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

Archive for March, 2012

Parting Preaching

[This is the last homily I gave at Mt Tabor.  It doesn’t really have much to do with my departure, but since I didn’t manage to post it at that time, I thought I’d do so now.  It’s still Lent, and it’s good to reflect on the Last Things during Lent!]

It is perhaps, in some strange way, appropriate that the last homily I will preach in this holy monastery is on the Gospel of the Last Judgment (Mt. 25:31-46).  As for me, I would prefer to take the perspective of seeing the Lord waiting for me at the place I’m going, and hearing Him say, “Come,” rather than seeing Him here and hearing Him say, “Depart”!

There are different ways that one can understand this Gospel.  If you read the liturgical texts for Vespers and Matins of this Sunday, you’ll see that it is all about our own fear and trembling for our sins and the prospect of eternal damnation before the throne of Divine Justice, along with a fervent plea for mercy and compassion to Christ the Lover of Mankind. So it is that when Christians speak of divine justice or judgment, it is usually a pretty scary thing, because we know that if we are given what our sins deserve in all justice, we will be receiving a ticket for a one-way trip on the hell-bound train.

But if you look at the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, you get a different perspective on divine justice.  When the psalmists speak of divine justice, their prayer is usually: “Bring it on!”  That is because they are convinced of their own righteousness as faithful keepers of the divine commandments, and hence justice means their vindication against their enemies.  So they are always praying for justice.

I suppose it is not too prudent for us to take this approach, for since the New Covenant has been established, one cannot easily take one’s own righteousness for granted.  If all we had was a series of clear-cut commandments, we could easily tell if we obeyed or disobeyed them, and if we always obeyed, then, voila!—we are righteous before God!

But Jesus had a curious habit of saying things like: it’s not enough for you to refrain from killing someone; you’re liable to punishment even if you get angry at them or insult them.  Or, it’s not enough if you refrain from committing adultery; you’re liable to punishment if you even look with lust at another.  Or, most people love their friends and hate their enemies, but you have to love both your friends and your enemies.  You get the picture, which is no longer black and white. It’s not always easy to know just how much anger is in us, how much our looks really are lustful, or how genuine is our love for our enemies.  Jesus wants us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, so we can’t get too cocky about God coming down to destroy our enemies for us while we get off scot-free. Therefore if we want to find ourselves on the right hand of the Lord and not on the left when He separates the sheep and the goats, we have to pay close attention to what He says about the criteria for divine judgment, what makes for salvation and what makes for damnation.

This image of the Last Judgment that Jesus presents to us in the Gospel is actually the last of three consecutive perspectives on the final judgment that are found in Matthew 25.  So perhaps it would be good if we took at least a brief look at them all.

The first is about the wise and the foolish bridesmaids waiting for the coming of the Bridegroom.  We are all in this situation.  The Lord has not yet returned in glory, so the proper attitude of the Christian is one of attentive and prayerful vigilance, keeping our lamps burning with the oil of virtuous deeds.  Some will be ready to receive the Lord and some will not, the latter being unable to make up for their culpable laziness in time to meet the heavenly Bridegroom.  So the door to the Kingdom is opened for the virtuous, vigilant ones, and it is closed to the slothful, self-absorbed ones.

The next image of the final judgment is the parable of the talents.  The king gives his servants various sums of money suited to their capabilities and expects them to make a return through their assiduous labors.  Some of them do, but not all.  One is singled out who seemed to have a sort of grudge against the Master for asking him to make some effort to increase the Master’s wealth.  All he got for his laziness and negative attitude was to be cast out into the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.  This, of course, is metaphor of Hell.

So we see, then, that Jesus expects us to do something in order to be found worthy of a favorable judgment when we finally stand before Him with the account of our lives.  This becomes crystal clear in today’s Gospel.  To the great consternation of those who insist we are saved by faith alone, Jesus tells us precisely that the criterion for salvation or damnation is works, or the lack thereof.  We have to assume that faith is presupposed, for we accept the word of God as a whole—and much is said elsewhere about the necessity of faith—but the essential value of doing the will of the Father in order to be saved cannot be minimized without severely distorting the Gospel of Christ.

So the message of the Gospel of the Last Judgment is simply this:  How you treat other people determines whether you will go to Heaven or to Hell.  This is not something that all pious people would like to hear.  Some might think: if only I believe in Christ and accept that He died for my sins, I will go to Heaven, regardless of how I treat other people for whom He also died.  Perhaps some might think: if only I spend a lot of time in prayer and avoid doing really bad things, I will go to Heaven, even if I look down on others as inferior to myself and hence refuse to serve them or help them in their needs.

Jesus says: Sorry, you have to stand over there on the left.  For what Jesus said was that the ones who recognized Him and served Him in others, especially others in serious need—these are the ones who are blessed by the Father and who will inherit the Kingdom prepared for the friends of God.

The rest have to go to that other place.  There’s an interesting point about the other place.  No human beings were ever supposed to go to Hell.  There is a Kingdom prepared for human beings, who are made in the image of God, and this is Heaven.  One of the elements of the great horror that is damnation to Hell is that Hell was never supposed to be the dwelling place of human beings!  When Jesus condemns those who refused to feed the hungry and help the needy, He tells them to go to the place prepared for the devil and his demons.  So they have to go to the abode of devils, a place not fit for human beings, and where they will be subject to the torment and domination of the demons forever, for it is their place, and human beings—who refused to serve God in their fellow human beings on earth—have now to be slaves of demons for all eternity.

