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

Archive for June, 2010

Thanks be to Peter, Thanks be to Paul

We have much to be thankful for today as we celebrate the feast of the holy prime apostles Peter and Paul.  Certain things are obvious, and others not so obvious.  The obvious things are the power of intercession of these two saints, who are among the greatest of all saints, for the whole Church.  There’s the ministry of Peter that endures to this day in the office of the papacy, the center of unity and the guarantee of the preservation of the faith and the moral doctrine of the Church until the Lord returns. And there’s the charism of missionary zeal and the profound teachings on the mystery of grace that Paul has handed on to the Church as precious elements of her heritage.

But I’d like to focus more today on the less obvious things for which we ought to give thanks to these two holy apostles, things which perhaps come closer to our own individual experience than the universal benefits granted to the Church as such in her hierarchical, sacramental, and communal life.

For this I’m going to begin with a very difficult passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which began my reflection on things which led me to my preparation for this feast day.  Here’s the passage: “For if we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire… It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:26-27, 31).  Now you may ask: What the heck does that have to do with the feast of Saints Peter and Paul?

Good question.  I had simply been reading Hebrews as part of my usual daily Scripture reading, and this passage (along with similar ones like 6:4-8), which is always disturbing and hence which disturbed me again, got me to thinking.  If I were to take this literally, I would have to resign myself to eternal damnation, because I have in fact sinned deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth.  Perhaps several factors need to be considered when interpreting this passage.

One is that we’re not sure precisely what the author means by “sin deliberately.”  Is that just any sin, or any mortal sin, or is it something like the “sin against the Holy Spirit,” or a sort of radical apostasy that results in permanent impenitence?  Another thing to consider is the fact that in the early Church, it was generally accepted that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent, so one’s embrace of faith in Christ and baptism were considered to be graces of the “eleventh hour,” and one was expected to spend the rest of one’s (short) time on earth in vigilance for the Lord’s return, which precluded any forays into the sins of which one had just repented.  There was a tradition in the early Church (long since abandoned, since Jesus didn’t come back right away) of “no second repentance,” that is, once you were baptized and your sins forgiven, you had to stay clean until the Lord came back or else expect to lose your soul. That may be why it is stated in Hebrews that Jesus’ sacrifice was offered once and that if we sin again there are no more sacrifices for sins, only the fearful prospect of judgment.

Yet despite all these considerations, I realized that Scripture passages cannot be taken in isolation but must be understood as a unity, so I was hoping to find some situations in Scripture that would balance this seemingly harsh statement.  But I was hard pressed to find examples of people who in fact had embraced the truth of Christ, had fallen away, and then were permitted to return to Him.  When you look at the conversion stories in the Bible, they don’t offer much hope for that.  Mary Magdalene was delivered from seven devils, but once she embraced Christ she didn’t fall away. Neither did the converts Timothy and Titus. Nor did the Apostle Paul, whose redirected zeal served him to the very end. We don’t have the whole story of the subsequent life of the Gadarene demoniacs, the repentant harlot of Luke 7, or any extension of the parables of the publican and the prodigal, but the implication is that they remained in the grace they were granted.  The general message seems to be that once someone comes into a living relationship with Christ, their lives are forever changed and they do not fall away.  There’s one who did embrace Christ and then fell away, but just as the Epistle to the Hebrews predicted, he stayed fallen and had to face a fearful judgment: that, of course, was Judas.

But then it came to me: Peter!  Poor, failed, rehabilitated, blessed Peter!  He’s the shining example that gives us all hope!  We hear in today’s Gospel (Mt 16:13-19) that he indeed had come to knowledge of the truth, and Jesus even said that Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ and the Son of the living God was a direct revelation from the heavenly Father.  Then Jesus made him head of the apostles by giving him the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and declaring that Jesus’ own Church would be founded on Peter the Rock, and it would never succumb to the powers of hell.  And Jesus had already given him power to heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons and preach the Kingdom of Heaven.

Aside from the fact that Peter immediately tried to get in the way of Jesus’ saving sacrifice by saying He shouldn’t have to die, at the moment of truth Peter fell away: he sinned deliberately, he explicitly denied his Lord and Master.  But the Lord soon received him back, requiring only a threefold profession of love to make reparation for his threefold denial.  So part of the reason we rejoice in celebrating the feast of this great Apostle is that we learn from the example of his own life that there is still hope for the fallen, that even after having known the Lord and then sinning against Him, if we sincerely repent (and Peter surely did, with bitter tears), the Lord will receive us in his mercy, as we renew our love for Him and our firm resolution to amend our lives henceforth.

For there will in fact come a time when there is no longer a sacrifice for sins, that is, when we are standing before the judgment seat of God, when all our opportunities for repentance are behind us, and we will stand before Him in the state in which our souls were when they departed from our bodies.  But now is the time to renew our love for Jesus through repentance and fidelity, and, as Hebrews also exhorts us, to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.”

