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

Archive for March, 2010

Keeping Watch

The great and holy days of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection are almost upon us.  These few days between Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday are a time of anticipation, of keeping watch with the Lord, as He asked his disciples to do with Him in the garden.  They failed at that task, but let us hope and pray that we may be able to stay awake—that is, spiritually vigilant—during these quiet yet grace-filled days.

There is still quite a bit of liturgical activity in the Byzantine tradition during these days.  The Gospels are read almost in their entirety during the Little Hours, and the readings during the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts point us toward not only the Passion but the Second Coming itself.  The Paschal Mystery of Christ is just as earth-shaking in its import as the events of the Last Days, and we are called to be ready for both.  We read of the apocalyptic events preceding Christ’s coming, and then the parables of the bridesmaids, of the talents, and of the Last Judgment, as well as some events that immediately precede the Passion of Christ.  It’s as if the whole of salvation history is coming to its climax, and we are mystically inserted into its drama.

How shall we keep watch these days?  The main way, of course, is prayer and meditation on the Scriptures.  We can’t get so caught up with material (or even liturgical) preparations for the Feast that we neglect to “pray to our Father in secret,” to go with Jesus into solitude and silence and listen to the beating of his heart that will soon be pierced as a sacrifice for our salvation.  I think that the Lord wants in some way to re-live his Passion through us as we celebrate the Mysteries.  I would guess that He doesn’t want to suffer over and over again the horrors of the first Holy Week, but He wants us to know the love that underlay them, and He wants to draw us into a more intimate relationship with Him.  In various ways, we have to endure our own “passion” in this life, the inevitable sufferings that afflict us, and I think the Lord would have us come close to Him in the midst of them, bringing our own wounded hearts to Him and finding our refuge with Him. Thus we can find peace and hope and also grow in the love that is willing to go to the Cross for the sake of the salvation of souls.

Based on the parable of the bridesmaids (Mt 25:1-13), these first days of Holy Week are sometimes called the days of the Bridegroom.  We sing hymns each day reminding us to keep watch, for the Bridegroom is coming at an hour we do not expect.  An atmosphere of vigilance and expectation is created, and as we pray and read the Gospels we are constantly reminded of all that Jesus has done for us in his mercy, and we are invited to give ourselves fully to the worship of Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.

So rather than rambling on and on in this post, I’ll leave it brief so you can return to your own meditations on the Gospel, your own examination of conscience (make sure you go to confession this week if you haven’t gone for a while—that’s part of making yourself ready to share his Mysteries), your own progress toward the upper room and the garden, toward Golgotha and the empty tomb.  Make sure you set aside time for the Lord, who set aside his divine glory in order to suffer for you.  Then you will be ready and awake when the Bridegroom comes, and He will welcome you with joy into his banquet.  His heart wants to speak to our hearts, so may He find them turned to Him in loving anticipation of the mystical renewal of the grace of his sacrifice, in the celebrations of the Church and in the depths of our souls.

Watch and pray.  The Bridegroom comes.  Be listening for his voice. “The Master is here and is calling for you” (Jn. 11:28).

The King Comes

We have come today to one of the high points in the liturgical year.  The mystery of our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem brings with it the anticipation of all that is about to happen, and it also brings with it a kind of summary of all that has already happened.

St Paul gives us a little summary in the Epistle as well (Phil. 4:4-9), letting us know how our hearts should be at this time: rejoice, have no anxiety, pray, give thanks, ask God for what you need.  The fruit of all this is the peace of God keeping our minds and hearts in Christ.  I’ll have more to say about the Epistle later.

Let us for now look at the Gospel (Jn. 12:1-18), for a kind of summary of the events leading to the Lord’s passion, and what it all might mean for us as we try to liturgically and mystically share in the grace of these unique events in salvation history.

According to the Gospel of John, the catalyst for Jesus’ Passion was the raising of Lazarus.  It was the climax of the signs or miracles that Jesus performed, and it brought a great many new believers into the fold.  The chief priests and Pharisees immediately began to plan Jesus’ arrest and execution.  The evangelist notes that they were planning to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was because of him that so many people went over to Jesus, and since he was living proof of Jesus’ divine power.  I don’t know if they ever made good on that plan.  Perhaps after Jesus rose from the dead they gave up on it, thinking: “What’s the use of killing these guys?  They keep coming back from the dead!”

The day before Jesus entered Jerusalem, a dinner was held in his honor at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Mary offered a beautiful expression of devotion and gratitude to the Lord by anointing his feet with a very expensive fragrant oil and wiping his feet with her hair.  It was an act of humility and love, which the Lord gratefully accepted.  Jesus also raised it up from the level of personal devotion to a kind of participation in the mystery of his Passion, for He declared that this act was a preparation for his burial.  Perhaps Mary was one of the women who later went to his tomb, carrying some of the same oil with which she anointed his feet.

The evangelist notes that after Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”  I think that St John was doing more than merely recounting what would be an obvious effect of spreading a large quantity of strongly-scented oil.  I think he was using the fragrance of the oil to describe the spirit of the moment.  The oil becomes a metaphor for the love and devotion that filled the house.  Love is diffusive of itself, which is what the classic philosophers said about goodness, and it spreads its blessed effects like a sweet fragrance filling a room. So there was a precious spiritual ambience in that place, for Jesus, who would soon sacrifice his life out of love for us, was surrounded by people who loved Him.

But,” says the evangelist, suddenly injecting a harsh note into this beautiful scene, “Judas Iscariot… he who was to betray him,” proved that he alone was not one of those who loved Jesus.  He destroyed the loving atmosphere by his mean and petty comment that Mary wasted the oil on Jesus when it could have fetched a great price, which could have been given to the poor. The evangelist immediately exposes his duplicity by saying that he didn’t in fact care for the poor, but would have used the money for himself. How ironic that he would have collected a very large sum for a jar of oil, but then would sell the Son of God for a small fraction of that amount.

In these two, Mary and Judas, we have a kind of summary of the love and the hatred that Jesus experienced during his lifetime.  The love and the hatred would accompany him through the coming days, all the way to the Cross: the love of the few, the hatred of the many.  But as Scripture says, the Lord knows those who are his, and as the mystics tell us, the love of those few consoled him in his profound agony.

So Jesus, loving Mary and the others, and pitying Judas, entered into Jerusalem to begin the Great and Holy Week of his Passion.  At this moment, the majority of the people still favored Him, especially since He had just raised Lazarus from the dead.  Crowds are always willing to applaud sensational works, but their attention span is short and their souls are often shallow.   Perhaps this is one reason why Jesus often told people to keep quiet about his miracles.  He wasn’t interested in superficial or passing praise; He was trying to reach their hearts and turn them permanently toward God.  Everybody turns out to cheer a great event, but how many would take up their crosses and follow Him?

The Pharisees, being rather superficial themselves, were dismayed by the adulation of the crowd, thinking they had lost their chance to make good their plan to destroy Jesus. What villains they would seem if they arrested Him now!  So they exclaimed: “You see that nothing can be done; behold, the world has gone after him!”  Well, the world went after Him that day, and the world abandoned Him a few days later.  And for the next 2000 years the world in part would go after Him and in part abandon Him.  At present about a quarter of the world follows Him and three quarters follow someone or something else.  About 17% of the world’s population is Catholic, and all other Christians raise the percentage half-again or so.  After two millennia of the preaching of the Gospel, 3/4 of the world still reject the Savior, and I don’t know how many of the remaining quarter follow Him with great fervor and love.

