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

Archive for September, 2010

Turn, Turn, Turn (Part 1)

[Just when I thought I was out of recyclable articles, I found another one!  Just in time, too, since my brain is in need of recharging.]

That may be the title of a popular ‘60s song, but it also expresses an essential element of the spiritual life, one which must be engaged in repeatedly, or rather, continuously. That would be repentance, of course.  Repentance is meant to result in conversion, which literally means a “turning around” (also a “transformation”—both of these meanings are important for our present reflections).

If I’m going to say something about repentance—and I don’t mean a superficial acknowledgement or confession of sin, but something profound and life-changing—perhaps I ought to ask the greatest preacher of repentance, St John the Baptizer (more often referred to in our tradition as the Forerunner.)  It was his mission, as described by no less a luminary than the holy Archangel Gabriel, to turn.  The Forerunner would “turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,” and he would “turn the hearts of fathers to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just” (Luke 1:16-17).

The immortal human soul is not a mechanical thing, a mathematical thing, a biological thing, a material thing, or even a simple thing (in the non-philosophical use of the term).  It’s not something that can easily be “fixed” once it is damaged, nor is it something that a “user’s guide” can adequately explain.  Therefore when something negatively affects the inner life and dynamics of the soul, a radical solution is necessary for its restoration.

The souls of Adam and Eve were created perfect.  They were wholly turned toward God, bearing the fullness of all possible human faculties and capacities, no defects, no a priori evil inclinations, no weaknesses—except the potential vulnerability that necessarily accompanies free will.  As we are painfully aware, that vulnerability was thoroughly exploited by the evil one, resulting in the Fall of Man.  The consequence of this was not merely our first parents’ expulsion from Paradise, with its attendant hardships, but a profound turning away from God within the human soul.  This severe alteration within the soul has affected every human soul since then (with the glorious exceptions of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, who are therefore called the New Adam and the New Eve).

According to C.S. Lewis, what happened at the Fall had so tragically disfigured what God had originally created, that it made of man a kind of sub-species of himself, in a certain sense different than what he was before.  (The Greek Fathers also say that to sin is not to act according to human nature, but that it is beneath our nature, rendering us “sub-human” in its effects.)  So the issue of the hereditary transmission of what came to be called “original sin” is not controversial for Lewis.  After all, a species can only reproduce itself.  It’s not a matter of passing on a personal sin through human generation, but of reproducing beings that are inescapably and woefully defective: prone to sin and subject to death.

After millennia of sinful beings inhabiting the earth, exacerbating the primal turning away from God by countless deliberate turnings, God decided that it was high time to turn souls back to Him.  So He sent the Archangel to the priest Zachariah to tell him that he would have a son who would initiate God’s work of turning, a work that would be completed by the Only-begotten Son of God.  John was to set the stage.  He was consecrated and anointed to turn hearts to God, to turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous.  This is quite appropriate: since the original sin was one of disobedience, all sins retain something of that character, and so all must be turned back to obedience.

But as I said, the turning away of the human soul from its Creator is not a small thing, nor are its effects minor.  So when the Forerunner cries out, “Repent!” it is not enough merely to say “OK!” and then stop doing the bad things you had been doing.  That part is indispensable, of course, but it is only the beginning.

I would like to share here a bit of poetry in order to help us get a better grasp on this mystery of the inner turning away that is deeper than any individual sin or sum of sins.  It’s a sonnet written by Kathryn Mulderink, and is taken from her book of poetry entitled, To Sing You Must Exhale.  The sonnet is called De nocte, that is, “Of night.”

There’s a dark that illumines the darkness we are
In the subterranean chambers beyond sin,
Where subtler poisons deface, debar,
And unravel every hard-won discipline.
Below repentance’s smoothly finished frame
Lurk nature’s will and inward contradictions
Though we’ve immolated sense in puring flame
And submitted to our cleansing benedictions.
More contrariety with God have we
Than sin which once we chose but now reject;
He is more than sinlessness and we
Cannot sublimate through force or intellect.
We must let go of us, arms cruciform,
To expose our hearts to Fire that transforms.

What she’s saying is that what Scripture calls “the mystery of iniquity” goes so deep into the human soul that no superficial or even standard treatment can fully turn toward God that which was first turned away by original sin and later through numerous sinful choices.  The remedy must be a radical one.

