is totally dictated by an extreme form of self-protectiveness which invariably sacrifices others rather than themselves… The essential component of evil is not the absence of a sense of sin or imperfection but the unwillingness to tolerate that sense.  At one and the same time, the evil are aware of their evil and desperately trying to avoid the awareness… they are continually engaged in sweeping the evidence of their evil under the rug of their own consciousness… We become evil by attempting to hide from ourselves… Evil may be recognized by its very disguise… We see the smile that hides the hatred, the smooth and oily manner that masks the fury… The disguise is usually impenetrable… they are likely to exert themselves more than most in their continuing effort to obtain and maintain an image of high respectability…

“Malignant narcissism [that is how the author describes sin] is characterized by an unsubmitted will… In the conflict between their guilt and their will, it is the guilt that must go and the will that must win…They are men…of obviously strong will, determined to have their own way. There is a remarkable power in the manner in which they attempt to control others… The highly narcissistic (evil) individual will strike out to destroy whoever challenges his or her self-image of perfection…”

To be continued…

Structured for Sacrifice (Part 2)

There are many daily sacrifices that can be offered, which are not directed specifically toward the needs of a loved one.  We are expected, for example, to sacrifice our own bad habits or attitudes, for the sake of our spiritual growth as well as for spreading blessings around us.  There’s a particular pinch to self-denial here, for we may not see much concrete result, as we might if we were serving others in a more explicit or material way.  We only experience the unpleasantness of “going against the grain” of our habitual self-indulgence.  Yet grace is at work here as well, and we must persevere in faith, not expecting immediate rewards for every sacrifice we offer.  We don’t want to find that we are “already repaid” (Mt. 6:2-6; 16-18), when it comes time to step up and receive eternal rewards!

It is a traditional Catholic spiritual practice to “offer up” the various and inevitable setbacks, disappointments, sufferings, sorrows, etc, of life as so many sacrifices to God, for our own spiritual benefit or as a kind of intercessory offering for others.  The Pope briefly mentions this in his encyclical Spe Salvi, and he encourages Catholics to renew the practice.  It’s not mere resignation to simply offer up our sufferings or penances, as if this were only a last resort to salvage something good from them. It is truly a positive and grace-bringing activity, uniting us to Jesus’ great sacrifice and thus adding immense value to our little ones.  In the end, we may discover that the real meaning and value in our lives was not the things we accomplished in our efforts to change the world or better the human condition, but simply in the faithful and trusting offering of the sacrifices that each day brought, for that is an ongoing act of fidelity to God’s will, a “yes” that, once given, was never taken back.

We may still need some encouragement, however, some framework for a perspective that helps us to live a sacrificial life, so we don’t end up just grudgingly offering occasional sacrifices out of a sense of duty or obligation.  Perhaps, then, we should first realize that nothing in this world is “owed” to us, but all is a gift from God.  If all has been first freely given to us, then it shouldn’t be so hard to give some of it back, when that is required.  “What do you have that you have not received?  If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1Cor. 4:7).  If we see all as gift, then not only is boasting excluded but also possessiveness, and if one is free from possessiveness, one is free to give, to offer a joyful sacrifice.  In the long run, we can’t hold on to anything anyway, so we might as well begin now to learn how to give and to share, how to let go.  For in the end we have to let go of everything but our immortal souls and the relationship to God that we have cultivated—or not—in this life.  And how shall we face God after spending a life of selfishly clinging to things we must leave behind?  An attorney for a very wealthy man was once asked, after the man died, how much he had left behind.  The attorney wisely answered: “All of it.”

To live a sacrificial life is to acknowledge our fundamental poverty, our status as pilgrims.  We can deny ourselves here—for the good of others and for our own spiritual progress—because we know that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the City which is to come” (Heb. 13:14).  Because this is so, we are exhorted: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (v. 16).  Despite the disdain that is often expressed toward Christians who look to Heaven as their true and ultimate fulfillment—and who thus are willing to suffer patiently the hardships and even injustices of life in a sacrificial spirit—this is of the essence of Christianity.  Christianity without the hope of Heaven is just a better way to live in a meaningless world, but the end result of our lives would be no different than that of any evildoer.  “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable of men” (1Cor. 15:19).

There are a few more things we can do in order to acquire the inner dispositions that will make offering sacrifices easier.  The first is to deny lust in all its forms, particularly the lust for pleasure, possessions, power, or prestige.  If we are ruled by desire for these things (and this is what most advertising intends to accomplish in us), then the notion of sacrifice will seem abhorrent, restricting, senseless.  Let go of lust, and freedom returns—freedom to do good for others and to develop one’s own capacity for generosity, charity, and service.  If we try to draw all things to ourselves like some magnet or black hole we will be burdened with the dead weight of useless attachments, but if we sacrificially give ourselves for others, we will be like the sun, gradually spending ourselves while shedding light and warmth all around.

We should also try to develop a sense of gratitude to God for all things, so that any sacrifice will seem to be a gift from our abundance, even if we do not really have much to give.  We may be poor, but we will enrich many; we may have nothing, but we will possess everything (2Cor. 6:10).  Gratitude, like the mortification of lust, gives us a sense of freedom, a sense of confidence in God, so that making sacrifices comes easier, and we’re not too interested in tallying our losses.  Grateful people are joyful people, and joyful people are more willing than others to make sacrifices.  They will be the ones who bear the most spiritual fruit from them—thus further increasing their joy and gratitude!

