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

Archive for February, 2011

Salvation and the Works of Love

We’re only about a week away from Lent, and so the Church is getting serious about our preparation, placing before us the ultimate consequences of our either doing God’s will or failing to do it.

Johnny and Mary Mullins are here with us today, to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary, and we might wonder why God has arranged for the Gospel of the Last Judgment (Mt. 25:31-46) to be read on this happy occasion!   But perhaps this is appropriate after all.  In a sense, every major decision we make in this life is made as before the judgment seat of God, because we are striving to do his will, and we seek his wisdom and his blessing upon our vocations, for we do not want to do anything that would displease Him.  The prayer that we priests pray before each Divine Liturgy, which in the version we use here says we come before his awesome altar, reads, in another version, that we come before his awesome judgment seat every time we offer the Holy Sacrifice.  So we all stand before God in the events and decisions of our lives, hopefully so that we will find ourselves standing without blame before his judgment seat at the end of our lives.

This Gospel is not readily accepted by some, especially non-Catholics.  I’ll have to give some background here.  I read an article in a recent issue of Christianity Today that just confirms what kind of errors people can fall into when they separate themselves from the Spirit-guided teaching authority of the Catholic Church.  I would hardly have been able to believe this if it had not been confirmed by people I know who have personally experienced it.  The issue is this: many Protestants focus much more on the words of St Paul than they do on the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ!  The article recounts the experience (which is evidently quite common) of a man who, in growing up, almost never heard a sermon on the Gospels, only on the epistles of St Paul.  Then, when he eventually entered a seminary, the great problem was how to fit the teachings of Jesus into the theology of Paul.  Does something seem wrong with this picture?  Um, I think we’re supposed to realize that St Paul was a servant of Jesus, that Jesus is the eternal Word and Wisdom of God, and therefore that everyone else has to fit into what Jesus has said.  The Catholic Church has always given priority to the Gospels for precisely that reason, and it should be a no-brainer that the words of Jesus are absolute truth and can never be subordinated to the words of any of his disciples, and any interpretation of the epistles cannot be legitimately employed to minimize the force of Jesus’ own words.  Of course, all of Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and if one accepts the writings of St Paul in their entirety, instead of focusing only on certain passages that deal with salvation through faith, then Jesus and Paul are quite compatible indeed, as the Church has always held.

So what does all this have to do with the Gospel of the Last Judgment?  It is something that Protestants don’t want to hear, and I’ve experienced this in conversations: Jesus explicitly states that salvation and damnation depend on what we do, not merely on what we believe.  He says that if we see Him in others and minister to them accordingly we will be welcomed into Heaven; if we don’t, we will have to go to Hell.  He does not present faith as the criterion for salvation, nor prayer, nor anything at all except love—love which is expressed in practical ways, meeting the urgent needs of our fellow human beings, for Jesus’ sake.  Let us remember that these are the words of the Son of God, and as such they are absolutely, unequivocally true.  If St Paul hadn’t been embroiled in controversies with those who insisted that Christians must obey all the precepts of the law of Moses in order to be saved—and hence had to overemphasize certain counter-arguments—there would never have arisen the falsely-perceived opposition between the teachings of Jesus and Paul.

Let us then try to understand more fully the meaning of Jesus’ teaching about what makes for salvation and what makes for damnation, for there is no more important issue than this for our eternal destiny.

First of all, we can say that in the Christian life love presupposes faith.  If we don’t have faith in Christ, we are not going to accept that He identifies with the poor and needy, and we are not going to serve them for his sake.  So if we don’t begin by believing that Christ is the Savior of our souls, who died and rose to forgive our sins and to open the gates of Paradise to those who would follow Him, we’ll never even get onto the narrow path to the Kingdom of Heaven.  But merely believing these things is only the beginning of our life in Christ, and it does not guarantee our salvation.  The whole faith/works controversy is really a non-issue for the true Christian.  Instead of opposing faith and works, we should simply affirm that if faith is true faith, then faith works.  Genuine faith is applied faith, it is faith that proves itself by practical expressions of it.  Even St Paul, in the very epistle many use to insist on salvation by faith alone, says that the only thing that “is of any avail,” is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).

This is why Jesus presents love as the criterion for our judgment, and hence of our eternal destiny.  Scripture is very clear on this: if we believe in Jesus, we will love Him.  To love Him is to keep his commandments.  If we read the Gospels—and the epistles as well—we will see that keeping his commandments entails doing good to our brothers and sisters for his sake.  If we fail to do good to others for his sake, we will lose our immortal souls forever.  Jesus gave a concise summary of what is necessary for salvation when He was asked what one must do to inherit eternal life: love God and love your neighbor (see Lk. 10:25-28).

So let us look at this love which is the chief criterion for the judgment of our lives before God.  According to St John, if we say we love God, but do not love our brothers and sisters, we are liars (1Jn. 4:20).  And according to both St John and St James, if we say we believe in God and love our brothers and sisters, but do nothing of a practical nature to help them in their need, we are frauds and not headed for eternal life (1Jn. 3:17-18; James 2:14-17).  Therefore it is clear that love is a matter neither of words nor of warm feelings, but rather of deeds.  If love is not manifested in deeds, it is not love at all; it is a sham, it is self-deception.

That is why Jesus gave very practical examples of how we are to be judged.  He doesn’t say: you didn’t have warm feelings for Me, you didn’t speak sweet words to Me.  Rather, He says: you didn’t feed Me when I was hungry, or give Me drink when I was thirsty, or take care of Me when I was sick.  It is fine to have warm feelings for Jesus and to speak sweet words to Him—but not as a replacement for the demands of true Christian life.