And so we come to St Paul.  He didn’t fall away like Peter. He was a persecutor of Christ, and thus in a certain objective sense a worse sinner than Peter, but the great difference was that Paul’s sins came before he knew Jesus. But if Peter teaches us the mercy of Jesus to those who fall even after they have embraced Him in faith and love, then Paul teaches us dogged perseverance in this faith and love, even in the midst of severe trials and sufferings.

We hear a long catalog of Paul’s sufferings in the Epistle (2Cor. 11:21 – 12:9), so we know that when Paul gave his life to Christ, he really gave it.  There was no turning back, and all the powers of hell—which Jesus said would not prevail against the Church He founded on Peter—also did not prevail against Paul, a most exemplary member of that Church.  Paul did have the advantage, however, of extraordinary experiences that most of us do not have, like being taken up into the “third heaven” to learn ineffable mysteries.  But on the other hand, most of aren’t called to endure the extreme and relentless sufferings St Paul had to endure.  We have the trials and burdens of daily life, of struggling to overcome temptation and break out of self-centeredness, to patiently endure physical or mental illness, to abandon habits of sin and to practice charity and mercy.  That’s seems heavy enough for the likes of us, so Paul’s witness is still relevant and important.

Even this indestructible Apostle at a certain moment came to a trial he felt he could not endure, and he begged the Lord three times to deliver him.  But the Lord did not give in, and He simply reminded him that divine grace was sufficient. Hearing that, Paul didn’t become disconsolate or angry, but rather was spurred on to even greater fidelity, endurance, and love for Jesus.  Perhaps this is the most precious lesson of all that we can learn from St Paul: God’s grace is sufficient for us in any and all circumstances, in the midst of sufferings or sorrows.  This is a lesson we have to learn over and over again, but it is an indispensable one if we are to grow in our life in Christ.

When Jesus told Paul that his grace was sufficient in his severe trial, it wasn’t merely for the sake of helping Paul increase his capacity for sheer endurance of pain.  Jesus explained: “My power is perfected in weakness,” which means that the real intention is the bearing of spiritual fruit for the purpose of the Lord’s mission of saving souls.  Our acceptance in faith and trust of the sufficiency of God’s grace in our trials results in the manifestation of God’s power in our lives and in the lives of those he has entrusted to us.  St Paul would say later that he even rejoiced in his sufferings, for they were offered for the sake of the members of Christ’s body, the Church.

So Paul learned his lesson well, which is clear by the way he concludes his testimony: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities”—content with them!  Now there was a man who really knew Christ, and Him Crucified.  That is why he is held up as a model of sanctity for our admiration and emulation.  Like Paul, for the sake of Christ and the members of his Body, we are to accept the sufficient grace of Jesus in all the hardships and demands of this life.

So let us thank Peter, and let us thank Paul, not only for their ongoing intercession for us, but also for the precious lessons they teach us through the witness of their lives: their faith, their repentance, their endurance, and their love for Jesus Christ our Lord.  Thus we will indeed experience his grace not only as sufficient but as overflowing, for He loves us and gave Himself for us, and He will spare no effort to bring us to Heaven, for his mercy endures forever.

On Yokes and Burdens

I think I’ve written before on the famous passage from the Gospel of Matthew (11:27-30) in which Jesus calls us to find rest for our weary and worn-out souls in Him.  I couldn’t find it, though, so it wouldn’t hurt to go at it again, perhaps from a different perspective.  It happened to be the Gospel for today (that is, the day I’m writing, not the day you’re reading), and something occurred to me as I heard it.

It’s about Jesus’ “easy” yoke and “light” burden.  Sometimes I’ve wondered if He actually said that with a straight face, but now I’m pretty sure He did.  In several places Jesus tells us to take up our crosses in order to be his disciples.  In at least one of our liturgical texts, the cross is identified with the yoke of Christ.  Now in any picture I’ve ever seen of Jesus carrying his Cross, it has been anything but a light burden or an easy yoke.  For the moment, though, let’s not talk about the Cross, but simply about following Jesus in daily life.  Uh oh, He said if we want to follow Him we have to take up our crosses.  All right, so we can’t really get away from that, but maybe we can look at Jesus’ yoke and burden in relation to other yokes and burdens.

Here is where I think we can start understanding what He meant.  When I heard the Gospel (and something in the homily from St John Cassian, which I already forgot), I realized that even though the life of a disciple of Christ is a demanding one, and even though it may seem that his yoke is hard and his burden heavy, in the long run his way is in fact the easiest and the lightest.  That is because all other yokes and burdens are quite intolerable, and might even be eternally so.  There’s a repeating refrain in one of our long Lenten offices: “Take from me the heavy yoke of sin.”  Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter.

I thought to myself during the Liturgy: “Indeed, the yoke and burden of sin is heavier than any burden the Lord might place upon me.”  One might wonder why I would think that, if one takes only a superficial look.  It might seem that self-denial is more burdensome than self-indulgence, and that “thou shalt not” is a more irksome yoke than “go right ahead.”  Aside from the damage (whether immediate or eventual) that one does to body and soul, and even to society, by throwing off all restraints and living for one’s own comfort, pleasure, status, etc, there’s another element to consider.