Another virtue to develop is humility.  This is part of what underlies the perspective that all is gift and nothing is owed to us.  Pride makes us tight-fisted—not only in the material sense of refusing to give to the needy, but in the spiritual sense of refusing to let down our defenses, refusing to admit our need for repentance and self-denial.  No one wants to sacrifice his own cherished vices, grudges, opinions, etc.  “The line dividing good and evil runs through the human heart,” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “and who wants to cut out a piece of his own heart?”  Yet the humble person knows his own weaknesses, knows what sacrifices need to be offered if he is to grow in the likeness of his Lord.  It is to Jesus we must turn.  “Learn from me,” He said, “for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt. 11:29).  A humble person has no pretensions; he is willing to pay the cost of discipleship, to live a sacrificial life in imitation and in union with Him who loved us and gave Himself for us (Gal. 2:20).

Finally we return to love.  Love and sacrifice are inseparable.  Each is more pure and genuine in the presence of the other.  Sacrifices are authentic and fruitful only when offered in love, and love is true only when it embraces the element of sacrifice. Even unbelievers may be able to make the sacrifices love requires on a human level.  But our love and our sacrifice are infinitely enriched when we unite them to the ultimate sacrifice of love which was the crucifixion of Christ, which He voluntarily offered so that our sins might be forgiven and we might share with Him the everlasting joy of his heavenly Paradise.   Let us learn from Him not only humility, but love and the meaning of sacrifice.  Take it to prayer and contemplation.  Sacrifice is something we ignore only at our peril, for to refuse to sacrifice is to refuse to love; it is to refuse to enter the divine mystery of Cross and Resurrection.

So let us not look at Lenten sacrifices piecemeal, forcing ourselves to give up this or that for 40 days.  Let us make of our lives a sacrifice of praise to God, which includes all of our efforts at charity, self-denial, spiritual growth, and whatever it takes to be faithful to Him who loved us first and who did not hesitate to sacrifice his own life for us.  We were made for this—we are structured for sacrifice—because we were made for eternal life.

Structured for Sacrifice (Part 1)

[For the next week or so I’ll be publishing articles here on Lenten themes which were previously published in our monastery newsletter a few years ago, but not on this blog.  I’m having to take care of some other business around here which leaves me little time for the blog, so hopefully these will provide a bit of food for thought until I can get back to blogging.]

Monks are supposed to live lives of prayer and sacrifice.  Christians in general are expected to offer “spiritual sacrifices” of various kinds (see 1Peter 2:5 and Hebrews 13:15-16).  This is primarily because love cannot be genuine without a sacrificial dimension, and Christians are supposed to be known by their love.  Here we are in the time of Lent, a season set aside for penitential practices, for the recovery of the sacrificial dimension of life.  But what, really, is sacrifice, and how should it be an integral part of Christian life?

Sacrifice, in a religious context, has a long history, and I don’t intend to go into the details of it here.  Suffice it to say that practically all religions throughout history utilized some form of sacrifice as part of their ritual worship.  Usually these were animal sacrifices, and they were generally offered to honor, thank, appease, or seek help from God (or the gods).  We may think today, and rightly so, that slaughtering animals (let alone humans) on an altar is not a particularly fine way to honor God, but that assessment does not negate the value of sacrifice as such.  Rather than focus on the various types of sacrifice which were historically offered to God, I will here simply try to get at the underlying meaning of it, so its application in our own lives may be clear, and that the value of it may be more easily grasped.

When used outside of a strictly ritual context, the idea of sacrifice usually tends to have negative connotations.  A sacrifice is somehow painful; it represents a loss or deprivation of some kind; it means self-denial or the acceptance of some humanly undesirable circumstance or condition.  There is some truth in all that, but that is not the essence of it, and that is not why sacrifices are offered.

The term “sacrifice” literally means “sacred action,” so this should be our starting point for reflection.  Such a sacred action originally had a ritual context, so let us begin with that and look for some organic development toward the sacred actions required of Christians today.  When God asked the Israelites to offer animal sacrifices to Him, this doesn’t mean that He was somehow pleased with bloody slaughters and dead animals.  The livestock of the people were among their most valuable possessions, something they needed for food and clothing and trade.

Therefore a sacrifice is an offering of something valuable to God as a way of affirming that God Himself is more valuable than anything else.  In order to make that a little more clear, God expected that the best of the flocks would be offered to Him.  Here we begin to see how the term “sacrifice” (the sacred ritual action of offering) began to acquire the connotation of loss or self-denial.  What is offered to God is lost to oneself, especially if the sacrifice is a holocaust, that is, a whole-burnt offering.  There were some forms of sacrifice, however, in which the offering was not destroyed but given in part to the priest who offered it and then shared as a sacrificial meal among those who brought the gift for sacrifice.

As is clear from the Letter to the Hebrews, all Old Testament sacrifices were provisional.  They were only foreshadowings or prophecies pointing to the one Sacrifice in which all the meaning and all the power of sacrifice was brought to perfection and eternal fulfillment—the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross, by which the Lamb of God took away the sins of the world.  Jesus offered to the Father in Himself the whole human race, and “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live for righteousness” (1Peter 2:24).  Every righteous sacrifice before this was fulfilled in it, and every sacrifice after it must draw its efficacy from it, if it is to be acceptable to God.