Jesus identifies with everyone who is an “other” in our lives, especially those who stand in need of our practical expressions of love.  And He gives a teaching that we don’t usually like to hear, and quite quickly forget even when we have heard it: “What you do to these, you do to Me.” These brothers and sisters of Jesus, with whom He personally identifies, begin with those closest to us, but include others as well.  For married couples: the way you treat your spouse is the way you treat Jesus.  For families: the way you treat your children, or the way you treat your parents, is the way you treat Jesus.  For monks: the way you treat your brothers is the way you treat Jesus.  We can always have a “yes, but…” answer for this, but I don’t think “yes, but…” is an acceptable response at the judgment seat of Christ.

Then there are others who really may need to be fed, clothed, and taken care of in their basic needs.  Since we live in an affluent society, these are often far from our notice, yet through modern means of communication they lay at our gates like Lazarus at the gate of the rich man.  How can we say no to a starving child in Haiti or Sudan or India?  We are saying no to Jesus.  So we must be generous.  We obviously cannot solve the crisis of world hunger or disease out of our own meager bank accounts, but we can always give more than we are comfortable giving, for Jesus is going to ask us if we fed and clothed Him in his poor brothers and sisters, and He will demand an answer.

If we have no material means at all, we can pray and sacrifice for the least of Jesus’ brethren.  Not just perfunctory prayers, but prayer from the heart, prayer through which we feel the anguish of those who are suffering, and offer this to God to win blessings for them.  If we pray for the hungry we should also fast, so we know what it is like to be hungry, at least for a time, and so our prayers will be more heartfelt and fruitful.  This is faith working through love, and this is love that is genuine because it is expressed in deeds, and therefore it will rank us among the blessed of the Father, whom Jesus joyfully invites to inherit the Kingdom prepared for us since the foundation of the world.

The three main pillars of Lenten observance are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  I’ve already recommended them all as ways of living our faith, of loving in practice.  But works done merely to satisfy a requirement, or which are done grudgingly or self-righteously, are not expressions of faith working through love.  Perhaps this is what St Paul was opposed to, and Jesus was as well.  We are not saved merely by placing this or that act in order to make God indebted to us, so that He is then required to reward us.  No, the works we do flow from our faith in God and from our faithfulness to the Great Commandment: to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  So our attitudes and motivations will also be brought before the judgment seat of God.  No one pulls the wool over God’s eyes, for He is the Searcher of Hearts, and that is precisely what He is going to do on judgment day.  He’s going to look at what we have done, and also at why and how we have done it.  He’s going to see if our treasure, and hence our hearts, have been with Him in Heaven, and if we have proved this by the way we have lived.   Only then will we be invited to share in eternal life and joy.

So let us take the message of this Sunday seriously, and as we enter the final week of preparation for Lent, let us reflect upon the words of the Son of God and put them into practice.  Let us not be like those who ignore them or reduce their significance for our salvation, simply because they prefer certain passages from St Paul!  There is no opposition between faith and works, but rather the true life in Christ is faith working through love.

The Day Draws Near

Just before we started reading the weekday Gospels of the Passion of Christ in preparation for Lent, we heard a few days’ worth of apocalyptic readings from the Gospel of Mark.  This Saturday we have another Gospel of end-time scenarios, this time from St Luke (21:8-9, 25-36).  What is the Church trying to tell us?

I think there are two things, and one of them has to do with the fact that this Saturday is the first of our “Saturdays of the Dead,” one of the characteristic elements of pre-Lenten and Lenten observances.  What we hear in the Gospel is an “end of the world” scenario—signs in the heavens and calamities on earth, and turmoil in the hearts of men, just before the glorious return of the Lord. (And in fact on Sunday we are going to proclaim the Gospel of the Last Judgment.) But the Saturdays of the Dead give us a kind of “end of my world” scenario.  As we pray the Offices for the deceased, we commemorate the dead not merely as one huge generic mass of departed souls, but we actually examine the many ways one can die, as if to say: life is precarious, and you don’t know when it will be your turn to depart, so be ready.

We pray for every class and rank of people. We pray for those who have died in wars and natural disasters, from diseases or sudden accidents.  There are even few categories one might not expect find in the Divine Office, like those who died from choking on bones or who have been “swallowed by serpents… strangled or hanged by their neighbors.”  But this is all a kind of reality check.  Just as the funeral service in the Byzantine tradition is not meant only as an opportunity to pray for the one who just died, but also as a teaching moment about the brevity of life and the certainty of death, judgment, Heaven and Hell—so the Offices for the dead on these Saturdays are meant not only to obtain succor for the departed but also to remind us that it is not so unlikely that we might be next.

The “day” that Jesus talks about in the Gospel does not have to be the day of the final reckoning: it can mean, in the present context, the day of our own death, and that is why it is appropriate to read it today.  The Lord says: “Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare…”  Here at the monastery we were talking at table a while back about a few cases in which people who were young and healthy suddenly dropped dead without a moment’s warning.  That is why the Lord continues his discourse, saying: “Watch at all times, praying that you may have strength… to stand before the Son of Man.”  Watch and pray, this is a recurring counsel in the Gospels and it is fitting to remind ourselves of it again as we prepare for Lent, the time par excellence to watch and pray, not only for our own souls, but for all those who are unprepared at this time to stand before the Son of Man.

The other reason we have this Gospel shortly before Lent may have to do with the nature of what our Lenten efforts and prayers prepare us for.  The death and resurrection of Christ are, in a sense, apocalyptic events, not that they are chronologically near the end of the world, but that they are revelatory events that define absolutely the deepest meaning of the world and its history.  Everything that happened before the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ was in some way a preparation for it, and everything that happens after it must somehow take it as its reference point.  Of course, many today, and in the centuries after the resurrection of Christ, have ignored or rejected its significance, but they do this at the peril of missing out on the meaning of life itself, choosing a lie, a negation of truth, a departure from reality and from the destiny for which we were created, and all this will have eternal consequences.

So the Church is telling us: what you are preparing to celebrate, what your Lenten struggles are all about, is just as significant, just as earth-shaking as the very end of the world and of time and history.  The heavens and the earth will pass away, but the word of the Lord will not pass.  His word is the Gospel of our salvation, and his word became deed in his passion, death, and resurrection.

