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

Archive for March, 2011

The Priestly Sacrifice and the Cross

We’re celebrating something of a feast day today, insofar as Lent permits feast days!  We’re almost at the midpoint of the fast, so the Church offers something to us for our encouragement and strength to persevere the rest of the way.  This offering is somewhat paradoxical, since it is the Cross of Jesus, the instrument of his ineffably painful death.  But since it is simultaneously the means of our salvation and the key to the Gate of Heaven, the Church invites us to rejoice and take courage.

In the readings for this Sunday (Mk. 8:34 – 9:1; Heb. 4:14 – 5:6), the Church offers us two perspectives on the Cross, one that emphasizes the priestly sacrifice of Jesus, and the other that emphasizes our personal participation in the mystery of the Cross.  Let us look first at the reading from Hebrews.

It begins by asserting that Jesus Christ is our “great high priest,” and it offers this as the basis for an exhortation to “hold fast to our confession,” that is, to the faith we profess, which gives us hope for eternal life.  It goes on to explain that we can do this because our heavenly High Priest is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses”; He is “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.”  We are aware from reading the Gospels that Jesus was indeed tempted by the devil and didn’t sin, but those descriptions are rather brief, and the author of Hebrews says that Jesus was tempted in every respect as we are.  I wrote something about this some time ago, suggesting that perhaps Jesus endured many more temptations than the three main ones we read about in the Gospels.  It may very well be that, since St Mark tells us that Jesus was tempted for 40 days—and not just one day after the 40 days of fasting—during those 40 days of temptations He experienced in the depths of his soul every temptation known to man.  It seems that this is the only way to uphold the assertion in Hebrews that Jesus was tempted “in every respect” as we are.  It may be that this was a sort of foretaste of what He would experience in Gethsemane, when He would confront the full reality of all the sin He would have to bear upon the Cross for the sake of our salvation.

Knowing, then, that Jesus knows precisely what we go through in our own struggles and temptations, the author of Hebrews exhorts us to “draw near to the throne of grace,” in order to find mercy and help in time of need.  For the most part, our Lenten services in the first half of this season focus on repentance and our own need for cleansing and healing and deliverance from the various evils that afflict us.  So we take refuge in Him who was tempted as we are and who is the Source of the mercy and help we seek in our times of need.  The second half of Lent is mainly directed toward the preparation for celebrating the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord.  So the second half of this epistle turns our attention from our own temptations to the priestly sacrifice of Jesus.

As our High Priest, Jesus “is appointed to act on our behalf in relation to God,” precisely in the act of offering sacrifice.  The sacrifice He offered was his own body, immolated on the altar of the Cross, and his own blood, poured out for the forgiveness of our sins.  This is the ultimate “sympathizing with our weakness,” for He took it all upon Himself and offered it to the Father as He gave up his own life to save our souls from Hell.

He was appointed by the Father for precisely this priestly ministry, for, according to Hebrews, the Father said two main things to Jesus in this regard: “You are my Son,” and “You are a priest forever.”  For me personally it is a great joy that I can hear those same words from God: “You are My son; you are a priest forever.”  Yet it is not all gravy, for every priest “is bound to offer sacrifice,” for himself and others.  Priests of the New Covenant offer the Sacrifice of Christ at the Divine Liturgy or Holy Mass, and by our ordination into the eternal priesthood of Christ we are configured in our very being to the Crucified One, and so He calls us to walk the way He walked.  Priests, like all Christians, are also called to offer other sacrifices, and this brings us back both to the Gospel and to our Lenten observances.

Jesus makes it clear that it is not only priests who have to take up their crosses if they want to follow Jesus.  For the Gospel begins by saying that Jesus called to Himself not only his disciples but also “the multitudes,” and then said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  So the Cross is not something we merely view and admire from afar, secretly grateful that since Jesus bore it we don’t have to.  No, it is clear from the Gospel that we are called to share the Cross of Jesus if we wish to be his disciples.  St Peter, one of those who heard those words of Jesus, later reflected upon this mystery when he wrote that we are in fact called to suffer for Christ’s sake: “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1Peter 2:21).  So Christ didn’t suffer in order that we wouldn’t have to; He suffered as an example that He expects us to follow!  Now we will not likely be nailed to a cross, nor can we take upon ourselves the sins of the world, but St Paul tells us that we do have a share in his sufferings, and we are expected to suffer for the sake of the members of Christ’s Body, the Church (see Col. 1:24).  That means that Christians can and must make a contribution to the Lord’s work of saving souls, of winning grace for them so that they can accept what Jesus did for them and respond wholeheartedly and thus be found worthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus presents the suffering that is part of discipleship as “losing your life” in order to save it, which He contrasts with those who try to save their lives and end up losing them.  Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, who is now a Trappist monk known as Br. Simeon, describes this mystery thus:

“Saving one’s life in this sense involves all those inveterate human strategies for survival that will resort to any means whatsoever in order to insure that the self survives intact as self, which implies the self as untouched by any external force, not even God’s.  The root of the verb [‘to save’] literally means ‘to keep safe and whole,’ an eloquent definition of egocentrism as a philosophy of life bent above all on not allowing anything to break the self open…

“Such a strategy for ‘saving’ one’s life, as a matter of fact, can rather be guaranteed to yield the very opposite: it will cause one to ‘lose’ one’s life, because life that does not grow is not life, and the survival of the self as intact self is the definition for utter stagnation of being… The trenchant paradox involved in Jesus’ formula for fullness of life (self-denial, the Cross, the throwing away of one’s life like a seed for his sake) brings about the end of stagnation, for all of these principles that inculcate the need for voluntary loss of self involve a revolutionary transformation of the natural categories of our intellect, our will, and our emotions.

“In Jesus’ view, losing the instinctual and self-willed self is finding the genuine and God-willed self… ‘Coming in the Father’s glory’ can result only from Jesus’ having first lost his life for the sake of giving life to others… When ‘loss of life’ is understood as communication of life from self to others, and the return of my life from my clutches to its first origin in God, then we can begin to sense the dynamism involved, the ascending and transforming power of self-oblation.  I can truly have life only by being transformed, and I can be transformed only by giving myself away.”

This way of looking at it is perhaps more positive than the way some people in the world might regard Christian discipleship: nothing but self-denial and suffering, so who needs it?  But to “lose our lives” for Jesus’ sake is here shown to be an inner transformation which results from breaking out of sterile egocentrism into a fruitful self-giving.  Those who try to “save” their lives do so by attempting to protect their brittle egos by surrounding themselves with possessions or pleasures and all manner of earthly securities, or even with a puffed-up sense of righteousness.  But Jesus says that this is just setting oneself up for a tragic loss that will never be recovered.  That is why He invites us elsewhere to have our treasure in Heaven. But the only way to secure heavenly treasure is to forsake earthly treasure, that is, to deny yourself, take up your cross, and sacrifice your earthbound vision of the “good life” for Jesus’ sake and the sake of his Gospel.

This will result not only in our own personal transformation, but, as St Paul says, it will also result in “grace spreading to more and more people [which will cause] the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God” (2Cor. 4:15; see the whole context in vv. 6-18).  This is why the Apostle said he rejoiced in his sufferings, for they were offered for the sake of the members of the Church.

So we have much to celebrate today, much to reflect upon, and much to put into practice.  At the heart of our whole Lenten project, and even of our whole life, is the mystery of the Cross, presented to us today in our Liturgy as radiant with the victory of Christ over sin and death.  But it is not yet time to receive our crowns.  We are still tempted, we still are in need, and we must approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and help.  We still must have recourse to the fruits of Jesus’ high-priestly sacrifice, received especially through absolution of our sins and the devout reception of Holy Communion.  And day by day, we must take up our crosses to follow Him.