This same Sacrifice of Christ is perpetually present in the Church through the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, which is the source of our sanctification, to which we ought to have constant recourse.  The Old Testament sacrifices to which this most closely corresponds are those in which a meal follows, in which the sacrifice is eaten by the priest and those who offered the gift.  But the grace of the one Sacrifice of Christ which is substantially present in every Holy Eucharist is of a wholly different character and efficacy than anything ever offered in Old Testament times.  Christ is now risen from the dead and can communicate the saving grace of his death and resurrection to all people of all times and places, especially if they would embrace the fullness of the Faith and come to share in the Eucharistic anticipation of the heavenly wedding feast of the Lamb.

My intention here, however, is not to reflect upon the Eucharistic sacrifice, but rather on the meaning of sacrifice as such in our daily lives, the “sacred actions” that should be an essential part of any Christian life.  Sacrifices are offerings, and our lives are meant to be self-offerings to God—with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.

I came across an interesting remark in a collection of aphorisms by Hans Urs von Balthasar (The Grain of Wheat), which stimulated my reflection on this topic.  He said: “Our existence, in its very foundations, is structured for sacrifice.”  He doesn’t go into detail to explain what he means, except to say that despite all our ambitions and efforts, in the end life “takes from our hands everything we have snatched up.”  Then we have the possibility to offer our own death as a sacrifice to God, in union with the death of Jesus, instead of uselessly raging against our inevitable demise.

What can we learn from the fact that we are “structured for sacrifice”?  Does this mean that we are not “built for comfort” after all, but are rather programmed for pain?  Perhaps it may seem that way at times, but that is not the intention (at least the original one) of our God, who is Love.  We are structured for sacrifice primarily because we are structured for love, for self-giving, but the further we are from a true understanding and practice of love (and hence the further we are from God), the more will sacrifice seem like suffering than like the most fruitful mode of being human.

Because love and sacrifice are so intimately related, sacrifices are not really “losses” for Christians, even though they involve some sort of self-denial or “giving up”.  We open ourselves to grace and spiritual growth as we offer sacrifices for the good of others out of love.  We may offer time, energy, money or other goods in order to serve the poor or others who are in some need.  In sacrificing these things we receive even more in return.  When the Philippians made a sacrificial gift to meet the needs of St Paul, he made the same point: “Not that I seek the gift; but I seek the fruit which increases to your credit” (Phil. 4:17).  He even referred to the gift specifically as a sacrifice: “…the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”  And their reward?  “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (vv. 18-19).  So there is a fruit which increases to our credit as we part with our possessions or offer our time and labors as a sacrifice for the good of others, out of love for God and neighbor.  God in turn will grant us “riches in glory in Christ Jesus”—if not entirely in this age, then certainly in the age to come, when it really matters, for that age lasts forever.

Anyone who has performed demanding “labors of love” for spouses, children, parents, or friends, knows the meaning of sacrifice, knows what it costs.  But love is willing to pay the price, knowing, however obscurely, that “our existence [as human beings created in the image of God], in its very foundations, is structured for sacrifice.”  Such a person also knows that to refuse to make such personal sacrifices is to make, unwittingly, quite a wretched sacrifice, that is, the sacrifice of one’s human dignity and nobility, sacrificing the very image of God on the altar of selfishness and comfortable insulation from the demands of love.

To be continued…

Great Lent in the Byzantine Tradition

[I wrote this short piece a couple years ago for someone who did not publish it, so I thought I’d submit it to someone who would be sure to publish it—the august editor of the famous Word Incarnate blog! I’ve mentioned from time to time some of the Lenten practices of our tradition, but I don’t think I’ve ever published a concise summary such as the following.  If you’re of the Latin Rite, perhaps you’ll wish to give thanks that you don’t have to do all this stuff—or maybe you’ll wish you could!]

The time of preparation for Pascha is called “Great Lent” in the Byzantine tradition.  Sometimes lesser fasts are also called “lents” (e.g. Advent is sometimes called the “Christmas Lent”).  But this one is “great” not only because it prepares the Feast of Feasts, but also because it is the longest and strictest in terms of fasting.  Not only are meat and dairy products forbidden for the whole of Lent, one cannot even eat fish! (Except for shellfish; evidently since they are not vertebrates they are not considered “animals.”  I guess they’re more like bugs, which must be acceptable because John the Baptist ate bugs, and he was no slouch.)  Exceptions for any sort of fish are the Feast of Annunciation, Palm Sunday, and Great and Holy Thursday.

In the first week of Lent we are met with some of the longest Offices of the season (perhaps so that the other Lenten services, which are also longer than usual, will seem moderate by comparison—a bit of ascetical psychology there).  At Great Compline on the first four days of the week we sing a portion of the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete (everything seems to be “great” during Great Lent!), a long penitential service with many prostrations.  This canon will be sung in its entirety on Thursday of the fifth week at Matins, during which we also read the entire life of St Mary of Egypt, a model of repentance and ascetical life.  That service lasts a good four hours (probably longer in some places).