Jesus has no choice.  The place prepared for human beings is Heaven.  But if human beings are found, through their own fault, to be unfit for Heaven, the only place left to be sent is the place prepared for demons.

This is why the Church takes great pains to put this reality right in our faces.  It is why we read this Gospel and all the liturgical texts and all the writings of the saints who try to warn us about the place prepared for demons, so that we will flee anything that even smells of sin and run to the arms of the Lord, so we can spend a happy eternity in the place prepared by the Father for his beloved children.

I remember when I was in the seminary, I had a powerful experience of the message of this Gospel.  It wasn’t an experience of being condemned to Hell, thank God, but rather of doing something for someone with whom Jesus identified. There were some laypeople who were taking theology classes with the seminarians, and we all graduated together.  One of these was a blind woman named Debbie, and she happened to be sitting next to me at the Mass.  So when it was time for Holy Communion, I took her arm and walked with her, and guided her up the several steps we had to climb in that place to reach the priests distributing Communion.  I was concerned with making sure she was all right, and so I wasn’t sufficiently recollected and I received Our Lord rather hurriedly.  When we returned to our places, I repented of this in my heart to Him.  But immediately, I felt Him clearly say in my soul: “What you did for Debbie, you did for Me.”  Peace returned, and I understood the Gospel more clearly than ever.

The Lord is asking us to get to the heart of the Gospel.  Even Pharisees can pray and fast, but they don’t have compassion on others or treat them with charity.  Perhaps that is another reason why this Gospel is read shortly before Lent.  We must pray and fast, but if we don’t treat others with charity and compassion, doing for Christ what we do for them, then our prayer and fasting will be pharisaical and hence fruitless.

There are only two ultimate destinies: one that is announced by, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father,” and one that is announced by, “Depart from Me, you cursed…”  The whole of the Gospel, the whole of our spiritual lives, all that Jesus said and did—it is all meant to lead us to the blessed end of the righteous.  This should be the absolute most essential thing in our lives, and we should allow nothing ever to derail us in this ardent pursuit, even only temporarily.  Either all is gained or all is lost; in the end there is nothing in between.

So let us be determined to treat others as we would treat Our Lord, remembering what his final words will be, and entering into the time of Lent willing to be cleansed, enlightened, and changed into more faithful images of Jesus.  For nothing is more important, and nothing is worth risking the loss of the heavenly kingdom. The love of God has prepared this for us from the foundation of the world, and it is his ardent desire that we join Him: with the Heavenly Queen, the Angels and Saints, and all the righteous who have given their hearts and lives to Jesus for the sake of his Gospel.  It is already prepared; the grace is offered; the rest is up to us.

In Spirit and Truth

Jesus told the Samaritan woman (and us) that those who worship God must do so “in spirit and truth.”  What does this mean? I have a rather curious habit of undertaking to explain things to others that I’m not sure I understand myself.  But perhaps as I write, the Spirit will reveal to me the truth.

Let’s start with worshiping in truth.  In the original context, the first level of meaning for the Samaritan woman may have been that the Jews had the true worship and the Samaritans did not.  For Jesus said to her: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (Jn. 4:22).  But this is immediately followed by a “but,” which means Jesus is taking it to another level.  The next thing He says is that true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth—so we haven’t learned a whole lot so far, since we started with those words.  But at least we know that worshiping in truth has something to do with the heritage of the Jews (for Jesus came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them; see Mt 5:17), and also that there are legitimate distinctions to be made.  Some people worship what they do not know, and some worship what they know.  The former are presumably not worshiping in truth.  The latter must know what they know because the Lord has revealed it to them.  So without divine revelation we cannot worship in truth.

We can trust, then, that Jesus, being the Messiah and the Son of God, and the Way, the Truth and the Life, would provide for those who would follow Him the means for worshiping God in truth.  I just remembered that “Truth” is one of the terms Jesus used to identify Himself, so there must be some way that worshiping the Father in truth is worshiping Him in Christ.  To worship God most fully in Christ, one would have to be profoundly united to Christ, let’s say as the members of a body are united to the head.  So in order to worship God in truth, we have to be “in Christ,” and for this we have to be members of “the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).  Therefore to worship in truth is to worship God from within the Church that Christ established for the salvation of the world, the place of true worship, true faith, true doctrine, the place where divine revelation would be rightly interpreted and put into practice.  This would be, as we say in the Nicene Creed, the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”

In the context of worship within the Church, primarily in Eucharistic worship, “in truth” can have an added dimension of “validity,” worshiping God in the mystery of Jesus’ Sacrifice in such a way as to ensure that it is done in the way the Lord intends, so that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly made present.  In such cases where certain egregious departures from the divinely-ordained way of worship render the Eucharistic consecration invalid, then in that case those responsible are not worshiping in truth.

Now there may also be more subjective ways to worship in truth, once we are safely within the Body of Christ.  To worship in truth can thus mean to worship with integrity and from the heart, to worship without hypocrisy or pride, to worship with the right intention (unlike Pharisees who worshiped in order to call attention to their piety and righteousness, and then getting their reward from the esteem of the people).  It can also mean to worship and pray in the awareness of the deepest inner truth of who we are, men and women made in the image of God: created, redeemed, and loved by Him who wills our eternal happiness.  Thus, in the words of Jesus, we “give to God what is God’s,” that is, our very selves, our lives, our destinies.

