Saturday, August 27, 2005

Words, Words, Words

I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words over the years, and tens of thousands on this blog alone over the past few months. What is the value of all these words? Is a word only worth 1/1000 of a picture? Talk is cheap, and words can be mere lip-service, chatter, blather, garrulity, superfluity, and fluff. But I’d still like to say a few words about words, the two sides of the coin.

On the negative side, we know that “actions speak louder than words,” and that words can often be meaningless, mendacious, or hurtful. “When words are many, sin is not lacking,” says the author of Proverbs (10:19). Therefore great caution is advised concerning the use of words. Indeed, the Lord Himself said, “On the day of judgment, men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Mt. 12:36). Woe is me! I’ll have a lot to account for on that day!

Abraham Heschel explains what happens when our words become disconnected from the depths of our own souls, wherein the word of God ought to dwell: “Estranged from the soil of our soul, our words do not grow as fruits of insights, but are found as sapless clichés, refuse in the backyard of intelligence... We all live in them, feel in them, think in them, but failing to uphold their independent dignity, to respect their power and weight, they turn waif, elusive—a mouthful of dust...” (Man’s Quest for God).

On the other hand, words have great potential to express noble ideas and even divine truths, and to do so in a beautiful, moving manner. Words can be vehicles of enlightenment, healing, revelation, and reconciliation. Words are a manner of self-expression. God’s own definitive Self-expression, his only-begotten Son, is called the Word in the Gospel, First Epistle, and Apocalypse of John. In the beginning was the Word, and as it was in the beginning, it shall ever be, for “the word of the Lord endures forever” (1Peter 1:25). I call this blog “Word Incarnate” not only in honor of my Lord, but as an acknowledgement that words have the ability to “take flesh” in people’s lives, to make a difference, to help lead them, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, to the whole truth. I pray that this will in fact happen, that my words will not be mere dust in the wind, but seeds of the Spirit.

Words have power. They have changed lives and altered the course of history. When taken up into the sphere of prayer, they realize their highest potential. “To begin to pray is to confront the word, to face its dignity, its singularity, and to sense its potential might... The words must not fall off our lips like dead leaves in the autumn. They must rise like birds out of the heart into the vast expanse of eternity... In our own civilization, in which so much is being done for the cause of the liquidation of language, the realm of prayer is like an arsenal for the spirit, where words are kept clean, holy, full of power to inspire and to keep us spiritually alive... In crisis, in moments of despair, a word of prayer is like a strap we take hold of when tottering in a rushing street car which seems to be turning over...” (Heschel).

In order to be able to speak words of truth, love, beauty, and healing, we have to be immersed in the word of God, first to be purified of our false and empty words by that divine word: “Thus says the Lord: Is not my word like fire?” (Jer. 23:29). Once we are purified in the fire of the word of God, it becomes for us sustenance and joy: “I found your words and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer. 15:16).

Let us remember Jesus’ warning about the judgment upon careless words, but also that this is call to wisdom, not to an intimidated silence. For “a wise man advances himself by his words” (Sirach 20:26), using them to bless and instruct, to build up and not to tear down. We ought to realize what a great gift we have been given in the ability to express ourselves in words, to communicate something of our inaccessible interior to others.

Words must be chosen wisely, both those we speak and those we read or listen to. There are plenty of words available that are deceptive, seductive, lascivious, mean-spirited, degrading, trite, or just plain stupid. We are offered so much of that “junk food” through the TV, magazines, internet, etc. Yet there are beautiful, holy, uplifting, profound, instructive, motivating, edifying, encouraging words available as well (you may even find a few on this very blog!). By our words we will be justified and by our words we will be condemned (Mt 12:37). It always comes down to a choice, doesn’t it?

Hear the word of the Lord. Let it define you, delight you, and lead you to wisdom. Let it purify you, nourish you, and enable you to share it with others—so that your words will have the weight and the power to bring more beauty and wisdom into this world, to raise hearts to a vision of the good things to come. And then return your words to God in hymns of adoration and thanksgiving, as our liturgy says: “weaving a melody of words for the Word.”

Friday, August 26, 2005

The True Vine

I have a rather interesting little plant in my monastic cell. When it is watered, it drinks up the precious liquid very quickly and draws it through its stems and leaves with such vigor that it ends up with little drops of water suspended on the tips of its leaves. Almost as if there were too much for it to hold. (I don’t over-water it, really!) And if a leaf is freshly cut or damaged, the water appears around the wound.

It got me to thinking about Jesus’ image of the Vine and the branches. We have no life except in Him, but in Him we have such abundant life that we can scarcely hold it all in without overflowing. And if we are wounded, his grace flows to the place of pain to soothe and refresh it.

We are called not only to drink the Living Water of the Spirit that nourishes the branches of the Vine, but to overflow for others. “Abide in Me and I in you,” Jesus said (John 15:4), but to show that this mutual abiding is not a closed circle, He also said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (15:12). So as we drink, we overflow; as we receive his love we share it with others.

We have to be sure, however, that we are always drinking from the true Vine, because the world has its own bitter waters, which do not nourish but poison. What if I were to water my plant with salt water? It would soon wither up and die. Neither could I give it fresh water sometimes and salt water sometimes if I want it to live and be healthy. Divine grace comes from only one Source: the Heart of God, through his Church, the bearer and distributor of his word and sacraments. If we’re getting anything other than the love of God poured into our hearts or the wisdom of God into our minds, it’s coming from some other source. “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and salt water?” (James 3:11). We become what we feed ourselves (or allow ourselves to be fed). We can either become the body of Christ and bearers of his wisdom, or we can become products of a superficial, licentious, violent, and unbelieving world.

In which vine would you like to abide, of which would you be a branch? The “vine of Sodom” (Deut. 32:32), from which springs all manner of bitterness, vice, and warfare? Or the “true vine” (John 15:1), which provides the spiritual nourishment for bearing fruit unto eternal life? The choice may look obvious, but it is the way we actually live our lives, the choices we make every day, that proves which vine we truly belong to. To sin is to suck polluted water from the bitter soil in which “worldly” plants live. But remember, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted” (Mt. 15:13).

Abide in Jesus, the True Vine, and learn to love and forgive, and to walk in the light, as He is in the light. The Living Water of his grace will fill you to overflowing.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

War and Wisdom

There’s still something left to say on wisdom (perhaps much more, but I’ll limit myself to this for now). Another way to express the distinction between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the “world” is the difference between the “wisdom from above” and the earthly wisdom from below (see James 3:13-18).