On the Sundays of Lent we celebrate the Liturgy of St Basil the Great—it’s longer than that of St John Chrysostom, but the prayers of the priest, especially from the Great Entrance to the end of the Liturgy, are profoundly beautiful—reflecting on the mysteries of salvation history as well as of the priesthood.  The first Sunday is a general celebration of the triumph of the true faith over heresies, the specific event being the definitive restoration (in 843) of the veneration of the holy icons, an imperial confirmation of the canons of the Seventh Ecumenical Council.  Other Sundays are given to honoring certain saints who shone forth in the ascetical or mystical life, but the middle Sunday, the third, is set aside for the veneration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.  It’s sort of a mid-Lent reminder (in case you are having a mid-Lent crisis!) that our destination is the death and resurrection of Christ, and we draw strength to persevere unto the end as the mystery of the Cross is placed before us.

The Divine Liturgy is traditionally not celebrated on weekdays of Lent, but on Wednesdays and Fridays the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts is served (in some places it is celebrated Monday through Friday).  It is a way of emphasizing the ascetical nature of Lenten weekdays and the Paschal character of every Sunday.  This Liturgy is basically Vespers with a Communion service.  The Eucharist is consecrated on the previous Sunday and reserved for distribution during the week.  As usual for Lenten services, there are many prostrations, unlike our Sunday or Feast-day liturgies.  The Feast of the Annunciation usually occurs during Lent, and while it is a great feast, it is celebrated with what we might call a somewhat muted exuberance—if it falls on a weekday, anyway—with the Divine Liturgy being celebrated in conjunction with Vespers.

The most frequently repeated prayer during Lent is the Prayer of St Ephrem, which is done at all the weekday liturgical services in the following way: “O Lord and Master of my life, dispel from me the spirit of discouragement and slothfulness, ambition and vain talk (prostration); but rather grant to me, Your servant, the spirit of purity and lowliness, of patience and brotherly love (prostration); O Lord and King, make me aware of my own faults, and not to judge my brother, for You are blessed both now and forever.  Amen” (prostration).  Then: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner and have pity on me” (12 times, with a deep bow each time).  Then we say the whole prayer again, with another prostration at the end.  Tends to humble the soul and keep the body limber as well!

Lent is also a time for extra prayers for the deceased.  During the liturgical year we have five “Saturdays of the Dead” (roughly akin to All Souls’ Day in the West), three of which occur during Lent (and another about a week before).  Long Offices and memorial services for the faithful departed are offered on these days.  Perhaps after a few weeks of fasting and prostrations we feel as if we’ll likely join them soon!

One aspect of Byzantine Lenten worship will perhaps sound strange to Western ears: we do not suppress the “Alleluia” during Lent.  If anything, it is increased, replacing certain texts usually sung in ordinary time, added to the Communion prayer at the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, etc.  “Alleluia” is not considered a strictly resurrectional acclamation in the Byzantine tradition, but is simply used as a general expression of divine praise, according to its literal meaning: Praise the Lord!  We go on praising the Lord even during Lent, when perhaps we most need the encouragement of a few joyful acclamations—to balance the relentless penitential laments.

On the fifth Saturday of Lent we have a special day for the Mother of God, on which we sing the Akathist Hymn in her honor at Matins.  After that we are getting ready to go up to Jerusalem, and the liturgical texts of the sixth week open up the drama of the dying of Lazarus and the Lord’s coming to raise him from the dead.  Lent technically ends on Friday of the sixth week, which turns out to be the 40th day, even though the fasting continues through Great and Holy Saturday, and the services of the first part of Holy Week still have a Lenten character.  Holy Week is considered a liturgical entity unto itself.

Between the last Friday of Lent and Great and Holy Monday, we have a kind of festal interlude, with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.  Both are considered feast days, and bright vestments are worn.  Lazarus Saturday is a celebration of Christ’s power over death, as well as a kind of prefiguration of Christ’s own resurrection.  Palm Sunday is our opportunity to proclaim his triumph as He prepares to sacrifice his life for our salvation.

There’s more detail that can be added, but that is the Byzantine Great Lent in a nutshell.  Perhaps the Byzantine experience of Great Lent is the most arduous, demanding, and penitential among the Catholic traditions, but I daresay that its “grand finale” in Holy Pascha is probably the most glorious and exhilarating.  Perhaps the glory of Easter can only be fully experienced by those who have carried the cross during Lent.  Eastern Chrisitans are always noted for their embrace of the fullness—the fullness of suffering, the fullness of glory; the fullness of sorrow, the fullness of joy.

Homeward Bound

On this last Sunday before Lent, I’d like to begin this homily with a riddle that relates to the mystery of the day, to Lent, and to our spiritual lives in general.  It is this: What is it that we fervently pray for every day—even several times a day—but which, if God were to refuse to grant it, we would be extremely relieved and grateful?  The answer is: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  If God were to forgive us only in the shoddy, incomplete, conditional, and grudging way we forgive others, we would have very little hope for salvation, since without the forgiveness of our sins there is no salvation.  Yet the word of the Lord still stands, and we really have to make our very best effort to love as Jesus loves, and hence to forgive as Jesus forgives.

So the Church urges us to begin this holy season of Lent in a state of reconciliation: seeking forgiveness from others whom we have offended, and granting forgiveness to those who have offended us.  Yesterday in the Gospel we heard Jesus teaching us the Lord’s Prayer.  Today we hear his commentary on it, but He refers only to the petition concerning forgiveness.  He says: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  That’s about as clear as it gets, and there’s no room for any other interpretation.