Let us take heed, then, for we know not the day or the hour—of the Lord’s coming to judge the world or our own individual souls.  And as we celebrate this special Saturday, let us remember the somber little ditty we sometimes sang as good Catholic kids: “Pray for the dead and the dead will pray for you.”

The Quest for the Virgin Mother (Part 2)

Let us understand the fullness of the meaning of virginity.  To be virginal is not only to maintain a certain type of bodily integrity, and here is where we can have a more spiritual connection to the Blessed Virgin.  Most people in this world are not called to be virginal or celibate, so most people cannot identify with a purely physical virginity, which is too often defined in negative terms: a virgin is someone who does not have sexual intercourse.  Spiritually seen, Mary’s virginity (and hence our attempted imitation of it) is an expression of undivided devotion to God, complete availability for the carrying out of his will, a personal consecration to God that excludes everything that is not of Him or not pleasing to Him.  We honor Mary as Virgin not only because of the miracle God worked in her, but because she belonged to Him, body and soul, and that is our desire and goal, the Christian raison d’etre as well.  “I am the handmaid of the Lord”—this defines Mary as virginal in the spiritual sense.

Finally, let us look to Mary as our Mother.  Having arrived at this point, I would hope that we’re done with controversies, but it seems that even this point is argued.  Some people—this is incredible but unfortunately true—don’t even want a Mother in Heaven.  Why not?  I can’t think of a single good reason.  (It may be, though, that some people’s earthly mothers have been abusive or overbearing, and hence for them one mother already seems more than enough, but they shouldn’t project those unfortunate experiences all over Heaven; it’s much more rewarding to stick to the reality of God’s gracious gifts.) Certainly no harm can come to anyone from Mary, who has loved and served God all her life and who loves each of us as her own dear children, for whom she desires nothing less than eternal joy in Paradise—only good can come from such love, such fervent and compassionate intercession on our behalf.

As to her spiritual maternity of all the Father’s children, the Bible will help us out here.  The Church has always accepted that Christ gave his Mother to be our Mother with his dying breath on the Cross.  “Behold, your mother,” said Jesus to the disciple whom He loved.  And to Mary: “Behold, your son.” Then the disciple took her into his own home (literally, into “his own things,” i.e., she became part of his life; Jn. 19:26-27).  Now some commentators (without even a little embarrassment, incredibly) interpret this thus: “How thoughtful of Jesus to make housing arrangements for his mom at a moment most inconvenient to Himself.”  This is ridiculous.  Jesus had more far-reaching things to do at that solemn and unrepeatable hour of the consummation of his life and mission than to deal with the logistics of providing accommodations for his about-to-be-bereaved mother.  If that’s all He was doing, then that bit of Scripture would be useless to us.  Besides, Jesus knew well in advance when He was going to die; He predicted it several times.  If He really wanted to consult with John and Mary about how to arrange things after He was gone, He would have done it beforehand.  (Note also that if Mary had borne other children, Jesus wouldn’t have had to bother about the issue at all.  Mary would have simply moved in with one of her other kids.)

But, like everything else Jesus said and did, He spoke those words for our benefit.  Mary didn’t need a son to replace Jesus (who could, anyway?), and we can probably assume that John was content with the mother he already had.  But the Church, which was being born as Jesus “handed over the spirit” (literal translation of the last phrase of Jn. 19:30), was granted at that moment the gift of a spiritual Mother.  St John is never named in this Gospel.  He is only referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and hence to later generations as the “Beloved Disciple.”  Something interesting happens in the Greek text of the Bible at the moment of this giving of mother to son and son to mother.  They become universal figures, as it were.  Mary is referred to only as “the mother,” and John only as “the disciple.”  Thus in the person of St John, all beloved disciples of Jesus received Mary as their mother, a final gift from Jesus before He died.  Far from tying up the loose ends of housekeeping, Jesus was giving the whole world a spiritual blessing.  If they would be his disciples, He would give them his beloved mother as their own.

Additionally, in the Book of Revelation (12:1-5), there is the glorious Woman Clothed with the Sun.  I know; the identity of this Woman is another controversial issue. But look, if this Woman gives birth to a Son who is to rule the nations and is taken up to the throne of God—and this Son can only be Jesus—at least one possible interpretation of her identity must be Mary.  At the end of the chapter it speaks of her “offspring” (which would mean: her spiritual children), who are described as “those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (which would mean: Jesus’ beloved disciples, i.e., the ones represented by the Beloved Disciple at the Cross, who was given Mary—whose identity is not controversial in that passage—as his mother).

So then, if Mary is our Mother, what does she do for us?  She doesn’t usurp the role or prerogatives of the Father, for she knows what she is not.  It is for God to save souls and receive worship and to order the universe in general.  Mary’s role is more modest, yet still most welcome.  She is the pray-er par excellence.  She brings our needs to the Lord.  “What?” you say. “Does the omniscient and all-seeing God need someone to bring our needs to his attention?”  No, of course not.  So stop praying for your own loved ones and for yourself.  See?  Something doesn’t sound right about that.  We bring our needs and those of others to the Lord, and we ask others to bring our needs to Him in prayer—even though He knows them already—so why not ask one who is very close to Him in Heaven?  God is the Father of a huge family, and He likes his children to interact with Him, and prayerful intercession is one way of doing it.  Was Jesus unaware of the crisis at Cana when the wine failed?  Yet his mother came to Him, saying, “They have no wine,” and He worked his first miracle at her request.  She still comes to Him saying of us (perhaps), “They have no sense,” or “They have no virtue” or “They need your help.”  And at her request He grants more gifts of grace.

We look to the Mother of God as one who prays for us, who looks out for us, who protects us, who leads us along the narrow path to the Kingdom of Heaven.  It ought to be a natural thing, a comfortable thing, something that is just “right” in the basic structure of things—not something we have to arrive at through tortuous theological reasoning, or something that feels contrived or irksome because obligatory.  She’ll be patient while you get to know her.  And she’ll be with you in the meantime, doing all she can to nudge you quietly Godward.  Mary is not a doctrine; she’s a person, and she’s profoundly interested in your salvation.