But we have much encouragement for this in the Scriptures, in the examples of Our Lady and the saints—and in our personal relationships with them and their intercession for us—and in everything the Church provides for our growth and sanctification.  Remember, to “save our lives” means only to ensure stagnation unto death, but to lose them for Jesus’ sake means joyful self-forgetfulness which makes sacrifice easier and leads to inner transformation and eternal life.

Easter may still seem a long way off, but its light begins to shine even now through the mystery of the Cross, which is the mystery of Jesus’ Sacrifice, which is the mystery of his grace, mercy, and everlasting love.  So let us hold fast our confession of faith and offer our sacrifice of love to Him who is the Son of God and the Priest Forever, who calls us to follow Him through the Cross to the Resurrection.

A Body You Have Prepared for Me

[Since I’m not the abbot anymore, I don’t preach on major feast days.  But I can’t let the beautiful feast of the Annunciation of our salvation go by without honoring it.  So the following are a few snippets from my latest book, A Place Prepared by God, from the chapter entitled, “The Shadow of the Most High.”  Because you’re already seeing this much, when you buy the book you may deduct 1% from the price.]

We come now to a great and decisive moment in the whole of human history.  The eternal destiny of all mankind hangs in the balance.  All the world is waiting, breathless, at the feet of a Jewish girl who holds its fate in her hands.  Either she will say “yes” to God or she won’t; either she will give her consent to the Incarnation of God in her own body or she won’t; either our immortal souls will be saved or they won’t.

Of course, we’re not still waiting.  The Virgin Mary did say “yes.”  God the Son became man in her womb and thus was able to complete his plan of the redemption of the world.  But I wonder if we reflect sufficiently on the drama of that moment, on the pivotal role played by Mary of Nazareth in the salvation of the world—a role she did not choose for herself, but one that was planned by God from all eternity…

“You are all fair, my beloved; there is no flaw in you” (Songs 4:7)

If Mary is the place prepared by God for the Incarnation of his Son, we ought to understand something about this preparation.  “Every man is born with the capacities required for the mission which God intends to entrust to him,” wrote St. Maximilian Kolbe.  In this, Our Lady is no exception, but because of her utterly unique mission, she was in fact granted an exceptional grace.  So St. Maximilian says that Mary “was immaculate because she was to become the Mother of God.”  …

I readily proclaim in wonder, with the author of the Song of Solomon, that the Immaculate Virgin is all fair and flawless, because that is the way God made her in view of her mission to bring the Son of God into the world as man.  God created the first Eve sinless, but when she and the first Adam fell into sin, God had already foreseen the New Adam, his Son made man to redeem the first Adam’s sin.  But it is highly unfitting (to say the very least) that the all-holy Son of God should enter the world by means of a sin-tainted creature.  Therefore, in view of the future redemption to be effected by Christ (when has time ever been an obstacle for God?), God created a New Eve, sinless as the first, but immeasurably more graced, due to the nature of her mission and the direct action of the Holy Spirit.

This is the view from Heaven; this is what has always been in the mind of God for the preparation of the Incarnation of the Word.  On the level of the body, the Son was conceived and born in a virginal manner; on the level of the soul, the sinless Son entered the world through a woman made immaculate precisely for this purpose.  How could the miracle of the divine conception take place in a tarnished being?  For anyone with even a minimum of spiritual sensitivity, such a state of affairs is, well, inconceivable…

“A body you have prepared for me”

If the foregoing is the view from Heaven, we still must have the view from here below.  Heaven and Earth meet in the virginal womb of Mary, and now we begin to contemplate her response to the incredible divine initiative…

The angel reassured her and further honored her by announcing that she had found favor (literally, “grace”) with God.  We see then that divine grace was the “environment” in which she lived, especially interiorly.  Since Mary was not yet able to grasp all that God had already done for her, the angel emphasized her graced state.  Only because she was “full of grace” could the angel say, and Mary accept, the words that forever changed the course of human history and destiny: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

This is the first intimation of the fulfillment of the passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews: “A body you have prepared for me” (10:5).  This is usually understood as the body of Jesus Himself, prepared by the Father in the womb of Mary.  At the same time, however, it could refer to Mary’s body as that which was prepared for the Son, prepared as the place of his first dwelling in this world.  The body of the mother necessarily makes possible the body of the Son. So Mary’s body was prepared to produce the body of Jesus, through which He would be able to relate to human beings as one of them…

The whole mystery of the virginal conception is summed up as Gabriel continued his annunciation: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”  Here is the answer to Mary’s question, yet it only plunged her more deeply into the ocean of divine mystery.  Not only would she conceive a child without losing her virginity, but God was going to be the father of her child!  If she were not already “full of grace” she would not have been able to endure the incredible magnitude of this event.  God, the Infinite One, the Creator, who both fills and transcends the universe, was about to “overshadow” her, the result being a child in her womb.  Yet even though she probably understood that much, it is quite unlikely that she realized at this stage of revelation that God was by nature a Trinity of co-equal and co-eternal Persons.  It is one thing to try to grasp that God was going to produce a child in her womb in a miraculous manner, a child who would be the long-awaited Messiah.  It takes another immeasurable leap to realize that this child would be God, the eternal Son of God Himself!  He was ready to initiate his ineffable kenosis (“self-emptying”; see Phil. 2:5-11), and for this He had chosen and prepared Mary of Nazareth.

Moment by moment, as Mary considered the words of the angel, we can imagine a fire growing in her heart, a vision opening up in her mind that left her breathless.  Her body would have trembled in anticipation, knowing both the fear and the love of God like she never had before.  Mary suddenly found herself, as it were, in the center of the universe, the focal point of all God’s attention, the meeting place of Heaven and Earth, while the angel waited for her word of assent.  If she said “yes” to the will of God for her (which was the will of God for the salvation of the world), she would, in a matter of minutes, be filled with God in a way that no one else ever had or ever would again.

On what could she base her decision?  On the glory that would ultimately be hers, on the benefit that would come to mankind, on the prospect of entering into the unfathomable mysteries of God?—or negatively seen, on the dangers that could befall a woman accountable to Jewish law who was discovered to be pregnant out of wedlock?  No, on one thing only: obedience to the will of God.  Nothing else would have enabled her to maintain her composure and inner balance in the face of such incomprehensible wonders.  It was her sure anchor in the suddenly-tumultuous waters in which she found herself.  In this sense, the decision was easy for her, because what she does is a direct expression of who she is.  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”  The handmaid of the Lord: that is who she always was, and so his will is what she would always do.

Mary was the first human being to receive the Son of God.  Her assent to this was foreseen by God—and hence announced by the angel as a fact: “you will conceive”—but her free response in time was still required.  Therefore it is not surprising that God, in foreseeing not only her response to the Incarnation, but the very saving grace that would be a result of it, made her the first to receive the grace of redemption as well, and hence was free from original sin from the moment of her conception.  This was the hidden preparation of the “place” the Son of God had chosen for his incarnation.  But his grace was with her in other ways throughout her young life, so that her faith would be strong, her humility deep, and the power of her surrender complete.  She was formed from the very beginning to be a “yes” to God in her whole being…

“Her assent is representative of our own.” [quote from Adrienne von Speyer] Here lies the beginning of our debt of gratitude to the Mother of God as well as an important part of the basis of our love for her (the other part is simply her love for us, and all that entails, but that will be discussed later).  Mary’s assent to the Incarnation made possible Jesus’ human assent to the Father: in Gethsemane and on the Cross, on our behalf.  Christ alone died and rose from the dead to save the world, but Mary has provided the very condition for the possibility of our redemption.  God prepared a body for his Son: first the body of his Mother, in which would then be formed the Son’s own human body.  The body of the Incarnate Son was sacrificed for our sins, and is made perpetually available to us—sacramentally in the Holy Eucharist—as his perpetual assent both to the Father’s will and to our cries for mercy.