But Jesus never did play a numbers game. As the Carthusians say, Stat crux dum volvitur orbis (“The Cross stands while the world turns.”)  The world is fickle and vacillating, but the word of the Lord and all He has done stand firm forever. Jesus came to save all mankind, and all are invited to the heavenly banquet.  Those who choose to follow Him will be welcomed; those who don’t want Jesus will not have Jesus, but if they eternally do not have Jesus, they will know just what it means to have rejected their Savior.

Let us return to the Gospel as Jesus enters the holy city and is greeted with cries of rejoicing.  The crowd sang a psalm verse referring to the Messiah: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  They were acclaiming Jesus as the One who was to come.  Indeed He was, but they still did not understand who He really was.  St John notes that even his disciples did not grasp the significance of the moment, and how Jesus’ whole life was coming to its climax, but it became clear to them after his resurrection.

The evangelist quotes a prophecy from Zechariah: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming…”  When I read this passage I stopped at “behold, your king.”  Where had I heard that before?  Oh yes, someone else would say that in a few days, as a sort of unwitting prophet, like Caiaphas, who said Jesus would die for the people.  Well this other unwitting prophet was Pilate, who said to the crowd (some of whom, at least, were undoubtedly among those cheering Jesus on that first Palm Sunday): “Behold, your King!”  This time, however, the King would not be riding into the city while the people proclaimed Him to be the Messiah.  This time He was standing, covered with bleeding wounds and wearing a painful crown, as He was scorned and condemned by those who should have recognized the time of their divine visitation.

We all know well the details of the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and of what happened shortly thereafter, so we needn’t dwell on it longer here. But we do need to personally situate ourselves within this mystery, to take our place among this cast of characters in the divine drama.  Do we stand with Mary or with Judas, the lovers or the betrayers?  It’s easy enough to protest that of course we stand with those who love Jesus and not with those who betray or condemn Him.  But it’s one thing to say that, and quite another to look at our lives and let our actions do the talking.  All sin is a betrayal, to one degree or another, of the Lord who loves us and gave Himself in sacrifice for us.  I think if we’re honest we’d have to say that in fact we’re a sort of uneasy mixture of Mary and Judas, having the best of intentions but allowing ourselves to succumb to attitudes or behaviors that do not express love for Christ or obedience to his will, but rather manifest our self-centeredness.  When we sin grievously we are like Judas betraying the Master; when we sin not so grievously we are like Judas disturbing the atmosphere of love and the fragrance of holiness by his petty hard-heartedness.

Let us then return to the words of St Paul, who sets us a course of action for the coming days.  He tells us to focus on whatever is true and beautiful and pure and noble and praiseworthy—and this, of course, excludes focusing on whatever is not.  He then gives us a kind of general counsel, but it is an important one: whatever we have learned and received from him, that we should do.  Then, he says, the God of peace will be with us.

We have learned and received a lot from the Apostle to the Gentiles, hearing his words all through the liturgical year, and meditating on them in our own Scripture reading and study.  The blueprint for the faithful and fruitful Christian life is there.  Tolle lege, take and read.  These are the words that came to St Augustine, and his life was forever changed when he read from the Apostle Paul.

So let us do what we have learned and received, focusing especially in the coming days on loving and serving the Lord wholeheartedly, casting out the spirit of Judas that lurks within our thoughts or emotions, and pouring out the fragrant oil of love, humility, and devoted service manifested by Mary as she prepared Jesus for his Passion.  We have to ask Jesus to prepare us for the celebration of his Passion, anointing us with the grace of his Spirit, so that we in turn can be faithful in doing his will, worshiping Him while serving the members of his Body.  Only then will our hosannas be authentic; only then will our praise be acceptable; only then will we be granted to behold our King.

Word Made Flesh

Today we are celebrating one of the greatest mysteries of our faith, one without which we could not be saved: it is the mystery of the Word made flesh, the eternal Son of God becoming man for our salvation.  This is at the very heart of Christianity, and one cannot be a Christian without believing that Jesus is the Son of God.  As St John says, whoever denies the incarnation of the Son is not of God and has the spirit of antichrist (see 1Jn. 4:2-3).

In the Epistle reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (2:11-18), we are given several reasons why the Son of God came into this world as man.  He had to have the same nature as ours because He had to die, and as God this would have been impossible.  The author of this Epistle says that the Son of God partook of human nature so that through death He could destroy the devil and deliver us from his bondage and hence from fear of death.  He also had to be made man in order that He could be for us “a merciful and faithful high priest,” who, again by means of his death, would make expiation for our sins.  All this has been done out of love for us, so the author of the Epistle makes it clear that Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters.

Let us look at this mystery as it is proclaimed to us in the Gospel of Luke (1:24-38).  We hear of a young virgin named Mary, who was betrothed to a man named Joseph.  There’s so far nothing unusual here, for young people have always gotten engaged to be married.  But something unusual and even unique soon happened, for very few young virgins have angels sent to them from Heaven, and none of them besides Mary has ever heard, or will ever hear, the message that she heard.

The Angel Gabriel gave Mary a greeting that she found troubling, for in her humility she was not used to being praised by angels.  “Rejoice, O having-been-favored one [kekharitomeni], the Lord is with you.”  That is an unusual greeting, and it helps situate Mary in the eternal plan of God.  The angel didn’t say that she was about to be favored by God, but that she already has been favored, which is a subtle testimony to the fact that she has been kept in his grace for the whole of her existence. (The perfect tense of the word signifies something that has been done in the past and continues to stand in the present.)

Speaking of grace, this greeting of the angel is often translated, “Rejoice, O full of grace, the Lord is with you.”  That is because kharis, the root of the word used in the angel’s greeting, is the common word for “grace” in the New Testament.  It was St Paul that gave the theological meaning of “grace” to a word that originally meant “favor.”  So it is that the “having-been-favored” one can rightly be called “full of grace,” for this is the meaning of the term in the New Testament.  This is reiterated immediately when the angel tells Mary that she has found favor, that is, grace (kharis), with God.

The next thing the angel said was also troubling to Mary, though if she had immediately grasped its full meaning, it would have been even more troubling.  For Mary, the astounding thing was that she was going to give birth to the Messiah.  This was clear from the references to the throne of David and the house of Jacob.  His kingdom having no end could have been interpreted as an unbroken dynasty.  But evidently it was also astounding to her that she would give birth at all.  She wondered how this great thing was to come to pass because she “did not know man,” which means she was still a virgin.  But if she was about to be married, it would have been obvious that soon she would know man and then she could have a child.  So it must have been that if Mary couldn’t understand how she would conceive a child, she must have been planning to remain a virgin.