But this turning from sin and turning to God is, in its fullness and depth, a rather complex and profound matter.  That is precisely because it is a spiritual, profoundly personal matter and not a merely legal or ritual one.  It’s easy enough to say “I repent,” and even mean it, and then receive absolution, but after that we might still not be wholly turned toward God.  It’s not enough simply to perform the proper ritual, even sincerely.  If you repent and honestly confess, you will be forgiven the guilt of your sin, but it may be that the necessary conversion (read: transformation) still has not taken place.  It may be that the will itself has not yet been sufficiently affected by grace, for the will has not sufficiently reached out to grace.  It still keeps, to some extent, its self-ward orientation, still is somewhat turned away from God, not entirely turned toward Him.  That’s one reason the Church insists that along with confession the penitent must have a “firm purpose of amendment,” because the heart newly turned to God still has a tendency to turn back away from Him.

This is why the prophetic mission of the Forerunner is so important, so crucial.  His work of turning hearts to the Lord, turning the disobedient to the way of wisdom, is not a mere correction of a few faults.  It is preparing the way for God to reach down into the depths of the human soul, to the hidden place at which we are all still connected to the primordial rebellion of Adam and Eve, and to turn it back, uniting to the obedience of Him who became man for our salvation, who humbled himself unto death on the Cross in radical obedience to the will of the Father.  To the extent that we all thus turn radically back to the Father, the power of the devil is utterly vanquished in this world.

To have our hearts wholly turned to God is not a matter of our simply saying “I’m sorry,” and then God saying, “Don’t worry, it’s OK.”  That is not salvation; that is not transformation.  Rather, to truly turn is to cry out from the depths, “O God, save me!  I am lost!”—as He reaches down and pulls us from the jaws of the dragon.  It is being willing to mount the altar of the Cross and to allow Fire from Heaven to consume the sacrifice.  If we don’t know how evil sin is, we can’t know how marvelous mercy is.  If we don’t tremble at the prospect of damnation, we cannot adequately appreciate salvation.

To be continued…

Leave Everything

After the post-feast of Easter and Pentecost—concluding the great paschal mystery of Christ—the Church begins anew her cycle of Sunday Gospels with the calling of the first disciples as recounted by St Matthew. Likewise, after the post-feast of the late-summer “pascha” of the Holy Cross, the Church begins anew her cycle of Sunday Gospels with the calling of the first disciples, this time as recounted by St Luke (5:1-11).

The very first thing we hear in the Gospel is that the people pressed upon Jesus to hear the word of God.  We might just pass over that point as a sort of introduction or setting of the context of Jesus’ getting into the boat with Peter and going out for the catch of fish.  But let us ask: why were they so eager to hear the word of God?  Perhaps it was simply because they hadn’t heard the word of God for a long time, and they were hungry for it, for they were in a time of distress.  There hadn’t been any real heroes in Israel since the time of the Maccabees, well over 100 years before.  They were under Roman domination, and perhaps they were praying along with the psalmist: “There is no sign from God, nor have we a prophet; we have no one to tell us how long it will last” (Ps. 73/74:9).  Their appetites for the word of God were probably whetted by John the Baptizer, but Herod had killed him shortly after he began to preach.  John, however, did have enough time to point to Jesus as “He who is to come,” the promised Messiah, so the people flocked to Jesus to hear what He had to say, in the hopes that He would be the Savior for which they longed.

They were so eager to hear Jesus that when He was preaching on the lakeshore, they thronged about him so forcefully that they nearly pushed Him into the lake!  So He decided to get into a boat and preach from that safer distance.  After this, however, the evangelist turns his attention away from the crowds to Jesus and the owner of the boat: one Simon, who would later be known as Peter.

Once Jesus finished teaching the crowd, He asked Simon-Peter to go out into deep water and let down his nets for a catch of fish.  Since Peter had allowed Jesus to use his boat as a pulpit in the first place, he probably already had some respect for Him as a teacher and man of God.  He wasn’t impressed, however, with Jesus’ knowledge of the fishing trade, for Jesus had asked Peter to go fishing when the sun was high in the sky, and any seasoned fisherman would know that the night time was the right time for letting down the nets for a catch.  But Peter held his tongue and did what he thought was a useless task, simply because it was Jesus who asked him to do it. And for this he was abundantly rewarded.

We see in this text the difference between doing one’s one will and doing the will of the Lord.  Peter said: “We toiled all night and caught nothing”—we, with our own wits and judgment, came up empty.  That is just what we ourselves can expect when we act only according to our own opinions, desires, or preferences.  We come up empty, we bear no fruit, we remain stuck in our own self-will with nothing to show for it.  After Peter said that his own judgment of where the fish were and his own efforts to catch them turned out to be wrong and fruitless, he then said, “But at your word, I will let down the nets.”  At your word—not my will, but yours be done; I set aside what I think best, so as to do what You think best; even though I think I know my own business better than You do, I submit to you out of respect for you as a teacher and man of God.  We have to realize that even when we think we know it better, we don’t really know it better, and we would do well to learn humility and obedience for the sake of doing God’s will rather than our own.