As von Speyr points out, for our own assent to God’s will to be perfect and fruitful, it has to be united to Mary’s.  As the Immaculate Conception, hers alone was perfect, free from all calculation of sacrifice or benefit, free from all attachment to what is surrendered, free from self-interest, self-preservation, or compromise.  She was divinely prepared to place herself absolutely at God’s disposal, to embody the entire essence of what it means to be a handmaid of the Lord.

Our lives are marked by original sin and our own personal sins.  Hence our assent to God will always be somewhat flawed, tainted by some form of selfishness.  But by turning to Our Lady, and first saying “yes” to her as our representative in the perfection of holiness—for she was the first to respond to God’s initiative for our redemption—our own “yes” to God will be purified and elevated, given strength and fruitfulness in union with her.  Mary is the one who spoke in our name when she opened the way to our redemption by consenting to God’s will for the Incarnation of his Son.  She is not only our Mother but also our model for discipleship, obedience, and surrender to God.  Therefore she will gladly take our “yes” into her own, so that in her the Lord will see gathered countless servants and handmaids of his, uttering their assent with a single and united voice…

Let it Be unto Me

[Somehow I can’t get this program both to single-space and divide stanzas at the same time.  There should be five stanzas, four lines each.]

A flame from within,
A whispered prayer
On the lips of the Virgin:
Our Lord, come.
In her heart lay the longings
Of her people, Israel,
Whose eyes ached
From looking for their God.
“My dove, my lovely one,
My flawless pure one,
Does your heart not know
It is you I have chosen?”
Trembling, lifting her eyes,
She silently nodded assent.
Fire then fell from Heaven,
Laying claim to the pure maiden.
Be exalted, humble one,
For the uncreated Word,
The Creator of worlds,
Has now made you his mother.

This is That

Many years ago I read some of the writings of the Chinese lay evangelist Watchman Nee.  He had some interesting insights into the Christian life and he had great zeal for the Gospel as he knew it (he wasn’t Catholic).  He also had some rather ingenious ways of interpreting Scripture, especially when he was confronted with a passage that was difficult to understand.  One of these came to mind a while back, though what triggered the memory was in quite a different context.

When he was commenting on the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and St Peter’s first homily to the gawking bystanders (Acts 2:14-21, though the whole discourse covers most of the rest of the chapter), he noticed something that didn’t quite make sense.  Peter was describing the disciples’ experience of the Holy Spirit as a fulfillment of a prophecy, and not, as the cynics suggested, the effect of too much wine: “These men are not drunk, as you suppose… but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel…”  This, that is, the manifestations of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, is what Joel was talking about. The first part of the prophecy St Peter quoted could be easily applied: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy…”  But what about this: “I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth beneath, blood and fire and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood…”

St Peter was saying that Pentecost fulfilled this prophecy, but no one saw any blood or fire or smoke or other heavenly signs.  Watchman Nee’s approach was something like this: in order for a prophecy to be fulfilled, it isn’t necessary that each detail be literally manifested.  It is enough that someone who has authority from the Holy Spirit to interpret prophecy declares what constitutes its fulfillment.  So when St Peter (whom Christ made the rock of his Church and hence has full authority to interpret the word of God) said “this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel,” he was saying that the apocalyptic imagery employed by the prophet was symbolic and found its actual manifestation in the descent of the Holy Spirit.  One can then say, respectively, of the Pentecostal grace and the prophetic vision, this is thatThis outpouring of the Holy Spirit fulfills that prophecy; this manifestation is what was meant by that oracle.  We don’t have to see the sun literally go dark or the moon turn into blood, for this is that.

Now here is how that was brought home to me in a powerful way.  During the Divine Liturgy a few weeks ago, during the offering of the Sacrifice—at the moment when the chalice and the diskos (paten) are raised and the priest says: “We offer to You yours of your own, in behalf of all and for all”—I looked up at the crucifix above the altar, and then these words were strongly impressed upon me: “This is That.”  Of course!  Such is the theology of the Church, which I have known and believed and experienced all along, but it never came to me quite so succinctly, and (God has a sense of humor) in terms provided by a Protestant exegete.  This is that!  This ritual re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Christ is his Sacrifice made present to us for our Communion in his sacrificed Body and Blood, for He said, “Take and eat; this is my body” and “Drink of this, for this is my blood.”

But wait, you say.  Jesus isn’t being literally crucified and resurrected before our eyes, and we are not in first-century Israel, and his blood isn’t being shed all over again so that he has literally to die on our altars.  True.  (Neither was the descent of the Holy Spirit the darkening of sun and moon.)  But all of the successors of St Peter—the rock who had authority to interpret the word of God, and whose charism is handed down through apostolic succession—have solemnly declared: this is that.  This Divine Liturgy is the sacramental manifestation of that Sacrifice on Golgotha.  “This is that” could be rightly said about Pentecost as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, and it is also rightly said about the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Mass as the making present of the one Sacrifice of Christ.  At the Last Supper, Jesus said to his disciples, “Do this…” after having identified it with that, i.e., his body given up and his blood poured out.  So Jesus Himself at the Last Supper might just as well have said: This is that.  The connection here, though, must be rightly interpreted in its full strength, for it cannot be reduced merely to “this means that,” as if it were only an analogy or metaphor, but it must be understood in the complete identification of “this is that.”

So we have another perspective on the great Mystery of the Holy Eucharist.  We say we offer the Holy Sacrifice, but this doesn’t mean that Christ is re-crucified countless times on our altars, and it doesn’t mean that we try to repeat his once-for-all Sacrifice.  What is does mean is: this is that.  Every time and in every place that the Divine Liturgy or Holy Mass is celebrated, the priests “do this” in memory of Christ, making that, his Sacrifice, sacramentally present for the sanctification of the faithful.  This is that, thanks be to God, for our joy and our salvation.

Invincible Permanence

A while back someone gave us a few copies of a Catholic magazine called Love One Another.  It is published by a Polish religious order (The Society of Christ), which has a house here in the US.  What I’ve seen so far I like quite a bit.  It is youth-oriented, but the articles are generally serious and well-written—often on various spiritual subjects and moral issues in the Church and the world, and also on lives of the saints—and there are always several encouraging testimonies of people who have given their lives to the Lord, being rescued by his grace from drugs, new-age involvement, atheism, or other evils.  It is completely orthodox and uncompromising in fidelity to the Gospel and the teachings of the Church, and the spirit is very upbeat and joyful.

In the first English-language issue (September 2003), they cover the 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto.  It was a great testimony to the vitality of the Church and to the personal holiness and charisma of the Venerable John Paul II.  I’d like to quote a passage here from one of the articles, in which the editor of a secular Canadian paper expresses his admiration.

“Editor Ted Byfield posed the question why John Paul II, an 82-year-old man, bent with disease, barely able to talk, moving with great difficulty, his hands trembling, showing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, should be the world’s Superstar.  [Only a secular author would use that term, but you get the meaning.]  It was undeniable that the Holy Father’s manner and teaching had stirred up and infused a whole generation of young Catholics with joyous faith.  Although not a Catholic himself, Ted Byfield attributed this phenomenon to an astonishing process taking place within the Church—a process which began with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Its essence was the ‘invincible permanence of Christ in the Church’.  [Very good for a secular author—quite worthy of a Catholic one!]  John Paul II represented this permanence through his papal service.  He and all those living now would eventually die, but the Church would live on.  The Holy Father was so deeply loved and welcomed by hundreds of thousands of young people, precisely because he was a sign of this ‘invincible permanence of Christ in the Church.’  That is why people with faith did not despair over sins and scandals in the Church—they saw her holiness.”