What about worshiping “in spirit”?  In one sense this is easier to understand, and it another it is more difficult.  It’s not always clear in the original Greek of the Gospels if “spirit” or “Spirit” is meant.  We do have a clue, however, in the Gospel we got this phrase from in the first place, for when Jesus tells us to worship in spirit and truth, He prefaces it by saying, “God is Spirit…”  So, since God is Spirit, those who worship Him must worship in spirit (or Spirit) and truth.

If we’re going to worship the Father in the Holy Spirit, I think we simply have to go back and look at what it means to worship God in Christ.  The Son and the Spirit are two distinct divine Persons, but God is one, so to worship in Christ is not something other than to worship in the Spirit.  Jesus called the Holy Spirit another Paraclete or Advocate, Himself being the first.  So when Jesus ascended to the Father, He sent the Holy Spirit, through whom He would be with us in this world until the end of time. It is only by worshiping in the Spirit that we are able to worship in Christ.  And if we are not members of the Body of Christ, we cannot be worshiping God in the Spirit, and for that reason we would not be worshiping in truth, either.  You can’t worship either in spirit or in truth.  It’s both or nothing.

As with truth, there may also be subjective ways of worshiping in spirit, and here we would retain the lower case.  St Paul, when trying to bring some order into the Corinthian assemblies where they prayed in tongues (among other extraordinary things), he made a distinction between spirit and mind.  To pray in tongues was praying in spirit, the mind being disengaged from rational thinking or creating intelligible words for prayer, and to pray with the mind was to pray with understanding of the actual words one uses in prayer, words prayed in a language one knows.  This, however, probably ought not concern us much in “spirit and truth” reflections.

Perhaps another way to understand a subjective way of praying in spirit (though you don’t really get this from John’s Gospel) is to see “spirit” as opposed to “flesh,” as we often find in St Paul’s writings.  To pray in spirit would then mean to pray with freedom from carnal thoughts, passions, and desires, to pray without harboring any refusal to forgive, without grudges, anger, envy, or anything else in Paul’s broad category of “flesh” that would hinder or befoul our prayer.  If we were to pray or worship in “flesh,” then both “spirit” and “Spirit” would be absent.

I’m sure I haven’t exhausted the meaning of this somewhat enigmatic phrase of Our Lord, but I’m beginning to exhaust myself, so I think I’ll close now.  If we can remember, however, to worship in (the Holy) Spirit and in (Christ the) Truth, being faithful members of Christ’s Body, the Church, approaching God with our whole heart and soul, striving to be as pure and free of sinful hindrances as possible, we will be among those whom the Father seeks to worship Him in spirit and truth.

Humility, Obedience, Incarnation

[This is a homily on the Annunciation that I gave in 2004.]

We have a sort of “Christmasy” gospel here.  Here we are with this Christmas mystery, the mystery of the Incarnation, in the middle of Lent.  And there’s certainly good reason for that: the Feast of the Annunciation has to be nine months, to the day, before Christmas.  So that’s how we get a big feast in the middle of Lent.

I don’t want to speak much about Christmas here, obviously, but I want to look at Our Lady in the context of this mystery of the Incarnation and to understand a little bit about what makes her so wonderful, so blessed among women.

The main thing that she is praised for, down through the ages, is her total surrender to the will of God, which resulted in the Incarnation of the Son of God and, hence, in the salvation of our souls.  But how do you get to the point of total surrender to God, for her and for us?

She had a distinct advantage in being conceived without sin, which we don’t have in our struggles to surrender to God, yet that didn’t relieve her from the sufferings of this life and human limitations, so she was still called to practice virtue in difficult situations.  The two main virtues I want to look at, which prepared the way for her surrender to God, and which prepare our way to surrender to God, are humility and obedience.

When the angel came to her, he said some pretty wonderful things to her: “Rejoice, full of grace!  The Lord is with you!  Blessed are you among women!”  Now, you’d think that she would be all excited about that; those are some pretty great things for an angel from Heaven to say to you!  But it says in the Bible that she was “greatly troubled at this saying, considering in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.”  This is a testimony to her humility, that she estimated herself, as we see a few verses later in the Magnificat that she sang when she visited Elizabeth, that she considered herself a lowly handmaid—a doule in Greek, a slave—so she was this humble handmaid, and yet the angel is coming to her, saying how great she is!  So she was puzzled, troubled by that.

It reminds me of that story of the desert fathers, where the devil was coming to tempt one of these old monks, and he appeared to the monk as if he were an angel, and he said to him, “I am Gabriel, and I have been sent to you!”  The old monk looked up and said, “Well, I think you’d better check and see if you were sent to somebody else.  As for me, I’m unworthy to receive an angel.”  And immediately the devil was unmasked by the monk’s humility.

Our Lady also manifests her humility in considering herself unworthy to be visited by an angel, because she didn’t immediately accept the greeting, and her humility wasn’t a kind of phony humility where she’d say, “Oh!  Are you coming to li’l ol’ me?  Say that again, what you just said!”   No, it was a real, genuine humility.

Then the angel goes on to explain to her all of these great things that are going to happen to her and the only question she had was:  This is really great, but in order to have a son, you have to be married, or at least do what married people do.  So she says, “How is this going to happen?”  And the angel says, “Don’t worry.”  By that time, the angel had her total attention, and he was ready to explain everything to her, once he saw her openness and willingness.  So he explained: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the Power of the Most High will overshadow you.  Therefore, this child you’re going to bear will be called the Son of God.”