Anyway, the angel both answered that question and plunged her deeper into an incomprehensible mystery.  She would become pregnant by the power of the Most High, by means of the Holy Spirit.  So it’s all right to remain a virgin; she will still conceive and bear a son, a son who would be known as the Son of God.  But did Mary really know what was about to take place?  If the angel said plainly, “The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the Lord who led your people out of Egypt, who manifested Himself in thunder and fire on Mt Sinai, who set the sun and moon and stars in the sky, is going to enter your womb and be born as a human baby,” I think the text of the Gospel would then have read: “And Mary fainted, and the angel hastened to revive her.”

The mystery of the Incarnation of God is something that grew within her slowly, even though her obedience to God’s will was immediate and complete.  We see in the next chapter of Luke that when Jesus told Mary and Joseph that He had to be in his Father’s house, they didn’t understand what He meant.  It’s one thing to know that your son is the promised Messiah, and that his conception happened in an absolutely unique manner, but it’s still another to realize that this boy is really God in the flesh.  We have 2000 years of theological hindsight, so perhaps we aren’t as flabbergasted as we ought to be, but for Mary, this mystery was played out before her eyes without the benefit of the dogmas of the Church.

The angel then tried to get Mary to realize that God could do whatever He wanted by telling her that her aged cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant.  I noticed something in the Greek this time around that never appears in translations, probably because it’s sort of awkward to put it in good English.  But when the angel says, “With God nothing shall be impossible,” he is literally saying, “will not be impossible with God every word.”  This got me thinking about the Word made flesh.

It seems that in biblical language God doesn’t so much do things as say things, or at least that doing and speaking are the same for God.  In the beginning, when God said, “Let there be light,” it happened. The same with the stars and the earth and all that is in it. So a word of God is an event of God.  In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus first casts out a demon (4:36), the response of the crowd is unusual (so much so that it isn’t often translated literally): the first thing they say is, “What is this word?”  According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, the whole universe is upheld by the Lord’s “word of power” (1:3).  We can perhaps say, though our language is wholly inadequate to things divine and eternal, that the greatest “event” of God is the eternal “speaking of the Word,” the begetting of the Son by the unoriginate Father.

So then, if the Son Himself is the eternal Word of the Father, and through Him all things were made, and by Him the universe is maintained in existence, no word of God will be impossible (or, more literally, every word of God will not be impossible). Therefore we are told that man shall live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Here too, then, is something that perhaps Mary could not have understood, but which is meant for our deeper understanding. If it is not impossible for the Word of God to be eternally begotten by the Father within the incomprehensible mystery of the Holy Trinity, then it is also not impossible that this Word could take flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, uniting human nature to his divine nature, so that He could be able to offer his human life in sacrifice for the expiation of our sins and our release from lifelong bondage to the devil.

It was fashionable in the ‘70s to speak of the whole mystery of the incarnation and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the “Christ event.”  What was meant by that was not always in conformity to the orthodox teaching of the Church.  But in light of the reality of the word of God being an event of God, it may acquire its proper significance. When the angel spoke the word of God to Mary concerning the incarnation of the eternal Word of God, and when Mary spoke her word of consent, what happened was the Word made flesh.  The Word became event in time and space.

Mary’s famous response, “Let it be to me according to your word,” can just as easily be translated, “Let it happen to me…”  What happened in Mary’s womb was the Incarnation of the Word.

We have something very important to learn from Our Lady here.  It is quite clear from the text of the Gospel, both here and in the account of finding Jesus in the temple, that she didn’t fully grasp the mystery of the Incarnation from the beginning, as no human being, however holy, could have been expected to. But she knew who she was dealing with, so she obeyed even without full understanding.  It is clear from the Gospel that her consent was not based on her intellectual understanding of the mystery, but on her relationship to God.  Once the angel had spoken those apparently fantastic words from the dizzying heights of Heaven, Mary simply said: Here I am, the handmaid of the Lord.  If that’s what He wants from me, that’s what He shall have.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.

As time went on, the Gospel twice reminds us that she pondered all these things in her heart, but she never withheld her consent from whatever God asked, even if she could not fully understand.  She was again sorely tried as Simeon’s prophesied sword pierced her heart as she stood by the Cross of her beloved Son.  Her yes was uttered through tears, but she was the handmaid of the Lord, so she let it happen according to his word.

So let us, as we will soon enter into the celebration of the agony and ecstasy of Holy Week, learn from the Mother of God.  We don’t always, and perhaps rarely, understand what God is doing in our lives and what it all means from his divine perspective.  But if we are secure in our identity as humble servants of the Lord, we can obey even without understanding. We will not question the word of the Lord. We will let it happen to us according to his divine wisdom and providence.  That will cost us something, maybe a lot.  At the very least we will have to swallow our pride and accept our own ignorance of God’s unfathomable designs.  But if we simply say yes to Him in all things, the events of our lives will happen according to his word, and we shall be granted peace and blessing and hope. For all words of God are possible through the Word made flesh, the One who is both the High Priest of our salvation and the One who calls us his brothers and sisters.

Who Will Deliver Me?

Recently I received a penance in confession that sent me to a place in Scripture that is notoriously difficult to understand or properly interpret: the (in)famous Romans 7.  I guess when I made my confession I must have sounded like him who said: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…  I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Now I’m not going to attempt a commentary on this chapter (and I’ve yet to find one that I consider thorough or even satisfactory), but I will try to offer a few random reflections on this mystery of our unhappy and self-contradictory human condition, and the hope we have for deliverance.

One of the main problems of interpretation can be stated in such scholarly terms as these: “Who the heck is he talking about?”  I’m not too interested in whether he is actually referring to himself or whether the “I” is a rhetorical device meaning you and me.  For me the big question is (again in scholarly terms): “Is that unfortunate slob who can’t do good even though he wants to, but can do evil even though he doesn’t want to—is this guy B.C. or A.D.?”  That is, is the Apostle talking here about what the human condition is like before being “in Christ” or is it like that even after?  I rather hope it’s the latter, since I could be in some deep trouble if it’s not.  It would seem, when jumping ahead to the end of the chapter, that even in Christ we suffer from this discouraging malady, for the Apostle’s conclusion to the matter is not too optimistic: “So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”  Sounds like a kind of double life to me.  Some scholars suggest that this verse might be out of place here and really belongs a couple verses earlier, just before St Paul cries out: “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

If we spill over into chapter 8, we see that the Apostle does really believe we have been delivered from all that already, just by being in communion with Christ and the Holy Spirit.  For the thing that plagues all mankind and makes us act against our better judgment and best intentions is a kind of interior law: “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, and making me captive to the law of sin…”  But he declares at the beginning of chapter 8 that being “in Christ Jesus” takes care of all that: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.”  He goes on in some detail about the struggle of these “laws,” pretty much reducing the matter to the struggle between spirit and flesh.

But let’s get back to that poor fellow who is “carnal, sold under sin,” the one who does not understand his own actions.  To me, being carnal and all that, it seems that I have the same struggles as he does even though I am in Christ through baptism, the other sacraments, faith, prayer, etc.  At least I think I am.  Maybe I was inadvertently overlooked in the distribution of grace and virtue, and I’ve been operating under some sort of misconception all along.  I hope I don’t have to wait until Judgment Day to find out for sure, because by then I won’t be able to do much about it.  All I can do for now is cry out: “Who will deliver me?”  I think I know the answer to that, though I thought, according to the Apostle, that He already had delivered me.  I seem to remain undelivered.