If you are wondering how the Catholic Church has endured for almost 2000 years, and ministers to well over a billion members, despite historical vicissitudes and the endless battering and persecutions by evildoers from without, and the heavy damage done from within by her own members and leaders, you now have your answer: “the invincible permanence of Christ in the Church.”

I think this photo of Pope John Paul II taken at the World Youth Day in 2002, says it all in a symbolic way. Crushed and humiliated by a crippling disease, weakened and fatigued by age, having suffered endless hardships in his life—not the least of which was oppression and persecution by both Nazis and Communists—he musters all of his failing strength during the Holy Mass to raise on high the Chalice of Salvation, the Eucharistic Presence which is at the very heart of that invincible permanence of Christ in the Church.  When I look at that picture I know that the powers of Hell will not prevail against the Church, even though she has been much weakened for a number of reasons in the past 50 years or so.  When hundreds of thousands of young people from all over the world gather to cheer this aged hierarch and renew their commitment to Christ and his Church, you know that the seeds of new life planted by the Holy Spirit are already sprouting vigorously.

The time has come for true believers to stand up and be counted, because there is no place anymore for the lukewarm and the fence-sitters.  Whoever is not with the Lord is against Him, as He Himself said. If the Church is going to perfectly fulfill her God-ordained role to be the light to the nations, the refuge of repentant sinners, and the wellspring of grace unto salvation, then a Fire has to be lit (or re-lit) in the hearts of her leaders and members alike.  We know how the secular and anti-Christian powers-that-be have been steamrolling over our society, in order to silence the Church’s voice and diminish her influence, and we know how the evil ministers of deception and disinformation are trying to confuse and divide the faithful, so that we might uncritically accept their agenda for a Godless world.  Well, as long as that Chalice of Salvation continues to be raised by courageous servants of the Lord, the Church will become ever more pure and strong, and she will continually be renewed, even if the new shoots have to be watered by the blood of martyrs.

Let us, then, thank God for the priceless gift of the invincible permanence of Christ in the Church.  He has promised never to fail or forsake us.  So let us stand with Him, rejecting the lies and resisting the works of the Christ-hating movers and shakers of this world, knowing that we have built our house upon the Rock.  As Catholics we have received the truth that sets us free, and it is through our fearless and joyful living of it that the Lord will reap a great harvest of souls for his Kingdom.

Righteous Man of Faith

It is a blessing for us to be able to celebrate one of the greatest saints—indeed, the only one named the Patron of the Universal Church, by Blessed Pius IX—in the middle of the desert of Lent.  It is also a blessing that our founder, Archimandrite Boniface, had the wisdom to prescribe this celebration as a sort of “house custom” here at the monastery, since St Joseph does not appear on the Byzantine calendar on this date.  For some unfortunate reason, St Joseph is almost entirely ignored by the Byzantine Churches, but we are doing our small part to remedy that situation!

I suppose St Joseph is not too surprised by his unfair treatment by the Eastern Churches, and he humbly and quietly takes it in stride, as was his charism in his life on earth.  It is no loss to him, anyway, only to those who don’t recognize his greatness here below.  He now enjoys the glory of God, having been exalted to great heights in the Kingdom of Heaven, and he also enjoys the special love and favor of the Queen of Heaven, his beloved spouse Mary, the Mother of God.  What more could anyone ask for?

We’re pretty familiar with the story of Joseph’s coming to faith concerning the incarnation of the Son of God that we have proclaimed in the Gospel (Mt. 1:16-25), so perhaps we should look at just what it means to be a man of faith, based on the epistle today from Hebrews (11:1-2, 8-18).

The passage begins with a classic description of what faith is: “Faith is the reality of what is hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.”  That is a fairly literal translation, which emphasizes the objective quality of faith.  There is another translation that emphasizes the subjective quality, which reads: “The assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.”  I think that these can be complementary descriptions, but it is probably best to prefer the objective, literal translation, because these days faith is often relegated to the domain of the subjective, and hence becomes a matter of personal preference of belief instead of a living connection with an objective Reality.

St Joseph was confronted with Objective Reality of the highest order, when he had to grapple with the mystery of his unexpectedly pregnant fiancée, and so his faith had to be sufficient “evidence of things not seen.” The Epistle to the Hebrews goes on to say that by faith “the men of old received divine approval.”  We know that St Joseph passed the test, for he was found worthy of angelic visitations, as well as having been foreknown and chosen in the first place as the one to whose guidance and protection the incarnate Son of God would be entrusted.

It seems to be the Lord’s preference to test and prove those whom He loves and chooses.  God wanted St Joseph to be the foster-father and guardian of his only-begotten Son, and He knew that St Joseph would respond wholeheartedly to the grace given for this unique and difficult task.  But God didn’t reveal everything to him beforehand, didn’t lay out the details of the plan in order.  He left plenty of room for faith, for trust, for accepting the will of God in the face of evidence that was quite perplexing.  I think that if we ourselves expect to receive the divine approval that is granted to people of faith, we are going to be tested, too.   Our own circumstances may be quite unlike those St Joseph faced, but we have to realize that God isn’t going to show us a map of our future, isn’t going to give us notice of every unexpected turn of events that we are destined to experience.  He’s going to require us to put our faith in the “things not seen” and to trust that the Lord will reveal to us what we need to know—when we need to know it.

This is how it was with St Joseph.  As he was pondering what to do about the distressing situation that arose concerning his beloved betrothed, having come to the tearful conclusion that he could not marry her if she were pregnant by someone else, the Lord decided that this was the moment to reveal what Joseph needed to know.  For God wanted Joseph and Mary to be married and to raise the Divine Child.  So He sent his angel with the reassuring (though still not entirely intelligible) message that Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit, so Joseph should not fear to take her as his wife. He would receive further instruction as the Lord would deem necessary.  To his credit, he humbly obeyed the angel without question or argument, and in this (among other things) lies the greatness of St Joseph.

No one could really fault him for initially wondering what was going on with Mary, who was pregnant out of wedlock, for there was absolutely no precedent in human history for a virginal conception, let alone for one in which the father was God Himself.  But Joseph was obedient to God without first requiring all the answers, for, as the evangelist describes him, Joseph was a righteous man.  To be righteous is to put the will of God before all else, to be a faithful servant, to be able to say yes to God—as Mary herself did—at a moment’s notice.

Going back to the Epistle to the Hebrews, we read of the faith and the obedience of Abraham, who left his homeland to go to a place to which the Lord directed him.  That would be another of the tests that St Joseph passed, for shortly after the birth of Jesus he had to leave his homeland with Jesus and Mary and go to a place to which the angel of the Lord directed him, that is, Egypt.  So Joseph is presented in the Gospel as standing in the long line of holy men of faith, who obeyed God in various difficult circumstances, so his will could be done and his plan of salvation advanced, stage by stage.

Then the epistle takes this mystery to a new and more universal level, one in which we can all participate.  For the author situates the call of Abraham, and by extension that of all the Old Testament people of faith who thus gained divine approval, in the quest of every righteous soul for the Kingdom of Heaven.  After writing of Abraham’s journey to the “land of promise,” he says that the faithful followers of God acknowledged that they were “strangers and exiles on the earth,” which means that there is no paradise here, no permanent land of promise.  The epistle goes on: “For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland… they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one…”

When we arrive at the New Testament—and Mary and Joseph stand right at the beginning of it—we are at the culmination of generations of people who lived by faith but never saw their salvation while they lived on earth.  Suddenly, salvation appears in the person of Jesus Christ—as Simeon would joyfully bless God, saying, “My eyes have seen your salvation”—and henceforth the only Promised Land is that of the Kingdom of Heaven.  St Joseph is a key figure in this transition from the Old Testament to the New, from the “believing without seeing” of the patriarchs and prophets, to the actual evidence of the things they hadn’t seen, “the glory of God shining on the face of Christ,” as St Paul would later put it.