Now, at this point, her mind must have been just reeling—especially because of the awareness, the understanding of God that people in her time had.  See, today there’s often a too-familiar approach that people have towards God, a cheap sort of familiarity where God is just your pal and your buddy and you treat Him as a kind of side-kick who’s always with you and helps you out when you need it.  Well, for Mary, and for the people of the Old Testament, God is thunder and lightning and earthquake and fire, and the Transcendent Creator of the moon and the stars and everything else—and so to say that God is going to make you pregnant, and so your child is going to be the Son of God, I’m surprised the Scripture didn’t say: “…at that point Mary passed out”—because she probably was about to.  And she might have been thinking to herself, “Well now, that’s impossible!”  So the angel immediately says, “Nothing shall be impossible with God.”  Even if she had a thought like that, it was answered instantly by the angel.  So she took all this in and absorbed it.

Next comes her obedience: without understanding, really, what all this meant, she obeyed.  Without figuring everything out in advance, she obeyed.  Without planning her agenda in advance, she obeyed.  Because she knew who she was: she was the servant of the Lord, and if the Lord has come and revealed something to her and asked something of her, she just did it, because that belonged to who she was.  This is a very important thing, her obedience, and her humility as well, because the opposite of humility and obedience—pride and disobedience—are at the root of everything that is evil in the world, and that ever has been.

It’s because of pride and disobedience that the fallen angels are in Hell right now.  And it’s because of pride and disobedience that our first parents sinned, and visited the effects of their sin on all human ages and peoples to come.  So the pride and disobedience were standing there like a wall of separation between mankind and God; this is the way that man had rejected God, turned away from God.  But Mary comes, as the fathers call her, the “New Eve.” Eve messed it up along with Adam through pride and disobedience.  Mary comes along with humility and obedience to undo that huge mistake of the past.  As some fathers say, she is a new creation.  That’s really how Mary being the New Eve flows very well into the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, because if she’s going to be the New Eve—we know Eve was certainly created without sin—she too ought to be created perfectly free from sin.  It’s like God was saying, “I’m going to start all over again, and start with this New Eve who is going to give birth to the New Adam.”  In Genesis, Eve came out of Adam, but in the New Testament the New Adam comes out of the New Eve.

So her humility and obedience led to her total surrender to God, hence to the Incarnation of God for our salvation, and she gives us a model, a witness, of how to be before God, so we can look at our own lives and see: am I totally surrendered to God?  Not just in my head, in my fantasy, but in the way that I actually live.  Do I prove by my life that I’m totally surrendered to God?  Well, if we’re not totally surrendered, probably it’s because there’s still some pride and disobedience in there that have to be removed, that have to be cleansed out, so that we can come to that place of deep humility and genuine obedience that Our Lady manifested and gives to us and says, “Do you want to be a disciple?  You want to be a servant of the Lord?  You want to be highly favored and full of grace and have the Lord be with you?  Here’s how to do it: humility and obedience.”  So she gives us that as our model, so to speak, for our discipleship and for our way back to Paradise. Pride and disobedience threw us out of Paradise; humility and obedience in Christ and in service to Christ will lead us back to Paradise.

I would like to close here with a little quote from Cardinal Ratzinger [he wasn’t yet Pope Benedict when I first gave this homily] in his reflection on the Incarnation and Annunciation which I really liked when I read it, because it makes clear that our Christian faith is not just a faith in abstractions or myths, or even just theological propositions, but our faith is in a God who personally entered into human history as one of us and personally enters into our own lives.  God is not just a figment of our religious imagination or aspirations, but has really come to us in our need.

He says, “Researches have revealed that as early as the second century someone’s hand had scratched in Greek on the wall of the cave in Nazareth the words of the angel’s greeting to Mary: ‘Hail Mary.’  Gianfranco Ravasi makes a beautifully appropriate remark:  ‘The evidence of this research underlines for us the fact that the Christian message is not a collection of abstract propositions about God, but is God’s encounter with our world, with the reality of our homes and our lives.  This is exactly what is at issue here.  We let ourselves be touched by the concrete character of God’s action so that with renewed gratitude and conviction we can say: ‘He was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.’”

Our Father (Part 2)

Rather than continuing to argue about who can rightly claim God as Father, let us look at what it means for us who have been baptized into Christ, the unique Son—who has invited us, his brethren, to call God “Our Father.”

Jesus’ revelation of God as his “Abba”—not a formal term for “father” but a term of filial endearment—was something quite new and astounding.  While there are a few scattered references in the Old Testament to God as Father, there is neither consistency in addressing Him as such, nor are we given any theological justification for doing so.  Only Jesus could bring this revelation to mankind, for only Jesus has the absolute right to call God “Father.”  Jesus has known Him as such for all eternity, and we can only know Him if we accept the revelation from his Son.  “No one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mt 11:27). Only Jesus intimately and uniquely knows Him as Father and hence is in a position to reveal Him.  “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known” (Jn 1:18).

To become aware of God as Father is to realize that He is a personal, loving God—“on our side,” as it were, and not a distant or impersonal Law Enforcer.  If you had inadvertently broken a law while in some foreign backwater and were faced with imprisonment in one of their foul and forgotten dungeons, and then saw your own father led in to decide the case, you would surely breathe a lot easier!  (I’d like to prescind here from the psychological complexities of those whose fathers have been absent, indifferent, or abusive.  Here I would prefer not to view the Father as a projection of unfortunate human experience of fatherhood, but rather as the divine archetype or model of which human fatherhood is intended to be an image.)