“There is no peace for the wicked, says the Lord” (Is. 48:22).  Even if the Lord’s yoke and burden seem difficult at times, the great reward, even in the midst of bearing them, is inner peace.  Those engaged in a frenzy of self-indulgence and who mock the disciplines of the disciples of Jesus, and who are thus “against the Lord and his Anointed,” may indeed cry out, “come, let us cast off their yoke” (Ps 2:2-3).  But they have no peace, and no real joy either, even though they may laugh out loud.  That’s because they have no hope, there’s nothing real to them but the moment’s pleasure. There’s no foundation on which to build peace and joy, no hope for an endless life of blessedness where there will be true rest for the soul, which only Jesus can give—and which, paradoxically, is attained by accepting his yoke and burden.

Whatever the Lord asks us to bear in this life is preferable to all the seductions of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  I think of the psalmist who said: “One day within Your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.  The threshold of the house of God I prefer to the dwellings of the wicked” (83/84:11).  When one has faith in God and hope for eternal life, one can come to Jesus and even take up his cross.  Carrying our cross in peace and with hope, and in the communion of love with Him who sacrificed his life so that we could be happy forever—this is preferable to satisfying all our fleeting desires and then living in the consequent emptiness, and perhaps even guilt and despondency, for which we would then need another dose of self-indulgence to escape.  The ultimate end of all that is despair.

I don’t know if I’m explaining this very well.  I just was somehow rather pleased to notice this morning that I really would prefer the Lord’s yoke, with the peace and hope it brings, to the “freedom” to do things “my way,” which would mean the easy way, and which would mean I’d end up ruining everything.

Lately I’ve been drawn to read the Fatima story again, and it is quite compelling.  One might pity these three poor children making all sorts of sacrifices and praying all the time, when they could have been having fun and committing the same sins as everyone else.  But they didn’t mind this “yoke” of doing penance for sinners.  In fact, they were quite happy most of the time.  They saw the Beautiful Lady who promised them Heaven, and they would never do anything to grieve her heart or that of “the dear Lord.”  They also saw the terrifying place where unrepentant sinners go.  They knew that they were not going there, but they didn’t think of themselves.  They offered their lives so as to win grace for others, so no one else would have to go there, either.  Sure, their fidelity to God and to Our Lady cost them a lot; they suffered for it.  That was the yoke and burden.  But they found it easy and light, because they knew joy and hope, they understood what life was really about, and they gave themselves wholeheartedly to the mission entrusted to them, never thinking of breaking free from its demands.  Unlike the wicked who scoffed at them or even persecuted them, they had peace.

Peace and hope, love and joy—these are available to those who come to Jesus and accept his easy yoke and light burden. And these will spill over into eternity and be infinitely multiplied as we walk in wide-eyed wonder in the shining fields of Paradise, in the utter freedom of the children of God. There will be demands in the following of the Crucified in this life, but the yoke of sin is much heavier than anything the dear Lord would ask us to bear.  Compared to the yoke and burden of sin and all their consequences—in time and in eternity—Jesus’ yoke is indeed easy, his burden indeed light.

A Prophet is Born

It is perhaps appropriate that the feast of the birth of St John the Forerunner occurs during the “fast of the apostles,” the time between All Saints Sunday and the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. While this feast is a joyful occasion, the man we are celebrating is a model for ascetics, a perpetual faster and desert-dweller.

We’re all pretty familiar with the story of his conception and birth, so I needn’t explain it all in detail here.  But I would like to use this story as the basis for understanding a little better just what John represents, and how we are called to be like him in our spiritual lives.

The first thing we notice is that John’s birth was announced by an angel.  Now we may wonder how that has anything to do with our own births, which were announced by nothing more than a change in our mothers’ biological cycles.  Well, the connection is that we are all chosen by God and are entrusted with a mission in life.  Since John’s mission was so extraordinary, the circumstances of his conception and birth were also extraordinary. He was to be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, and this happened when Mary, pregnant with the Son of God, brought the grace of the Holy Spirit to Elizabeth and her unborn child.  At that moment the Scripture explicitly says that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the baby leaping in her womb was the sign that the Spirit was coming upon John as well.

Despite all these extraordinary events, there still are similarities between John’s mission and ours, for we are all called, in the context of our particular vocations, to “prepare the way of the Lord.”  The first way that John was called to prepare the way of the Lord was through his life of self-denial. Later on in the Gospel we hear about his uncomfortable clothing and unsatisfying diet, but here in the prophecy concerning his birth we are told that he “shall drink no wine or strong drink.” By strong drink is meant hard liquor.  Already we here in the monastery drink no strong drink, though we do occasionally partake of some drink that is not so strong.  But in John’s case this total abstinence was an expression of his consecration to God, like the ancient nazirites, who never drank any alcohol. This was a greater sacrifice for them than for us, because in ancient times a mild wine was the usual accompaniment for meals, since the water quality in those regions was often questionable. We have all kinds of alternatives in our affluent society, but they did not.

