Saturday, November 26, 2005

Emmanuel

The Byzantine Churches have been in the season of Advent (though not all of them call it that) since November 15. But it may be that you are just beginning Advent this weekend. In any case, all of the Churches are now focusing their attention on the coming anew of Christ at Christmas. So what should be our approach?

As I began re-reading the Gospel of Matthew a little while back, I was somewhat startled to see a message for me: “Joseph…do not fear” (Mt. 1:20). It’s a message that is common enough in Scripture, and certainly has many, even daily, applications. It’s a message that Pope John Paul II offered the world at the beginning of his pontificate. In a world full of war, greed, lust, poverty, and injustice, and in a Church scarred with division, dissent, moral and spiritual confusion, we need to hear this message in its full force as the word of God.

But what is the basis for our acceptance of this word? If you are securely tied to railroad tracks and a train is coming, the words “do not fear” shouted by someone from a safe distance will do little to put your troubled mind at ease. There is, however, one word that brings us peace in our distress, makes it clear that indeed we need not fear: Emmanuel. “God-with-us” is one of the names of Jesus (Mt. 1:23). It is because—and only because—God is with us in the Person of our Savior Jesus Christ that we can overcome the very real fears that are generated by the current crises in Church and world.

Advent is a time of watching and waiting. The world has been in a perpetual Advent since Jesus ascended to his Father, promising to return and take us to where He is. So we can’t necessarily expect an immediate and complete eradication of all the sources of our fears. But we can live in trust, in hope, for God is with us, and our Savior will return in glory—and all injustices will be dealt with, all evils banished to infernal abodes. We don’t have to be consumed by the enervating burden of our frustrated longing for peace and blessedness in this world, because the One through whom all things were made still holds the scroll of human history and destiny, still guides us (however tortuously, it may seem) to the final victory over sin and death.

Pope Benedict XVI offered a similar message to that of Pope John Paul, though with a perhaps unexpected twist: “Be not afraid of Christ!” Why would we be afraid of Christ, Emmanuel, who comes to relieve us of our fears? Perhaps some people may fear Christ because they know that his way is demanding, costly—even though invigorating and life-giving. Perhaps they do not wish to pass through the “narrow gate” or to take up their crosses and follow Him—to lose their lives in order to save them. Maybe they chafe at the thought of personal accountability, having heard that Christ will come, not to save everyone willy-nilly, but to judge the living and the dead, separating the righteous from the evildoers. Or perhaps they simply are aware that He disapproves of their favorite vice and tends to rain on their selfish or immoral parades.

Those with the above fears of Christ ought to turn them into opportunities for repentance, into open doors for enlightenment and occasions for embracing truth, courageously meeting the challenges of life as mature men and women of God. It is not easy, but nothing good is easily achieved in a fallen world. Not to fear Christ, the Savior, God-with-us, is to accept his wisdom for living human life, to welcome the assistance and consolation of his grace when we find ourselves spiritually in arrears (as we will often be, left to our own devices).

There will always be problems in this world. Emmanuel is not primarily a problem-solver but a guiding, protecting, loving Presence in this world and in our souls. He is strength for the journey, comfort for the hard times, hope in struggles with overwhelming odds.

Peace be with you. Spend the coming weeks watching and waiting, handing over your fears to Emmanuel. His name is Jesus, for He will save us from our sins. And that’s the salvation we most desperately need. Do not fear the powers-that-be in the world. Especially do not fear Christ. Rather embrace and follow Him. This Christmas you will recognize it when you see Him: He’s a born Savior.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Alms Within

After having eaten and drunk your fill yesterday, perhaps you feel guilty enough to give something to the poor (more likely you are concerned enough to have done it anyway—I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt!). Almsgiving is an important part of our Christian way of life, but don’t think you’ve done enough if you already “gave at the office.” Simply to give is not enough. The Pharisees and wealthy Sadducees gave alms, skimming a little off the top of their abundance, and then making a public display of their “generosity.” Jesus, noticing this (He does notice things, by the way), said that a poor widow, who gave much less than they did, actually gave more, because she gave out of her substance and not out of surplus.