Because Jesus has spoken of God as our Father, we have a new and precious perspective on the mystery of the Absolute, of the Transcendent Infinite Power which is sometimes referred to in an impersonal way as the “God of the philosophers.”  Without denying God’s transcendence, infinity, omnipotence, etc—indeed, we must not, if we do not wish to stray from the truth—we can actually enter, through the Son, into a personal relationship with the God whom Jesus revealed as Father.  We don’t have to try to understand God from the perspective of a philosopher, but we can love and relate to Him as one of his own children.  This is quite a revolutionary approach to God, though even the New Testament still maintains that God “dwells in unapproachable light” (1Tim 6:16).

When Jesus describes his Father, He doesn’t list divine attributes in theological terms.  He simply tells us about the way God relates to us in his love and providence, his justice and mercy.  “Your Father sees in secret… your Father knows what you need… if you forgive, your Father will forgive you, but if you do not forgive, neither will your Father forgive you… how much will your Father give good things to those who ask Him!”  Jesus is thus bringing the profound, consoling, and sometimes terrifying mystery of the Divine into the experiences and concerns of our daily life, for it is precisely there that we work out our salvation.  God as Father is near at hand, guiding, instructing, admonishing, encouraging us to “be perfect” as He is, that is, to relate to all people out of the fullness of love, without making distinctions to justify the withholding of love from anyone, or to act only according to our feelings or preferences (see Mt 5:43-48).

If we are to know and love God as Father, we must desire and develop, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, a “filial will.”  This, along with purity of heart, will help us “see God.”  Our own self-understanding must have as its foundation our relationship with the Father as a son or daughter.  A child of God is who you are, and so the way you live must reflect this basic identity.  The Pope writes: “To be a son [or daughter] is to be in relation: it is a relational concept.  It involves giving up the autonomy that is closed in upon itself; it includes what Jesus means by saying that we have to become like children.”  This is described in radical, mystical terms by St Paul when he writes: “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).  This profound union with the Son is what enables us to live in filial relation to the Father.  In the same Epistle, Paul writes: “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’  So through God you are no longer a slave but a son” (4:6-7).  The Spirit of the Son crying “Abba, Father!” within us: this is how we pray the Lord’s Prayer.  This is how we live our lives in relation to God here on Earth—as we will in Heaven!  We ought to ponder the Gospels, especially that of John, to understand the relationship of the Father and the Son, and pray that we may be granted the grace of that “filial will” by which we partake in that profoundly loving communion.

To understand God as Father is also to realize that we have access to the mysteries of visible and invisible creation in a way we wouldn’t otherwise have.  We don’t have to crack some obscure cosmic code or try to force our way—through careful calculation, rigorous reasoning, or endless experimentation—into the veiled places where God’s secrets are to be found.  Jesus simply said: “Ask and you shall receive.”  That’s because God is a Father and not an Enigma, even though we may often be at a loss to rightly interpret his inscrutable designs.  That’s also why prayer, and not laborious research, will yield the greater harvest in the perception and experience of the presence of God in this world.  A good father will take the time to answer his child’s questions (even if he has to suppress a smile over childish naïveté), for this is part of leading the child to maturity in understanding the meaning of life and the various elements and experiences thereof.  So through prayer, we sit with our Father and ask Him questions about life.  We sometimes forget to wait to listen for the answers, for, like children, our patience is about as short as our attention span.  But if we persevere in both asking and listening for the answer, our heavenly Father will show us everything we need to know for living this life fruitfully, joyfully, and with the ability to continually grow in understanding and awareness of all He has made and done for our benefit and delight.

Commentators on the Lord’s Prayer never fail to notice that Jesus told us to call God our Father.  As children of God, we have many brothers and sisters, and even though everyone’s relationship to God is personal, we are still members of a body.  We share a common discipleship and incorporation in the Church, and Jesus gave two Great Commandments—love of God and love of neighbor—which means that there is no “me and God” clique that excludes the innumerable children of his family.  If one becomes so exclusive with “my Father” that he does not regard Him as the Father of all believers—failing to see the family resemblance among the children—chances are that he is worshiping an idol and not the true God, and he risks losing his own place in the family.  That is how some people who call God “Father” end up as children of the devil.  We neglect the importance of the “our” only at our peril.

We ought also to remember that all of us are adopted children of God, branches grafted on to the Vine that is Christ, the only-begotten Son (hence we should heed St Paul’s warning in his similar analogy in Rom. 11:17-24).  Only Christ has the absolute and natural right to call God “My Father.”  The distinction between Jesus’ eternal, natural sonship and our adopted status is subtly made in the Gospels.  Jesus says “My Father” and “your Father,” and He tells his disciples to call God “our Father.”  But He never calls God “our Father” meaning both his and ours, even when it would be less awkward to do so: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father…” (Jn 20:17).  Why not simply say: “I am ascending to our Father”?  After all, it is the same Person He is referring to.  Same Person, but not the same relationship. God cannot be our Father in the same way He is Jesus’ Father, even though it is only through union with Jesus that we are able to call God “Father.”  So, while Jesus is happy to share his Father with all his disciples, his relationship with Him will always be different than ours, in kind and not merely in degree.  But we are still co-heirs with Christ to eternal happiness and heavenly glory.

Our Father (Part 1)

[This two-part post is an excerpt from my book How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place, from the chapter which is a commentary on the Lord’s prayer.  These posts will only cover the first two words of the prayer.  If this first part, about who can really claim God as Father according to the Bible and one of the Church fathers, seems a bit stern, stay tuned for the second, which explores the blessings of God’s Fatherhood granted to us who are baptized into the Holy Trinity.]