I pray often for the wisdom from above. The wisdom of the world is inadequate for life in Christ, and even worse, it is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish,” according to St James. That is because he says it is based on selfish ambition and falsehood. “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.” Each of these aspects of the wisdom from above is worth meditating upon. We ought to refer to them as a standard for measuring whatever passes for wisdom in this world—and for measuring our own perspectives, decisions, and general way of living. Pure, peaceable, gentle, merciful—it reads like the beatitudes.

I noticed something interesting as I continued reading this passage on wisdom. The Apostle immediately goes into a discussion on war and peace (notice that wisdom from above is “peaceable”). He says: “The harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have, so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and wage war” (James 3:18 – 4:2).

This is not really the forum for an essay on the morality (or lack thereof) of the war in Iraq, which has been getting more attention lately because of the protests in Texas—which have become quite an embarrassment to the present administration. But I would put the question as to which wisdom is behind this war—that which is earthly, unspiritual, and devilish, or that which is pure, peaceable, gentle, merciful, and open to reason? It doesn’t seem like a harvest of righteousness is being sown in peace in that land which daily echoes with exploding bombs and the groans of the maimed and bereaved.

Is there something that we desired and did not have, that we coveted and could not obtain (like oil or international hegemony), so we killed, fought and waged war? It has been made clear over time that there was in fact no compelling reason for us to go to war. It turns out that it was simply a matter of our foreign policy, regardless of WMDs or potential terrorist threats. So I guess St James is right: selfish ambition and falsehood are at the source of that “wisdom” from below. I think we have to ask the question that mothers of dead soldiers are asking: for what “noble cause” did they die? I agree that it was right to take out Saddam. But he's been out for quite a while now; why aren't we out? Is anyone really foolish enough to think that we can go halfway around the world and impose democracy upon a country of warring Islamic factions, who are united only by a common hatred of the western world? Meanwhile, new statistics are daily and routinely reported by the media: blast kills 24, more GIs die in attack, etc. I must admit I’ve been getting desensitized to it. If I had a son or daughter who was one of those statistics, I think my sensitivity would increase. I pray for our troops in Iraq, who are risking their lives in the belief that they are defending their country. They ought to receive our support. Outside of the few “bad apples,” they are not the ones who deserve criticism. It is those who risk others’ lives for political or economic reasons that will have to stand trembling before the Judge.

There are many arguments about whether or not this is a “just” war, and none of them that I’ve seen is wholly without merit. But I think we’ve been deceived about this war, and that the wisdom to begin it (and even more so to prolong it) was not from above. Most of us have little influence on the policy-making of our country. What we have first to do, however, is to examine ourselves and “the passions that are at war” within us, and see if we are contributing to the spirit of aggression, selfishness, greed, and hatred that fuels all wars. We must see if we, in our own limited spheres of influence, practice the unspiritual and devilish wisdom—that of the world and its rulers—instead of the pure, peaceable, and merciful wisdom. Really, we must have another King besides Caesar.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Wisdom! Let us be Attentive!

You’ll hear that exclamation from time to time during Byzantine liturgical services. It usually precedes the reading of holy Scripture, which is the wisdom of God in human words, and hence deserves our undivided attention. (It can also serve as a sort of wake-up call if you happen to be daydreaming during the service.) I think it was introduced rather early in the history of the Byzantine Churches, evidently because they really did have to call to order the sometimes unruly and boisterous congregations!

I wonder if we have sufficient regard for the wisdom that God has granted us in his word. We hear it so often in church, and maybe we even read it on our own (you do, don’t you?), so the stories and sayings may end up as the “white noise” of our spiritual life: always there somewhere in the background, but not something to which we pay a whole lot of attention. Our liturgy tries to get us to see how precious and holy is the word of the Lord. When the deacon says that we’re about to hear a reading of the holy Gospel, everyone sings: “Glory be to You, O Lord, glory be to You!” And we sing the same after the Gospel has been proclaimed. At Matins (when there happens to be a Gospel reading) there is actually a petition that precedes it, asking that we may be made worthy to hear the holy Gospel. Did you ever stop and think that you might be unworthy to hear the word of the Lord?

The wisdom that is the actual word of God is always available, even if it’s not given sufficient attention—but what seems to be a rarer gift these days is that which is an application of the word to daily life. Wisdom, after all, is not merely knowledge or understanding, or even revelation, but the way to put what is known into practice, in a manner that bears fruit for the kingdom of God. Here we do not speak of the wisdom that is mere philosophy, but the higher wisdom of which St Paul speaks, the wisdom of the Cross, the wisdom of the Spirit of God.

In today’s high-tech, instant-access-to-everything society, it seems that people are less interested in acquiring wisdom than they are in amassing information. There’s more “cash value” to the latter. Schools turn our fewer educated persons and more trained technicians. Information and technology can fuel a civilization, but only wisdom can keep culture alive.

Sometimes people ask me how I’d like them to pray for me (isn’t that nice?), or what it is I need. My answer is almost always the same: wisdom. If you have that, you have all you really need, because then you know how to live, how to see things, how to behave and to make decisions. You know how to deal with people and how to remain peaceful in tumultuous times and trying circumstances. You know yourself and you are disposed to hear the word of the Lord. You gain the prudence to avoid harmful excesses, and you acquire a taste for what is good, true, and beautiful.

Let us be attentive, for wisdom is still available to those who seek it. There are many hymns to the surpassing value of wisdom in some of the books of the Old Testament. Seek and you shall find. In this chaotic and unquiet age, it is most helpful—and even imperative—to acquire wisdom, the foundation of a life well-lived.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

If the Lord is God, then Follow Him!

We need—today more than ever—men like the Prophet Elijah. He was so zealous and uncompromising in his faith and dedication to the true God, and to the fulfillment of his mission. One of my favorite stories about him is the confrontation with the prophets of Baal (1Kings 18:19-40).

The people of Israel were being influenced by the false gods of the pagans, and Elijah saw that it was time for a showdown. Either YHWH (hereafter, “the Lord”) was God or Baal was; it couldn’t be both. Elijah chided the people: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him.” So he proposed a contest: the prophets of Baal would prepare a sacrifice, and so would Elijah. Whoever’s deity would answer with fire from heaven would prove to be the true God. Fair enough, they said, and set to preparing their sacrifice.

They called on their god for hours, crying and raving and cutting themselves. No answer. Elijah taunted them: “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside (a euphemism for “relieving himself”), or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened!” So the prophets of the false god failed.