There is still more. There is always more if you are a Christian, because Christianity is less about things that you ought or ought not do, and more about the kind of person you ought to be (what you do will flow naturally from who you are). Therefore Christianity requires a life offered in service to God and to humanity, according to God’s manifest will in Scripture and Holy Tradition.

That is why Jesus, when He was reproaching the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, offered them this counsel: “Give for alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:41). That is a literal translation; most simply say “give alms” or something similar, which doesn’t fit the context and entirely misses the point. They would have been more than happy to be absolved of their evildoing by a little almsgiving, but that’s not what Jesus was saying.

Here is the context: “You Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also?” (11:39-40). The Pharisees are concerned only with external observances (including a bit of almsgiving) and with righteous appearances. This is the “outside of the cup.” But the Lord sternly reminded them that they are neglecting the inside, that is, their own inner life, their thoughts, their hearts, from which proceed their “extortion and wickedness,” because that is the kind of persons they had become. That is what has to be dealt with, first and foremost. If they cleanse the inside of the cup, their external observances will acquire a genuineness they never had before, and they will become the kind of persons from whom good deeds naturally flow.

That is why the Lord said to give alms from what is within, that is, make a sacrifice, a gift to the Lord of the renunciation of your sins and bad habits, your hypocrisy, self-aggrandizement, pride, and selfishness. That’s the only way to clean the inside, so He said: “behold, everything is clean for you.”

We have to check and see if we’re spending too much time on the outside of the cup, cultivating an exterior appearance that may be only a veneer over a soiled interior that seriously needs cleansing. First give the interior alms of repentance and conversion, until you become the kind of person who naturally (and supernaturally) does good, who lives the Christian life of sacrifice and service both within and without. When the Holy Spirit dwells in you, and you have given up your sins, behold, everything is clean for you!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Gratitude

About ten years ago we were at the home of some friends, where we enjoyed a fine, abundant dinner. One of the guests, after ingesting enormous amounts of food, deposited his voluminous body mass on a wide sofa, like a contented walrus. He lay there, patting his engorged belly with a look of utter ecstasy on his face. Soon it would be time for dessert…

This is the experience of all too many Americans on Thanksgiving Day. While it is appropriate to celebrate with gratitude the abundance of Providence, it is scandalous to overindulge in food and drink. It would be less scandalous if it were done only once a year, but since the majority of Americans are obese, it’s clear that overindulgence has become a way of life.

In recent years, Thanksgiving has become something of a bittersweet holiday for me. The sweet part is the opportunity to set apart time to give God special thanks, both liturgically and in my own heart, for the multitude of his gifts for the benefit of body and soul. It is a time to “count our blessings” (and to cease complaining about the rest!) and to relax a little—and for us, to enjoy a break from the Advent fast (in the Byzantine tradition, the pre-Christmas “St Philip’s Fast” always begins on November 15, which is 40 days before Christmas).

The bitter part is knowing that most people in the world don’t get such a break. Millions of our brothers and sisters are not having turkey and the trimmings. They’ll be lucky to get a small bowl of rice. The desperately poor don’t get holidays for overindulging in food and drink. I have to wonder: why will I be eating well and they won’t be able to? I’m no better than they. Why are they starving and I well-fed? I’m very grateful for all I’ve been given, but I just can’t turn up the music so as not to hear the cries of the poor.

Our gratitude to God must not be pharisaical. In the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14), the Pharisee thanked God—that he was not like those he considered inferior to himself! When we express our gratitude on Thanksgiving Day, we should not merely thank God that we are not like the poor and destitute. Our gratitude should be expressed by helping others.