As for us, even though to some extent we still have to believe without seeing, we are immeasurably blessed with the testimony of those who did see.  Mary experienced in her own body the incarnation of the eternal Son and Word of God, gave miraculous birth to Him and nursed Him at her breast—now that is concrete evidence of the truth!  She and St Joseph raised the Child and lived with the incarnate God for years.  As St Luke recounts, Mary pondered all these things in her heart, and she exclaimed in an ecstasy of joy: “The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name!”

Then St John tells us in his first epistle that his eyes had seen and his ears heard and his hands touched the Word made flesh, who chose to dwell among us.  Just last Sunday we celebrated the mystery of the holy icons, through which the incarnate Christ can be present to us by grace and the efficacious blessing of the Church.  And, in a most precious and intimate manner, we experience the personal presence of Christ through communion with Him in the Holy Eucharist.

So even though we have not yet received the fullness of what is promised—for we have not yet entered definitively into the glory of the heavenly Kingdom—we live in the grace of the New Covenant, in the times of fulfillment, where hope is the short bridge between this life and the next, and where we can expect God to be present to us in ways more personal and intimate than He was even to the men of old who received his approval.

This time of Lent is a kind of symbolic journey that reminds us of the pilgrimages of faith that the people of God have been making for thousands of years.  It is a time in which we are called to cleanse and purify our spiritual senses, that is, our capacity to perceive the presence of God and to discern his will, to find anew our place in his great plans for the renewal of the face of the earth through the enlightenment, conversion, and salvation of souls.  Let us ask for the intercession of St Joseph, the righteous man, the man of faith, the humble and obedient man, the one who found Himself at the heart of the most profound mysteries of God in the company of the Blessed Virgin and the Son of God Himself.

We can be in this holy company as well, through faith, through prayer, through the sacraments and our meditation on the word of God.  So let us rejoice and be willing to accept the testing of our faith, so that we too may gain divine approval and receive what is promised: divine grace and mercy in this age, and everlasting glory and joy in the age to come.

Poured Out (Part 2)

At the Last Supper, when Jesus offered his disciples the Blood of the New Covenant in the chalice of salvation, it was not only for their sake, but for ours as well.  That is why He said, “Do this in memory of Me.”   Do this, that is, do what I just did, make bread become my Body and wine my Precious Blood, for I hereby ordain you unto this ministry, so that sins may be forgiven and the whole world will know of my outpoured love and will drink freely of it for the salvation of their souls.

St Paul tells us that the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom. 5:5). The Holy Spirit is the “Fire in the Blood” of the Eucharistic chalice, which is poured into us for our forgiveness and continual consolation in the hope of everlasting life.

We ought to realize that if our love for the Lord is genuine, it will be costly, like the oil that the devoted woman poured out upon the head of Jesus.  For the oil of our love is the oil of sacrifice, and this is always costly, always difficult, but only sacrificial love is true love, and the Lord is worth nothing less than this.  When He asked us if we would be his disciples, He said we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow in his footsteps (see Lk. 9:23).  So our love for Him is not reserved for times of meditation on his Passion or for occasional moments of fervor or sacrifice.  It is our daily life, our daily love, our daily offering of gratitude to Him who suffered to save us from a well-deserved Hell.

Our hearts need to be broken open like alabaster jars, so that all their love can pour out upon Him.  I think of that sometimes, especially during the Divine Liturgy, when Jesus is renewing his gift of everlasting love to us in the Holy Mysteries.  It is as if I have so little to offer in return for what He has given and done and suffered for me, but if only my poor little heart can break open and spill out its love upon Him, then somehow I can meet Him in the mystery of outpoured love.  I can offer the “widow’s mite” of my contrite and grateful heart.

I remember something the Lord showed me about his boundless love many years ago when I was in the seminary.  The exact circumstances elude me now, but I was somehow feeling estranged from God, discouraged, ashamed.  (I had been regularly going to confession, so I wasn’t disregarding that necessary condition for Communion.)  Whatever it was, I felt too unworthy to approach Jesus in Holy Communion during the Mass. But I couldn’t avoid it, since I was scheduled to serve as acolyte that day, so there was no place to hide.  Would the Lord allow me to come to Him, and would He deign to come to me in my misery?  Here is how He poured out his inexhaustible love to me on that occasion.  Not only did I receive Holy Communion, but his love kept flowing into me.  On that day there were two elderly priests distributing Holy Communion.  After Communion, I was still in the sanctuary, and one of them came to me with the chalice, asking me to finish the Precious Blood.  I thought: this is incredible! Not only did the Lord allow me to receive his Body and Blood, but He is pouring out even more by giving me the chalice to finish!  But He wasn’t done pouring out his love.  The second priest then came to me to ask me to finish his chalice!  (This had never happened before and wasn’t the common custom.)  So the Lord was inundating me with his outpoured love, a sign that He indeed wanted me to come to Him and receive all that his Pierced Heart wished to grant to me.  It was as if He were saying: So, you’re not sure if you can approach my merciful love?  Well, here, receive it, once, twice, and three times!

During this time of Lent, we ought to reflect on what we offer to the Lord in the way of sacrifices, and the spirit in which we offer them.  Do we do it grudgingly or gratefully?  Are we stingy or generous?  Do we break open our hearts and pour out love or do we, like Judas, count the cost and complain that our energies could be better spent in some other way?  All we have to do is look to Jesus, who poured out his Precious Blood for the forgiveness of our sins, and who gave us the perpetual memorial of this in the Holy Eucharist, to realize that He deserves all we can give in return.  It is not a question of somehow paying a debt we have incurred.  It is impossible for us to pay the enormous debt of our sins.  Jesus took that upon Himself.  All we are doing is giving thanks, acknowledging the gift of his love, his sacrifice, by offering whatever love and sacrifice we have within us.  For even though the Redemption wrought on the Cross is finished, the gathering of souls for the Kingdom is not.  We still have to suffer in union with Christ, following his example, for the sake of other souls not yet as graced as we have been, whom the Lord also wishes to save (see Col. 1:24; 1Peter 2:20-25; 1Cor. 9:19-23, etc).

Love is always the bottom line; love is always the answer.  But we don’t really know love until we know Him who loved us first.  We get to know Him by hearing his word and the story of his life.  We begin to understand his outpoured love when we meditate on his Sacrifice, and we enter personally and intimately into it when we eat and drink his sacrificed Body and Blood. Now it is up to us.  Will we break the alabaster jar of our hearts and pour out our love upon Him in return?  Or will we try to protect our hearts from the vulnerability love demands and hence the inevitable sacrifice and suffering, hiding our talent, as it were, in the ground?  C.S. Lewis has something important to say about that, in The Four Loves: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one… Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”

Love will nail us to a cross, and love will raise us from the dead. Love is heart-rending, but our hearts must be rent if we are to live and die and live forever with Him whose Heart was pierced for us. Love makes us vulnerable. If we love, we are sure to be hurt. If we speak the truth, we are sure to be denounced. If we do good to others, we can be sure that others (not necessarily the same others, but maybe so) will do evil to us. This is life in a fallen world. But the redeemed live in this fallen world looking toward life in the perfect world of the heavenly Paradise—a world where love is returned for love, where the results of doing what is right are not tragedy and suffering, where hearts are joyful receptacles of the irrepressible life of God, and not depositories of pain and sorrow.