There’s a whole lot more that could be said as we continue our quest for the Virgin Mother.  There are other mysteries related to her that I haven’t mentioned at all—and inevitably there are, I’m afraid, more controversies.  Yet I’ve written what I have as a kind of reflection on a couple of the most fundamental mysteries, and I hope that something in there has been helpful to you.  If anything I’ve said helps you reconsider any reservations you may have had or has encouraged you to approach her with a bit more love and confidence, then I’ve succeeded in my task.

In the final analysis, I don’t find Mary controversial at all.  I’m just glad she said “yes” to the Lord for his incarnation and hence our salvation.  I’m glad she’s there for me.  I love her very much.  After all, she’s my Mother!

The Quest for the Virgin Mother (Part 1)

[I wrote this article about three years ago for our monastery newsletter—I didn’t know I had any more stuff that wasn’t already recycled for the blog!—and since I’ve been writing and thinking and praying about Our Lady quite a bit since last April, I thought it would be good to share with you as much as possible, both to support the Tradition of the Church and to encourage your greater love and devotion. (This version is slightly edited.)  So then, as Jesus said: Behold your Mother! ]

I thought I might write something about Our Lady, though this tends to be something of a daunting proposition, unless the entire world were devoutly and comfortably Catholic—for which, let us pray!  Mary of Nazareth, Mother of the Savior, is one of the most attractive (for some), perplexing (for others), and venerable (for still others) figure in human history.  Her mystery is not yet fully fathomed; the controversies have not yet subsided; and her veneration continues among the faithful without missing a heartbeat.

I think I’ll not deal much with controversies here, but rather, as the title suggests, I’ll continue the basic Christian quest for understanding and deeper devotion to the Mother of God.  Perhaps this will be little more than an exercise in “thinking out loud” about Our Lady, but hopefully it will bring a bit of light where it may be needed or desired.

I don’t know where to begin, really, though perhaps it would be good to say a few words about what she is not before I reflect on what she is.  That’s how St John the Forerunner started out, anyway.  When he was asked, “Who are you?” his immediate response was: “I am not the Christ” (Jn. 1:19-20).  Before he said who he was, he said who he was not.  That approach can be helpful.  What if we asked Our Lady: “Who are you?”  She might first say: “I am not a goddess.  I am not the Savior.  I am and can do nothing but what my God and Savior has granted me.”  This is clearly borne out in Catholic and Orthodox theology and practice, though some Byzantine liturgical texts tend to dance around the borders of strict orthodoxy.  It seems as though the ancient hymnographers were cutting a few corners on lex orandi, lex credendi (“the law of prayer is the law of faith,” i.e., the words of our prayer manifest what we believe).  Those pious but somewhat exaggerated liturgical expressions are usually attributed to something like “the devout effusions of sacred eloquence” (Edmund Burke), though one might wonder if one could still be devoutly effusive and sacredly eloquent while being a bit more theologically rigorous.  But I said I wasn’t going to be controversial.

There has been another quest going on for some decades now (and probably off and on, here and there, for millennia), which has been often termed “the quest for the divine feminine.”  I confess I was somewhat intrigued by this for a time and even did a little research in the Bible (mostly the Wisdom Books) and some patristic writings.  This quest is for a feminine “principle” in God, which usually ends up being identified with the Divine Person of the Holy Spirit.  That conclusion cannot be unambiguously asserted, however, and even though there is some data to recommend it, it has proven to be a point of departure for further (and usually bizarre) conclusions that orthodox theology cannot accept.

Yet it can’t be denied that “God created man in his own image… male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).  Therefore there is that in God of which the masculine is an image, and that in God of which the feminine is an image.  But it seems to be too simplistic to assign these characteristics directly to specific Divine Persons.  Are the Father and the Son masculine while the Holy Spirit is feminine?  Does that make God two-thirds male and one-third female?  God qua God is without gender, so the answer to the question of the divine image in male and female human persons is more mysterious and profound than we can readily conceive.

It will be wise to leave that controversy behind as well, but I think that Fr George Montague, in his book Our Father, Our Mother: Mary and the Faces of God, was on to something when he said that even though there are indications in the Bible that within God there is that which is imaged in man as both masculine and feminine, God has simply chosen to reveal Himself as Father as not as Mother.  Jesus always and only spoke of God as his Father and invited us to do the same.  So Fr Montague concludes that God chose a human mother to be an icon, as it were, of the “maternal” care and love that God bestows upon us.  (If we find maternal love among humans, it must also be in God, for we are made in his image.)  But Mary is not therefore—let me hasten to add!—an incarnation of God, for she, unlike her Son, is not divine and hence cannot express the nature of God in her very being.  But it’s easier for us to see in a woman the image of maternal love than it is to see it in a man.  Are things getting too complicated here?  To know the Father we must look to the Son of God, and to behold an image of heavenly and maternal love, we must look to the Mother of God.

Oh, did I just open up another controversy?  To say that Jesus is the Son of God means that He is the Son of the Father.  What, then, do we mean when we say that Mary is the Mother of God?  Let’s go back to the Forerunner’s via negativa: let’s first say what “Mother of God” does not mean.  She’s not the mother of the Father.  She’s not the mother of the Holy Spirit.  She’s not the mother of the Holy Trinity.  She is the mother of the incarnate Son of God.  She is not merely the mother of Jesus’ human nature, which would be impossible.  One cannot give birth to an abstraction, only to a person.  Human nature does not exist except in real human beings.  Jesus is a Divine Person (the eternal Son of God), who assumed, i.e., united inseparably to Himself, a human nature and thus became man.  He is still God.  Mary is the mother of the Son of God made flesh, the mother of a Divine Person, incarnate.  Thus she is rightly invoked and venerated as the Mother of God (Greek Theotokos, literally, “she who gave birth to God”).  It might be more precise to call her the “Mother of God the Son incarnate,” but “Mother of God” is a lot easier to say, and we’re all supposed to know what that means.