So, we learn that the first condition for effectively preparing the way of the Lord is a spirit of self-denial and self-discipline.  John could not preach the word of the Lord until he heard the word of the Lord in the desert.  And if his body and soul were clogged or burdened by self-indulgence, he would not have had the capacity to recognize the voice of the Lord.  If we have difficulty recognizing the presence of the Lord in our lives, we ought to first make sure that we are in a state of grace through repentance and confession, and then check the level and quality of our self-discipline.

The main element of the Forerunner’s mission would be to turn hearts to the Lord, and this would be accomplished in “the spirit and power of Elijah.”  To get the full meaning of this you’ll have to read all about that fiery prophet’s escapades in the First and Second Books of Kings.  But it essentially means that St John would be calling people to repentance and warning them of the righteous and imminent judgment of God.  There was much evil and idolatry in Elijah’s time, in John’s time, in our time, and in every age of human history, so the call to repentance is never inappropriate or unnecessary.

We may not all be called to go out into the streets and publicly call the passersby to repentance, but we still have to try to turn hearts to the Lord through our words and our example.  The latter is much more effective.  If people see that we have peace and joy and our lives are meaningful and rich with blessings, then they will want what we have.  At that point they will be ready to hear about Jesus.  But if we only talk about how Jesus brings us peace and hope and grace and joy, and people don’t see it in us, they will say: Well, if that’s what a follower of Jesus looks like, I’m not interested.  Then we will have failed in our prophetic mission to turn hearts to the Lord.

St John’s mission, according to the angel’s prophecy, was to turn “the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.”  His first success story was that of his own father.  John was fulfilling his mission from the moment he was born!  His father Zachariah was disobedient to the same angel who uttered the prophecy, for he did not believe the good news that was announced to him.  Imagine, the once-in-a-lifetime experience of having the Angel of the Lord descend from Heaven with a message just for you, and you blow it!  You question whether he got his message right, because the circumstances of your life don’t quite match his predictions. Instead of falling on your face in humble gratitude for this unmerited heavenly visitation, you end up getting punished for refusing to believe!

The angel, in typical angelic no-nonsense fashion, simply laid out the situation before him: Look, my name is Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God, the very One you worship in the temple.  He’s the One who sent me to you.  I gave you good news and expected that you would rejoice because of it.  But because you did not believe my words, you will not be able to speak any words of your own—until mine come to pass.

Little John then came to the rescue as he entered the world.  This little baby was the fulfillment of the angel’s words.  He was the cure of his father’s disobedience, for his very existence turned Zachariah’s heart to the Lord, and so the Forerunner’s mission had already begun. The angel had told Zachariah that the boy’s name was to be John. So when a dispute arose about the naming of the child, the old priest must have thought: “I’m not going to blow it this time.  I’m going to do exactly what that angel told me.”  And so he proclaimed with his fatherly authority: “His name is John.”  Zachariah had learned his lesson well and bore no resentment toward the angel or the Lord. In fact, he was so happy that he himself began to prophesy and sing the praises of God.

He seems to have kept the angel’s words in mind as he uttered his own prophecy.  The angel had said, “he will go before the Lord… to prepare the people for the Lord.”  And Zachariah exclaimed that the future prophet would “go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”  He goes on to indicate the most important way that John would prepare them: “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.”

John was nothing if not a preacher of repentance.  As I was preparing for this feast, I thought of the time he famously said, “Bear fruit that befits repentance.”  John was not only an inspired and devoted man of God, he was aware of the weakness of human nature and was a shrewd observer of the hypocrisy of the self-righteous. That’s why he didn’t end his preaching with a call to repentance.  He demanded that people bear fruit that befits repentance, for that is the only sign that repentance is genuine.  Anyone can go through the motions of saying they’re sorry or even confessing their sins.  But the actual change of life is what proves the authenticity of repentance.

I also thought to myself: Here at the monastery we are immeasurably blessed to receive Holy Communion daily.  We are flooded with the ineffable grace of union with the sacrificed Body and Blood of the Savior of the world, every single day.  Then I wondered: Are we bearing fruit that befits daily Communion?  Do our lives reflect and express the reality that the Lord is living in us, that He is constantly nourishing our souls with his own divine life and love?  Are we those witnesses who can turn others’ hearts to the Lord simply by the powerful example of men who are on fire with the love of God, because God puts into us his own Fire that leaps into our hearts from the Eucharistic chalice? Perhaps the most important and most incisive challenge we can hear from the prophetic voice of the Forerunner is: “Bear fruit that befits your reception of the Holy Eucharist!”

Let us then try to enter a little more deeply into the mystery of the holy Forerunner, what he represents, and the nature of his mission, for we all have a share in it.  It is part of our calling, too.  His self-denial, the witness of his life and single-minded devotion to the Lord and the mission entrusted to him should remain before us as an example to follow.  And even though his message is uncompromising and may even seem severe at times, the fruits of our fidelity will be sweet.  St John calls us to repentance, and through repentance we receive forgiveness of sins. And Zachariah declared in his prophetic canticle that in the forgiveness of sins we will have knowledge of salvation.