Now it was Elijah’s turn. He prepared the sacrifice, and decided to enhance the expected miracle. He had water poured all over the sacrifice. He was as confident as Mighty Casey at bat, but since he trusted in God and not in himself, he couldn’t strike out. “Do it again,” he said, and more water soaked the sacrifice. “Do it a third time,” and they did. Now he was ready. He cried out: “O Lord…let it be known this day that you are God…and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that You, O Lord, are God…” At once the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the sacrifice and even the water in the trench around the altar. “And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces, crying: The Lord is God! The Lord is God!”

There ought to be a movie about him. What a powerful and dramatic scene! I’d like to see this happen in our own day, that all unbelievers and followers of false gods would fall on their faces, confessing the true God. But God has his own ways of revealing Himself, and the truth about Himself. People are so cynical and jaded today, anyway, that if they witnessed such a miracle, they probably would say that it was a computer-generated special effect.

We have God’s revelation in the Scriptures and the Church, the testimonies of saints and martyrs. The history of the Church abounds in miracles. So we know that the Lord is God. Why do we sometimes sit on the fence? Why do we entertain doubts, reserve a “plan B,” or behave like the pagans? If the Lord is God, then follow Him! When the Lord prepares to return to judge the living and the dead, there will be plenty of drama and earth-shaking events—and at that point you may wish you hadn’t wanted something dramatic to convince you! Now is the time to express our fidelity in the silence of heartfelt prayer, in the humble and ordinary following of the crucified carpenter of Nazareth.

Our fathers in the faith knew it; their wisdom stands undiminished and their testimony is true: the Lord is God. Follow Him, then, and be vindicated in the face of the ravings of today's false prophets and contrary voices. You may not see fire fall now, but you’ll be at the right hand of his glory when He comes.

Monday, August 22, 2005

His Word is Truth

I came across a rather ill-considered footnote (though typical for modern biblical “scholarship”) in a Bible I’ve been reading. The translation is actually a very good one (RSV), but the annotations suffer, at times, from the “debunking disease” of commentators who have evidently lost a significant degree of their faith. It was an explanatory comment on the holy prophet Elijah’s raising to life of a dead boy in 1Kings 17. Here’s the comment: “Some have argued that the child was not really dead, and hence that no miracle was involved. This is beside the point. The writer meant to portray a powerful God and a worthy prophet.”

Let us briefly demolish this argument. Who the “some” are is not indicated. I suppose if I were prone to making ridiculous statements I would hide behind a shield of anonymity as well. How they could know (or think) that the child was not dead, when the text says he was, is sheer (and dishonest) speculation. The boy’s mother lamented “the death of my son,” and Elijah questioned why God would afflict the woman “by slaying her son.” Hard to see how “some” can argue that the child was not dead. The last phrase of that sentence in the comment betrays their agenda: “and hence that there was no miracle involved.” They come to the biblical text with an a priori disbelief in miracles; therefore miracles must be explained away. If miracles don’t happen, then this story that describes a miracle must be interpreted so as to deny the miracle. Again, dishonest scholarship, based on a personal or communal (the unbelieving academic community) presupposition.

After saying that there was no miracle in the biblical account of the miracle, they assert: “This is beside the point.” Sorry, but the miracle is precisely the point. This is like what I said yesterday about those who think they can have Christian faith if Jesus’ bones were to be found in a grave. They think that is beside the point too. But again, that is the whole point. It's also like what "some" say when they assert that the words of Jesus in the Gospels are not literally his own but what his disciples put in his mouth as they wrote their accounts for the edification of the Church. Weren't the things that He actually did say worth writing down? I guess, then, that Jesus must not have said anything noteworthy, and his disciples were better at expressing the revelation of God than He was. (One group of "scholars" actually votes on whether or not Jesus actually said certain things written in the Gospels!) I don't see how the sheer idiocy of this approach escapes some otherwise intelligent people.

The commentator goes on to say that the alleged miracle—which wasn’t a miracle, and which is beside the point anyway—is “meant to portray a powerful God and a worthy prophet.” This comment is lame in the extreme. In what sense is God portrayed as powerful if there was no miracle? And how is the prophet worthy if he is a liar and a charlatan—for he said the child was dead, prayed to God, and returned him to his mother alive. God is only portrayed as powerful if He
did raise the dead child, and Elijah is only worthy if he is the faithful mouthpiece of God’s word and instrument of his power.

We should allow God’s word to speak for itself, for his word is truth. I don’t deny that some passages are obscure or too profound for a facile interpretation, and hence we need the guidance of the Church to properly understand God’s word. What we don’t need are the speculations of scholars who are either trying to make a name for themselves with “original” or controversial interpretations, or those who have simply lost their faith and are trying to look respectable in the eyes of secular colleagues, or those who really do have an agenda to contradict or dilute the Church’s Scripture-based doctrines. If the Bible says Elijah or Jesus worked a miracle, then the burden of proof (and it’s a heavy one) is on those who would deny it. Let us read the Scriptures with an attitude of faith and humility: "standing under" them that we may under-stand them, responding to the inspired authors like the woman who received her son from the dead and said to Elijah: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”



Saturday, August 20, 2005

If Christ is Not Risen

It has been fashionable in some circles for a number of years to dismiss the bodily resurrection of Christ as mythical and scientifically impossible (isn’t it strange how people can tell the Creator of the universe what is possible? Good thing God didn’t know that it was impossible to raise his Son—He might never have decided to do it!). In any case, it is seen as superfluous to our faith, something we cannot know really happened and therefore doesn’t really matter. They like to go around saying things like: “If someone were to discover a tomb with the bones of Christ in it, that would not disturb my faith.” I would have to conclude that such a person has precious little faith left to disturb.

St Paul makes the point quite clearly and succinctly: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1Cor. 15:17). Everything hinges on the resurrection of Christ. Not only is our faith worthless if there was no resurrection, but we have nothing to hope for beyond this life. “Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (vv. 18-19).

It is clear that for St Paul the death and resurrection of Christ are inseparable saving acts, or perhaps we could say it is one great act (his “glorification,” according to St John) that is accomplished over a period of several days. St Paul says that Christ died for our sins—but his death is not salvific in isolation from the resurrection, for he also says that if Christ was not raised from the dead, we are still in our sins. To end the argument, he declares: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (v.20), and then he launches into a description of the Lord’s ultimate victory and of the nature of the risen body, which we can expect to enjoy for all eternity, precisely because Christ is risen from the dead.

When the end comes, Christ will “deliver the kingdom to God the Father… The last enemy to be destroyed is death… that God may be everything to everyone” (vv. 24-28). It would be vain and deceptive to speak of the destruction of death if Christ was not raised and hence we are not raised. Death would be for us what it is for plants and animals: the definitive cessation of biological and conscious life. But there is infinitely more in store for us. “Lo, I tell you a mystery… the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we [i.e., those still alive when the Lord returns] shall be transformed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality… ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’… Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 51-57).