Perhaps there are certain levels or degrees of being “in Christ,” and at the lower ones the law of sin and death still exerts some influence.  For the law of sin and death doesn’t cease to exist when one is in Christ, it is simply superseded, and it ought to remain that way, but this is not automatic.  Someone once gave the example of dropping a handkerchief to the floor.  The law of gravity will see to it that it reaches the floor every time.  But suppose something else is introduced that renders gravity ineffective, like a hand that stops the falling handkerchief.  The law of gravity is still in effect, but something has stepped in to counteract that law and to keep it from drawing the hankie to the floor.  According to this analogy, the force of gravity is the “law of sin and death,” and the hand that stops the falling hankie is the “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.”

I don’t know if that explains anything, but maybe it can help us see that even if we have been in Christ, if we don’t consciously and explicitly make the effort to remain in Christ, the hand can be withdrawn and the hankie then falls to the floor.  For the law of sin and death is ever-ready to reassert itself within us.  “Sin revived, and I died.”  And again: “When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”

I went away from the church where I went to confession, still pondering the question: “Who will deliver me?”  I wondered if maybe we have to keep asking that question even though we know the answer.  Maybe we have to keep asking and then keep reminding ourselves of the answer, so that we strive to keep that “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” in place, not allowing the “law of sin and death” to regain its lost ground.  For we are delivered not just once, as if we could then coast through life, but we have to constantly and personally rely on the Deliverer every day.  “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17), and this struggle is not definitively overcome just by putting our faith in Christ.  But our faith in Christ will deliver us every time, if we trust in Him and devote all our energies to doing the Father’s will.  We don’t have to serve the law of sin, and we can be free from condemnation if we are always “in Christ Jesus.” We can supersede the law that pulls us down to Hell, by living according to the “law” of the Holy Spirit.

So who will deliver me, a wretched man, from this body of death?  Thanks be to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ!

Call upon Jesus.  He delivers.

A Man of Faith and Righteousness

I’ve explained in the past why it’s our “house custom” here at Mt Tabor to celebrate the feast of St Joseph on this day, so I don’t need to go into it all again.  He is certainly worthy of it, and we sort of have to make reparation for the rest of the Byzantine churches that almost completely ignore this greatest of saints during the whole of the liturgical year.  He receives a little nod around Christmas, much as Our Lady gets from Protestants, but that is quite insufficient.  It is rather unfortunate, though, that this feast occurs during Lent, so we have to celebrate it in a rather low-key fashion, and without so much as a piece of cheese at supper!

Anyway, let’s look at the readings to see if we can reflect somewhat on the greatness of this saint, who was chosen to be the earthly guardian (and for all practical purposes, the human father) of the Son of God, the Word who became flesh for our salvation—and who even humbled Himself to be obedient to Mary and Joseph as He grew in age and grace and wisdom.

The Epistle reading (Heb. 11:1-2, 8-18) is mainly about faith, which is appropriate, and we’ll see that there are a couple elements that apply quite well to St Joseph.  By faith, it says, “the men of old received divine approval.” St Joseph must have been a man of faith long before he married Our Lady.  For such a demanding and unique task that would be his, God could not take chances with just anyone, in the hopes that he would eventually become a man of faith and sort of grow into his vocation.  The one who would raise the Son of God as his own son had to be of impeccable virtue and full of the faith and love and wisdom necessary for such an immense task and high calling.

So the fact that Joseph was called to this vocation means he already had divine approval; he already was a man of faith.  In the Gospel he is called a righteous man, and that’s about the highest compliment that can be paid anyone who lived by the law of Moses.  But his righteousness according to the law would be tested, and he would be called to a higher righteousness, that of the New Covenant, through his relationship with Jesus and Mary.

As the Epistle goes on, we see that St Joseph’s faith is compared to that of Abraham. Abraham is the patriarch of the Old Testament, and St Joseph is a kind of patriarch of the new.  His own distant ancestor, for whom he was named, was also a patriarch, one of the twelve sons of Jacob.  And come to think of it, according to St Matthew’s genealogy, St Joseph’s own father was named Jacob.  So perhaps the Lord was giving a little hint there. Great authority and glory were given by Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to the first Joseph, and great authority and glory were given to St Joseph by the King of Heaven.  His authority and glory, however, were not to be of any earthly kingdom but rather of the Kingdom of Heaven.  There he was glorified by his heavenly Father and his foster Son, and the Church acknowledged this formally (and finally!) in the 19th century when the Pope proclaimed him to be Patron of the Universal Church.  Not bad for a humble middle-eastern carpenter!

Anyway, back to Abraham.  “By faith,” says the Scripture, “Abraham obeyed when he was called to go… and he went out, not knowing where he was to go… By faith he sojourned… in a foreign land…”  Sounds a lot like St Joseph, who obeyed the voice of the angel who woke him up in the middle of the night and told him to go to a foreign land.  He did know where he was to go, that is, to Egypt, but the whole project was an exercise in not knowing what to do or where to go.  If an angel woke me up in the middle of the night and told me to go, say, to Mexico, even though I know where that is, I still don’t know where in Mexico to go, and it’s still a foreign land.  (In my case, however, not being as righteous as St Joseph, I probably would have attributed the whole experience to something I ate the night before and would have just gone back to sleep.)

Then the Epistle moves on to Sarah, who “received power to conceive, even when she was past the age.”  Now Mary was certainly not past the age; in fact, if the Archangel Gabriel had come much earlier she would have been before the age.  But the comparison here is with miraculous conceptions.  Mary really outdid Sarah, since Sarah still needed the help of Abraham to conceive.  Mary didn’t even consult Joseph about the proposal from Heaven, and she was impregnated by God Himself.   That must have awed and humbled Joseph sufficiently that even if it wasn’t God’s will that she bear only Jesus in her lifetime, Joseph probably would have kept a certain distance out of sheer reverence and holy fear.

Finally, the Epistle says that Abraham and the patriarchs “died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar…”  This also can be applied to St Joseph.  He died in faith, sometime between Jesus’ 12th and 30th years.  We know he was alive when they found Jesus at the temple, and since there is no mention of him in the Gospels after that, he must have died before Jesus began his public ministry.  In St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is referred to as the “Son of Mary,” which would be quite an unusual way of speaking if his “father” was still alive.  To say that Joseph died in faith, not having received what was promised, means that he died before the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  But he did in fact see and greet it from afar, as it were.  He saw the incarnate Son of God with his own eyes, and he knew that Jesus was the promised Messiah and Savior of the world.  In a sense he was thus like another patriarch, Moses, who did not enter the Promised Land but was allowed to see it from afar.

In fact, though, Joseph would have known about the resurrection of his foster Son before anyone living on earth would have known.  That’s because he would have been among the righteous whom Jesus rescued from the realm of the dead on that first Holy Saturday.  I can just see St Joseph beaming while all the other souls are standing in awe as the Savior breaks down the ancient gates to rescue his own.  “That’s my Boy!” Joseph cries out.  “Hey, Y’shua, over here!  Come get your papa!”