Before I say anything about the meaning of these words [“Our Father”], I’ll try to intimidate you a little and see if you then have the courage to persevere.  St Gregory of Nyssa has written some rather disquieting words about approaching God as Father.  I hadn’t given this much thought before, and it’s certainly not all that can be said on the subject, but it will help us to get off to a sober start.

St Gregory reasons that fatherhood is the source of its offspring and hence that there is some likeness between the child and the father.  Likewise, a good tree bears only good fruit. Therefore, a person who is evil cannot claim to have God as his Father, and he would be a liar to address Him as such.  “If therefore on examining himself a man finds that he still needs to be purified because his conscience is full of vile stains and sores, he cannot insinuate himself into the family of God until he has been purged from all these evil things.”  Calling God “Father,” says St Gregory, would then be tantamount to calling Him the source of one’s own wickedness.

“But if we call our Father Him who is incorruptible and just and good, we must prove by our life that the kinship is real.  Do you see how much preparation we need, and what kind of life we must lead?  How ardent must be our zeal so that our conscience may achieve such purity as to have the courage to say ‘Father’ to God? … Since then He has commanded in the prayer to call God ‘Father’, He tells you to do nothing less than to become like your Heavenly Father by a life that is worthy of God, as He bids us do more clearly elsewhere when He says: ‘Be you therefore perfect as also your Heavenly Father is perfect.’”  The Fathers of the Church took prayer very seriously.

Concerning one who perseveres in sin yet still uses the word “father” in his prayers, St Gregory comes to this chilling conclusion: “…what kind of a father will hear him?  Evidently one who is akin to the man who calls upon him; and this is not the heavenly, but the infernal father.  For the one who bears the family features will surely recognize his own kind.  Therefore as long as the evil man persists in his wickedness, his prayer is an invocation of the devil.”  It is becoming clearer now why we introduce the Lord’s Prayer in the Divine Liturgy by saying: “And make us worthy, O Master, with confidence and without condemnation, to dare call You Father, O God of Heaven, and to say…”

A few comments may be made here.  First of all, Jesus Himself used a line of reasoning similar to St Gregory’s with those who denied He was the Son of God and even accused Him of being possessed by a demon.  They also said that God was their father (see the whole dialogue in John 8:31-59).  Jesus answered, tellingly: “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God.”  The inescapable conclusion is that, since they obviously did not love Him, God was not their Father, even if they invoked Him as such.  Jesus immediately gets right to the point and leaves no room for doubt about what He is saying: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.”  So it is true, then, that if one is evil yet tries to invoke God as Father, it is his infernal father, the devil, whom he is in fact invoking—unless, of course, this invocation is a prayer of sincere repentance from one’s evildoing.  The Father’s ears will surely be open for that.

On the other hand, even though Jesus calls us to the Father’s own perfection, we have to realize that this is the goal toward which we must earnestly strive, not the place from which we begin.  He never said we have to be perfect before we can even begin to address God as Father.  In the Lord’s Prayer we ask, among other things, for forgiveness, which petition would be meaningless if we were already perfected.  So I think that what Jesus and St Gregory are both showing us is that we have to take utterly seriously the holiness of God and what our calling Him “Father” implies.  It is obvious from the Gospel that it is possible that someone can delude himself into thinking God is his Father and at the same time behave as an offspring of the devil.  Scripture repeatedly calls us to a high standard of behavior—so high that it is worthy of God, but by that very fact possible only through his grace. Yet God has compassion on sinners and considers them his children if they will only come to Him with contrite hearts and with faith.  The perfecting takes time; the repentance and the paternal embrace can begin at once, as it did for the prodigal son.

The question arises, though, whether or not God as such is the Father of everyone simply because He is their Creator.  This seems to be a common assumption these days, but it needs to be examined.  We could perhaps begin by noticing that God is also the Creator of butterflies and pomegranates and elephants, but that fact does not make Him their Father.  Yes, one might argue, but they have not been created in God’s image as human beings have been; to be created in God’s image is to be his child.  Fair enough, there can be a very basic sense in which God is “Father” simply because He is the Source of our being, but this is so minimal as to just barely approach the Christian understanding of God’s fatherhood. We have just seen from the Scriptures that even some who believe God is their Father and invoke Him as such are in reality children of the devil.  So I think we need to examine divine revelation further, in order to see what God says about his own fatherhood.

We shall be compelled to conclude from the Scriptures that God’s fatherhood of human beings is a gift, not merely a fact of creation.  As such, the full reality of fatherhood can be freely bestowed or not.  We are not natural children of God, for we are not of the same nature as God (in Ephesians 2:3, St Paul says rather that we are “by nature children of wrath”).  Those who can rightly call God their Father are “adopted” children of God, which implies a choice by the parent, and in the context of relations between God and man, a choice by the child as well.

St Paul offers a detailed argument in the Letter to the Romans.  If God is to be our Father, we first must have faith.  Once we believe in Him and what He has done for us through his only-begotten Son, we are to be baptized into the mystery of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.  Thus united with the Son, we receive the Holy Spirit.  This Spirit dwells in those who belong to Christ, and who thus live under the guidance and leadership of the Spirit of God.  So, here goes: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship.  When we cry ‘Abba!  Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…” (8:14-17).