An early Ecumenical Council of the undivided Church declared and defined Mary as Theotokos at Ephesus in Anno Domini 431.  This was to quash the heresy that Christ was two separate persons, a divine and a human one, somehow stuck together in Mary’s womb, and that Mary was only the mother of the human one.  (But didn’t the Archangel Gabriel say that she would give birth to the Son of the Most High?  Lk. 1:31-32.)  The mother of one of two persons stuck together in the same womb: that’s what you end up with if you deny that Mary is the Mother of God.  Seems a little silly, doesn’t it?  So relax, it’s OK.  You can call Mary the Mother of God and be a true-believing Christian.  In fact, the Council declared that that’s how you should refer to her if you want to be a true-believing Christian.  I’m not trying to be controversial, though I fear I may have struck a nerve in a few readers.

If we’re seeking to know and understand Our Lady, I think the fundamental ways to approach her are those which acknowledge her as Virgin and Mother, for she is the Virgin Mother, and this is at the heart of her “claim to fame.”  (She would never try to “claim fame” for herself, and she barely tolerates me for using that expression, but you know what I mean, and she does, too.)  The most common invocation of Our Lady in the Byzantine Liturgy is “Mother of God and Ever-virgin Mary,” because these are the two earliest dogmatic definitions concerning her.  I’m afraid that “ever-virgin” is another controversial term—and I didn’t want to get into controversies here—so I won’t spend too much time on it.  Even aside from the antiquity and consistency of the Church’s teaching on Mary’s perpetual virginity, I find it completely incomprehensible (forgive me, but I think you should, too), that after having singled out Mary for the utterly unique and thoroughly mind-shattering miracle of virginally conceiving God in her womb—never before and never again to be accomplished in anyone else, ever—God would then simply say to her: “OK, I’m finished with the miracles now. So you gave birth to the Son of God.  Just move on, willya?  Go back and have other children and live a normal life.”  Other children?  After giving birth to God incarnate?  Other children?  You mean, like Billy and Suzie?  You’ve got to be kidding!  Why then did God bother to keep her virginal for her First-born—just to show that He had the power to do it?  That’s not his style.

God didn’t work such an astounding miracle in Mary only to undo it a little later.  If He kept her virginal for the conception and birth of his Son, it is not only because the Son was all-deserving of a uniquely miraculous conception and birth, but also that God was defining Mary’s identity, in his eyes and ours.  She is the Virgin Mother.  She is always the Virgin Mother.  She will never be other than the Virgin Mother, for all eternity.  We can’t (and shouldn’t dare) say of her: “She was once a Virgin Mother, the only one in the history of the universe, but then she lost her virginity…”

Christ did not shed his wounds after his mission was complete, but bore them even after his resurrection, for they testified to his identity, which is love, and to his mission as the sacrificed Savior.  He is always the Crucified One as well as the Risen One, and his wounds didn’t disappear once their “usefulness” was exhausted.  Similarly, once Mary’s mission to bear the Son of God in a miraculous manner was complete, she didn’t decide (nor did God) that she had no use for virginity any longer and so started having children in the usual way.  Her virginity testifies to her unique election and holiness, so her virginity was not, and never will be, discarded.

To be continued…

[Original artwork by Rebecca Romanchuk]

Holding the Form, Denying the Power

Sometimes the Lord gave his teachings only to his disciples.  Sometimes He gave them also to the crowds and multitudes.  And sometimes, as in today’s Gospel (Lk 20:45 – 21:4), He gave them to his disciples, intending that the rest of the people overhear what He said to them.  So let us now overhear Jesus’ teaching.

The Lord often denounces the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and today’s admonition is a particularly incisive one.  This one usually makes me a little nervous, since at least part of his critique could be applied to monks.  Like the Pharisees, we go about in long robes and make long prayers.  If we ever go anywhere, we usually are given places of honor and receive respectful salutations.  Such people, says the Lord, will receive the greater condemnation.

But before I resign myself to condemnation, perhaps I ought to look a little closer at the meaning and intent of Jesus’ words.  The condemnation is not simply for what is done, but for the attitude or motivation for doing it, that is, what is in the heart.  Jesus criticizes the Pharisees not for going about in long robes, but for liking to do so, that is, for wearing special garments in order to stoke their egos or draw attention to themselves.  To receive salutations and places of honor is not bad in itself, but Jesus said that the Pharisees love these things.  Again, the motivation here is self-aggrandizement, which adds sin to an otherwise morally neutral state of affairs.  Finally, Jesus doesn’t criticize them for making long prayers, but for doing so as a pretense.  This reminds us of another critique of his, in which He said they offer lip-service to God, but their hearts are far from Him.  Here we come to the basic point: Jesus says the Pharisees will receive a greater condemnation not because of what they do, but because their hearts are far from God, and they hypocritically present themselves to the public as those who are faithful to God.

Perhaps the Pharisees were like those St Paul describes in the epistle (2Tim. 3:1-9): “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.”  The pleasure they love is the praise of others and the wealth that often comes to them from those who respect them.  They hold the form of religion—the externals, the pretense of public prayers—but they in effect deny the power of it because they live to secure their own comfort and prestige, and not to do the will of God.

By way of giving a counter-example, Jesus calls his disciples’ attention to a poor widow making a tiny donation to the temple treasury, after the wealthy made their large ones out of their supposed generosity.  The widow may have been embarrassed to place only a couple of worthless coins into the treasury, yet the Lord said she put in more than all the others—and let us remember that it is only the Lord’s judgment that matters.  The rich contributed more absolutely, but much less proportionally, for they merely skimmed the surface of their wealth to make their donations, but the widow gave what she could not afford to give.  Here at the monastery we try to be generous to the poor, but we do not give out of our substance.  We make sure that we have enough to pay our bills and even set something aside for projected expenses and perhaps for some unexpected ones.  We can say that this is prudent, and we would be correct, yet the example of the widow should keep us humble and put things in perspective.  Some people really do give what they cannot afford, and Jesus will make sure that their reward is great in Heaven.