So, as the author of Hebrews says, he desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Even though Joseph didn’t live to see the resurrection of Jesus, his immortal soul was personally rescued by Him, and he received what he desired, the heavenly dwelling, where he would reap the reward of his righteousness for all eternity.  This is what God had prepared for him, the man of faith, the strong and faithful guardian of his Son, the devoted husband of the Mother of God, the one who would be honored as a patron and intercessor by millions, even billions, of the Catholic faithful.

I’ve focused mostly on the Epistle today, partly because the Gospel is so well known to us already, and partly because the Epistle brings out some aspects of the life and mystery of St Joseph that perhaps aren’t so well known.  But Joseph’s claim to fame is in fact what is recorded in the Gospel according to St Matthew (1:16-25; that’s today’s Gospel, but the story of Joseph goes on through chapter 2).  That’s where we hear about Mary’s virginal conception and Joseph’s original quandary concerning her pregnancy.  That’s where we learn of his righteousness, and his love for his betrothed, which moved him to spare her from the righteous demands of the law—for all would have considered her an adulteress. It’s where we hear of the angelic confirmation of what the Lord had done in and for Mary, and where Joseph received his divine vocation to be her husband and the foster father of the One who came from Heaven to become man on Earth.

The Gospel is where we hear of Joseph’s obedience and of the fulfillment of the prophecy concerning Emmanuel.  Joseph proved himself a righteous man when he did what the angel told him, even though he did not fully understand the mystery.  I’m reminded of that famous text from Proverbs, which Joseph followed admirably: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths” (3:5-6).

So, as we continue in our Lenten observances, our prayer and fasting, let us look to St Joseph as a model of faith and virtue, of righteousness and obedience, of love and fidelity. It wasn’t easy for him to do the Lord’s will in his extraordinary and even unique circumstances, but the righteous man does God’s will, come what may.

While I’d never suggest that any of us even approaches the holiness of St Joseph, I would dare say that we at least have a certain spiritual advantage that he did not have in his earthly life.  We live daily in the grace of the New Covenant, we eat and drink the sacrificed Body and Blood of the Savior, we live in post-resurrection times and in the grace of the Holy Spirit.  All the more so, then, should we be righteous and faithful, obedient to the will of God, devoted and loving toward Jesus and Mary.

So, even if the Byzantine churches are looking the other way today, let us turn to St Joseph and implore his intercession, his guidance and protection, that we may walk as he walked, that we may come closer to Christ and our Blessed Mother, and that ultimately we will die in faith, having received what was promised.

All About Sin

Our awareness of sin is somewhat heightened during Lent, simply because we are called to pay more attention to repentance, and sin is that of which we repent.  It’s not a popular topic, and it is one that some people even find irksome and annoying, and they wish it would just go away.  I wish sin would just go away, too, but as long as it is still a part of our lives (and, one might say, a dominant force in the world) we shouldn’t try to make the awareness of it go away, or reminders of the fact of it and its consequences, or the call to repentance.

Sin, in one form or another (sin, sinner, etc) is mentioned nearly a thousand times in the Bible, so it’s not something we can hope to excise from the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Nor is it something we can relegate to the dustbin of ancient history or archaic perspectives on God and man.  The word of God is valid for all times and places, so we turn a blind eye to its teachings only at our (eternal) peril.

Personally, I’d rather take a somewhat brighter approach to things than that which often appears in the Bible, but since what I really want to know is the truth (whole, and nothing but), I tend to derive my world-view from the Sacred Page.  It seems that Jesus Himself, who can’t be accused of being gloomy, morose, or pessimistic (as I sometimes can be, let’s be honest), spent considerable breath teaching about sin and its consequences, about repentance, and what He had come to do about it all.

But before we get to his own words, let’s look at what some of the biblical authors have had to say about sin and Jesus’ coming into this world to deal with it.  The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that Jesus became man “so that he might become a merciful and faithful High Priest… to make expiation for the sins of the people” (2:17).  He also says that Christ came to this world “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:26).  Actually, if you read through that entire epistle, you’ll find a whole lot about sin, because sin is what separates us from God; therefore Christ came to take away sin so that we could be forgiven and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

St Paul has a lot to say about sin, too.  One of his famous sayings is “the wage of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).  “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us… the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives for God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Rom. 5:8; 6:10-12).  “Christ died for our sins… come to your right mind, and sin no more” (1Cor. 15:3, 34).

That’s just a tiny sampling, but you get the idea.  Human beings are prone to sin because we enter the world burdened with original sin, but Christ entered the world to redeem us from sin, so that we can attach ourselves to Him and find our way to Heaven. Getting rid of sin was evidently a high priority of Jesus, even higher than healing people of their physical illnesses.  To a paralyzed man who came to him for healing, Jesus said first, “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mk. 2:5), adding later, as a sort of justification of what He did: “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (v.10).

When a repentant harlot came to pay Him homage, Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven” (Lk. 7:48).  St John the Baptizer described Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29).  And St John the Evangelist says that Christ “appeared [in the world] to take away sins” (1Jn. 3:5).  As Jesus was offering his own body and blood mystically at the Last Supper in anticipation of the sacrifice of the Cross, He said that his blood “is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28).  Then, after Jesus’ death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, St Peter told the people what they had to do: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts 2:38).  (Here I’m just skimming the top of the many references to sin and its forgiveness in the New Testament.)

See, you can’t get away from it if you want to be a Christian.  Jesus didn’t come to bring world peace or economic stability or equal rights or prosperity or even earthly happiness and universal health care.  He came to forgive sins, that is, He came to repair the breach between God and man, begun in Eden and widened ever since by the countless transgressions of the human race.  Jesus always gets to the heart of the matter, to what is essential, for He always has our greatest good in mind: our eternal salvation and happiness with Him in Heaven.   Whatever is an obstacle to this must be removed if God’s will is to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.  Sin is the only real obstacle to communion with God and hence to eternal life. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on sin in the Bible.  God has to remove it at all costs, the greatest cost being the sacrifice of his only-begotten Son.

So it is disastrous, at least in the long run, to ignore or downplay sin and its consequences.  There seems to have been a concerted effort over the past half-century or so to re-define sin or to qualify it quite out of existence.  There’s no original sin, so it’s basically “I’m OK, you’re OK.”  There’s no personal sin, only “structural sin” (you can choose which structure you’d like to accuse of sin, and then demonstrate against it).  It’s OK to break all the commandments and blur the borders of morality, as long as the particular situation seems to require it to be resolved without hurting or offending anyone—or, much more callously, as long as it fits a particular personal, social, political, or even theological agenda.  What used to be called sins are now learning experiences, minor mistakes, problems, idiosyncrasies, creative self-expressions, results of genetic or psychological predispositions, personal options for self-actualization, or just off-color fun.

You can add your own if you wish; we all have our excuses and rationalizations and dodges.  We’re all hiding in some corner of the garden, adjusting our fig leaves and rehearsing our self-defense.  Poor Jesus, He wants to forgive our sins but no one will admit to any!  He wants to restore us to his grace, but we say we’re fine just the way we are!  Someone should tell Him that sin is an outdated concept and that He needs to get with the program!