We have to begin by realizing that we do not deserve all the good things we have. We were born into relative affluence by God’s inscrutable design, but that doesn’t make us better than anyone else. We ought to pray with the psalmist: “How can I repay the Lord for all his bounty to me?” (116:12). Then listen in prayer for a while and He will tell you. All you have wasn’t given you so you could store it up or luxuriate in it. If you have more than those who are lacking even the basic necessities of life, realize that the reason you have been given extra is so that you can give it to others. We shouldn’t just feel sorry or offer a momentary prayer for “those less fortunate than ourselves.” We must put our money (and time) where our well-fed mouths are.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive,” said the Lord (Acts 20:35), so we should be grateful for the opportunity to give and thus to increase gratitude among others “so that as grace extends to more and more people, it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2Cor. 4:15).

So enjoy your dinner—moderately, with sincere gratitude to God. But don’t just plop down on the couch and start accumulating fat. Get up and share your abundance. Pray and work and give donations for the end of world poverty and hunger. The poor deserve a good meal at least as much as you do.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ripple Effect

You know what that is. Toss a stone into a pond and watch the ripples spread out in concentric circles till they reach the shores, far beyond the point of the initial impact. The ripple effect is not something observable only in material nature, but also in human behavior. Our words, acts, and even thoughts can (and usually do, whether we’re aware of it or not) have far reaching effects in the moral and spiritual “universe.”

Notice what happens, for example, when gossip or rumors begin. They spread very quickly, and not only are they far-reaching, but as they move farther from the source they get more and more distorted so that in the end much damage can be done, much falsehood spread around. It is even worse when deliberate lies are spread.

On the other hand, a good ripple effect is seen in something like preaching the Gospel. Christ tossed the “stone” of St Paul into the Mediterranean Sea, and the ripples of his preaching reached not only its shores, but the ends of the earth, traveling though the centuries as well.

Other ripples are manifested in our actions. See, for example, the disastrous ripple effects of child abuse or alcohol and drug abuse. Children of abusers often become abusers themselves, and the ripples continue for generations, leaving a trail of ruined lives.

On the other hand, people like Blessed Mother Teresa have spread ripples of love and compassion by their tireless labors and the attractive witness of their exemplary lives. Many have been inspired to continue the work of serving the needy in the love of Christ.

The point of these few examples (and there are many more, both positive and negative) is that we have a great capacity for good or evil, far beyond what seems to be the limited influence of our individual lives. We can send ripples of goodness, love, mercy, and truth all around us—or we can send ripples of hatred, malice, and selfish disregard for others. We are all connected in some way with each other, especially Christians in the Body of Christ. St Paul makes this influence clear when he writes: “All the members of the body, though many, are one body… You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it… If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1Cor. 12:12,26-27).

Therefore our sin is not an isolated or private matter. When we sin against Christ, we sin against his body (that is one reason that the confession of sins must be made to God in the presence of a priest, the representative of the whole Body of Christ as well as of the Lord). So too no one can rightly say, as is commonly asserted today, that he can do whatever he wants “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Sin, even the most “private,” does hurt others: it wounds the Body, it sends darkness and defilement into the spiritual “atmosphere” of the world. It adds to the evil of the world and detracts from the good. Even to think in an evil or inappropriate way about another person is to degrade that person and to send more evil into the world.

It is important, then, that by thinking, speaking, and acting in ways that are righteous and pleasing to God, we send goodness into the world, healing and upbuilding the Body, cleansing the spiritual “atmosphere.” It has been said about monks that they stand before God like trees that silently purify the air. Also, the vicarious sufferings of “victim souls” have won graces for the healing and conversion of many, with whom they did not have any personal contact. Love and goodness, by the will and power of God, are able to transcend space and time.

Send ripples of love and goodness, then. Know that you have a greater influence on the course of salvation history than you have yet understood. Every bit of good contributes to the fullness of good that God wishes to communicate to every human soul unto eternal happiness. Every bit of evil contributes to the wholesale degradation and destruction desired by the devil unto eternal damnation. So, think holy thoughts, speak the truth, act with love. Give glory to the Lord and it will reach the ends of the earth.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Rachel Weeping

“Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15). This verse is often (and rightly) quoted when the issue of abortion comes up. It means that, symbolically or mystically, Rachel the mother of Jacob (Israel), and hence a kind of spiritual mother of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is weeping over the tragedy of the destroyed unborn children—and also it refers to the devastating after-effects of abortion on mothers, which is more and more clearly documented. The reprehensible pro-abortion lobby tries to cover up the facts and manufacture more slogans and smokescreens, but the truth is getting out, little by little, and women who have had abortions are increasingly “silent no more” about what it has done to their lives. (See www.silentnomoreawareness.org).