The reward for Peter’s humble obedience was a miraculous catch of fish.  Peter recognized that this was no coincidence but a work of God, for he immediately fell to his knees and confessed to the Lord Jesus that he was a sinner and did not deserve to be in the presence of this Holy One.  Jesus, by the fact that He did not depart or send Peter away from Him, and by the fact that He told him not to fear and invited him to a mission in his service, accepted his confession and rewarded his obedience.

When Peter and his fishing companions, James and John, came to shore, they did not have a feast celebrating their sudden good fortune, nor did they attempt to sell the great catch to make a large profit from it.  Amazingly, they just left everything behind and began to follow Jesus.  It was as if they had discovered the Pearl of Great Price or had found the Treasure hidden in the field.  They gave up everything they had so that they could receive this Pearl, this Treasure.  It is clear in many places in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus expects us to give up the treasures and possessions of this world in order to receive the treasure in Heaven that is granted to those who faithfully follow Jesus.

Later in this same chapter, Jesus calls Levi from his tax booth, and he left everything to follow Jesus.  The Lord further said to the rich young man and to the disciples in general to sell their possessions and give alms, so as to have treasure in Heaven. And He even said that those who are attached to their possessions simply cannot be his disciples.  So, in one way or another, all of us are called to leave everything for the sake of following Jesus.

The epistle for today (2Cor. 9:6-11) may help us gain some understanding of what this means.  The basic point is this: “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  If we are stingy with God, our labors will be in vain, like Peter toiling at his nets and catching nothing.  But if we are generous, willing to give up anything and everything for his sake, we will be amazed at how richly God rewards us.

As the Apostle says, God loves a cheerful giver.  This is a favorite passage of pastors who are trying to beef up the collections from the faithful, but it goes way beyond that.  God wants us to be cheerful givers of not only what we have but what we are, our time and talents, our hearts and souls and lives.  I heard a homily many years ago on the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, and the priest described a little holy card of the event he had once seen.  The boy who had provided the loaves and fish to the disciples was shown offering it to them, and the caption was: “With joy I give you everything.”  That ought to be our motto in following Jesus: “With joy I give You everything!”

It gives no glory to God if we serve Him with a sad or bitter or angry countenance, or if we grumble or complain in our hearts about what we are asked to do or suffer for Him.  St Paul says not to make any offering to God “reluctantly or under compulsion” but rather freely and with joy and gratitude that He has deigned to call us to his service and friendship.

Those who make religious vows are usually considered to be the ones who have left everything in order to follow Jesus, but long and unfortunate experience in the history of the Church, especially in recent decades, has shown that it is quite possible to live the vows in a superficial or intermittent fashion, to take back, little by little, what we once solemnly offered to the Lord—by trying to make ourselves as comfortable as possible while keeping up veneer of religious observance.  Remember that it is said that Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, so if we are to be followers of Christ we must, as we heard last Sunday, deny ourselves and take up our crosses each day.

St Paul goes on to indicate the fruit of generous and cheerful giving to God.  He says: “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance… He will multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness.  You will be enriched in every way because of your great generosity…”  So, as Jesus said elsewhere, the measure you give is the measure you will get.  If we sacrifice everything in order to follow Him, He will give us everything in return. And let us realize that God’s “everything” that He gives is a much better deal than our “everything” that we give up!

Jesus once said to St Faustina: “Your duty will be to trust completely in My goodness, and My duty will be to give you all you need… if your trust is great, then My generosity will be without limit.” To give up everything to follow Jesus means that we believe that He is worth it, that we can never be disappointed by throwing in our lot with Him.

But to trust in Him doesn’t mean to be content with offering a sloppy or careless observance of his commands, or half-hearted labors or lukewarm prayers, and then expect that He will overlook all that and bless and save us anyway.  That mentality is at best presumption and at worst callous disregard for the will of God and an insult to his holiness and goodness.  What trust does mean is that we give our all to God, believing that He loves us and provides for us all the grace necessary to do his will and find salvation, and that even if we stumble and fall along the way, He will pick us up and encourage us to continue in faithfulness.  And it also means that He will bless abundantly our sincere labors and reward them with the spiritual equivalent of Peter’s huge catch of fish.  But first we have to admit that doing our own will is vain and fruitless, and that we will do whatever Jesus asks of us because we trust in Him, in his superior wisdom, goodness, and love.

So let us put out into the deep, as it were, to take the risk of leaving everything to follow Jesus—whatever that might mean in our own personal circumstances and vocations, but at least leaving behind our self-will in order to do his.