Well, in the end there’s only one “program” to get with, and that’s the will of God.  Like it or not, we’re a bunch of sinners who are in need of his grace and mercy, and the sooner we stop beating around the bush and abandon all our ridiculous posturing and just call a sin a sin, the sooner we’ll receive forgiveness and be on our way to the banquet at the Father’s house.

Lent will soon be over, but life goes on, and we need to see things clearly if we are to live in the light and walk as Jesus’ disciples and friends.  Jesus didn’t go through the trouble of dying just to tell us that we really are OK after all.  He died to deliver us from evil.  Let us embrace the truth, however unpleasantly revealing it may be about our own lives.  Jesus shed his Precious Blood “for the forgiveness of sins.”  Let’s not call Him a liar, nor a fool for wasting his life for nothing.  Acknowledgement of sin and repentance will meet his mercy in a blessed communion of love and grace, and that is what will open the gates to our true and everlasting peace and happiness.

Casting Out Unbelief

We’ve gone beyond the mid-point of Lent and so our attention is more and more focused on the great mysteries of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.  Therefore we hear at the end of today’s Gospel (Mk. 9:17-31) Jesus’ own prediction of his approaching suffering and death.  But there’s still a long way to go, and much to reflect upon and accomplish before we celebrate fully the great Paschal Mystery of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It may be that by this time we have begun to grow somewhat weary of fasting and prostrations and the heaviness of all the penitential laments in the Lenten prayers of the Church.  Therefore the Epistle reading from Hebrews (6:13-20) offers us encouragement and hope.  The author was certainly aware of the difficulties of Christian life in a hostile world.  He describes the faithful as “we who have fled for refuge,” and it is clear from other passages in this Epistle that our hope in not in this world but in that which is to come.  He says that since it is impossible that God should be proved false in his promises to those who believe in Him, “we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us.  We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner sanctuary… where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf.”

This Epistle is the only place in which Jesus is called a forerunner. We’re accustomed to think of St John the Baptizer as the Forerunner, and indeed he was—the forerunner of Christ’s first coming.  But Jesus is the forerunner of our salvation, that is, of our entrance into Heaven, where He has gone before us, bearing our human nature in Himself, taking his place as both God and man at the right hand of the Father, where, as the Epistle later says, He lives to intercede for us with the Father.  This is why we have encouragement and hope.  The Son of God has become man and died for our sins, was raised from the dead and is exalted in the Father’s glory forever, inviting us to take up our crosses and follow Him, so that we may be where He is and share the same divine glory.  We flee to Him for refuge in this present life and so are given hope for eternal blessedness in the life that is to come.

Meanwhile, we struggle with the demands of faith and discipleship—and with our failure to be everything God calls us to be—and this is what is dramatized in today’s Gospel.

Jesus had just come down the mountain with Peter, James, and John, having been transfigured before them in order to prepare them to witness his Passion without losing faith that He is indeed the Son of God.  The rest of the disciples were having a hard time below, trying and failing to cast out an evil spirit, and it was into the ensuing turmoil that Jesus walked.

The father of the possessed boy came up to Jesus, begging Him to help, while describing the way in which the demon was tormenting his son. Before going on, it should be made clear that the boy was in fact possessed by a demon.  Since some of the manifestations resemble the symptoms of epilepsy, modern scholars hasten to assure us that what Jesus did was simply cure an illness—one that those superstitious and credulous people, not having the benefit of modern medicine, attributed to supernatural forces.  But this is, in a word, baloney.

The evangelists, while admittedly not aware of the technological advances the next two millennia would bring, still knew how to distinguish between illness and demonic possession. For example, when St Matthew lists the various works Jesus performed for those who came to Him, he makes a distinction between demoniacs and epileptics (Mt. 4:24), so the difference was recognized even back then.  Also, we ought to simply accept the fact that the Son of God, precisely because He was the Son of God, knew the difference better than anyone else.  If he were trying to heal epilepsy, He wouldn’t address it personally as a “dumb and deaf spirit,” commanding it to leave and never return, and later to say that such spirits can only be driven out by prayer and fasting.

But let’s return to the unsuccessful disciples and the man in turmoil, struggling with his faith.  According to Jesus, it was his own disciples who were lacking in faith as well.  As soon as the man said that he asked Jesus’ disciples to cast out the spirit and that they were not able to, Jesus exclaimed: “O faithless generation… how long am I to put up with you?”  Jesus does not often get exasperated in the Gospel accounts, but lack of faith is evidently something He finds difficult to tolerate.

“Faithless generation.”  That’s how He spoke of his own chosen disciples, when they couldn’t do what He had previously given them power to do.  It seems that they were lacking not only in faith, but also in prayer and fasting, as Jesus remarked after He had cast out the spirit.  This tells us that the gifts of God do not operate automatically but rather require the personal cooperation of those who receive them.  They are not magical powers but means by which human beings can enter into such a personal communion with God that they can speak and it is God speaking; they can command spirits and heal illnesses with the very power of God, which works through their faith, prayer, and fasting.

The demon was having a field day with all the lack of faith in that crowd. Evil spirits draw power from our lack of faith, and that is what made the demon grow so bold as to manifest his control over the boy—and hence manifest the disciples’ failure—right in front of Jesus.  When the boy was brought to Jesus the spirit convulsed him and threw him on the ground.

The boy’s father in his anguish, pleaded with Jesus: “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.”  Jesus zeroed in on the “if.”  If?  If I can do anything?  And again He emphasizes faith: “All things are possible to him who believes.”

This put the man in something of a bind.  He wanted to believe that Jesus could help him, yet he personally witnessed how Jesus’ hand-picked disciples could not.  So, in all truth and sincerity, he cried out in words that would resonate in millions of hearts throughout the ages, who would make it their own: “I do believe! Help my unbelief!”

Like many or perhaps most of us, the man did have faith, yet he was aware that it was not complete, not strong enough to meet the severe challenge before him.  There was something lacking; belief and unbelief were uneasily co-existing in the turmoil of his soul.  But he at least had enough faith not to walk away despondent and defeated, so he laid it all on the line before Jesus: his faith and his lack of faith, his desperation and his hope, his need and his prayer.  Jesus evidently considered the man’s faith sincere, even if somewhat defective.  So he heard his prayer and cast the demon out of his son.

Here the evangelist begins subtly to point us to the coming death and resurrection of Jesus, because it is that to which all his mighty works are oriented.  It’s in the language of the description of what happened after the demon was cast out.  After the demon left, St Mark says “the boy was like a corpse” (first instance of death-talk).  Seeing him like that, the people said, “He is dead” (second instance). But immediately Jesus “raised him up” (first instance of resurrection talk), “and he arose” (second instance).  Finally, a few verses later, Jesus explicitly tells his disciples that He will be killed and then rise from the dead.

It is sometimes said by commentators that the Gospel of Mark is a passion narrative with a long introduction, because so much of the Gospel is oriented to that end.  As early as the first part of the third chapter of Mark, we find Pharisees and Herodians already plotting to kill Jesus.