In the Byzantine tradition today is called Forgiveness Sunday, because of this Gospel (Mt. 6:14-21) and the fact that when Lent begins tonight at Vespers we have a forgiveness ritual in which everyone prostrates before the others seeking and then granting forgiveness.  The various penitential practices of Lent will be fruitless if we go into this time holding a grudge against anyone or refusing to show mercy and patient endurance.

The reason God wants us to forgive as He forgives, and why he won’t forgive if we don’t forgive, is not merely because He’s operating on a very basic level of human justice: if you won’t forgive, neither will I, so there!  It is because He is trying to bring us up to his level of divine love: forgive, because it is right and good to forgive.  Be merciful, said Jesus, as your heavenly Father is merciful, for thus you will be children of the Most High.  That is the call and invitation, and if God thought we had any common sense or good will, He could have left it at that. But because He knows we are full of sin and selfishness, He has to add a negative incentive, which hopefully will get even the worst of us to begin to forgive.  Then when we grow enough to cease acting out of fear of retribution, we can forgive because we want to be merciful as our Father is merciful.

One of the reasons we should be willing to forgive is that we recognize that we share a common lot.  We are all sinners and in need of mercy; we are all exiles from Paradise and we have to help each other to make the return trip.  This is another aspect of the liturgical celebration of this day.  The theme of all the texts in Vespers and Matins is the fall of Adam and Eve and their banishment from the Garden of Eden, and the miserable legacy they left to the whole human race. “I am fallen,” laments Adam, over and over, as he sits outside the closed gates of Paradise, which are now guarded by the flaming swords of unyielding cherubim. Adam begs to be restored, to be called back, that is, to be forgiven and to come home to that which God had prepared for him in the first place.

To heighten this sense of exile, we sing at Matins the mournful and haunting verses of Psalm 136(137), beginning with: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, remembering Zion.”  It is a lament of the Israelites in exile from their beloved Jerusalem and hence in their eyes from the presence of God.  Now they are in a foreign land, conquered by a people of strange speech, strange customs, and strange gods.  Their captors taunted them with requests to sing some of the songs of their homeland, but they lamented all the more: “How could we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?”

This never fails to get me to reflect on my own exile from Paradise, my heavenly homeland.  Here I am in the middle of my 52nd year of exile, and I wonder why I’m still banished, still so far from Home.  It has been a long time, and not just my own life, but many generations preceding me.  I am an exile born of exiles by the rivers of Babylon.

Sometimes I think, when I see how much this world has turned away from God, how Christians are outnumbered and sometimes conquered by people with strange practices and strange gods: “How can I sing the song of the Lord in this alien land, this place of exile?”  If Heaven (like Jerusalem for the Israelites) is the source of my joy, how can I rejoice while I am cast out from her peace and blessing and rest?  The only possibility for this is in Him who came from Heaven to share in our exile and who promises to show us the way back.  His presence gives us hope, and St Paul tells us to rejoice in hope (Rom. 12:12).  But this world will always be a place of exile and hardship, a place to work by the sweat of our brow and to eat our bread in anxiety, for here, says the Bible, we have no lasting city. This is not our home.  Lent is a testimony to this, with all of its penitential lamentations and practices.  These are things that people do who are aware that they are in exile, and that their exile is due to their sins.

This is why the Church urges us to begin Lent in a spirit not only of repentance but of forgiveness.  We recognize that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God; we have all been exiled from Paradise.  So if we seek the forgiveness that will restore us to our heavenly home, we are commanded by God to offer that same forgiveness to others who are on the same journey, or who perhaps don’t even realize they are in exile and in need of mercy.  All the more should they be pitied and prayed for.

Between yesterday’s and today’s Gospel readings, we have covered the three traditional elements of Lenten practice: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Yesterday we heard about prayer and almsgiving, today about fasting.  In each of these Jesus tells us not to be like the Pharisees, whom He calls hypocrites, for they do their good deeds with an eye to be seen by others and praised for their righteousness.  These will receive no reward, says Jesus, from the heavenly Father, for they received their praise from other people.

The Pharisees are the ones who received the sharpest rebukes from the Lord.  Even the prostitutes and public sinners got off easier than the professional religious.  This brings me, at the beginning of Lent, to an additional lament: Woe is me, for I am a Pharisee!  I do exactly what Jesus said they do in one of his other reproaches.  I walk around in long robes, I make long prayers, I receive marks of respect—from some people, anyway—as a priest and monk, I sit at the head of the table, I get my living from the sacrificial offerings of others who mostly can’t afford it.  Mine, therefore, said Jesus, will be the greater condemnation. Sometimes I wish I had just gotten an honest job in the world and thus didn’t have to haul this huge burden of responsibility to the judgment seat of God!

Now before you all start thinking, “better him than me,” you should also be aware that it is not only monks and priests that are prime candidates for the greater condemnation. Anyone who has received the grace of God is responsible for it and will have to account for it, some more, some less, according to the gift, as we read in the parable of the talents.  To whom more is given, a stricter accounting will be required.

Perhaps that is why the Lord, and today the Church as well, emphasizes forgiveness so much.  Blessed are the merciful, said Jesus, for they shall obtain mercy.  Mercy is our only hope, and if it is only the merciful who will be kindly judged, then we must today start being merciful to others. Scripture says that “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13), so it seems to me that celebrating Forgiveness Sunday is the best way to begin confidently our return to Paradise from the land of exile.