What is your ultimate hope? How do you see your destiny? Could you ever dare to say you have faith in Christ without believing in his resurrection, and ours? Christianity is nothing more than a collection (one among many) of wise sayings, didactic stories, and moral precepts—if Jesus Christ is not the incarnate Son of God, who died and rose from the dead in order to grant us forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. The Church, from the time of the original apostles, has always believed in the resurrection of Christ and of all mankind—until the modern age of apostasy and systematic doubt, in which many in the Church have lost their faith.

Jesus preached resurrection, as did Paul and the other authors of Scripture and all the Fathers of the Church. Be clear and steadfast about what you believe—if your faith has no place for resurrection, it is not Christian faith. Hold fast to the faith of our fathers, or you will die in your sins. Believe in the resurrection, and rise to immortal life!

Friday, August 19, 2005

Lo Siento

At least twice in the past ten years or so I have unsuccessfully attempted to learn Spanish. I had learned enough by 1997 to hold a very rudimentary conversation, which helped when I was on a pilgrimage to see Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. But because of a shortage of time and of people to practice with, I’ve unfortunately forgotten most of what I had learned. Since I’m busier now than ever, I despair of ever having the time to try it again. But I do remember a few things.

Spanish is a language of music and passion. When you want to say “I’m sorry,” for example, you say Lo siento, which literally means “I feel it.” Perhaps this expression has something to teach us about our own experience of repentance. Do we “feel it” in our souls, in our guts, when we have offended God or another person? Are we moved to repentance? Or do we merely say “I’m sorry” the same way we might say “excuse me” when bumping into someone in a crowd?

Repentance begins with an awareness that we have turned from God, spurned his commandments and counsels, and grieved his loving heart. To confess our sins is not (or shouldn’t be) merely the more or less indifferent acknowledgement of having violated one or another of the divine precepts, saying a perfunctory prayer, and then going away with a “clean slate.” To sin is to pierce the Heart of Christ, who willingly made Himself vulnerable to our wickedness out of his everlasting love for us. On the Cross, Jesus uttered, in effect, the Lo siento of all mankind before God, and He felt it in every cell of his tortured body, in the depths of his anguished soul. Therefore repentance is not a small or routine matter. He felt the sting of our sins. We have to feel our contrition.

This doesn’t mean that we have to try to generate a lot of emotional sorrow (especially if that would be merely a pious façade). But it means that we must be sufficiently aware of what we have done, of who it is we have hurt or offended, and how important it is to repent—that is, to resolve to change our hearts and behavior—in a genuine and sincere manner.

I recently went to confession, and I had all this on my mind. While the ritual itself wasn’t (and need not be) an emotional or dramatic experience, I was more aware of the need to be attuned to the gift of grace and mercy, to feel something stir within the soul. We must realize that God doesn’t “owe” us the forgiveness of our sins just because we more or less reluctantly show up at the confessional. He forgives us because He loves us, and the crucifix is a perpetual testimony to that self-sacrificing love. All of our complaints, arguments, and excuses wither before the image of the crucified God. He has a right to expect from us a heartfelt recognition of the defiling, destructive nature of sin, as well as of the healing, saving nature of his immeasurable compassion. When his merciful love comes to our sinful yet contrite hearts, we “feel it.”

As I was leaving the church where I made my confession, I stopped for a moment at a large crucifix, trying to understand a little more of the love that drove Him to suffer so that my sins might be forgiven. I approached and gently touched his pierced foot, one of those wounds by which we are healed. Softly, I said: “Lo siento.”

Thursday, August 18, 2005

If I Have Not Love

“If I have not love, I am nothing… If I have not love, I gain nothing” (1Cor. 13:2-3). St Paul does not mince words in his famous and profound hymn to love (does he ever?). This is the bottom line of the Christian message. What is the point of burning yourself out doing good works or acquiring all theological knowledge if it is not done with love and as an act or offering of love?

Lest we get mired in some sentimental or emotional understanding of love, St Paul gives us the clear truth: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, love is the fullness of faith and hope, love endures all things. Love never ends…” (vv. 4-8). Take some time to examine yourself on each of those points and see if your love for God and neighbor is true love after all.

So much error and misguided behavior have been promoted in the name of love. But love essentially is that which seeks the good of the beloved. The greatest good that human beings can hope to attain is eternal salvation. So to love someone rightly is to say and do for that person what will help them attain salvation. That is why tolerance of falsehood or immorality is not a loving thing. That is why a misguided “compassion” (i.e., refusing to invite to repentance those who manifest an objective moral disorder or some other impediment to salvation) is not genuine love.

To look at the fullness of love is to look upon the pierced Heart of Jesus, whose love “bore all things” for us on the Cross. Until we are willing to be “crucified” (in one way or another) for the sake of the beloved, we have not yet plumbed the depths of love. Sacrifice is an essential element of genuine love, as all loving parents, spouses, priests and consecrated persons know.

Everything will pass except love. Faith, hope, and love survive the vicissitudes of this world, but in the world to come, faith and hope will be unnecessary, for we will see face to face. “For now we see as in a glass, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully” (v. 12). Love alone endures for all eternity. “Love never ends.” That is why “the greatest of these is love” (v. 13).

We would do well to reflect often on this thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. So many wounds would be healed, animosities ended, and storms calmed, if only we learned to live in love, to express love in the way we regard and deal with other people. St Paul gives us a practical example: “Forgive one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). And Jesus expects nothing less from his disciples, as He gives us the keynote of Christianity: “Love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A Window to the World of God

On the Feast of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Mother of God, we blessed the new shrine we built in her honor and celebrated the Divine Liturgy there to seal the consecration of the place. And you know what? It happened! I mean, God took the place unto Himself and set it apart for his glory. How do I know that?

Well, first of all, from the efficacy of the prayers of the Church. One of the prayers for the blessing is quite striking in that regard: “Almighty and merciful God, who conferred on your priests above all others so great a grace, that whatever they do worthily and exactly in your name is regarded as being done by You: we pray that in your kindness You may be present wherever we are present and may bless whatever we bless. And at our humble coming, through the merits of your saints, may demons flee and the angel of peace be at hand…” God hears the prayers of his Bride the Church, for He Himself has inspired them.

Second, from the Gospel reading for the blessing of the place (which is also used to bless the foundation of a new church). After Jesus tells Peter that upon him (the rock) He will build his Church, He says that whatever he binds or looses on earth will be done also in heaven. Therefore what we ordained ministers of the Church have done in the Lord’s name, and as an official act of the Church, is recorded, accepted in heaven. Heaven takes notice, heaven responds; what we have done here is acknowledged there, and so it comes to pass—so much so that the line between the “here” and the “there” becomes quite indistinct.