So what shall we do?  We need to take as our example the poor widow and not the self-righteous and pompous Pharisees.  We need to give more than we think we can afford, even if we do not actually make ourselves dirt-poor in the process.  This giving more does not mean only money, but time, labor, sacrifices, and the asceticism of charity, patience, and forgiveness.   We also need to examine our motivations for what we do.  Do we pray because we like to be known and respected as men of prayer, or rather because prayer is a cry of the heart which we cannot restrain, a communion with God without which we cannot live?  Do we observe the externals of religion because they give us a sense of accomplishment or spiritual security, or do we rather follow the rules of the Church as a matter of humble obedience, accepting either praise or criticism from others with an equal measure of inner peace?

Let us reflect on those whom the Lord praises or criticizes, and the reasons why, and then resolve to live in the way most pleasing to Him.

Lessons from the Testimony

I mentioned a while back, when recounting the near-death experience of a woman who was destined for Hell but was mercifully brought back to this world so that she could testify to her experience, that I’d share something about the lessons to be learned from her experience of judgment and of the presence and glory of God in general.  So here are a few points.

The first is about the awesome divine majesty of the Lord.  She was horrified at her own indifference and irreverence when she noticed two things, on completely opposite ends of the spectrum: the demons, who hate God, were compelled to prostrate before Him, even though unwillingly, because He is still their all-powerful Master, and they could never confront Him to his face.  The other end of the spectrum was the most holy and glorious and powerful of all creatures, the all-pure Mother of God—and even she was prostrate before Him, because He is God and she is not.  Even though He loves her above all and has exalted her above all, worship is still due to Him.  After having read that, I decided I would begin my early-morning prayer time by prostrating before the majesty of the Lord.  It puts everything in perspective!  The testimony reads:

“I heard a Voice, so sweet… so beautiful, that it filled everything with peace and love, and made my soul jump… Then, I saw the Most Blessed Virgin prostrated… The Virgin Mary interceded for me!  Prostrated at the feet of Our Lord, she gathered all the prayers that the people of my earth made for me, and she presented them to Him. You know, at the moment of the elevation, when the priest lifts up the Host, one feels the presence of Jesus, everyone prostates themselves on their knees, even the demons! And I, who went to the Mass without the least of respect, without giving any attention, with gum to chew in my mouth, sometimes dozing off, looking around, lost in a thousand banal thoughts!  And then I had the guts to complain, full of pride, that God did not listen to me when I asked something from Him!

“Believe me, it was staggering to see how, at the passing of Our Lord, all those creatures, all those frightening beings, threw themselves on the ground, in an impressive adoration.  I saw the Virgin Mary, graciously prostrate at the feet of the Lord, praying for me, in adoration before Him. And I, a sinner, with my rubbish, treating Him without any respect, and saying that I was good. Yes, miserably good! Denying and blaspheming the Lord!”

The next lesson has to do with the judgment of the Lord.  She stood before Him and had the nerve to say that because she was a Catholic she should be saved (even though she was not living according to the Catholic Faith).  The judgment covered many areas of her life, but I include the following just to show that no one can get away with anything at the judgment seat of God:

“That Voice, so beautiful, says to me: ‘Very well, if you are Catholic, tell me which are the commandments of the Law of God!’

“…I began to say: ‘The first commandment is: to love God above everything else, and the neighbor as myself.’

“‘Very well,’ he said to me, ‘and you did this? Did you love?’

“Totally confused, I replied: ‘I… yes! Yes, I, yes. Yes!’

“But that wonderful Voice said: ‘No!’

“I assure you that when he said to me: ‘No!’, then it was that I felt the strike of the lightning bolt!  [That’s how she had “died”; she was struck by lightning.]  In fact, I still did not feel on which side it had struck me. But when I heard that ‘No!’, I felt all the pain of the lightning bolt! I felt naked, all my masks fell, and I remained uncovered.

“That soft Voice continued to say to me: ‘No! You did not love your Lord above all things, and even less did you love your neighbor as yourself! You made of yourself a god that you modeled on yourself, on your life! Only in moments of extreme necessity, or in suffering, you remembered your Lord. And then yes, you knelt down, you cried, you asked, you offered novenas, you proposed to yourself to go to Mass, to prayer groups, asking for some graces or a miracle… When you found yourself in need and you needed money, then yes, you promised: “I pray the Rosary, but You, Lord, grant me a little money!”  This was the relationship that you used to have with your Lord! Never did you keep one promise made, not even one! And beyond not keeping the promises, you never thanked me!’  And the Lord insisted on this: ‘You gave your word, you made promises to your Lord, but you never kept them!’”

There’s another very interesting point, which supports what Jesus said in the Gospel about not having eternal life if you don’t eat his flesh and drink his blood, and that those who do will be raised up on the last day (Jn 6:53-54).  This is what she witnessed, which she brought up in the context of praying for priests:

“You must all know that the priest, even though remaining a man, is a consecrated one of the Lord, recognized by the Eternal Father, so that in a piece of bread happens a miracle, a transubstantiation: by the hands of the priest, it becomes the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And these hands, the devil hates them intensely, terribly. The devil detests us Catholics due to the Eucharist, because the Eucharist is an open door for Heaven, and it is the only door! Without the Eucharist, no one enters into Heaven. When a person is agonizing, God comes beside this person, independent of the religion that he belongs to or his beliefs; the Lord reveals himself and says to him affectionately, with Love and Mercy: ‘I am your Lord!’  And if the person asks for pardon and accepts this Lord, something happens that is difficult to explain: Jesus immediately brings this soul to where the Mass is being celebrated in that moment, and the person receives Viaticum, which is a mystical communion. Because only the one who receives the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ can enter into Heaven. It is something mystical, it is an immense grace that we have in the Catholic Church, a grace that God has given to our Church; and many people speak badly about this Church, and yet by way of Her they receive salvation and go to Purgatory, and there they continue to benefit by the grace of the Eucharist… They go to Purgatory, but they are saved!  Because of this the devil hates very much the priests: because where there is a priest, there are the hands that consecrate the bread and the wine, making them to become for us the Body and the Blood of Jesus Christ. Thus we must pray very much for the priests, because the devil attacks them constantly.  Our Lord showed me all of this.”