If we’re going to be Pharisees, the very least we can do is abandon the pride of the Pharisees and not look down on others but rather be always willing to forgive.  The monks, I’m afraid, are going to continue going around in long robes and making long prayers and living off of the savings of widows.  But perhaps if we humble our hearts and are merciful to others, and as far as possible pray and do good in quiet and hidden ways, we might still receive a reward from our heavenly Father.  At least that is our hope.

This is why Jesus tells us to lay up treasure in Heaven and to take little thought for making our exile more comfortable.  The reason that so many people spend so much time and effort trying to make themselves happy and comfortable here and now is that they think they have already arrived.  They have lost their sense that they are far from home, that they have been made for another purpose, that the true life and happiness will only begin upon our homecoming, our return to Paradise, the gates of which are now opened because of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Therefore Jesus reminds us that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.  If our treasure and our hearts are in this wretched land of exile, then we’ll never even lift our eyes to Heaven, let alone spend our lives preparing for it. But we are called to be among those who recognize and rejoice in the fact that, as the Apostle says, our citizenship is in Heaven, and from there we await our Savior.

So as we wait, and as we enter into the penances and lamentations of Lent, joining our hearts and our prayers with fellow exiles all over the world, let us pray, fast, give alms, and live like people who know their true home is Somewhere Else.  The Father sees all in secret, and if we learn to be merciful as He is merciful, He will recognize us as his children.  And He will welcome us at last into that bright and joyful place for which He has lovingly created us, and which is open to all returning exiles.

Random Reflections on Matthew 7

Before we descend into Lent, I thought I’d offer a few random reflections on the seventh chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel.  This is another one of those cases in which I had read this chapter some months previously, had received some insights at the time, and made a note to do a blog post about it all someday.  Of course, when the day finally comes to write the darn thing, all the insights not written down are forgotten, and so things become a bit more random than they were first intended.  Anyway, let’s look at a few passages.  There’s always a wealth of spiritual insight in the Sermon on the Mount.

The Lord begins with his famous counsel, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” This is a favorite one of all evildoers who dare to quote the Gospel to silence Christians. Hey, Jesus said don’t judge, so it shouldn’t matter to you if I’m a promiscuous, cross-dressing, pro-abortion, pope-bashing, self-indulgent, drug-pushing, porn-loving, God-mocking dissenter on the theological lunatic fringe.  Don’t judge me, man!

Uh, Jesus also said “Judge with right judgment” (Jn 7:24).  And even right here a few verses later in Matthew 7 He says: “You will know them by their fruits… the bad tree bears evil fruit… Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (vv. 16-19).  Evidently, then, we are supposed to recognize good and bad fruits when we see them, and realize that there are good and bad consequences attached to them.  We can judge fruits, but not hearts. We can condemn actions, but not persons. We can assess behaviors, but not interior intentions or struggles that may underlie them.  Everything that pertains to the judgment of persons belongs to God.  That is why Jesus said “Do not judge.”  He obviously didn’t mean: walk blindly through life, not knowing the difference between good and evil, thus allowing evil to flourish where it will.  That would be like saying: You shouldn’t care if everyone else goes to Hell; that’s their problem.

Not judging also means, as Jesus continues his Sermon, taking stock of your own sins before you try to rid everyone else of theirs.  If your own sin is blinding your spiritual perception, how can you presume to deliver anyone else from their faults?  That’s the whole point about the speck in your brother’s eye and the plank in your own.  But notice that Jesus didn’t merely say: keep your mouth shut because you have your own sins.  He said: get rid of your sins first; then you can help your brother with his.  So the erring brother still should be helped, only not by a hypocrite with a closet full of skeletons.

The “ask and you shall receive” saying is a rather tough one to explain, for it is not quite as simple as it first appears.  You may want to see what I said here and here about the various conditions for answered prayer found in the Bible, which has to be accepted as a whole, before your make your request for a new BMW.  But, sticking to Matthew 7, I think the bottom line is this: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”  It is God’s will to do good to us; that should be our point of departure in all our prayers.

The “narrow gate” passage is another difficult one. We probably don’t have too much trouble realizing that it is easier to sin than to be holy, easier to do things the easy way and harder to do them the hard way, easier to take the path of least resistance and harder to take the path of most resistance.  Perhaps, though, we squirm a bit when Jesus seems to be crunching the numbers, saying that many will go the way of destruction, and few will find the way to eternal life.  If few are to be saved, what makes us think we are going to be among them?  Some people with that same concern asked Jesus point blank about the number of the saved.  He didn’t give them a direct answer, which is, I gather, the correct way to answer questions we’re not supposed to be asking in the first place.  He pretty much says in Lk 13 what He said in Mt 7: “Strive to enter by the narrow door.”  He adds something that is not in Mt 7, however.  We get the impression there that those who take the wide, easy path to destruction are not even interested in the narrow path.  But here He says, “for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”  That seems to make the few even fewer.

What can we do?  Back to Mt 7: only those who do the will of the Father shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  That seems to be the bottom line and the only real answer.  We know from other passages in Scripture that it is God’s desire that all should be saved; He hasn’t decided the numbers in advance, but He can foresee our choices.  All it takes to be among the “few” who make it through the narrow gate is to do the will of the Father.  So then, that has to be our primary goal in life, to which our efforts are directed: discovering and then doing God’s will.  It’s the only way to get to Heaven, says Jesus.