Third, from my own experience (though such things must always be subject to wise discernment). There was a moment in the Divine Liturgy in which I became aware that the Lord was claiming the place as his own. As I elevated the Consecrated Lamb (Host), I somehow sensed that the Lord was standing right there in the middle of the shrine, saying, “This is mine.” He filled the place, and then filled our souls at Holy Communion.

It is unfortunate that so many people in “developed” societies have excluded from their consciousness or belief the possibility of divine intervention in human affairs. Ancient man knew a sacred space when he walked into one. When God chose to reveal Himself, He set aside certain places where He wished to be encountered and worshiped. And so it is today, for those who have eyes to see, hearts to believe, and spirits open to the grace of the living God. Our little shrine has become a window to the world of God, a place in which Jesus’ Mother is specially honored and hence specially present, a place where “the angel of peace is at hand,” a place where one can “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (Hebrews 4:16).

Know then, that churches and other places consecrated to God are meant by Him to be windows to his world, places of encounter, places where our supplications are favorably received. In hidden places, like a little monastery in the forested hills outside a tiny town in a relatively unknown corner of northern California, God opens the gate of heaven and invisibly shines over the world. There are many windows already open to God’s world; He’s searching now, in our hearts, for open windows to our world. Let Him enter, the King of Glory!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Till We Have Faces

“The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean… ‘to say the very thing you really mean…that’s the whole art and joy of words.’ A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years…you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

That passage is part of the climax in C.S. Lewis’ retelling, in novel form, of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, entitled Till We Have Faces. I’d like to reflect on that for a moment. The speaker in that passage was the old Queen Orual, who finally discovered, after making her complaint to the gods (read: God), that she really had no grounds for complaint because her life was a lie and she never really even knew herself, so her perception of gods and other people was skewed as well. She lost everyone she ever loved, especially her younger sister Psyche (which is Greek for "soul"; reflect on that), but she discovered in the end that her “love” was selfish, possessive, bitter, and unforgiving.

When she became queen because of her harsh father’s death, she constantly wore a veil over her face, because she was quite unattractive, and the veil served to enhance her mystery and power. But as she hid her lack of physical beauty from the world, she also hid her true self from her own awareness. Others could see how she used rather than loved people, but this inner truth was veiled for her. Finally, in a vision in which she stood before the gods to be judged, the veil was taken off her face, and her clothes were removed as well. Standing naked before the multitude, she was required to speak, and was convicted by her own words, hearing them almost as if another were speaking. Her inner self was exposed along with the outer.

People tend to wear masks or veils of one sort or another, personas or postures they adopt in order to hide what they don’t want to be seen or known, giving the illusion that they are wiser, more powerful, or simply more “together” than they really are. But they end up deceiving themselves as well as others (and perhaps they aren’t really even deceiving the others).

We may say what we think we mean, but until we discover and begin to live the profound meaning of our life, our indignant complaints and self-justifications are so much babble that isn’t worth listening to. We might as well be wearing a veil, for our true face is not being shown. Until we arrive at genuine self-knowledge (which is nothing like self-absorbed introspection or other forms of narcissism), we cannot have a genuine dialog with God: how can we meet him face to face if we don’t yet have a face? God sees through all veils, all defenses and self-deceptions, but He cannot do a whole lot for us until we are ready to be unmasked.

Repentance and honest examination of conscience are the beginnings of self-knowledge, of finding our true face, finding the “word” within us that goes deeper than the daily babble and expresses the truth of who we are, i.e., who God has made us to be, and what we have done with his gift.

We had better learn now how to stand naked (figuratively) before God on a daily basis, because we will have to stand naked (literally) before his awesome judgment seat. We also have to learn how to remove the veils with which we cover our faces before other people, because the same veil hides our true self from ourselves. Allow yourself to be unmasked; get more comfortable with being “uncovered.” The truth will always come out in the end, so why not begin to live it now? You may discover that you don’t want to veil the real you after all. You may discover within you the face of Christ, who alone can refashion all your pain and shame and can speak that defining word of grace and love within you—and thus make you able to live a life of integrity and truth in this world.

God is waiting till we have faces, till we stop hiding behind masks and veils, till it’s OK to be naked before Him. Then judgment day will not be the painful stripping of the self-deceived, but rather the homecoming of the free.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Heaven Couldn't Wait

At the end of time, at the general resurrection, those who have been faithful to God will rise to heavenly and eternal glory, in both body and soul. But there’s someone who has been more faithful to God than anyone else, but she won’t rise at the end of time for the reunification and glorification of soul and body in heaven. Why not? Because she’s already there. The Mother of God is the first-fruit of the resurrection of mankind, the fulfillment of the promise of Christ to raise to glory all his disciples and friends. Today we celebrate the feast of her integral glorification, that is, her passing from this life and bodily assumption into heaven.

Heaven couldn’t wait for the entrance of Our Lady. It is wholly abhorrent to the Christian mind and spirit that the one who gave flesh to the eternal Son and Word of God would be allowed to corrupt in the grave like a common sinner. Her mission in this world was indisputably unique, and her sinless purity (for how could the absolutely holy God enter this world through a defiled vessel?) caught heaven’s fancy, as it were, so she was snatched up from the grave of corruption to share the glory of her Son and God, as a living icon or sign of the destiny of all the faithful.

Christ Himself rose from the dead, making possible the resurrection of other human beings. But, being God and the Redeemer, we don’t see in his person the resurrection of the redeemed. Mary is the first of the redeemed, the first to experience the full truth of Christ’s promise, and of the words of St Paul: “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also…” (Romans 8:11).

Even thinking on a human level, what son who loved his mother would allow her to rot in a grave if he had the power to raise her, body and soul, to glory? A fortiori, Jesus Christ, whose love for his mother surpassed that of any other loving son, certainly came swiftly to receive her body and soul into his Kingdom as she departed from this life. Try to imagine, if you can (you can’t), what it must have been like for Mary -- and what it meant for the whole universe -- that God, the Creator and Lord of all things visible and invisible, by whom and for whom all things exist, entered into her body and soul, becoming man in order to save us. The God whom her people had worshiped for centuries, the awesomely magnificent, fiery, thundering God of the mountaintop theophanies, entered her womb, and she carried Him within her as a growing baby. How did she not instantly vaporize as the Almighty God permeated her entire being? The Fathers of the Church use an analogy (one among many): as the bush in which God manifested his presence on Mt Sinai burned without being consumed, so the Virgin Mary received the Fire of the Divinity without being consumed. She was chosen from all eternity to be the Mother of God, that is, the Mother of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity incarnate as man.