God wants us to be cheerful givers, humble servants, faithful friends, and even intimate associates whom He can count on when He needs some sacrifice for the good of souls or for whatever spiritual fruit He desires us to bear.  Thus we will not only experience an abundance of grace and mercy in this life, we will discover to our everlasting joy that God has prepared for us endless treasures in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Bible Commercial

You may have noticed over the past few weeks that I’ve included in certain posts some insights gained from “a footnote in my Bible.”  Well, I’d like to say something about this Bible, since it is a fairly recent acquisition.  It is called the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament, published by (you guessed it) Ignatius Press.  It is something that I think many people have been waiting for; at least I have, anyway.  There just hasn’t been a good Catholic study Bible around for a long time.  It is a large volume, and you can get it for about $15 from Amazon.

I’ll give a few reasons why I like it.  First of all, it is an accurate translation (the Revised Standard Version, which is hard to find anymore).  Second, there is a fairly detailed commentary throughout, which of course you would expect from a study Bible, but there are certain advantages to this one that aren’t found in others.  The commentary combines the best of modern scholarship with a healthy respect and reverence for tradition, which means you are not going to find any off-the-wall comments that are designed to debunk the tradition or to deny or cast doubt upon the centuries-held teachings of the Church that are derived from these same Scriptures.  You can lose your faith in the divinity of Christ, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Holy Eucharist, etc, by taking courses on the Bible in a university (even a so-called “Catholic” one), but that won’t happen with this study Bible.  If anything, your faith will be enhanced, especially as you see how Scripture supports what Catholics believe.  (Naturally, since it is the Church that has produced and authorized the canon of the New Testament.)

There are not only numerous cross-references to related texts in other parts of the Bible; there are also cross-references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  This makes all the more clear the organic continuity between the Bible and the teachings of the Church.  There are also topical essays, introductions to each book of the New Testament, word studies, and various charts and maps.

The commentary is also keyed according to the type of explanation that is given, whether it be how a particular text fulfills or relates to something in the Old Testament, what the Church fathers have had to say about particular passages, or how certain passages have been received into the Living Tradition of the Church.

So, if you want to go more deeply into both the word of God and your Catholic faith, this study Bible is a very good place to start.  To show how the editors approach the Bible, and the spirit in which they present their commentaries, I’ll share with you the final lines of the editors’ introduction: “What we get out of the Bible will largely depend upon how we approach the Bible.  Unless we are living a sustained and disciplined life of prayer, we will never have the reverence, the profound humility, or the grace we need to see the Scriptures for what they really are.  You are approaching the ‘word of God.’  But for thousands of years, since before he knit you in your mother’s womb, the Word of God has been approaching you.”

Lords of the Moment

It may seem at times that our nation and our world are “out of control,” that things are moving irrevocably in an unfavorable (to say the least) direction, and that we, and at least the next several generations, are going to be stuck with a world full of tyranny, corruption, immorality, godlessness, loss of freedom, etc.  The father of lies seems to be implementing his diabolical plans to remake our world (especially the Western world) in his own disgusting image.

I read something a few weeks ago that gave me some encouragement in the midst of all this.  It was something that Jesus reportedly said in a vision to the Belgian mystic Berthe Petit in 1919.  His words are quite applicable to our own day and situation as well.  According to Berthe Petit, Jesus said: “The pride of the lords of the moment will be broken.  It will clearly be shown that nothing can subsist without Me, and that I remain the sole Master of the destiny of nations.”  The phrase “lords of the moment” stuck with me.  The power brokers of this world—those who are trying to manipulate the global economy, influence public opinion in favor of immoral and anti-Christian agendas, and exert ever-greater control over the common people—are nothing more than “lords of the moment.”  They will have their time in the limelight, and they may even inflict some serious damage, but soon they will be standing before the Judgment Seat of God to account for their lives and their crimes.

When contrasting the wisdom of God with the “wisdom” of this world, St Paul writes of “the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” (1Cor. 2:6).  Obama, for example, may think he is among the most powerful men of the world, but he’s nothing but a lord of the moment.  For all his rhetoric, his lies, his selling out of our country to global interests and potential terrorists, and his approval of America’s moral degeneration, he will soon vanish from view and be nothing more than a page or a footnote in future history books.  All that will eternally matter is how he stands when his works are judged by Almighty God.  The pride of the lords of the moment will be broken, said the Lord, and the world will eventually see that He alone is the Master of nations and their destinies.

It may be objected that even if the “world rulers of this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12—he was speaking of demons here, but it can be applied to people controlled by them) will soon pass away, others will take their place, and we will always be under the domination of some evil power or another.  For one thing, we have to remember that the Lord can intervene in human affairs if He wills—and if enough people are praying and sacrificing for this intention—in order to make significant changes.  But on the whole, we probably have to accept the fact that most people who wield national or global power don’t get to such positions by turning the other cheek, carrying their crosses and following Jesus.  So there will usually be evil men in power, and this world will never become another terrestrial paradise.  All previous attempts at creating a secular utopia in this world have instead created facsimiles of Hell.