We’re not in Paradise yet. This present life is still a curious (and sometimes maddening) mixture of love and pain and grief and joy and misery and hope. But the apparently safest thing to do—insulate our hearts from all that could hurt them—is the most dangerous, the most tragic thing. It may in the short run preserve us from pain, but it will also preserve us from righteousness, nobility of spirit, sacrificial love, and a whole world of good that we could do if only we refuse to make emotional safety our first priority. I’d rather be welcomed into Heaven with a broken heart—which has freely poured out love without counting the cost—than be turned away at the Gate because my heart was found to be scar-free and quite selfishly intact.

Let us break them open, then, cost what it may.  It is a beautiful thing to do for the Lord.  Our hearts will be gathered up into his, and his glory and joy will flow through us for endless ages.  Lent is a good time to begin this blessed work.  That time is now.

Poured Out (Part 1)

[This article will appear later this month in our monastery newsletter, but I thought I’d publish it here now for your Lenten edification.  You can’t wait too long to enter into what Lent is all about!]

“When Jesus was at Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of very costly oil, and she poured it on his head… Jesus said to them… ‘she has done a beautiful thing to me… In pouring this oil on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial… wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her’” (Mt. 26:6-13).

“She has done a beautiful thing,” said the Lord.  In what does this “beautiful thing” consist?  Jesus mentions explicitly his preparation for burial, for this lavish anointing happened shortly before his Passion.  But the beauty of what she did was not only in the symbolic gesture of preparation—of which the woman herself may not have been consciously or completely aware—but in the love and the sacrifice that inspired this act of devotion.  This is important for us, since we cannot literally anoint the body of Jesus for burial, but there is much we can do to sacrificially express our love and devotion.

This unnamed woman spent a lot of money, probably more than she could afford, to purchase this expensive oil.  It would have been a great sacrifice on her part, but she evidently felt that nothing was too good for her Lord and Master.  Not only was the cost of the oil an extravagance, the application of it was as well.  For she didn’t merely anoint Jesus with it, she poured it out lavishly over his head.  (There must have been more than one such anointing, for we hear from the Gospel of John that in the same town but in a different house, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet with fragrant and costly oil.)

What caught my attention was the image of pouring out the oil, sparing nothing, which is a symbol of the complete gift of one’s love, one’s self.  We find in the Gospel of the Passion one great contrast, and two great comparisons, with this generous outpouring of love.  First we will look at the contrast.

Judas is the opposite of love generously poured out.  St John indicates that it was he who complained of the extravagance of the woman’s gift, on the pretext that the money could have been spent more sensibly on the poor.  He then commented that Judas was a thief and wanted to receive that money in the common purse only in order to use it for himself (Jn. 12:4-6).  It may well be that greed was only one element of a more complex reason for Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, but the fact is that he sold out his Master for the price of a runaway slave.  The woman who anointed Jesus spared no expense to lavish her love upon Him, and the tight-fisted disciple didn’t even dicker with the chief priests over the pittance they offered for the blood of the Son of God. The Byzantine Offices of Holy Week make much of this contrast. But let’s not waste any more time on the betrayer.

Shortly after the woman poured out her love as fragrant oil over the head of Jesus, the Passover arrived, and Jesus gathered his disciples for this unique event in the history of the world, the one which He “desired with great desire” to share with them.  It was unique because it was the moment of the establishment of the New and Everlasting Covenant, to be made perpetually present in his Church in the form of the Holy Eucharist.  He gave them bread and miraculously transformed it by his own divine words, saying: “This is my body.”  What I’m most interested in for the purpose of this reflection is what he said over the cup of wine, which He also transformed by his words: “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins.”  As if in response to the devotion of the woman who poured out her love upon him in the form of costly oil, Jesus promises to pour out his love upon all of us in the form of his Precious Blood, the most costly gift of all.

Jesus was inviting his disciples, as He invites all disciples of all times, to share in the banquet of his outpoured love in the Holy Eucharist.  He is like the lover in the Song of Songs (5:1), inviting us: “Eat, O friends, and drink; drink deeply, O lovers!” [or, “drink deeply of love!”]  When we eat and drink the Body and Blood of the Lord, we are partaking of his love poured out for us for the forgiveness of our sins.  We proclaim his death and resurrection and we give thanks for his inexpressible gift.

Returning for a moment to the woman who anointed Jesus: was she perhaps herself reading the Song of Songs before she poured out her costly oil upon Him?  “Your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is oil poured out; therefore the maidens love you” (Songs 1:3).  “Christ” means “anointed,” so his very name is oil poured out, and perhaps by anointing Him the woman was also implicitly expressing her faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of the Father.

The offering of Himself at the Last Supper was but the beginning of Jesus’ total outpouring of his love for our salvation.  In the Garden of Gethsemane He poured out bloody sweat in his indescribable anguish over the impossible burden of sin and suffering his Father was asking Him to bear.  His deep disappointment and grief were poured out as Judas approached to betray Him, and as the rest of his disciples “forsook him and fled” (Mt. 26:56).  This is what He received from the men he personally chose and taught, and before whose eyes He had worked astounding miracles: betrayal, denial, and abandonment in the hour of his greatest distress.

As his Passion continued, his blood was poured out again and again: the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the Cross, and the crucifixion.  Finally came the most dramatic outpouring, when his sacrifice was at length consummated: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has born witness, and his testimony is true” (Jn. 19:34-35).  The gentle and humble Heart, the Heart that was moved with pity for the hungry and weary crowds, the Heart that is the fount of the grace of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 7:38), the Heart that was sorrowful unto death in the garden: this Heart was pierced so that Blood and Water would pour out, symbols of the sacraments of our salvation, Eucharist and Baptism.  But the Heart of Jesus was pierced, as it were, throughout his life, for his love and compassion were poured out to all who came to Him with their needs and their sorrows.  Having loved his own, says St John, He loved them to the end (Jn. 13:1), to the utmost, to the extremity of the Cross.  And there, said Jesus, “It is finished.”

Yet He is never finished pouring out his grace and love upon us, and it behooves us to pour out love in return.  Our love ought first to be based on gratitude, when we begin to realize how much Jesus loved us. For once we realize the gravity of our sin and what it cost Him to forgive it, we become aware that his love has no bounds.  No one likes to talk about Hell these days, but it seems to me that if we don’t know just what we’ve been saved from, we will not appreciate sufficiently the gift the Lord has granted us.  He knows what Hell is, and He suffered immeasurably so that we would not have to go there as the just sentence for our sinful deeds.  We do not seem to realize the endless horrors and torments we are preparing for ourselves by blithely disregarding the saving commandments of the Lord, but we must know the lengths to which He went to save us.  Our meditations on the Passion of Jesus should not only get us to grieve over his unjust condemnation and brutal execution, but they should confront us squarely with the realization that He freely endured all of that so that we, who were heedlessly offending Him, would not have to pay the eternal price for it.  No greater love has any man than that which Christ manifested to us as He poured out his lifeblood on the Cross, innocently, for the sake of the guilty.

To be continued…

See Heaven Open

Well, we’ve made it all the way to the first Sunday of Lent!  That’s not a small accomplishment, since the first week is more rigorous than the others.  So we have a kind of a celebration today, in which the Church commemorates the restoration of the veneration of sacred images—after the iconoclastic heresy had raged for some decades—with a decree of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, and a later proclamation and celebration of the holy icons in 843 in Constantinople.

This was important, not merely to ratify and encourage the piety of the faithful, but to uphold the essential Christian doctrine of the incarnation of the Son of God.  The incarnation is the only basis for the creation of sacred images, for Christ Himself, as St Paul writes to the Colossians, is the “image [Greek “ikon”] of the invisible God.”  In Christ, God has become visible and hence depictable, so to honor the image of Christ is to honor the truth of the Incarnation.  The saints share in this mystery, having had the image of God perfected in them through their holy lives, so we honor the holy images of the Mother of God and the other saints as well.