(No one says, by the way, that “Mother of God” means mother of the Holy Trinity, or mother of the Father or of the Spirit or of the divine nature as such. But a woman can only be a mother of a person, not a nature, which is an abstraction if it is not realized in a person. She was not therefore merely the mother of Jesus’ human nature, but the mother of a person. Jesus Christ is a Divine Person, i.e., God, who became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, thus uniting human nature to his eternal divine nature. Therefore Mary is the mother of a Divine Person, i.e., God, who took flesh in her womb and was born as the God-Man Jesus. Thus she is rightly called “Mother of God.” As early as the 5th century, the undivided Christian Church declared it heresy to speak otherwise.)

Let us rejoice, then, that the Mother of God and our Mother has been lifted up to the fullness of life and glory with her Son in heaven. Heaven couldn’t wait for her, and I can’t wait to get to heaven! May the Lord’s will be fulfilled to glorious perfection in each of us, as it has already been done in her who said: Let it be done to me according to your word.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Where is the Kingdom?

So where is this Kingdom you’re always talking about, and when is it coming? The Pharisees put this question to Jesus as one more way to discredit Him or put Him to the test. His answer? “The Kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed…” (Luke 17:20). So He’s not here talking about the ultimate and glorious establishment of the Kingdom at the end of time. The Kingdom is still in the mustard-seed or leaven stage.

But the Lord did say something about looking for signs of the Kingdom, something that yields different meanings depending on how you translate it. Did He say, “Behold, the Kingdom of God is in your midst,” or did He say, “Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you”? The Greek word entos ordinarily means “within” but it can also mean “in the midst of.” The context suggests the latter. Remember, he was talking to Pharisees. Not long before this he had said to them: “inside, you are full of extortion and wickedness.” So it seems unlikely that the Kingdom of God would be within those “whitewashed sepulchers.” It seems rather that Jesus was referring to Himself when He said that the Kingdom was in their midst—but they didn’t recognize it (or Him), because they were looking for some other kind of sign. John the Baptizer told them too: “among you stands One whom you do not know…” (John 1:26).

Yet the Fathers of the Church (and unfortunately, some new-agers, too, who use this as a justification for their flaky “spirituality without religion”) usually read the passage as “the Kingdom of God is within you.” Many of them were mystics as well as theologians, and they had not only faith but experience of the indwelling of God, and they understood this as the foundation of our spiritual life and essential for salvation. “Abide in Me and I in you,” said the Lord, so we can in fact look within to find the Kingdom of God—provided that our souls have been cleansed by repentance, true faith and morals, and an openness to the presence of God.

So where is the Kingdom? It is wherever you find the King. He is in and around us. The only place He isn’t (aside from his sustaining presence that keeps all things in existence) is in hearts that have rejected Him—especially those that have chosen to follow the devil—and among the evil works of such people. But even there He tries to get in, tries to eat with whores and extortionists, tries to speak a word of truth and love to them, so that He can establish his kingdom where once satan set up his. In the Gospel of Luke, the first miracle Jesus performs is an exorcism (after He first got rid of satan’s personal attacks in the desert). This shows that Jesus’ priority is to overthrow the kingdom of the devil and establish the Kingdom of God. Satan’s lying boast to Christ was, after showing Him the kingdoms of the world: “all this authority and glory has been given to me, and I give it to whom I will” (Luke 4:5-6). So Jesus had to come on the scene casting out devils and saying, in effect: “No authority or glory has been given you, and you can give nothing to anyone unless God permits it. Now begone, for the Kingdom of God has overtaken you!”

The Kingdom is in your midst: in the Church, the sacraments, the word of God, the meadows and oceans and night skies, in your brothers and sisters. And the Kingdom is within you, for you are a temple of the Holy Spirit. Know that God is in and around you. Heaven can’t wait. The prince of this world is being overthrown. A new day is dawning, souls are awakening. His Kingdom is coming and is even now here: in your midst, within you.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Become a Fool

In case you’re wondering, the title of this post is a direct quote from Scripture (1Cor. 3:18). Why does St Paul want you to become a fool? I wrote yesterday about the difference between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God. To be wise in the ways of the world is foolishness before God, so if we want to become wise before God, we had better be prepared to look like fools in the eyes of the world.


If we’re going to be fools, however, let’s make sure that we are “fools for Christ’s sake” (
4:10). The world already has enough of every other kind of fool. The wisdom that makes us seem like fools to the world is the wisdom of the Cross. “The word of the Cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? …it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe… For the foolishness of God is wiser than men…” (1:18-25). Note first that those who regard Christians as fools (and the Cross as foolish) are “those who are perishing,” and we do not want to be in that crowd. Those who are “foolish” enough to believe in a crucified Redeemer are being saved by the power of God. Thus, in the end, the wisdom of the world, insofar as it ridicules the Gospel of Christ, will be shown to be the real folly. God loved us to the point of folly by sending his Son to humble Himself and suffer death on the Cross, and this will be manifested as the most profound wisdom.

But what does a fool for Christ do, aside from believing in the wisdom of God and the Cross? (I speak here of ordinary “fools for Christ,” not that specific category of saints who feigned madness in order live prophetic lives in word and act. That is rare charism and, given some of their incomprehensible antics, perhaps it's God's wisdom that their holy folly is kept to a minimum!) St Paul gives us a partial “job description”: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate” (4:12-13). In another place he writes: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested…” (2Cor. 4:8-10). Perhaps we would like a more pleasant or comfortable job description, but being fools, we ought to embrace this one as the way to true happiness and fulfillment. It’s all about not returning evil for evil, enduring sufferings for Jesus’ sake, doing whatever it takes “so that the life of Jesus may be manifested.” The above description may be the “negative” side of this foolish life, but a fool for Christ is also filled with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, gentleness, etc. This is because such a fool has learned the wisdom of the Cross.

Would you like to become a fool? Are you up to it? Let the world say what it will, but we who believe in the foolishness of the Cross are being saved by the power of God.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Man, God, World, Spirit

The second chapter of First Corinthians is a chapter of contrasts. St Paul had to make some important distinctions to converts who had a cultural background that favored wisdom and spirituality. The “wisdom of the Greeks” is exalted as the source of Western philosophy. Yet life in God requires something more: “that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1Cor. 2:5). Not that Paul renounced wisdom as such, he only sought a higher form: “we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification” (v.7).

This wisdom of God far transcends the wisdom of man: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him—God has revealed this to us through the Spirit” (vv.9-10). As God’s wisdom surpasses that of man, so the things of the Spirit surpass those of the world. “We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit…” (v.12-13).