That means that we have to look also at our own life as something that is passing away.  You and I are only a blip on the screen of world history, yet we are of immeasurable value in the eyes of God.  We have to realize that to some extent, perhaps a great extent, our lives are going to have to be offered as sacrifices to God, for the salvation of souls, the coming of his Kingdom, and his final triumph over all evil.  We are made for Heaven, so we don’t need to have everything go our way in this world.  “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb. 13:14).  So even though we are currently subject in some things to the lords of the moment, we must pray along with the prophet: “O Lord our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us, but your name alone we acknowledge” (Is. 26:13).  The next verse is something that might be sung in the future: “They are dead, they will not live; they are shades, they will not arise; to that end you have visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them.”  No matter what the lords of the moment impose upon us, our first allegiance is to the Lord our God, and wherever there is a conflict, we must obey God rather than man.

“The world, and the lust of it, passes away, but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1Jn. 2:17).  Likewise, we see in the Book of Revelation the swift destruction of the world center of wealth and power: “The great city that was clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet… in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste… What city was like the great city? … In one hour she has been laid waste.  Rejoice over her, O heaven, O saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” (18:16-20).  This whole book of the Bible was written to offer encouragement to the faithful disciples of Christ who were being persecuted by the lords of the moment.  The victory of Christ and of all that is good was announced in prophecy; the defeat of the devil and all that is evil was likewise proclaimed.

We don’t have to predict the final battles and the end of the world and other apocalyptic scenarios.  It should be enough for us that we have unshakable confidence in the power of God and his righteousness, and that we realize that today’s great and mighty ones are tomorrow’s humiliated and defeated ones.  Only the Lord of Heaven will reign forever, and even now He is surveying the world, to see who belongs to Him and who does not, who will share in his victory and who won’t.  God wants to save all people, but those who stubbornly stand against Him will still have to know that He is the true Lord of all.

So let us take courage, even if things sometimes (or often) look like they are going from bad to worse.  No matter what else happens, no one can rob you of your own soul, and you can preserve it in God’s grace by your fidelity to Him, and thus be assured of a place in Paradise.  Once we are in Heaven, the present lords of the moment will be nothing but a distant memory—if they aren’t utterly forgotten.  They will have all eternity to try to figure out what went wrong, that is, if they are not consumed with fighting each other to rise in the ranks of the hierarchy of Hell!  Maybe some things never change.  As for us, let us decide now to serve the Lord Jesus Christ as our only Lord, putting our complete trust in Him, come what may, and thus we shall enter into the eternal life of the joy and freedom of the children of God.

Go Ahead, Hit Me Again (or, A Rose for bin Laden)

On September 11, 2001, an Islamic jihad murdered at least 3000 American citizens on our own soil, causing immense human sorrow, economic loss, and national humiliation.  Now how do you think that event was commemorated in the Catholic cathedral in Sacramento, CA, in 2010?  By holding a service to bless the Koran, of course—even though the ones who perpetrated those evil deeds believed the inspiration for them was found therein.

It seems that insanity is reaching new levels in certain places.  Here is a portion of the story: “Representatives of different religions, including members of the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, and Druid [yes, California has everything] communities, took part in an interfaith blessing of the Qu’ran at Sacramento’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on September 11. During the ceremony, Father Michael Kiernan, rector of the cathedral, read from the Beatitudes… Several dozen people placed roses on the Quran, in front of the main doors to the cathedral. Upon placing their roses, people said before the crowd, ‘Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.’”

Yes, you read it correctly, they placed roses on the Koran in a Catholic cathedral dedicated to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.  Do you see anything wrong with this picture?  (A Druid placing a rose on the Koran in a Catholic cathedral: I couldn’t have made that up if I tried!)

There is much that can be said about this, but I’ll limit myself to a couple points.  First of all, do those deluded people really think that by blessing the Koran and showering it with roses they are in any way making peace with Islam?  I suppose that Islamic leaders all over the world, after wiping the tears from their eyes, will now say: “See how sensitive and conciliatory are those Americans who worship the one they call the Son of God.  We’ll now forgive them for that particular blasphemy, and we’ll even stop burning their churches and raping their women and wantonly slaughtering them all over the world.  Just think of it: they blessed our holy book.  Allahu Akbar!”  Um, no, I don’t think so.  What they are more likely to say is: “The satanic fools! This is going to be easier than we thought.  We destroy their buildings and kill their citizens, and they sing happy songs to us!”