This is a priceless gift.  If we know we are forgiven, we know we are saved.  It all begins with turning our hearts to the Lord, turning from disobedience to the wisdom of the righteous, turning away from our sins and then bearing fruit that befits repentance.  That is why today is a day of joy.  The birth of the Forerunner heralds that forgiveness of sins in which we obtain knowledge of our salvation.  Let us then turn to the Savior and accept from Him the commission to help turn others to Him as well.  For the mission of the Church will not be complete until the whole world has knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of sin.

Empty Yourself

A while back I was reflecting on the rather difficult passage of St Mark’s Gospel (chapter 11) in which Jesus says that if we only have faith in God, we will receive whatever we ask for in prayer, if we have no doubts that we will in fact receive it (He made forgiveness a condition as well).  I was also reading from Adrienne von Speyr’s profound book on the Mother of God entitled Handmaid of the Lord.

I needn’t go into my own struggle to understand the passage here.  I was just asking the Lord to help me see how He meant for me to receive and apply his words to my own spiritual life.  A word suddenly came to me, which took me aback a bit, but I soon realized that it was the first indispensable step not only to pray fruitfully but simply to live the Gospel: “Empty yourself.”

I wasn’t sure if this came from Jesus or possibly his Mother (since what I was reading from von Speyr’s book was all about her total assent to God’s will and her radical availability to Him by holding back nothing of herself).  I then wondered if perhaps the whole heavenly court was shouting to me: “For God’s sake, empty yourself, willya?”

Whatever the source, it was certainly a message from On High. It struck me so strongly that not only did I meditate upon it that morning, but I also gave an impromptu homily at the Liturgy about it (I wasn’t even the appointed preacher of the day), so that everyone else could empty themselves, too!

Basically we have to empty ourselves of ourselves.  If we find that we are unhappy, discouraged, bitter, angry, etc, it is likely that this is the direct result of being full of ourselves.  I read recently that there is a clear connection between self-centeredness and the inability to experience joy.  The root of it all is pride (which is the root of almost every evil), but in this case pride bears the rotten fruit of self-centeredness, which then destroys our capacity for joy—probably because it also destroys our capacity for charity.

If we are full of ourselves, we need to make room for the Holy Spirit—this soul ain’t big enough for the both of us!  If we’re not crowding out the Holy Spirit by our own selfish concerns or self-pity, then He can begin to grow his precious fruit within us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and all the rest.  The Holy Spirit will shape our thoughts and feelings, our reactions and attitudes toward others, if we choose the way of self-emptying.  The reason Our Lady is such a transparent “window” to God is that she had nothing but God within her soul.  There was no struggle for ascendancy.  She was always and only the humble handmaid, so it was easy for God to transform her into the glorious Queen when her earthly service was finished.  He always had complete and free rein within her soul and life.

We have to start letting go: of our pet peeves, negative attitudes, uncharitable thoughts and words, so that we aren’t loaded down with all our self-serving ways which do not bring us joy anyway—perhaps only the unsatisfying satisfaction of making ourselves feel superior to others.  Whatever room we make for God, He will fill.  And He won’t stop trying to fill us until we’ve removed the interior clutter altogether.

So, as often happens, God didn’t really answer my question about faith and receiving what one prays for, because I wasn’t yet in a position to hear the answer.  Only if we are emptied of self can the word of God take root in us, bring us understanding and then bear its fruit.

Let us reflect a bit on how von Speyr describes Mary’s total emptiness of self for the sake of her availability to God: “Her fruitfulness is so unlimited only because the renunciation in her assent was also boundless.  She sets no conditions, she makes no reservations; she gives herself completely in her answer… Not only does she will what God wills, but she also hands her assent over to God for him to dispose of it, form it, transform it.  In saying Yes she has no wish, no preference, no demands which must be taken into consideration.  She enters into no contract with God; she wishes only to be accepted in grace, as in grace she had been claimed by God… She knows only that her role is of the handmaid who stands so completely in the position of humility that she always prefers what is offered to her, never tries herself to bring something about, neither prepares nor directs the will and wishes of God… She spreads her word out like a carpet under the feet of God’s word…”

That is what it means to be empty of self, and to that we ought to aspire and struggle.  We will never be as perfectly pure and open to the grace and will of God as Mary was, but since we are all called to be faithful disciples of Jesus, growing more and more into his image and likeness, I think we can get a lot emptier of self than we are right now.

Contact with the Mystery

Ever since we celebrated the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Church has been leading us carefully in a certain spiritual progression through the Sunday Gospels.  On the Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrated All Saints, and by this the Church told us that the chief goal of the coming of the Holy Spirit is to transform all believers in Christ into saints.  Then we began examining the process of sanctification on the following Sunday on which we proclaimed the Gospel of the calling of the first disciples, which is the beginning of this process. We received encouragement on the Sunday after that with Jesus’ own testimony of the Providence of the Father and his love, and that all that we need both for our earthly life and our sanctification would be given us if we only would seek first the Kingdom of God.  Today, we get down to work, as it were.  In the Gospel (Mt 8:5-13) we learn that our life in Christ must be based on faith, and that all healing and spiritual growth come as a result of the fruitful collaboration of our faith and God’s grace.