There’s a constant comparison going on here between the things of man and those of God, the things of the world and those of the Spirit, people of the world and people of God, “natural” people and spiritual people. St Paul is trying to get us to see that our faith in Christ, responding to the grace of God, has raised us up to a new level of being, has transformed us in mind and spirit, and should open us up to new and higher perceptions and perspectives. Much of the rest of this epistle has to do with the concrete forms this new life and awareness should take—how we ought to behave and how we ought not behave, as new creations, as those who “have the mind of Christ” (v.16).

Do we live like we have the mind of Christ? Do we understand the things that have to be spiritually discerned? Are we aware that the “wisdom of man” is inadequate to live a life that is pleasing to God? Do we uncritically accept what comes from the “spirit of the world” when we are called to perceive and respond to the events and tasks of life according to the Spirit of God? “Going with the flow” will only take you down the drain. We have to absorb the wisdom of God and then communicate it to this world by the way we think and speak and act. It is important to understand this, for the cost of ignorance is high. St Paul reminds us that those who did not understand the wisdom of God crucified the Lord of Glory (v.8). Don’t settle for wisdom that is less than divine.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Mustard-seed Church

I'd like to begin with a quote from an article on Pope Benedict XVI by Michael Rose, published in the New Oxford Review (July-August 2005): Cardinal Ratzinger, some years ago, "shocked the Catholic world by suggesting that we may need to disregard the notion of a "popular church" that will be loved by everyone. Rather, his governing metaphor for the short-term destiny of Catholicism is the mustard seed (Mt. 13:31-32), suggesting a much smaller presence but with a faith whose dimensions could move mountains. He envisions a "creative" minority capable of restoring religious vitality to Europe and beyond. Pope Benedict's objective is to sanctify souls through faith and grace. He believes that can be accomplished only by the reawakening of Christian identity..."

That quote has a clear ring of truth, and I think it is something that we ought to consider carefully. So much time and energy and ink and cyberspace has gone towards trying to make the Catholic Church an institution that is open and welcoming to all current fads and even spiritual and moral aberrations, in the name of a vague and vacuous "love" and "compassion" -- or worse, in the name of merely adapting to the times, that is, to this "evil and adulterous generation" (Mt. 16:4). If you open the doors and do not have the necessary screens, you let in the flies and blood-sucking mosquitoes. The Church simply cannot (and must not) meet this world's criteria for an all-inclusive, "tolerant," politically correct, dogma-less organization.

Can you imagine the Church receiving rebellious and unrepentant sinners into her good graces, the communion of the Holy Mysteries, without setting any standards, without requiring a change of heart and belief? All organizations reserve the right to set requirements for membership.

"I don't believe in the Resurrection." "Come right in!"
"I don't believe in the Eucharist." "No problem! Come one, come all!"
"The Pope cannot tell me what to do." "Bless you!"
"I'm an active homosexual." "Step right up for Holy Communion!"
"I support abortion, and I even had two myself." "You come to Holy Communion, too!"

Forget it. The true Church can only be that which is faithful to the Gospel of Christ, the tradition of the fathers and councils, and the witness of the martyrs. If that Church is but the size of a mustard seed today, so be it. Better the truth in a mustard seed than a mountain of falsehood and apostasy. The faith of that mustard-seed Church will eventually move that mountain off the face of the earth.

Let us pray with Pope Benedict for the reawakening of true Christian identity, for the sanctification of souls through faith and grace. Be willing to be a mustard seed in the face of the world's disdain and contempt. The Church will grow in holiness in direct relation to her members' uncompromising fidelity. This is the Church against which hell cannot prevail. As for The Church of What's Happening Now, hell has already prevailed.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Lose Your Life

Yesterday I wrote about the cost of discipleship, the various renunciations, etc. But there’s one other important thing you have to do: lose your life. “Whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:24 and parallels). This is not an isolated statement of Jesus; it appears in all the Gospels, in some more than once (in the Synoptics it occurs in the context of carrying one’s cross; in John the parallel is the grain of wheat that must die to bear fruit).

What is Jesus talking about here? The larger context is, as in yesterday’s post, discipleship. If you want to be Jesus’ disciple (it’s an invitation, not a coercion), then you have to deny yourself, take up your cross—daily—and follow Him. Then comes the paradox: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” And the further explanation: “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in his glory…”

What does it mean, practically, to “save your life” and to “lose your life”? Anything you do to preserve your (false) sense of security, to build your ego, to avoid the demands and sufferings required by faithfulness to the Gospel, or simply to insulate yourself in a comfortable and self-centered way of life, storing up earthly instead of heavenly treasure, is “saving your life.” This you will be sure to lose, in the end if not sooner. Saving your life is also related to being ashamed of Jesus and his words. You may “save your life” by not standing up for the words of Jesus and the teachings of his Church, especially in hotly debated issues like abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and various unacceptable forms of religious or cultural “diversity.” Sure, you may blend in with the crowd and not be ostracized or berated for taking an unpopular stand, but what gain is that if the Son of Man is ashamed of your cowardice when He returns in his power and glory?

To “lose your life” is to give all in the service of Christ and his Gospel, his Church. It is to make the necessary sacrifices that come with not being ashamed of his words, being willing to lose the esteem of your politically correct peers for Jesus’ sake. It is being willing to serve others before yourself, to have the courage of your convictions, to let go of anything or anyone that would prove an obstacle to your unswerving fidelity to the Truth and Love of God. Losing your life is constantly making choices in accord with the Gospel, which often end up going against the grain of this world’s pleasure-loving and godless ways. Why gain the "world" when you can gain the Kingdom of Heaven? You can’t have both, so it’s time to make a choice. Whose friend do you want to be when the Lord returns and all worldly gains vanish?

Take up your cross and follow Jesus. What have you got to lose? Only your life, that is, the superficial, selfish life that this world promotes. Lose that, and save your true self for eternal happiness.


Monday, August 08, 2005

Are You Able to Finish?

Jesus Christ is looking for a few good men and women. Ultimately, He seeks all those He created to join Him in everlasting happiness. But He has to start, it seems, with a picked group of die-hard disciples who know the cost of discipleship and aren’t afraid to pay it. Then hopefully others will be attracted by the good fruit that their faithful and devoted lives bear. It doesn’t help Jesus’ cause to have timid or half-hearted or worldly disciples (see the parable of the sower) or those who quit because they didn’t know or couldn’t accept the demands of genuine Christianity.