Ostensibly, the rosy Koran blessing was a reaction to the intentions (never carried out) of the Florida pastor who was going to publicly burn the Koran.  He never should have made a media event out of that, if for no other reason than that he put in serious jeopardy Christians all over the world who are now going to experience more vicious persecutions than they already have.  I frankly wish that the Muslims held to the law of retaliation: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  As it stands now it is a thousand eyes for an eye…

Another point: I regularly read the publications of The Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian organization that serves persecuted Christians throughout the world, supplies them with Bibles and other Christian materials, medical care when Muslims burn or hack them with machetes, housing when Muslims burn their houses down, etc.  They are in the trenches.  They see the havoc that the Islamic jihad is wreaking all over the world, targeting Christians especially.  Now this is not a Catholic organization, but suppose they decided to see how their Catholic brethren might be helping the cause, supporting the persecuted, preaching the Gospel of Christ boldly and without compromise.  And then they see, to their horror, that we are blessing and showering with roses the book that the murderers of Christians hold in the air as they angrily shower us with their curses and threats!

Jesus said to love our enemies, not flatter or fawn on them.  We love them by prayer and sacrifice, begging God to enlighten them to the truth, to convert them from their murderous intentions, to forgive their sins by the power of the Precious Blood of Jesus so that they may be saved and find everlasting life in Him.  That is genuine love, not making ineffectual gestures that weaken us by denying, in effect, that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him.

This is an isolated incident, but the fact that it can happen at all, and then of course be plastered all over the internet, means that some internal housecleaning is indicated.  Those Koran-blessers are doing it in the name of peace, but peace is not an absolute value (see Lk. 12:51; Mt. 10:34), and it can’t simply mean “peace” in the sense of placating those whom we fear will slit our throats if we look at them the wrong way—which seems to be the reason why practically the whole world is allowing Islam to pervade and possess it.  We are at ceaseless war with the devil and his evil spirits (Eph. 6:12), and the truth of our faith cannot be compromised for the sake of an elusive “peace” with those who are not interested at all in being at peace with us—either with America or with Christianity.  We have to be respectful of the dignity of all humans as such, and we ought to acknowledge religious freedom as a right (though there is no reciprocity in countries where Islam reigns).  But it is foolish to bless that which categorically denies what we hold precious and holy in the revelation of the true God.  “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1Jn. 5:11).

Let us pray that we’ll soon see the last of such wrongheaded displays of politically-correct, tolerant, multi-cultural ecumenical diversity and Islam-is-a-religion-of-peace propaganda.  I wonder: has the Catholic cathedral in Sacramento ever held a special service in which roses were lovingly placed upon a Bible?

A Hopeful Conclusion

Last week I published a post on praying for the dying, so that sinners might be saved at the last minute through the mercy of God.  Well, I have what I think is some good news, because from all indications this just happened about a week ago. (All the names in the following account have been changed to respect their privacy.)

I received an e-mail from a friend of mine who works in pro-life ministries, and she was asking me for urgent prayers.  A friend of hers named Linda is a hospice nurse, and she had a dying patient named Marah.  Marah, who was characterized as “a very difficult, demanding woman who pushed everyone away,” was in a terrible state and was afraid to die.  She was divorced and had no children, but she had had five abortions and was in fear and despair.  Marah was not Catholic but she refused the services of any sort of chaplain.  Trying to convince herself that God didn’t exist, she hoped she wouldn’t have to face judgment for her sins.  She was not in denial about her abortions, though, since she openly admitted that she had killed her own children.  Marah was really standing at the brink of Hell, but she couldn’t accept forgiveness and was severely agitated as death approached.

Linda tried to open her heart, telling her that God would forgive her if she repented.  My friend suggested that Linda pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy at her bedside, and many other people were praying as well.  The monks at our monastery prayed, and I prayed the Chaplet and offered the Divine Liturgy so that she would receive the grace of final repentance.  No one knew for sure how it would turn out, since everyone is free to accept or reject God’s grace, but we put our trust in the mercy of Jesus.

During the night, toward dawn, Linda (who was at home; a night nurse was with Marah) was awakened.  She heard Marah’s voice, saying only, “Thank you, Linda.”  When she went to see her in the morning, she discovered that she had died.  The night nurse said she had died in peace, and Linda noticed that she looked so beautifully at peace that she hardly recognized her.

We will not know until we ourselves may meet Marah in Heaven, but it looks like the Lord heard our prayers for her and that she repented and turned to God before she died, or perhaps right as her soul was leaving her body.  It is never too late, and God will always receive the repentant, no matter how much evil they have done.

In a rather stark contrast to this, I remember a story a priest told me many years ago, when he was ministering to the sick and dying.  He was in a hospital and went to see an old woman who was dying.  She not only refused the last sacraments, she spat at him and cursed him and sent him away.  Later that day he came back to her room and found her dead, her face grotesquely contorted.  A voice, which he believes was the Lord’s, came to him saying: “I loved her and I lost her.”