I wonder if we also ought to consider our own earthly lives as a passion narrative with a long introduction.  Our lives ought to be oriented to the end—not in the sense of a morbid obsession with death, but rather that we should live in such a way that all we do contributes to, rather than detracts from, our ultimate goal, which is life eternal with Christ in the Father’s glory.  If this life isn’t a long introduction to our death, if it is rather lived for its own sake without reference to the commandments and the coming judgment, then were going to be not only without faith but also full of evil spirits.  There’s no such thing as a spiritual vacuum or a neutral zone, as Jesus said (see Lk. 11:24-26).  If we are not filled with the Spirit of Christ, we will be filled with spirits of evil.  If our explicit goal isn’t Heaven, we’re going to end up in Hell.

What does Jesus think about the present generation in this world, and even in the Church?  Is it a “faithless generation”?  We have to hear his words: “All things are possible to those who believe.”  Yet if faith is not strengthened by prayer and fasting, it may prove ineffective in the struggles of this life, like that of the apostles who couldn’t cast out the bad spirit even when Jesus gave them the grace to do so.

We might make our cry that of the man who said, “I believe; help my unbelief,” and perhaps for a time this will suffice, if we are sincere.  But Jesus wants us to go beyond that, to the level of faith at which all things really are possible, the level at which we can command evil spirits and they go, the level at which we can accompany Jesus to his Passion and not lose heart, not shrink from the call to share his Cross.

We can take “all things are possible to those who believe” as a divine promise.  And we just heard in the Epistle that it is impossible that God’s promises should be proved false.  So let us, who have fled to God for refuge, find encouragement and hope in the word of God and his grace.  Let us put our faith, without wavering, in that divine Forerunner, our Lord Jesus Christ, who has returned in glory to the Father on our behalf, having endured the Cross out of love for us.

Lent is more than half over, but the Passion is still to come.  Let our lives be lives of faith in the Son of God, as the Apostle said, who loved us and gave Himself for us.  If our lives on earth are a passion narrative with a long introduction, and if we live them in faith and hope, then our eternal life will be an endless resurrection narrative of love and joy, which was preceded by a (relatively) short introduction of trial and struggle and endurance.

Our life stories are not over yet; we’re still in the introduction.  Let us embrace faith, prayer, and fasting as the way to please God in this life, that He may raise us up to the glory of the life to come.

Lent-Pascha Newsletter

Our Lent-Pascha issue of Gladsome Light, our monastery newsletter, is now available online.  Click here or on the link in the sidebar.  There are several articles that I hope will be of some use to you in your lenten efforts and your spiritual life in general.  Let us know if you’d like to receive an e-mail notification of future issues.  Happy Lent!  Repent!

Inner Discipline

That’s a rather dreary title, but this is a rather dreary time of year, at least spiritually seen.  Outside, though, the wildflowers are making their appearance, the air is fresh with new things breaking the bud, and the earth is coming back to life (at least here in California). Everything is rich and bright and wet and fertile, and life conquers death once again in the annual dress rehearsal for the Paschal Mystery.

But let’s get back to our dreary inner discipline. I only use that title since it is the one given for the day’s reflection in the Newman anthology I’ve been reading.  The passage I’m going to quote from is taken from his Parochial and Plain Sermons.  Newman seems to be a rather no-nonsense fellow, quite practical yet a deep thinker as well.  He’s something of a bane to people like me, since he cuts through all the excuses we have for not taking up our crosses and simply tells us what is good for us and what is not.  So here’s a little reflection from him that is suitable for Lent because it helps shake us out of our indolent self-indulgence and encourages a mature “inner discipline” that is necessary for the long haul of Christian life.

“Our Saviour gives us a pattern which we are bound to follow… condemning the display of strictness or gloominess so that we, His followers, might fast the more in private, and be the more austere in our secret hearts.  True it is, that such self-command, composure and inward faith, are not learned in a day; but if they were, why should this life be given us?  It is given us as a very preparation-time for obtaining them… There is a bravery in thus going straightforward, shrinking from no duty little or great, passing from high to low, from pleasure to pain, and making your principles strong without their becoming formal.

“Learn to be as the Angel, who could descend among the miseries of Bethesda, without losing his heavenly purity or his perfect happiness. Gain healing from troubled waters.  Make up your mind to the prospect of sustaining a certain measure of pain and trouble in your passage through life; by the blessing of God this will prepare you for it—it will make you thoughtful and resigned without interfering with your cheerfulness.  It will connect you in your own thoughts with the Saints of Scripture, whose lot it was to be patterns of patient endurance; and this association brings to the mind a peculiar consolation.”

A peculiar consolation indeed—but one that is peculiarly Christian.  No one wants to endure pain and trouble, but everyone has to.  The problem is that most people try to avoid it as much as possible and not even think about it when it’s not actually in their faces. The end result of this is that when it does inevitably come it seems an irksome intrusion, an untimely hardship, an unwelcome problem dropped on us unfairly and without warning.  But the good Cardinal encourages us to make up our mind beforehand to expect these very things, and to accept them, and to endure them patiently as the saints did. This inward composure, discipline, and indeed bravery (as he said) will predispose us to “gain healing from troubled waters.” Trials endured in this way are supposed to sober us without “interfering with [our] cheerfulness.”  That’s quite a tall order, but if one is conscious of the presence of the Lord dwelling within, one will be capable of that principled, straightforward advance through life, and not without joy.  As for me, trials don’t interfere at all with my cheerfulness, because I don’t have any cheerfulness to begin with!  But somehow I don’t think that aligns me with the saints.

I expect better things from you, however.  This Lent is a good time to make up your mind to “sustain a certain measure of pain and trouble” for Jesus’ sake and to increase your own capacity for patient endurance, which is a quality that will come in handy on many an occasion. The labors of fasting and penance, not to mention all that life throws at us without checking with us first, can be wearisome and heavy, so we need to be armed beforehand with a resolution to expect it and endure it with the grace of God.

In another sermon, Newman spells out the weariness the “natural man” experiences when he tries to put the Gospel into practice in daily life over the long haul. “It is very wearisome, and very monotonous, to go on day after day watching all we do and think, detecting our secret failings, denying ourselves, creating within us under God’s grace those parts of the Christian character in which we are deficient; wearisome to learn modesty, love of insignificance, willingness to be thought little of… readiness to confess when we are wrong; to learn to have no cares for this world… but to be resigned and contented.”

The selection just ends there, leaving us wishing he had something to say about dealing with that weariness.  Articulating the problem is usually not difficult, but discovering an effective solution usually is. But the last word, “contented,” leads me to St Paul’s saying that he would be content with hardships, persecutions, and calamities, because the Lord had just told him that divine grace was sufficient for him.  The message we’re supposed to hear: it’s sufficient for us, too.

The Cross: Losing Your Life to Save It

“Shine, Cross of the Lord, shine with the light of your grace upon the hearts of those who honor you.  With love inspired by God we embrace you, O desire of all the world.  Through you our tears of sorrow have been wiped away; we have been delivered from the snares of death… through you the hosts of demons have been driven back, and the hierarchies of angels rejoice with one accord, as the congregations of the faithful keep the feast. You are an invincible weapon, an unbroken stronghold… Grant us now to draw near to the Passion of Christ and to his Resurrection.”