In the Gospel today (Jn. 1:43-51), we have a few hints about the mystery of seeing God in Christ.  A few verses before this passage, St John the Forerunner calls attention to this Image of the invisible God: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  Behold Him, see Him, look at the One whom the Father has sent into the world as man to save the children of men.

Having seen Jesus, Philip went to his friend Nathaniel and made this great proclamation of the Gospel: “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote: Jesus of Nazareth.”  We have found Him.  This is huge; this says it all.  These are the words that make the difference between salvation and damnation: We have found Him!  We should reflect on these words as an inexhaustible source of gratitude.  Where would we be if we hadn’t found Jesus, if we hadn’t been granted the gift of faith and all the means of salvation offered by the Church?  After Holy Communion, we sing with exultation: “We have seen the true light and received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity for having saved us.”

It seems to me that we could spend the whole of Lent, and even the whole of our lives, meditating on that one phrase and its profound meaning and implications: We have found Him.  In our eagerness to share this great treasure with others, however, we might be confronted with attitudes like the one Nathaniel had at first: skeptical, cynical, and not at all open to the good news being shared with him.  So something more than the sharing of one’s testimony is needed.  What has to happen is a personal encounter with Jesus, though we can hope, as we see it played out in the Gospel, that preaching the Good News facilitates the personal encounter.

Here is where we find the language of seeing emphasized in the Gospel.  When Nathaniel expressed his doubts that Jesus could be the Messiah, Philip simply said: “Come and see.”  As Nathaniel came to see Jesus, the Lord directed others to see Nathaniel: “Behold, an Israelite indeed…!”  And when Nathaniel asked Jesus how He knew Him, Jesus replied, “I saw you under the fig tree.”  So when Philip invited Nathaniel to come and see Jesus, Jesus told Nathaniel that He had seen him first.  It is always that way in our coming to the Lord.  St John says that we can love because He loved us first.  And Jesus said to his disciples: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”  So as we approach to see Jesus, to try to enter into a relationship with Him, we discover that He has already seen us—indeed, He has known us from the moment of our creation in our mother’s womb.

This may seem to us a mixed blessing.  Jesus has seen us, has always known us, and this is a source of consolation and security.  Yet it also means that He has seen us in our secret sin, in the things we manage to hide from the eyes of the rest of the world.  As we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him before whom we must render an account” (4:13).  And the psalmist says: “No thought or desire of ours can escape the scrutiny of [his] divine justice” (7:10).

We don’t know the significance of being under the fig tree for Nathaniel, but it must have been huge.  Whatever it meant for him to have been seen under the fig tree was enough for him to accord divine and messianic status to Jesus: “You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”  Yet Jesus, whom Nathaniel had come to see, and whom Jesus had already seen, was not finished yet.  There was more to see.  The Lord said: “You shall see greater things… You shall see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

So the initial invitation to meet Jesus, who has first seen and loved and chosen us, is just the beginning of a life of greater things, of going deeper into the divine mysteries.  True, He sees what perhaps we wish He couldn’t see, but if we really do want to be in a loving relationship with Him, which will take us all the way to the Kingdom of Heaven, we won’t mind if He sees our sin.  In fact, we will want to be transparent to Him; we will want Him to know our secrets and our dark side, because we can expose all this to Him without fear.  We know He won’t condemn us or put us to shame or denigrate us if we bring our inner darkness into his light of truth and love and mercy.

This is essentially the work of Lenten repentance.  We want to see Jesus, but first He has to see us.  He has to find us hiding under our fig tree.  Perhaps we are there sewing fig leaves together for a covering as did Adam and Eve when they didn’t want God to see their nakedness, of which they were ashamed due to their sin.  But if we are willing to let the Lord see us, just as we are, we know that healing is on the way.  And when we are restored to God’s grace, He will say to us: “You shall see greater things; you will even see Heaven opened to you.”

So the mystery of the holy icons is about seeing the face of God in Christ, and the mystery of Lent is about letting Christ look back at us from the icons, both to call us to repentance and to draw us to a deeper life in Him, one in which Heaven will open, as it were, as the secrets of the Kingdom are revealed to us.

I remember once praying before an icon of the Mother of God in which her eyes were looking directly at me.  I suddenly became aware that she was indeed looking into my soul.  Somehow it was granted me not to flee from this sudden exposure, but rather to simply allow her to see me as I was—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and to trust her to be gentle and compassionate.  It was then that the grace of God came to me and it became a moment of peace and healing.  This never would have happened if I had not allowed myself to be seen—under the fig tree, as it were.

We receive some helpful counsels for our Lenten efforts toward spiritual growth in today’s epistle (Heb. 11:24 – 12:2).  It is a testimony to the power of faith, as well as an exhortation to put it into practice.  The Epistle to the Hebrews is full of exhortations, and perhaps that is why it is read often during Lent.

First we are given the example of Moses, and it is interesting to note what he is praised for.  It is not for being a great leader or a prophet but simply for having the wisdom that comes from faith.  He chose to suffer rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin; he considered what he suffered for righteousness’ sake to be greater wealth than all the treasures of Egypt.  This says concisely what our liturgical texts express in hundreds of pages of Lenten exhortations: the passing pleasure of sin is not worth it; fast and pray and keep vigil, and find your pleasure in virtue and in your relationship to the Lord who loves you and who has suffered for your salvation.  Don’t be afraid to suffer a little for his sake, out of gratitude.

The epistle concludes with an exhortation lay aside, as a heavy weight, the “sin which clings so closely,” and to run the race with perseverance.  We can do this if we keep our eyes on Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, heedless of its shame.”  For the joy that is set before us.  Easter is the joy set before us as we run the race of Lent, but Heaven is the joy set before us as we run the race of our lives.

For the joy that is set before us, let us take up our crosses daily and follow Jesus.

For the joy that is set before us, let us not hesitate to fast and to meet the rigorous demands of this season.

For the joy that is set before us, let us lay aside our habitual sins, choosing to suffer rather than to enjoy their fleeting pleasures.

For the joy that is set before us, let us swallow our pride and act humbly, charitably, and mercifully toward others.

For the joy that is set before us, let us not shrink from the searching eye of Christ, who shows us our sin so we can bring it to the light and find healing and peace and the freedom of the children of God.

Come and see, then, and behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  He was willingly sacrificed for us, and He offers the sweet fruits of his Sacrifice to us as food and drink in the Holy Mysteries.  Even more powerfully and essentially than in the holy icons, the Divine Eucharist is the Image of the invisible God, in person, sacramentally and substantially present for our personal encounter and intimate communion with Him.

The Lord has seen us and known us; He has chosen us and loved us from the foundation of the world.  He is ready to receive us if we will only seek his face.  If we seek Him, we will find Him: in prayer, in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, in the icons, and even in his somewhat imperfect images who walk this earth with us.  Let us say with the lover in the Song of Songs: “I sought him whom my heart loves… when I found him, I held him and would not let him go” (3:1-4).  At length, then, we will see Heaven opened, and we will be invited to come and see and experience the everlasting joys of the Kingdom of God.

The Last Shall Be Like the First

The Gospel chosen for today (Mt. 20:1-16) is appropriate for the feast of the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste.  They were tortured by being immersed in an icy lake, but one of them denied Christ in order to be delivered.  He was then given a warm bath, but he soon died anyway.  One of the soldiers who was torturing the Christians was so edified by their love for the Lord, which enabled them to endure such sufferings for Him, that he professed his faith in Christ and was then thrown into the lake with the rest of them and died a martyr’s death, restoring their number to 40.  So he is considered to be one of the last who was made first, an “eleventh-hour” convert to the Faith who was put on the same basis as those who had served the Lord a long time.