She also had to face the judgment for her abortion, and she has some interesting revelations about that and about the mystery of the immortal soul in the unborn baby:

“You know, the Lord showed me in the Book of Life that which we do not see with the eyes of the body, and what happened when the doctor did the abortion. I saw the doctor who, with a type of pincers, grabs the baby and breaks him into pieces. This baby shouts, with so, so much force! Even though there has not passed even a minute from the moment of fecundation, it is already an adult soul [i.e., not in the sense of psychological or spiritual maturity, but in that of ontological completeness]. We can use the pill of the day after, or whatever kind of means, but we are always dealing with killing a baby with an adult soul, completely formed: because it does not grow like a body, but is created by God in the same instant in which the ovum and the sperm meet, in that precise moment! I saw in fact, in the Book of Life, how our soul, as soon as the two cells touched, form a spark of beautiful light, and this light seemed to be a sun that comes from the Sun of God the Father. In an instant, the soul created by God is adult, mature, in the image and likeness of Him!  That baby is immense in the Holy Spirit, who comes out of the Heart of God!

“The womb of a mother, immediately after the fecundation, illuminates suddenly from the splendor of this soul, and of its communion with God. When you tear out this baby, this life… when they kill him, the baby cries out so much; all of Heaven trembles!  In my case, when I killed my baby, I heard him cry out a lot, but so strong!  I saw Jesus on the Cross who cried out and suffered for this soul, and for all the souls that are aborted! The Lord cries from the Cross, with so much pain, too much sorrow! If you might have seen, no one would have the courage to provoke an abortion.

“Now I ask you, how many abortions are done in the world? How many in one day? In one month?  Do you understand the dimensions of our sin? … Do you understand the suffering that we procure for ourselves, and how evil takes possession of our life?  Every time that the blood of a baby is scattered, it is a holocaust to Satan, who acquires in this way still more power… They, the devils, threw on me the blood of those babies that I aborted or that I contributed in killing, and my soul became black, completely black.”

Finally (though there is much more to learn from her experiences; the full testimony is here), she has something to say about the power of intercession, because it was through the prayers of someone she didn’t even know that the Lord brought her back and gave her a second chance:

“Jesus bent down and pulled me out of that pit! He lifted me and brought me to a level place, and he said to me, with much love: ‘Yes, you will return, and you will have your second chance… Not because of the prayer of your family, because it is normal that they cry and shout out for you, but because of the intercession of all the people unrelated to your flesh and to your blood, that have cried, prayed, and lifted up their own heart with so much love for you.’ Do you know what I saw? I saw the great power of the prayer of intercession, brothers! Do you know how to be able to be always in the presence of the Lord? Pray every day for your children, but pray also for the children of the people of the whole world! Pray for the others! …

“I saw how thousands and thousands of little flames of light went up, so beautiful, to the presence of the Lord; they were little white flames, stupendous, full of love. They were the prayers of so many, so many people, that were praying for me, that had been moved after having seen on TV and in the newspapers what had happened to me, and that they were crying and offering Masses. The greatest gift that you can offer to someone is the Holy Mass. Nothing exists more efficacious, that can help someone, than a Holy Mass. It is also what God appreciates the most: to see His children intercede for their neighbors, and to help their own brother. The Holy Mass is not the work of man, but of God.

“Among those little lights, though, there was an enormous one, very beautiful: a light much greater than all the others. You know, brothers, why I am now here? Why I returned? Because in my land exists a saint. I looked with curiosity, in order to know who that person might be that loved me so much, and the Lord said to me: ‘That man that you see there, is a person that loves you much, and he does not even know you.’ He showed me that it had to do with a poor peasant man, who lived in the mountains, in the Sierra Nevada of Saint Martha. This man was very poor; he did not have anything to eat. All of his harvest was burned, and even the chickens that he had, had been stolen by the men of the ‘guerrilla warfare’. These last ones wanted even to take into their service his older son. This peasant man went all the way down to the village to go to Mass. The Lord made me pay attention to the words with which he prayed: ‘Lord, I love you! Thank you for health, thank you for my children! Thank you for all that you give me! Be praised! Glory to You!’

“His prayer was only praise and rendering thanks to God! The Lord made me see how in the wallet he had a 5,000 pesos bill, and a 10,000 pesos bill, and this was all that he possessed! Do you know what he did? He gave the 10,000 bill at the offertory! … He did not give the 5,000 bill, but the 10,000 bill, even though this money was all that he had! And he was not discontented, nor did he grumble due to his poverty, but he thanked and praised God! What an example, brothers! Afterwards, he went out of the church, he went to buy a piece of blue soap (washing soap); he wrapped it in a piece of newspaper of the day before. There was the news of my accident, and the photograph where I appeared totally burned.

“When this man sees the news, as he reads it slowly, being moved he cries so much, as if I were someone very dear to him, and prostrate with the face to the ground, he beseeches God with all of his heart, saying: ‘Father, my Lord, have compassion on this my little sister, save her, save her Lord! Lord, if You save her, if you save my little sister, I promise you to go to the ‘Sanctuary of Buga’ to release the vow, but save her. Please, Lord, save her!’  Think about it, that man so poor, who was not cursing, nor lamenting for suffering hunger with his family, but on the contrary was praising and thanking God… And with a capacity to love the neighbor so great that, even having nothing to eat, he was disposed to cross the country in order to fulfill a promise, in favor of someone he did not even know!  The Lord said to me: ‘This is true love of neighbor! It is like this that you must love the neighbor…’”

Something to consider when we reflect on the Four Last Things…

Belief and Faith

Do you believe in Christ?  Or do you “live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20)?  The two do not necessarily mean the same thing, though if you are in fact doing the latter you are also thereby doing the former.