I share this bad news along with the good news above because there is no automatic salvation.  The Lord is merciful and will forgive sins until the last possible moment, but if a soul with free will adamantly refuses to repent, He respects their freedom and sorrowfully lets them depart from Him.  That is why it is so urgent to pray for the dying, to spiritually sit at their deathbeds and beg the Lord to have mercy on them, to open their hearts so that they may respond to his grace and be saved.

When I heard about the recent natural gas explosion and fire in San Bruno, California, I immediately began to pray, especially for any who would die in the fire (it turned out that six people had died, though many others were badly burned).  They had no time to repent.  It was about 6:00 PM and most were probably sitting down to supper when there was a loud noise and suddenly their homes burst into flames (over 40 homes were completely destroyed).  The Lord told us to watch and pray, for we know not the day or the hour, and we may be called before his judgment seat when we least expect it.

So let us give thanks to God, for the signs indicate that Marah received forgiveness and was saved.  And let us pray fervently for all those who are at the point of death—or who may soon die suddenly and without warning—that they may be ready to meet the Lord in his mercy and love, and may embrace the salvation that Jesus died to offer them.

This is why at Fatima Our Lady asked us to pray: O my Jesus, forgive us our sins; save us from the fires of Hell.  Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of your mercy.

To Love, Exalt, and Obey

Today I am called to preach the Gospel of the Cross, the “word of the Cross,” as St Paul says in the epistle for this feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross (1Cor. 1:18-24).  This word, this gospel, this message and teaching concerning the Cross of Jesus Christ, is “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  It is significant, as a footnote in my Bible indicates, that the Apostle speaks of both the unbelievers and the believers in the imperfect tense, as if to say that these realities are part of a process and thus are not unchangeably fixed.  Those who are in the process of perishing can still repent and be saved, and those who are in the process of being saved can, alas, still fall away and be lost.  So the question for us is not, “Am I saved or am I lost?” or “Is my name written in the Book of Life or is it not?”  Rather, it should be, “Am I being faithful to the grace of God right now and will I persevere until the end and thus be saved?” (see Mt. 24:13).  As long as we accept and embrace the Cross as the power of God in our own lives, we will remain on the path to eternal salvation.

We proclaim a selection from St John’s Passion account for the celebration of this feast, which contains various elements: the condemnation by the leaders of the Jews and by Pontius Pilate, the declaration of the kingship of Christ, the carrying of the Cross and the crucifixion, the presence of Our Lady and St John at the Cross, and the death and piercing of the Heart of Jesus.   Since I preached about Jesus’ condemnation and kingship on the recent feast of the Procession of the Cross, I will try to look at the mystery today through the eyes of Our Lady.

For most major feast days, the Byzantine liturgical calendar has the custom of providing a follow-up feast on the day after, called a synaxis, or gathering, which celebrates the “supporting cast” (so to speak) of the feast.  Most recently we have seen this in on the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, which was immediately followed by the feast of her parents, Saints Joachim and Anne.  But for the feast of the Holy Cross, there is no synaxis.  Yet strangely enough, on the Latin calendar, where there is no custom of holding a synaxis on the day after major feasts, we do find one for the feast of the Holy Cross—almost as if they had to make up for this exceptional omission in the Byzantine tradition.  On the Latin calendar, the day after the feast of the Holy Cross is the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Whenever we meditate on the Passion of Christ—and we should do so often—it seems to me that we generally do so through our own eyes, utilizing our own thoughts and reflections, which is understandable.  But suppose we tried to look at Jesus on the Cross through his Mother’s eyes, and through her tears.  Perhaps we would gain greater insight; perhaps our hearts would open a little more.

When I unite myself to Mary at the foot of the Cross, I seem to see Him in two major contexts, that of love and of obedience.  Fundamentally, it was love that both filled and broke the Heart of Mary as she witnessed the agonizing death of her only Son on the Cross.  Perhaps a mother can understand something of what this is like if she has had to witness the death of one of her children.  But I think no one can fathom the depths of the love of this Mother for this Child.  For this Mother is the Mother of the Son of God, and her Child is the divine Savior of the world.  She conceived Him miraculously without a human father, at the annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel; she experienced the virginal birth-giving and lived in profound intimacy with Him the whole time she raised Him.  She experienced his love and his tenderness like no one else.

But now she saw Him crying out in agony to his Father on the Cross, pierced by nails and thorns, rent by scourges and racked with thirst.  Our liturgical texts depict her as wondering how the Lord of the universe could submit Himself to such shameful torture, wondering what happened to the good news she had heard from the angel, longing to die with Him, and feeling a sword piercing her own heart as the lance was thrust into her Son’s.