Our adoption as children of God, then, is something we have received as a result of faith, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, not something that automatically happened the moment we were created.  St John concurs: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12).  A child of God is something one becomes by specific means, not something one is by merely existing.  So we return to St Gregory’s insight that there are certain conditions that apply before we can rightly call God ‘Father.’  His conditions were moral instead of sacramental and spiritual, but the basic point is that God’s fatherhood, understood in the biblical and traditional sense, isn’t a universal “given” for human beings.

To be continued…

Fifth Sorrowful Mystery

This is the final sorrowful mystery and the final mystery of Jesus’ earthly life (I consider the Resurrection to belong already to his life of heavenly glory—for there is very little “earthly” about it).  There is much to reflect upon here, though I will limit myself for now to just a few points.

The hour of his sacrifice brought together the message of the Gospel he preached for three years and the personal act of atonement to which all his words and works pointed, in one way or another.  In a way, Jesus went on preaching, or rather putting into practice, the Gospel, even in the throes of his agony.  He practiced love of enemies (“Father, forgive them”), He welcomed repentant sinners (“You will be with Me in Paradise”), and He did his Father’s will and surrendered all to Him (“Into Your hands I commend My spirit”).

Even though Jesus laid down his life by his own free will and power (see Jn 10:18), He still suffered to the utmost extreme possible.  He had to.  It was the only way—not only that every possible sin would be atoned for, but also that we would know that there is nothing that we can suffer in this life that He did not willingly take upon Himself and painfully endure.  Perhaps the most dramatic and gut-wrenching example of this is his agonized cry: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”

It is not enough to assume (though there probably is some truth in this) that Jesus was simply quoting Psalm 21/22, which is a prophecy of the Passion and which ends on a trustful and even triumphant note.  If that’s all it was, then we might still be able to say to Jesus in our own desperate straits: “You don’t know the feeling of being abandoned by God.”  It is not possible for us fully to understand how it could have happened that He who was divine by nature for all eternity and hence constantly in union with the Father, could have, in his humanity, experienced the terror and near-despair of a sense of being left alone in his greatest moment of need.   Yet Jesus willed to go, in full reality, to the darkest depths of human misery and agony, and his Father somehow was able to withdraw from Jesus’ human consciousness the awareness of his intimate union with Him.  This was perhaps the greatest of all Jesus’ sufferings on the Cross.

But how could we compare one suffering with another?  Jesus endured on the Cross, among other things, the combined hatred of perhaps 10 billion people or more, all the malice and blasphemy and filth and rejection of truth and goodness the world ever had known or will know.  It was carved into his flesh; it tore at his soul like the mad dogs and lions and wild bulls mentioned in the psalm.  The devil thought he had finally secured his victory, his revenge against God, and hence the damnation of the human race—and he likely taunted Jesus with this as the darkness of the Father’s perceived abandonment threatened to suffocate his spirit.

His Mother watched it all happen.  She was there; how could she not be there?  There is nothing deeper or more tenacious than a mother’s love.  Her heart was run through and through with the spiritual sword prophesied by the aged Simeon nearly 33 years before.  Though she ached and wept and probably prostrated on the ground before her tortured, dying, beloved Son, she would not, as did his enemies and the wicked thief, tell Him to come down from the Cross.  No, she had only one prayer, the one that guided and formed her entire life: “I am the Handmaid of the Lord; be it done according to your word.”  In a sense it was her personal Gethsemane, where she had to say, “Not my will but Yours be done.”

Michael O’Brien writes: “The mother of Jesus stands beneath the Cross.  Darkness covers the earth.  Her son’s death-cry echoes across the mount, splits the sky and the city and penetrates the heavens and to the depths of hell.  All of creation is shaken. Time slows, then appears to stop, but the sound goes on and on.  It tears through minds and hearts like an unending wail.  From the depths of memory Mary hears interiorly the sound of a newborn baby crying out in the night, for milk, for warmth, for love.  These cries mix together with the deep agonized voice of the dying man, and they become one sound in her heart—this is the sword…

“When he is dead there is only silence… She does not weep at this moment.  It is possible only to stare into the total blackness, feeling nothing but the incurable wound in her heart.  This is the pain too deep for utterance, the agony too cruel for sound.

“Later she weeps.  When they take the lacerated body down and put its stiff, distorted limbs into her lap she sees the baby she once held in her arms.  [His humanity] had been created for love and now he lies here again, covered with the filth of the world, battered by its malice, torn into pieces by its diseased soul.  Then, through the gash in her heart, all the anguish of mothers pours out and the night is filled with cries… they are cries like no other in the history of mankind, before or to come.  The angel had rescued her and Joseph and the child from the slaughter of the innocents.  Now, at last, she too is called to weep the unbearable tears of Rachel weeping for her children, because they are no more.”

Shortly before He died, Jesus cried out: “I thirst!”  He had lost so much blood that his body was tormented with a burning thirst, for which he was offered vinegar.  Yet his thirst was deeper, a thirst born out of love for us, a thirst for souls, for our salvation.  There was nothing He wouldn’t do to save us, nothing He wouldn’t sacrifice or suffer.  He still thirsts for our love, our fidelity, because this will mean our salvation.

As a kind of parable at the climax of this divine drama, Jesus’ Heart opened to us.  It is a perfect example of how God brings forth the greatest good even from the most horrible evil.  Jesus’ Heart was torn open by the lance of a pagan soldier, yet God willed it so.  He willed the outpouring of blood and water as a sign of salvation, an expression of the love that is stronger than death, that is inexhaustible in its mystical flow of divine grace.  Sin and hatred and malicious rejection were heaped upon Him; love and mercy flowed out in return.  The Lamb was slaughtered, and He took away our sin.