Finally, Jesus closes his Sermon with the metaphor of men building houses on rock or on sand, the former withstanding the storms of life (which include all threats to persevering in faith unto salvation) and the latter caving in under the pressure thereof.  To build on rock or not is to hear Jesus’ words and put them into practice, or not. One thing I noticed, which perhaps I didn’t think of much before: Jesus didn’t say, build your house upon rock, just in case storms come that will threaten it.  He made it clear that the floods and the wind will come, will beat on the house, and the quality of the foundation is all that will save it.

So, to hear the word of God and do it pretty much sums up Matthew 7, as well as the Gospel as a whole.  We avoid evil ourselves, try to help others avoid evil, trust in God’s providence, do our utmost to accomplish the Father’s will, and leave the final judgment to God.  Not easy, no, not any of it.  But Jesus never said it would be.  In fact, He said just the opposite: “the way is hard that leads to life.” Let us, then, do it the hard way.  Heaven will be easy once we pass through the gate.  For now, let’s just take things as they are, as the Lord said they would be, and build our lives on the Rock.  Neither Hell nor high water will shake us who have firmly resolved to hear the word of God and keep it.

Why this Waste?

During the two weeks before the beginning of Lent, the daily Gospels prescribed in the Byzantine tradition are those of the Passion of Jesus, as if to offer a sort of “dress rehearsal” of what Lent is about and where it leads.  By time you read this, we will be well into that period, but as I write, we’re just getting the first hint of it in the Gospel reading about Jesus being anointed in Bethany (Mk. 14:3-9).

This Gospel has been the source of a lot of confusion about who the woman was who anointed Jesus, even in the Byzantine Offices themselves.  They usually conflate this episode with that of the sinful woman anointing Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, which quite obviously is a completely different event.  So who is the woman?  Some say Mary Magdalene, though there isn’t the slightest evidence of that (Mary Magdalene was well known and always indicated by name, but here it is just “a woman”.)  Is it Mary of Bethany?  St John says she anointed Jesus feet, and in her own house, but in Mark this takes place in the house of one Simon the Leper, and only Jesus’ head is anointed.  Are there two different anointings, or two different accounts of the same event?  Ultimately (and certainly for my purposes here) it doesn’t really matter.  Let’s just take it as St Mark presents it, and try to learn its message.

Jesus was invited to dinner by some of his friends, none of whom knew that in a few days He was going to be brutally tortured and killed.  But Jesus knew, and despite that ominous awareness He didn’t let on, and just shared the meal with them.  That’s when a woman came in.

Did she have a premonition of what was to come?  Was she a prophetess?  Or was she simply offering an act of love and devotion toward the Master?  She brought a flask of pure nard, “very costly” according to the evangelist.  Just how costly was it?  A couple verses later we learn that it was worth 300 denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage for a laborer.  What might that be in modern terms?  What does a minimum-wage worker today earn in a day, $50-60?  So at the very least, this anointing oil would be worth over $15,000.  And the woman just poured it over Jesus’ head without a second thought.

Immediately eyebrows were arched and brains started indignantly calculating.  Why this waste?  That oil could have sold for a whole lot of money, which could then have been given to the poor.  (St John tells us that it was only Judas who objected, not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and being the community treasurer, could have made a tidy profit on the proceeds.)

Jesus reproached those who reproached the woman. “She has done a beautiful thing to me,” He said. To silence their objection He said that they could at any time give what they have to the poor—but since Jesus knew He would soon have to leave them, He added, “but you will not always have me.”  What might they have made of that?  Why would the Master say such a thing?  He was only in his thirties and probably would be with them for another four or five decades. So Jesus dropped a big hint: “She has anointed my body beforehand for burying.”  Then He uttered a prophecy concerning the woman: “Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”  She will thus be acknowledged and honored by billions of people, yet her name will never be known.  Surely her reward is great in Heaven; her costly sacrifice won Jesus’ admiration and blessing, and a permanent place in his Gospel and his Kingdom.

A question, then, has to be posed to us.  With whom shall we identify in this Gospel?  Those who, either from good motives or bad, considered it wasteful to spend so much on a simple act of love for Jesus, or the one who gave everything for Him, if only she could be privileged to have the opportunity to manifest her devotion?  Does our own agenda for doing good in the world somehow miss the point concerning what (or rather, who) it is all about in the first place? Isn’t it true that we sometimes, or perhaps often, as it is said, focus more on the work of the Lord than on the Lord of the work?

Perhaps if we did identify the woman with Mary of Bethany, we would see that this act was completely “in character” for her.  She was reproached on an earlier occasion for a similar thing: she was “wasting time” sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to Him instead of helping out in the kitchen.  Jesus might have told Martha that kitchen chores would always be there but He Himself wouldn’t (He did say something similar).  Mary evidently had a knack for choosing the better part, whether “doing nothing” at the feet of Jesus or “wasting” her life savings to anoint Him with love.  In any case, she valued being with Jesus more than doing something else, however good it might be in itself.

Such an attitude is at the basis of the contemplative life.  Someone on the outside of the cloister might say, “Why this waste of lives?  Instead of praying all day they could be serving the poor or protesting the injustices of the world.”  Such a statement is not necessarily malicious, and it may even be well-intentioned, but it does manifest a lack of understanding, as did the complaints of those who reproached the woman for pouring all that expensive oil over Jesus.