In all this anguish, however, Mary did not resist, resent, or rebel against the will of God.  As Christ was obedient even unto death on the Cross, his Mother was also obedient to the Father’s will. The “yes” she pronounced at the annunciation was not for that event only, but for the whole of her life, which was consecrated wholly to God.  So Our Lady had to say yes not only to her own suffering at seeing her beloved Son dying so painfully—that is, “let it be done to me”—she had to do something even more difficult.  She had to accept the Father’s will for her precious Son, whom she loved more than her own self: she had to say “Let it be done to Him according to your word.”

Mary received Him as the Incarnate Son when she conceived and gave birth to Him, and she received Him as the Savior when she stood beneath his Cross.  Her yes at the foot of the Cross was required as a consequence of her yes at the annunciation.

We see also in this mystery a double gift and a double mission for the whole Church inaugurated at the Cross.  Mary was given all of us as her children, and this gift contained the mission of her responsibility to protect and intercede for us, so that we might all make our way to the Cross of Jesus, and there find salvation.  On the other hand, all of us were given the gift of Mary as our heavenly Mother, and it is our mission and responsibility to stand at the Cross of Jesus with both love and obedience as Mary did.

In our vocation as disciples of Jesus, love and obedience are inseparable.  If we say we love Him but do not live in obedience to his commandments and the requirements of our vocation, we are at best deluded and a worst outright liars.  But neither can we obey if we have not love, for it is love of Jesus that makes obedience both possible and fruitful.  Let us learn from Our Lady how to love Jesus with our whole heart, and also how to say “let it be done to me” in all the practical aspects of living according to God’s will.

We are aware—though perhaps not sufficiently, because we keep doing it—that our sin offends the Lord and was the reason He had to suffer so terribly.  But perhaps we are even less aware that our sin breaks our heavenly Mother’s Heart as well. She has every right to be angry with us for killing her beloved Son, but since she lives in love and obedience she seeks only our repentance and restoration to grace and intimate life with the Lord.  If we could perhaps see Our Lady’s tears when we are tempted to commit sin, we might think twice about wounding her loving heart once again, and remember the price Jesus paid so that we could be delivered from that very sin.  At Fatima, Our Lady’s heartfelt plea was: “Do not offend Our Lord any more, for He is already too much offended.” She showed the children a vision of Hell to make it clear what the consequences are for continuing in sin and not coming to the Cross of Jesus with repentance, prayer, and sacrifice.

The raising up of the Cross on this feast, then, as it says in our Vespers service, is an appeal to all mankind: an appeal to us to see how much Jesus loves us and suffered for us, and hence an appeal to repent, to cease offending Our Lord, to turn to Him with love and the promise of obedience henceforth.  Let us ask for the grace to weep for our sins and to rejoice in our forgiveness, purchased at such a terrible price through Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.  Let us come to the Eucharistic chalice with faith and love and gratitude, as the Lord mercifully feeds us each day with the Bread from Heaven and the New Wine of the Kingdom of God.

When St Faustina was first told by Jesus that He wanted a feast of Divine Mercy established, she wasn’t sure why, since, as she said, there already was such a feast.  A footnote explains that there was a Church of the Divine Mercy in Cracow, and its patronal feast was the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14.  So let us celebrate this day as a feast of Divine Mercy, the feast on which we read the Gospel of the pierced side of Christ, from which flowed blood and water, grace and mercy, the symbols of the Holy Eucharist and Baptism, the twin streams of uncreated light and love that constantly radiate from the Heart of Christ and cover the whole world—a world that is largely indifferent to his offer of mercy unto salvation.

Jesus sometimes asked St Faustina to receive all the graces that others spurn, because his love is such that He must pour out his grace and mercy without measure.  So let us also open our hearts to receive the graces that others spurn, and then let us bear much fruit through prayer and sacrifice so that all these others will finally open their hearts to the Lord, embracing the “word of the Cross” and hence joining the ranks of those who are being saved.

If the world in its corrupt “wisdom” rejects the word of the Cross, so be it.  For us it will always be the power of God if we approach it in faith and love and obedience, willing to share the sorrows of our heavenly Mother as she grieves over the souls heedlessly fleeing from her Son and heading for Hell.  For, as the psalmist says, sorrow is but the guest of a night, and joy comes with dawn.  The Apostle urges us to suffer now with Christ so as to be glorified with Him forever (Rom. 8:17). The measure of our love for Jesus is found in our willingness to stand with Mary at his Cross, even unto sharing his sufferings for the sake of those whom He died to save.  And this union in love and suffering will reap a harvest of souls for eternal salvation, and for the delight and glory of the Lord.

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