The Lord speaks of this in the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. He reiterates some of the conditions for discipleship, like bearing one’s cross, self-renunciation even unto poverty and detachment from family ties, etc. He knows that it is demanding to follow Him. He also knows that it is ultimately the only thing worth doing, for eternal life is at stake. The Kingdom of Heaven is worth whatever it takes to enter it, and Jesus gives us the conditions in many places throughout the Gospels.

In this chapter of Luke He gives us the example of a builder who laid a foundation but was unable to finish the building because he did not first “count the cost” of completing the building. If he is not clear on just what it takes to finish the building, and if he is not prepared to put forth the money and the effort to complete it, “when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’” (Luke 14:29-30).

Jesus uses that as an analogy for our life of faith and discipleship. Do we know what it will require of us? Are we ready to give our all so that the “building” may be completed on time to stand before the judgment of God? If we begin our spiritual life with only vague ideas or unrealistic wishes about what it means to be faithful in all things to Christ, then we may give up when things get difficult. We may look for an easier way (though there isn’t one, if you’re interested in heaven) when it becomes clear that the Christian life is not easy and that it costs much to stand up for the truth in a world of lies, to embrace the Only Savior in a world that offers the “cheap grace” of do-it-yourself spirituality. Then we are like people who lay a foundation but can’t finish the building. All we can expect after that is well-deserved mockery.

The Christian life is both all-demanding and all-rewarding. No half-measures will work. Jesus tells us from the start about a life of faithfulness to Him: “first sit down and count the cost, whether [you] have enough to complete it” (Luke 14:28). Are you up to it? Are you willing to invest in the future—your eternal future? God’s grace will always be available, but our full co-operation is required to finish. The one who endures to the end will be saved, He said elsewhere. Are you able to finish? Give it all you’ve got, for the Lord gives all He’s got. Be willing to make the required renunciations, and God will reward you a hundredfold—and more.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Transfigured

When Jesus took his disciples for a hike up Mt Tabor, they had no idea what they were about to experience. As they reached the summit, suddenly they saw Him not only as their beloved Teacher, but as the Lord of Glory. “His face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (Matthew 17:2). What had happened?

Jesus went through a “metamorphosis” (the Greek word we translate as “transfiguration”), which means literally a change of form. Jesus was for all eternity in the form of God, but at the Incarnation took the form of man (see Philippians 2:5-11). Now on Mt Tabor, He revealed to his disciples something of his eternal form of God through his human form. His humanity and divinity are inseparable, but He could reveal or conceal his divine glory as He willed.

The disciples needed to be strengthened in their awareness of Jesus’ divinity, because their faith would be put to the ultimate test when they would see his human form torn and bleeding and nailed to the Cross—what St Paul described in the passage cited above as “being obedient unto death, death on a cross.” But there is much more to Christ’s transfiguration than the manifestation of his divinity, as astounding as that is.

His incarnation, the incredible union of the Uncreated with the created, made it possible for material creation to bear and manifest divine grace and glory. This is what makes the whole sacramental system possible: the matter of bread and wine is transfigured unto the body and blood of Christ; water and oil become communicators of the grace of the Holy Spirit. And since we see that it was through his humanity that the divine glory was manifested, the message to us is that it is possible for divinity to permeate and ineffably exalt humanity—that would be you and me.

We are called to a personal transfiguration—not the visible, blinding divine glory that stunned the first apostles, but to an inner, though no less real, transformation of mind and spirit (see Romans 12:2 and 2Cor. 3:18, where the Greek “metamorphosis” is used; usually it is translated as “transformed” or “changed”). We are called, beyond all merely human possibility, to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2Peter 1:4).

One author says that as the radiant angels in heaven reflect the divine glory to one another, we on earth are also supposed to reflect that same glory in a spiritual manner. He says that this is the special vocation of monks, who are called to give their whole life to this inner transfiguration, for the sake of shining the face of Christ on a sin-darkened world, but St Paul reminds us that “all of us…are being transformed into his likeness…” (2Cor. 3:18). All who are baptized in Christ have put on Christ and hence can grow into his likeness and thus manifest his face to others.

So let us go up the mountain and begin our transfiguration through the mercy and grace of the Lord. “Today all mankind begins to reflect the divine splendor of the transfiguration of the Lord, and in every heart is this exultant refrain: Christ is transfigured for the salvation of all!” (hymn for the pre-feast).

Friday, August 05, 2005

The Things That Are God's

Jesus had a way of silencing his opponents, especially when they posed questions merely to trap Him in his speech, so that they could have some charge to level against Him when the time came, as it surely would, to put Him on trial.

A particularly volatile issue was that of the relationship of the Jews to their Roman oppressors. Some were more or less accommodating (if they could win enough favors through bribes), most were opposed to them but felt there wasn’t much they could do about it, and some were itching for a violent revolution. So the issue of paying tax to the emperor was bound to arouse interest on all sides. Those who asked the question figured that they couldn’t lose. Whatever Jesus said, they thought, would either brand Him a Roman sympathizer (thus alienating most of the Jews) or put Him in the camp of the rebels and thus bring upon Him Roman suspicion or arrest.

Of course, Jesus outwitted them all and gave a profound teaching in the process. When asked if they should pay tax to the emperor, Jesus first asked for a coin. “Whose image and whose inscription is on this coin?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. So He answered, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but give to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:24-25). His answer was not simply, yes, it’s right to pay the tax, to give tribute to Caesar. He wasn’t entering into the political aspect of the question at all. If something has Caesar’s face and name on it, then it’s his, so give it to him. Caesar is a kind of metaphor for the “world” (in its negative connotation), or more precisely, for that which is not of God. So, let the dead bury the dead, let Caesar have his coins, let the world love its own. But give to God the things that are God’s.

And what are the things of God? First of all, “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 23/24:1). The world (in its positive connotation) is of God, for He made it and called it very good. So we are to make an offering to God of all that is good in the world, all that we make use of for our enjoyment and for the service of others. Give to God the things that are God’s, i.e., use them in a way that is in accordance with his will and hence for our own good.

There is more. Whose image and whose “inscription” are on our immortal souls? “God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Well then, when we give to God what is God’s, we must give our very selves. This is what Jesus was trying to drive home to his listeners. It is not for Him to take sides in political squabbles, to be one opinion among many. His mission was much more sublime and universal. He came to save people on all sides of the argument, for there is a far greater issue at stake: our eternal destiny. Emperors and presidents come and go, oppressors and oppressed change roles, tax structures change (but never disappear!), political issues are endlessly wrangled. But everyone must give to God what is God’s.

Shall you pay tribute to the Caesars of today? Follow your conscience. But make sure, at all costs, that you give to God the things that are God’s—especially yourself.