I consulted Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ commentary on this Gospel passage, so at least some of what I say here will be based on that.  Jesus and the centurion are the two main characters in this narrative.  The servant who is sick provides the reason for their meeting, as well as the witness to the healing power of Christ.  But it seems that this Gospel emphasizes more the power of faith than the power of healing.

Jesus and the centurion are both men who wield authority.   The centurion, however, only has a limited authority and only over certain exterior things, like the actions of his soldiers.  But Christ has unlimited authority over things both interior and exterior, so that He can not only command his disciples to do this or that, but can also command the wind and the sea and bodily illness, and He can enlighten minds and hearts.  The only limitation He faces is that imposed by our own free will, for if we refuse his intervention in our lives, He will reluctantly respect our decision and leave us to our own devices, for freedom is a precious gift that He will not violate.

Both Jesus and the centurion are compassionate men as well.  The centurion had compassion for his servant who was suffering in much pain, yet his compassion was powerless to actually relieve the pain.  So he expressed his compassion by seeking the help of Jesus.  For he knew, perhaps by stories he had been told, that Jesus’ compassion was effective, that it resulted in actual healings, that it was not only a matter of a loving heart but of the actual power to change external circumstances.

When the compassion of Jesus recognized the compassion in the centurion for his servant, He knew he was dealing with a worthy man, so He immediately said: “I will come and heal him.”  It is at this time that the great faith of the centurion is manifested, a faith that acknowledges Jesus’ authority.  “Lord,” he said (which is not the way a Roman officer would ordinarily address a Jewish preacher), “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and my servant will be healed.”  Not only does he address Jesus with respect and reverence, he humbles himself exceedingly, for he implicitly accepts the disdain of a foreign religion for those outside of it.  Gentiles were considered unclean by Jews, and a Jew would incur ritual defilement by entering the house of a Gentile.  The centurion isn’t about to quibble over such rules.  His love for his servant overrode whatever pride in his position or personal dignity he might have had.

Then comes the act of faith: “Only say the word and my servant will be healed.”  It is likely that this soldier was what the Jews called a “God-fearing” Gentile, one who was not a Jew but who believed in or at least accepted the God of Israel.  In the parallel passage in Luke, it is explicitly stated that he loved the Jewish nation and even built a synagogue for them.  So perhaps he was familiar with some of the Hebrew Scriptures, like the psalm in which it is said, “By God’s word the heavens were made,” and the creation accounts in Genesis, in which God simply spoke and it came to be.  “Let there be light,” and so it was.

The centurion’s faith was such that he believed Jesus had authority from God to do the same kind of things.  He believed Jesus could say, in effect, “let there be health,” and his servant would no longer be sick.

When Jesus heard this, the Gospel notes, He marveled at the man’s faith.  The root of the word for “marvel” is the same as the root for the word “miracle.”  Jesus was about to work a miracle of healing, but the text hints that Jesus considered the faith of the centurion just as much a miracle, so He marveled.  It is rare that we find this happening in the Gospels. Jesus took advantage of this “teaching moment” even before he rewarded the centurion’s faith by granting the healing.  Actually, Jesus rewarded it even before the healing by implicitly pronouncing him worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus exclaimed that the faith of the soldier was greater than any he had thus far found in Israel.  I wonder how that made his own disciples feel!  But Jesus went on to say that many would come from east and west—that is, Gentiles from outside the boundaries of Israel—and would be welcomed at the table of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while many of the “sons of the kingdom”—that is, those who should have been its heirs—would be excluded and cast into the outer darkness.

Here Jesus seems to lay the groundwork for the teaching of salvation by faith that St Paul would later develop in greater detail, due to the controversies that arose concerning the supposed necessity of Jewish observances for salvation.  Jesus implies that the Patriarchs enjoy the blessings of the Kingdom because of their faith in God and obedience to his will, not because of their race or nationality.  It is not merely being Jewish that qualifies one as chosen, as Paul took great pains to explain, but adhering to the person of Jesus Christ, who is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, and who died and rose again to free us from our sins.

Like certain of the Jews from Jesus’ time, we too need to make sure we do not become complacent in our supposed election.  Just because we have the true faith and belong to the Church Christ founded doesn’t mean we are automatically saved.  We are thus in the best position to be saved, but there’s still a lot that depends on the way we actually live, for when much is given, much is required. Pride in being chosen by God does not substitute for the continual and practical response of faith and the awareness of our need of God’s grace and mercy at all times.