Monks or nuns, or any truly contemplative souls, are the ones who sell all they have, buy a flask of the most precious and expensive oil, and spend their lives anointing the head and feet of Jesus.  Yeah, it’s a waste from a certain perspective, but in Jesus’ eyes it is “a beautiful thing.”  We prepare Him for burial, as it were, with the oil of prayer and sacrifice, for the world continues to crucify Him every day through its sins and blasphemies and the desecration of the members of his body.  We anoint his wounds, and if we are faithful in this ministry of love and devotion, it will be told in memory of us—not in the pages of any sacred book, but by the angels in Heaven when we at length are called to embrace “the better part” forever.

So let us not regard any time spent in prayer as wasted, any costly effort as done in vain.  Even if it is our vocation to actively serve the poor or any members of Christ’s body, we have to quietly return to prayer, so that we can remember why we are serving others in the first place, and to let Him know that we’re willing to “waste” a little time on Him.  It’s a beautiful thing, and He will remember that.

Faith is Work

I’m not going to revisit the endless faith vs. works arguments of the past several hundred years.  For me, faith itself is plenty of work, even though the Scriptures are clear on the importance of works, since only those go to Heaven who actually do the Father’s will (see Mt 7:21; 25:31-46, etc).  But there’s a curious passage in the Gospel of John in which the people ask Jesus, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”  He answered them thus: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (Jn. 6:28-29).  At first glance, that seems to be rather easy, but read on.

What are we to make of this?  What does it mean to believe?  It’s obviously not enough simply to believe that God exists, for “even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19).  If we want our faith to be more than that of demons, we have to go further.

One of the reasons that faith is work is that in order to maintain it we have to overcome all the arrogant voices of contemporary atheism, and all the lies and seductions of the mass media, and even the skepticism and/or ridicule of family, friends, coworkers, etc.  Another reason is that the very nature of faith requires our assent to divine revelation without the aid of experimental verification or tangible evidence.  So, in addition to the doing the works that meet the spiritual and material needs of others, we have to work at our faith.

A friend from across the Atlantic graciously sent me an anthology of some of Cardinal Newman’s works, and the introduction refers to his “profound sense of God as the Ultimate Mystery before whom we can only kneel in awed silence.”  This is where faith has to lead us.  Nobody proved God to Newman, but his faith in God enabled him to spiritually “sense” the presence of the divine mystery and to reverently enter into it.  Faith can perhaps be likened to a kind of “radio receiver” of the reality of God.  Radio waves are invisible and otherwise intangible, but with the right components tuned to receive them we can become aware of what is always there but what can only be heard with the proper equipment.  Faith enables us to perceive the presence of God, who is always present in every corner of the universe.  Without faith we won’t be able to discover or recognize his presence, but if our souls are “tuned” to Him by faith, his presence will be as clear to us as the music from a nearby radio station.

But if faith is work, how does it work?  St Paul says it works through love (Gal. 5:6), and St James says “by my works I will show you my faith” (James 2:18).  So there seems to be a twofold reality of faith: the gift of grace that enables us to receive and assent to divine revelation, and the practical expression of faith that proves its genuineness. We can’t really believe in Christ without the initiative of divine grace, for no one can come to Him unless the Father draws him (see Jn. 6:44).  But we can hardly say we believe in Christ unto salvation if we do not put his word into practice by the way we live and relate to others: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand… and great was the fall of it” (Mt. 7:26-27).

Going back to the Gospel of John and the passage about the work of God being faith in Jesus, we see that the context of it is his famous “Bread of Life” discourse.  Believing in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist is part of the “work” that is faith.  It’s not easy, and if one were to judge by the way many people comport themselves in those sanctuaries where the Blessed Sacrament resides, one might have to conclude that they need to work harder at their faith!  But this is an essential manifestation of that “Ultimate Mystery before whom we can only kneel in awed silence.” Faith is work, but it is necessary for our salvation.  After Jesus taught about the Bread from Heaven and the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, “many of his disciples” (and not only the uncommitted crowd) questioned and criticized Him about it—“this is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”—and eventually parted company with Him over that very issue.  Jesus simply remarked, “There are some of you who do not believe.”

Suddenly, believing in Him whom the Father sent was such hard work that many refused to do it.  Jesus didn’t accommodate his teaching to their lack of faith, however, and evidently was even prepared to have the Twelve leave Him: “Will you also go away?” He could only speak the truth, and even if his closest disciples and friends would leave Him, He still would remain steadfast in the truth.

So, as Peter said, to whom shall we go?  For Jesus has the words of eternal life, and it is our “work” to put our faith in Him, even if what He says seems beyond our ability to grasp or accept.  I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, that in the Greek New Testament, to believe in Jesus is literally to believe “into” him (eis auton).  This implies not a mere intellectual assent but a personal engagement, a relationship.  It is this relationship of faith that makes it possible to receive even his “hard sayings” and embrace them and put all He said into practice, so that faith will work through love—love of God and love of neighbor, as the two Great Commandments enjoin.

Let us, then, get to work!  Faith is work, but eternal life is communion with the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent.  Let us believe into Jesus, with all that entails, and then our faith will work!  When faith brings us to that profound sense of God that Cardinal Newman experienced, then no work will be too difficult in carrying out the Father’s will.  So keep your heart “tuned” to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God and Bread from Heaven, in all his mysteries, that you might have life, and have it to the full.

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