This Gospel, on one level, has to do with the call of the Gentiles at a late moment in salvation history. These latecomers “receive the same wage” (in terms of this parable) as the ones who were called first and labored longer. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that there was some begrudging of this grace offered the Gentiles among Jewish converts, who wanted them to go the whole route of circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses before they could be saved. But the Master says to them as to the workers in the vineyard: “I choose to give to these last as I give to you… do you begrudge my generosity?”

That is probably the original intent of the parable. But it can also be interpreted in light of the parable of the prodigal son and other teachings of the Lord in which repentant sinners are placed (at least) on the same level as the law-abiding Pharisees. The Pharisees, like the elder brother of the prodigal son, were called early and “bore the heat of the day” by many years of bearing the burden of the law. Others, who led sinful lives, repented at the “eleventh hour” and were received with joy by God, who did not demand the same labors of them, only a contrite heart and a determination to be faithful henceforth. The Pharisees, like the elder son, had nothing but scorn for these last-minute salvaged souls and were indignant that such repentant riff-raff would be granted equal status and reward.

It may be the same for us as well. Each of us may fit into a different category, or perhaps different categories in different stages of life. After a rather dissipated adolescence, I entered the monastery at the ripe old age of 24, thanking God that He had received me at the eleventh hour, after I had wasted my whole life. Now that I’ve been here nearly 29 years, I might be tempted to think that I’m one who has borne the burden and heat of the day, laboring long in God’s service while others (like wanna-be monks of retirement age submitting their applications) are trying to sneak in at the end, having spent the majority of their time living it up in the world while I was fasting and praying.

But that is precisely the attitude we have to avoid. We think it unjust if someone gets a break that we never got, if someone is allowed a short-cut to the finish line while we had to run the whole race. So we think we should receive more, but God says to us: “I choose to give to this last one as I give to you.” Our joy should be only in the will of God, thanking Him for his generosity, not only to us but to all.

We ought to realize this as well: no matter how long we have labored in God’s service, in a certain sense we are all coming in at the eleventh hour. For our salvation is pure mercy and not a recompense for a job well done. All is gift, so all must be gratitude. The Lord does call us to work in his vineyard, however, and work we must—lest we do get what we really deserve.

We are exhorted in the epistle (Heb. 12:1-10) not to grow weary or fainthearted in our service of the Lord.  If we want to be considered God’s children, we have to accept his fatherly discipline.  The labors of Lent are part of that discipline, but all of the commandments and all of our struggles for virtue and faithfulness are included as well.  Even if discipline seems unpleasant at the time, the Scripture tells us that it is for our good, so that we can share in the holiness of God.  This is what life is all about; it is our goal.  So whether we labor a long or short time in the vineyard, we must labor, and we must do so with trust and gratitude that God is more generous than we could ever deserve.  Let us also not forget to embrace his discipline wholeheartedly, for He disciplines only those whom He loves.  His love will bear fruit in the lives of those who bear his burden and yoke, who learn from Him who is meek and humble of heart, and who thus find eternal rest for their souls.

In Gratitude

I’ve been thinking about gratitude a lot, ever since last April when I received extraordinary graces through the Mother of God.  Soon it will be the first anniversary of that blessed encounter, which was nothing short of a rescue mission from Heaven.  I’ve said at times that gratitude is often the basis for love, especially if what is given to us is beyond all proportion to what we deserve. Jesus told the little parable about the two men who were in debt, one for fifty denarii, and the other for five hundred.  When their creditor wrote off both debts, the conclusion was that the one who had owed more would love his benefactor more (Lk. 7:40-43).  The one who is forgiven much loves much; the one who is given much also loves much, if he recognizes what he has received as pure gift.

If we had any idea what the Lord has really done for us, our gratitude and our love for Him would know no bounds.  This is why I sometimes write about unpleasant subjects like Hell—so we can realize just what it is He has saved us from, and therefore how great is the gift.  This is also why I sometimes write about pleasant subjects like Heaven—so we can realize just what it is He has saved us for, and again, to give thanks for so great a gift.  It seems to be hard for us, somehow, to realize the huge disproportion between what God has prepared for those who love Him, and what we might have to suffer for a while in this world.  We still manage to complain a lot, and we’re rather sparing with our thanks.  But we should see things as St Paul did: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

It shouldn’t be surprising, when we read the mystics, that one of the great reproaches uttered by Our Lord and Our Lady is our lack of gratitude.  Jesus said as much on several occasions to St Faustina and to other mystics, in regard to his many graces, especially that of Holy Communion. (He also lamented often over our lack of trust.) When Our Lady showed Sr Lucia of Fatima her Immaculate Heart pierced by thorns, she said it was because of the blasphemies and ingratitude of men.  If we knew how much they loved us, all our complaints would be replaced with praises.   If we knew what awaited us in Heaven, we would give thanks all the way there.

There’s something I was reminded of recently, which again inspires much gratitude in me.  It’s “true confessions” time, but I’ll keep it vague enough so you don’t know what I’m talking about.  Sometimes I marvel at how recklessly, insanely stupid I’ve been on many occasions when I could have easily lost my immortal soul.  There was a time, back in 1979, I think, when I made a deliberate decision for sin and against Christ.  I don’t know why legions of demons didn’t immediately rush into my soul and take possession of it.  Somehow the Lord wasn’t taking “no” for an answer from me.  In retrospect, I think Our Lady was protecting me from the hell I was choosing.  If you check out this post from last year (scroll down towards the end), you’ll see how it was revealed to me that she has been protecting me my whole life.  I still grieve over how I must have offended that pure motherly heart of hers, while she was treading on serpents and scorpions all around me, but for the rest of my life I’ll be offering consolation to that same heart, please God.  There must have been some reason I was not allowed to become a mere statistic in the census of Hell.  Maybe the Lord foresaw that if He pulled me out of the pit I would then serve Him and help rescue others from the same fiery fate.  In any case, within about three years after plummeting to that spiritual nadir, I entered the monastery!

I’ve certainly had a lot of ups and downs since then, but I think I’m finally starting to get it.  Those April showers of grace last year were so unmistakably marked with the unmerited love of Jesus and Mary that I’ve been giving thanks ever since.  I think about Heaven a lot, and I think about Hell just enough to keep my gratitude high.  It’s a sobering thought that probably most of us can rightly have: there were times in our lives when, if the Lord had required our souls just then, we would have gone to Hell.  Forever.  But thanks be to God, I’m still here writing this and you’re still there reading this, which means that you and I are still eligible to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Forever!

Let us, then, never offend the Lord through ingratitude, but rather live in gratitude.  We can’t even begin to imagine how much God loves us and the lengths to which He goes to make sure we will enjoy ineffable heavenly delights for all eternity, but at least let’s try to live as if we could!  For it is true, and when we finally see the whole truth, we’ll realize that an entire life of gratitude is just barely scratching the surface of the profound thanks the Lord deserves.  So with Our Lady let us sing: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior… the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name!” (Lk. 1:46-49). And the following will be my theme song in Heaven: “I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart, and I will glorify your name forever.  For your love to me has been great; You have saved me from the depths of Hell” (Ps. 85/86). If I do nothing but give thanks in this life, I’ll have no time for sin; I will spread blessings around me, and the Lord and his Mother will recognize me as their own, forgive and forget, and show me to my suite in the Kingdom of Heaven!  Isn’t it so much better, even if it costs something in the way of sacrifice, to know that you are on the way to your ultimate fulfillment in God, who is Love?  Give thanks, then, for that’s what He wants for you, too, and his saving grace is there for the asking—and the thanking!

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