The exercise of our freedom in living a life of faith is paradoxically expressed by St Paul in the epistle (Rom. 6:18-23) as being “slaves of God.”  By accepting to be slaves of God, we are, like the centurion, acknowledging Jesus’ authority over all creation and especially over our own lives. We do this with joy and gratitude, because there is another authority out there that would make us slaves, but in the worst possible sense.  That is the power of evil and sin, and the Apostle makes that comparison in this section of Romans.  You used to be slaves of sin, he said, and your only freedom was freedom from righteousness, which is a false freedom that leads to the most degrading and painful slavery, which is eternal damnation.  Being liberated from sin, however, we now serve a new Master, one who loves us and gave his own life for us, so that our service to Him would actually be experienced as the freedom of the children of God.  In Heaven, as it is said, to serve is to reign.  Here below we have to choose our master, and Jesus said we can only serve one.  Be a “slave” of God now and enjoy eternal happiness and liberty in Heaven, or be free from righteousness now, and forever be enslaved to the harshest and cruelest master the universe has ever known.  It should be a no-brainer.

Faith in Jesus—and the faithful following of Him, even when it means denying ourselves and taking up our crosses—is of course the only true freedom, which brings the only true and lasting reward. But faith is more than simple belief, more than just accepting the authority of God, because it is the beginning of a dynamic, loving, and personal relationship with the Lord.  In his encyclical letter, Mother of the Redeemer, the Venerable John Paul II described faith as “contact with the mystery of God.”  Faith enables us to live at a more profound level of awareness of what is really true.  It opens us to receive what we otherwise would have no capacity to receive. Faith means participating in the power and wisdom of God.  It creates a “synergy” with God, a “working together” with Him to accomplish his will in our lives and in the world.

It was the combination of the centurion’s faith and the power of Jesus that brought about the healing of the servant, for Jesus said to him: “Be it done for you as you have believed.”  The same word in Greek means both “may it be so”—which is the form of our petition made in faith—and “so be it,” which is God’s answer in grace and power.  The centurion said in faith, “Say but the word,” and Jesus in loving response did just that and the boy was healed.

So let us—during this post-Pentecostal time, when we are striving toward sanctity by responding to God’s call and trusting in his providence—live daily by faith.  Let it be a faith that submits to the authority of God’s righteousness in humble, joyful obedience, always rejecting the false freedom of disobeying that authority and unwittingly making ourselves slaves of the devil. The outer darkness is all that awaits those who use their freedom to serve their own passions instead of freely submitting to the will of the Lord. The freedom of the children of God is enjoyed by those who offer to Him a continual response of faith-in-action, who serve the Lord with gladness, who offer Him a continual sacrifice of praise, and who say with boundless trust: “Your will be done.”

…Who Spoke through the Prophets

Even though it is now several weeks since Pentecost, I’d like to offer praise the Holy Spirit (in the Byzantine tradition, all the Sundays of ordinary time are numbered as “Sundays after Pentecost,” so that we never forget whence comes the grace for our life and worship). Here I’d like to thank the Holy Spirit for speaking through the prophets, as we always profess in the Creed.  During the time preceding Pentecost and for most of the post-feast, I was reading what is known as the Book of Consolation in the prophecies of Isaiah (chapters 40-55, as I mentioned a few posts ago).  The rich passages there both helped me prepare for Pentecost (“Thus says the Lord… I will pour my Spirit upon you…”) and live in its grace.

So I’d like to share with you a few passages I found especially consoling and encouraging as the Spirit spoke through the Prophet Isaiah.  The very first words of this section set the tone for the whole of it: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”  In this chapter we also find the words quoted in the Gospels that refer to St John the Baptizer: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God… the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” It is not only he, however, but you and I also have our role to play in preparing the way of the Lord, in our own hearts and in the people and the world around us.

The Book of Consolation contains prophecies that were given to the people of God while they were in exile in Babylon, but shortly before they were about to be set free to return home.  So the words of the Lord are full of hope and blessing and the promise of good things to come.  One of the things that must have been often on the minds of the exiles was that they were banished from their homeland—and their holy temple was destroyed and plundered—because of their sins.  Therefore the Lord repeatedly assures them of his forgiveness, now that they have done their “penance.”

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” says the Spirit through the prophet, “and cry to her that… her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  Later, the Lord says: “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”  And again: “I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like a mist… I have redeemed you… Know that it is I, the Lord… who call you by your name… you shall not be put to shame or confounded to all eternity.”

I don’t know about you, but I find that really consoling!  I don’t read the Bible in order to learn from a historical document, studying what God said to the Jews 2500 years ago in Babylon. I read it because I need to hear Him speaking to me, and now!  The very fact that it is the word of God and not merely a piece of literature with only archaeological or other academic value means it is living and active, and I can expect to hear the voice of the Lord in the present time and for my own life.

Another consoling theme in these chapters of Isaiah is that the Lord has chosen us and called us by name.  “You are my servant; I have chosen you and not cast you off.  Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God.”  And again: “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I have taken you by the hand and kept you… I have called you by name, you are mine…”  One more time: “The Lord called me from the womb; from the body of my mother he named my name… I will not forget you [says the Lord].  Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.”  We know what that means from the Gospels: Jesus has “graven us on the palms of his hands” by accepting to be nailed to the Cross.  Because of the wounds He endured for us out of his everlasting love, He will never forget us.