When we meditate on Jesus nailed to the Cross in agony, covered with bleeding wounds while being reviled and tormented by nearly everyone, we ought to see ourselves in his position—not that we are innocent sufferers, rather the opposite. Our sins deserve such a punishment.  Those nails should in justice be driven through our hands and feet; those scourges should have fallen justly upon us.  We are the ones who deserve the mocking and spitting and beating.  Yet Our Lord said to his Father: No, let their punishment fall on Me.  I do not want them to receive what they deserve; I want them to be with Me where I am in Heaven.  Perhaps they will now recognize how much I love them, and they will follow Me and be kept safe from the evil one and brought into the Kingdom.

Do we recognize in the tortured, humiliated, broken Man the One who loves us beyond all telling?  Do we realize what we have been saved from?  Knowing the lengths He went to in order to deliver us from Hell, will we now be able to say: not my will but Yours be done?  This sorrowful mystery should pierce our hearts like a sword, and thus it should open them to love, and to a gratitude that will take all eternity to fully express.

Fourth Sorrowful Mystery

Jesus carries his Cross.  It is probably good that the mysteries are described in the present tense, rather than simply noting a historical fact: Jesus carried his Cross.  Blaise Pascal wrote that Christ is in agony until the end of the world.  His mysteries are not merely past events. Not only are they made mystically and sacramentally present anew whenever the Divine Liturgy or Holy Mass are offered, but Christ is in our midst at all times, communicating to us the grace of everything He said and did—in the manner and at the time we most need it.

When Jesus first carried his Cross, He was carrying the weight of the sin of the world.  As the sacrificial Lamb of God, He would take away this sin when He offered Himself, Priest and Victim, to the Father, to make atonement.  We can be sure that Jesus was aware of all this as He made his painful way to Golgotha, but perhaps He was also focusing on a very practical matter: staying alive until He could offer Himself on the Cross.

Everything that Jesus had gone through since He entered Gethsemane would have been enough to kill a man: the profound traumas of body and soul through his inner agony and the beating, scourging, and crowning with thorns.  He was severely weakened through pain and loss of blood, crushed even more by the desertion of his friends and the derision of the crowd.  And then they laid a huge, heavy wooden cross upon Him, ordering Him to carry it to the place of his execution.  He went like a lamb to the slaughter, refusing to defend Himself against this monumental injustice.

A few images from the film, The Passion of the Cross, might assist us in our meditation.  Jesus embraced the Cross when they laid it upon Him, thus provoking the incredulity and increased mockery of the crowd.  “Look, he’s actually embracing it!”  They laughed Him to scorn.  Yet Jesus embraced cross out of love for us, even though we did not return his love. For the sake of those who would love Him back, He was willing to bear the burden of those who wouldn’t.  How horrified must the jeering crowd have been when coming before the Risen Lord at their judgment upon their deaths—those who hadn’t repented of their sin and blasphemy—to realize that all along Jesus was suffering to take away their sins, while they reviled and ridiculed Him.

Then, and most poignantly, was the meeting with his Mother.  Jesus had fallen under the intolerable weight of the Cross, that is, of our sins, and St John was calling to Mary that Jesus was near where they were waiting on his path to crucifixion.  She seemed to hesitate a bit at first, but then she remembered a time when He had fallen as a child and was crying, when she had run to Him, saying: “I’m here for you!”  Seeing her grown Son fallen again, her motherly heart could not be restrained, so she ran to Him again, saying the same words.  This was perhaps the only comfort Our Lord received on this long and agonizing road to his death.  In my imagination, I can see that the eyes of Jesus and Mary met, communicating volumes without words of their ineffably intimate relationship, known only to them, for she had conceived and given birth to God the Son made flesh in her womb, and she loved Him like no one else ever could.  They remembered the past, the joys and sorrows, the love and the blessing, the labors and the hope. This precious moment pierced both their hearts with unspeakable pain, which only the sword-point of love can inflict.  Jesus touches his Mother’s face.  He wipes away a tear and leaves a streak of blood in its place.  The He gathers his remaining strength, shoulders the Cross, and walks toward his destiny.

Finally, there is Simon of Cyrene.  The Gospels say he was compelled to help Jesus carry his Cross, which means he was unwilling to do so, as the film accurately portrays.  Simon’s ironic protest was that he, an innocent man, should not be forced to carry the cross of a condemned criminal.  Ah, but who really is the Innocent Man and who really are the condemned criminals?  In truth, the Innocent Man did not object to carrying the cross for a whole world full of sinners, condemned to Hell if He would not bear their punishment.  But everything changed when, after Jesus had fallen again and, as Simon tried to help Him up, he looked into Jesus’ eyes.  Whatever he saw there immediately transformed him, and he willingly carried the Cross along with Jesus.

The look of Christ was first bestowed on Peter (according to St Luke) after he denied Him.  “The Lord looked at Peter,” and this was enough to rend the apostle’s heart and cause him to weep bitter, though cleansing, tears of repentance.  So it was for Simon, and so it shall be for us if we seek to look into the eyes of Him who bore our sins out of love for us.  We will not flee when He says that whoever would be his disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow Him.  We will remember Peter; we will remember Simon; we will remember Mary.  And we will follow the Lamb wherever He goes.

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