Belief and faith are not identical, and the difference can have eternal consequences.  You might believe in the existence of God, and you might even believe that God became man in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins.  But if you don’t live a life of faith in the Son of God, your belief will be of no avail at the judgment seat of God.

Belief as such is insufficient.  St James makes it clear: “Even the demons believe” (1:19), but it certainly didn’t save them.  They also proclaimed what they believed, crying out to Jesus: “You are the Son of God!” (Mk. 3:11).  But this didn’t rescue them from Hell, either.  That is because they believed but did not possess the theological virtue of faith.

Faith means much more than belief.  One can believe something that one cannot definitively verify simply by accepting the authority of one who proposes something as true.  In fact, this is where faith starts, since we believe in God and Christ first of all because we accept the authority of the Scriptures, that is, of those who were eyewitnesses of Christ, and whose spiritual experience supported what they had seen and heard.  But simply to believe that their words are true is not the same as having faith in Christ and living this faith by his grace.

Faith in Christ implies and requires other elements, like trust, because faith in Him presupposes a relationship with Him, which is why we often find in the New Testament the somewhat unusual expression (never literally translated, alas) of believing into Jesus.  In what is perhaps the most famous New Testament verse (John 3:16), we read: “For God so loved the world that He sent his only Son, that whoever believes in Him (literally, “all who believe into Him”: pas o pisteuon eis auton) should not perish but have eternal life.” What can we understand by “believing into” Jesus?  The expression connotes a personal engagement and relationship, not a mere intellectual assent. Our faith is “into” Jesus, that is, it connects with him personally and establishes a relationship (or ratifies the relationship God has established).

St Paul says that we believe in Christ in order to be made righteous by faith in Him (see Gal. 2:16).  To be made righteous (or “justified,” which term I don’t use here because it has other connotations in modern colloquial usage) means to be secured in a right relationship, which also means a personal relationship, with God.  But one cannot be in a relationship with anyone if all one holds is an assent to certain facts about that person.  So faith in Christ, that is, living a life of faith in the Son of God, requires at least three elements besides belief: prayer, obedience, and communion.

One can’t be in a saving relationship with the Lord if one doesn’t so much as talk to Him or listen to Him.  The Venerable (soon to be Blessed) Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Mother of the Redeemer, describes faith as “contact with the mystery of God.”  This is obviously more than mere belief.  The life of faith implies contact with God in all his mysteries, and we seek this contact most often through prayer.  Through prayer, which contains the elements of adoration, petition, thanksgiving, praise, and repentance, we express our personal relationship to the Lord, which is based on faith and trust in Him.

Through obedience, we strive to “hear the word of God and keep it,” which is an oft-repeated command of the Lord for anyone who would follow Him and live by faith.  As we’ve seen above concerning the demons, neither belief nor words expressing what we believe are sufficient for salvation.  As Jesus said, it is not enough to call on Him as Lord if we want to be saved; only those who in fact do the will of the Father will enter the Kingdom of Heaven (see Mt. 7:21).  And again: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? … He who hears my words and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation, against which the stream broke, and it immediately fell, and the ruin of that house was great” (Lk. 6:46-49).

By communion I mean primarily sacramental communion (though prayer is also a means toward personal, mystical communion with God).  Through the sacraments we are incorporated into the Body of Christ and immersed (which is what “baptism” means) into his death and resurrection.  We become children of God, our sins are forgiven, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and we abide in Christ and He in us through worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist (see Jn. 6:56).  Through the sacraments we are both initiated into and sustained in the life of God in Christ.

All of the above is indispensable for living a life of faith in the Son of God.  So you see that faith—that is, faith that makes us righteous and prepares us to enter the Kingdom of Heaven—is much more than mere belief.  The first prayer that the Angel of Peace gave to the children of Fatima expresses well the mystery of faith: “My God, I believe, I adore, I hope in You, and I love You…”  All of these elements belong to the fullness of what “faith” means.

We have a perfect example in the Virgin Mary of the essence of faith as contact with the Mystery, when we reflect on her response to God’s invitation to her to become the Mother of his Son.  First, she said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord.”  By this she shows that she understands who she is and who the Lord is, and hence what her relationship is to Him.  By declaring herself his handmaid, she implicitly expresses that she is already in right relationship with God, for He had specially prepared her by his grace for her unique mission.  She was so personally bonded to Him in love and fidelity that she never deviated from his will.  Once the personal and loving relationship is declared, she says, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”  She gives God carte blanche with her life, because that is the only way she knows how to relate to Him.  She hears the word and keeps it.  She doesn’t just say, “Lord, Lord,” but rather surrenders her body and soul to Him unconditionally.  This is the superlative example of the kind of faith by which one is welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus did not come into the world just to get us to accept certain propositions as true, and to reject others as false.  That is, He didn’t come merely to tell us what to believe and what not to believe (though that is part of his message).  He came to reveal God and to invite us to the Kingdom of Heaven, calling us to live a life of faith in Himself, through prayer, obedience, and communion—which is to say, to hear the word of God and keep it, to do the Father’s will, according to the revelation Jesus gave to his apostles and thus entrusted to his Church.  For this life of faith unto salvation we would need to make “contact with the mystery of God,” and so Jesus sacrificed Himself to win us the grace precisely to do this: beginning with clearing out all impediments to this contact (through forgiveness of our sins), and then sending us the Holy Spirit to continually lead us into the fullness of truth and love and life in God.  And now, with the great and profound richness of all that the Church offers us for this life of faith in the Son of God, we can grow toward such union with Him that we can say with the Apostle: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  This is the faith that goes way beyond belief, for it is life, and it secures for us “the life which is life indeed” (1Tim. 6:19).

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