Finally, there’s a great and even astonishing passage from chapter 54.  If the Lord ever has any reason to get angry with me (let me count the ways), I think I’m going to remind Him of these precious words of his: “Fear not… for you will forget the shame of your youth… For the Lord has called you… In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting mercy I will have compassion on you… I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you… My mercy shall not depart from you… O afflicted one, storm-tossed… in righteousness you shall be established… no weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed… This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord.”  What more could one hope for?  (Remind me to have that italicized part carved into my gravestone.)

So the Spirit has spoken through the prophet.  And now that the same Spirit has come in power on Pentecost, we can expect new and blessed things to flow from this Fountain of Grace and Life Eternal.  “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth… From this time forth I make you hear new things, hidden things which you have not known… Draw near to me, hear this… now the Lord God has sent… his Spirit… Go forth from Babylon [whatever is your cause of bondage or “exile” from God]… declare this with a shout of joy… The Lord has redeemed his servant!”

Surround Sound

Since I’m in the process of writing a book now, I thought it might be a good idea to learn how to write a book.  I took the advice of Jennifer at Conversion Diary and obtained the book entitled Chapter after Chapter, by Heather Sellers.  I did find some helpful pointers in there, but I found something else that the author most likely didn’t intend, a spiritual lesson.

One of her chapters is entitled “Surround Sound,” and the point of it is that while you are writing the book you have to keep it in your awareness at all times if you are going to persevere unto the end and actually finish it.  What I’d like to do here is present a rather lengthy excerpt from that chapter, but you have to substitute “God” and “spiritual life,” etc, for “the book” and “your book-writing life” and similar expressions.  What she says here about writing a book is important for our spiritual lives.  We have to make every effort to surround ourselves with God and the things of God and everything that has to do with our spiritual life (the sacraments, the Bible, devotion to Our Lady, etc) so that we do not become lax or let things slide, or be anything except on fire with love and zeal for the things of Heaven.  So here it is; make the changes and apply it to your spiritual life. It’s almost uncanny how well it applies.

“Non-book writers… believe that book writing can be tucked in around the edges of a life, an add-on, a hobby.  Something you can whip out, on the side… But most people, especially on their first book, struggle with a terrible, insidious mental weed called Creep.  If you don’t surround yourself with your book, you risk it creeping away from you—or you unintentionally creeping away from it…

“The book writers I know all live, eat, breathe, and sleep the book.  Or… they’re trying to get back to the place where they live, eat, breathe, and sleep the book.  This complete absorption in the project is desirable, to be courted.  To reach this level of concentration, of focus, though, you have to set up your book-writing life so you’re never too far away from the project.  This is the only way to prevent Creep from overtaking your project. [I might add that there’s a diabolical Creep who’s always trying to overtake the project of our life in Christ!]

“Think of writing a book as like buying one of those speaker systems that envelop you in sound.  No matter where you are, you are surrounded.  Similarly, you must allow the book you are writing to wrap itself around you and permeate every single part of your life.  Your book should always be running in the background of your mind, even when you aren’t literally putting words on paper…

“Of course, at the outset, being into the book is very much like falling in love—it’s easy.  The book thinks about you, you can’t not think about the book, you obsess about each other, you rush to your writing sessions.  You’re crazy about each other and always willing to drop everything to see one another.

“But some time after you make a real and public commitment to each other, doubt sets in.  Annoyance.  It gets difficult!  You may feel shackled.  You feel like you chose the wrong book… Other books wouldn’t be so demanding, you think.  Wasn’t I happier before I was in this relationship?

“Here is the secret to writing a book: Find a way to keep your desire alive and pure… Those who want to write their books the most end up writing them, and those who only have good intentions may or may not.  To keep yourself wanting to write the book sometimes requires cheering yourself on… you might have to make an actual list of all the reasons why you really want to do this book; the reasons not to write are going to bop into your life on an hourly basis… practice blocking out the negatives while courting the positives… desire is stoked and invigorated by constant and prolonged exposure to the book…

“You have to allow the book to wrap itself around you.  All the time.  Everywhere you go.  Your mind needs to be turning it over, chewing it, stirring it, working it.  All the time, in the back of your mind.  The dreaded Creep is always out there, slowly trying to steal your book from you… Creep is subtle.  You may not notice it until years have gone by!  This is very common even though it sounds so drastic.  Sometimes it really does take years to notice that you quit something.  Even if you really loved that something.  The only antidote: surround sound.  Never turn off the stereo…

“You can’t take your eyes off the book.  Not for very long, anyway.  You must stay surrounded.  Happily.

“Court surround sound, and write your book from within that shimmering envelope.  Fight Creep with intention.  Tether yourself to the book every day. When you notice it slipping away, turn up the volume on your writing life.  All the way to ten.”

That woman is a spiritual director and she doesn’t even know it!  Go back and read that again.  It’s a summary of the struggles and strategies of the spiritual life.  I like to think of the mantle of Our Lady as the “shimmering envelope” within which we write our book, that is, live our life in Christ.  Fight the Creep; tether yourself to the Lord; turn up the volume and immerse yourself always and everywhere in his grace!

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