Well, that doesn’t sound like a penitential Lenten hymn, even though we’re still in the middle of Lent.  Today, which is known as the Sunday of the Cross, is meant to be a kind of mid-lenten encouragement for those who are enduring the rigors of the fast. It is a time to look to the goal of our efforts, the celebration of the passion of Christ and his glorious resurrection. We will sing the laments associated with the mystery of the Cross on Great and Holy Friday (and at other times during Lent and throughout the year), but today we sing the praises of the Cross as the means of our deliverance from the power of sin and death, as the herald of the resurrection of Christ, and as the source of our strength, protection, and peace, as we make our way along the hard and narrow path to salvation.

In the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (4:14 – 5:6) we are invited to “draw near to the throne of grace with confidence, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”  Perhaps that is a good and concise summary of what our Lenten efforts should be about.  In light of today’s celebration, we can consider the Cross to be the “throne of grace,” for it is there that our Lord Jesus Christ made expiation for our sins, disarmed the powers of darkness, opened the gates of Paradise and won eternal life for all who would believe in Him, making available to everyone the riches of his grace and love for mankind.

This is why we are invited to approach the throne of grace “with confidence”: all this has been done for usWe are the intended beneficiaries, so it’s not like we’re trying to take from God something He hasn’t already decided to give us. As St Paul said, when reflecting on the mystery of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, “He loved me and gave Himself for me.”  For me.  And for you.  And for all who would approach Him with confidence and with faith.

The Letter to the Hebrews gives another reason to approach the throne of grace with confidence.  The One who reigns there is our High Priest, which means He is a mediator between us and the Father.  He can be a mediator precisely because He is both human and divine. On our side, He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, for he has been tempted in every respect as we are. But the author of Hebrews adds, “yet without sin,” for only an unblemished sacrifice would be acceptable to the Father.  As man He is one with us in our lowly condition; as God He has the power to save us and bring us into the presence of the Father.

So we come to the Cross of Jesus to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Lent is a time to repent of our sins, and so we need to seek and receive mercy.  It is also a time of spiritual struggle and self-denial, so it can be considered a time of need as well: a time for which we need the help of divine grace to bear the spiritual fruit that will help us prepare to celebrate worthily the death and resurrection of Jesus as well as to advance in our spiritual growth and Christian maturity.

St Paul says that we carry within us the dying of Jesus in our daily lives, so that his life may be manifested in and through us.  Perhaps that is a good image of the labors of Lent: bearing within us the death of Jesus, so that his irrepressible life may be manifested through us on Easter, as a foreshadowing of the eternal life and joy for which God has created us in the first place.

We are often confronted with paradoxes in the life of faith, and also in our liturgical life. Today we are celebrating in the Offices the glory of the Cross and the joy that our redemption brings, yet the Gospel reading (Mk. 8:34 – 9:1) is quite sobering, and it points to the demands of bearing the cross in our own lives.  It’s as if the liturgical texts indicate the glorious goal or end of our life, while the Gospel indicates the difficult means toward that end.  We’ll be singing of the glory of the Cross for all eternity, in gratitude and joy, yet the greater part of our life here below is carrying the weight of our crosses in hope and trust, living by faith and not by sight, enduring to the end that we may be saved.

So let us look at the Gospel, which shows us the way to the joy for which we hope, the blessedness for which we labor in faithfulness here on earth.  It is often said that God loves us unconditionally, and this is true, but He doesn’t save us unconditionally. God is love, so He cannot not love us. But we are sinners, and if we want to be saved, there are certain conditions we have to accept, certain requirements we have to meet. We find many conditions for salvation in the Scriptures, for salvation is not automatic. We need to do more than merely exist if we want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus’ teaching today begins with a conditional term: “if.”  “If anyone would come after me [that is, would be his disciple], let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” This is really the perfect Scripture passage for Lenten meditation.

Jesus immediately explains why He has placed this condition upon discipleship and thus on salvation.  Each of the several verses following this condition begins with the word “for,” which explains the previous verse.  It might be clearer simply to use the word “because,” since that it what it means here.  So, if any one wants to be Jesus’ disciple, he has to deny himself, take up his cross and follow Him.  Why? Because whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Jesus and the Gospel will save it.  Why? Because it profits nothing to gain the whole world and lose your soul in the process.  Why?  Because there is nothing in this world a man can offer to redeem his own soul.

So what Jesus is saying here is this: if you want to be saved, you must follow Me, because I am the only One who can redeem your soul.  Even if you gained the whole world, there is nothing there that would suffice for the redemption of your soul.  What can you offer to God to save your soul?

Even the psalmist knew this, and perhaps this is a prefiguring of what Jesus says in the Gospel: “For no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. The ransom of his soul is beyond him; he cannot buy life without end…” (Ps. 48/49: 8-10).

Jesus, then, gives us another paradox: the way to have is to deny; the way to save is to lose.  The way to have a relationship with Christ is to deny yourself; the way to save your life is to lose it.  Losing our lives and denying ourselves are ways of saying the same thing: nothing of value is acquired without sacrifice; that which is of the greatest value requires the greatest sacrifice.  The martyrs literally lose their lives for the sake of Christ and his Gospel; the rest of us lose our lives a little each day, bearing within us the dying of Christ, as the Apostle said.  We “lose our lives” daily as we struggle to put off the old self and put on the new, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness,” as the Apostle also said (Eph. 4:22-24).

To accept the conditions for salvation is to deny ourselves, for we would prefer to have eternal happiness without any cost to ourselves, without the burden of the cross, without the demands of discipleship, without renouncing our own will for the sake of charity and serving others.  Jesus is not arguing the issue with us.  He simply states the facts: If you want to be his disciple, which is the same as saying, if you want to be saved, then this is what is required.  Take it or leave it.  But if we decide to leave it, we must remember how Jesus concluded his doctrine of the Cross: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

There are certain things in Jesus’ words that are negotiable, and others that are non-negotiable (though most fall into the latter category).  The teaching on celibacy, for example, is negotiable.  You don’t have to be celibate in order to be saved.  Jesus said, if you can accept this teaching, then accept it.  Jesus didn’t say that about taking up the cross and following Him.  This is a matter of saving our souls or losing them.

Let us keep all this in mind as we celebrate this Sunday of the Cross. Yes, the Cross shines with God’s glory and drives out the demons and makes the angels rejoice and brings light and joy and blessing.  But it will do all this for us only if we are willing to follow Jesus, denying ourselves and carrying our own crosses, losing our lives for his sake, knowing that He alone is the Redeemer of our souls.  If we are to be able to carry our crosses, we have to approach his Cross, the throne of grace, where we can find mercy and grace to help in time of need.  Jesus didn’t say any of this would be easy; He just said it is the way to salvation.

So let us renew our resolve to be faithful to the Lord and his Gospel in these Lenten days, as we look toward his Passion and his Resurrection.  If we are willing to follow Jesus all the way to Gethsemane and Golgotha, He will not be ashamed of us when He returns in his Father’s glory.  Then we will have reason to sing: “Hail, life-giving Cross, unconquerable trophy of the true faith, door to Paradise… through you the curse is utterly destroyed and we are raised from earth to heaven… we are restored once more to Eden, and we have received great mercy.”

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