Our efforts ought primarily be exerted toward the outlawing and prevention of abortions, but what happens when the damage is already done? We can’t undo the deaths of the little ones—tens of millions of them. But their mothers, for the most part, still live, and many of them grieve or suffer various psycho-emotional, physical, and spiritual damage from the trauma of having killed their own children. Here (as well as in the areas of education, prevention, protest, and prayer) the Church must be present and active.

It is far better not to ever have had an abortion, but the sad fact is that many have, and many more do so every day. What is to be done in the aftermath? The Lord said through his prophet: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live. Turn back, turn back…” (Ezekiel 33:11). To “turn back” is to repent, to change one’s ways—and never to commit the same crimes again. Fortunately, the Church offers forgiveness through confession and absolution for those who have sinned, even those who have sinned grievously, for God wants all to be saved and hence that all sinners repent.

There are also organizations that exist for the reconciliation and healing of those who have had abortions and who are now reaping the bitter harvest in their bodies and souls. Project Rachel is one of the most well known, the founder of which works through the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing (www.noparh.org). They try to bring healing into these prodigal mothers’ lives (and sometimes the fathers, too), but not by glossing over the seriousness of the sin and saying everything is all right. Everything is not all right; a murder has been committed. But through profound awareness of the truth and through deep and sincere repentance, reconciliation with God and the Church can be experienced and wounds can be gradually healed—and new witnesses for the sanctity of human life can be formed.

Despite the heroic efforts of many, it seems clear that legal abortion is not going to disappear anytime soon. We don’t know how long God is going to tolerate this genocide, but in the meantime He still is trying to save sinners, for that is why He sent his only Son into the world. “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). We’ve made a terrible mess of our freedom, but all is not yet lost. Almost immediately after the passage quoted at the beginning, we find that “there is hope for your future, says the Lord” (Jer. 31:17).

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Little Ones

“It is not the will of my Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14). Who are the little ones? In the Gospel, they are the innocent children, the simple believers, those who are in need of the mercy and providence of God, the vulnerable and defenseless. And who among children are more innocent and vulnerable than the unborn?

I know of a young woman who is planning to go to an abortion clinic today, under pressure of others, to kill her little one. We are praying for a change of heart, for the life of the baby, because it is not the heavenly Father’s will that this little one should perish. Today in the United States 4000 little ones will be killed, as they are every day. In the rest of the world the total will be well over 100,000 little ones murdered every day—sacrificed on the altars of convenience, selfishness, economics, coercion and fear.

There are some people who work tirelessly to educate others about the evil of abortion and the other evils it spawns or supports. There are others who publicly protest against it, even at the price of imprisonment. There are those who preach, those who pray, those who suffer on behalf of the little ones and their misguided parents. Yet the butchery goes on, and we must call it that, for what is done to the little ones would be forbidden to be done even to an animal. If someone were to dismember a live dog or cat, or puncture its head and suck out its brains with a machine, they would be arrested for cruelty to animals. But this kind of thing is done daily, routinely, legally, to live human beings—in or (almost) out of their mothers’ wombs.

It’s a crime, a sin that cries out to Heaven for vengeance. But God is not primarily interested in vengeance (though his justice and truth will not be mocked with impunity), but rather in repentance, in love for life and goodness, which He has tried for millennia to impart to his wayward and sinful people. We cannot be silent, indifferent, looking the other way, shrugging our shoulders, resigned to our powerlessness to stem the tide of the blood of the little ones. We should not cease our prayer, our protest, our withholding money and votes from those who promote or contribute to this barbaric slaughter of God’s precious children.

There’s a controversy in the Church about whether or not politicians who call themselves Catholics but promote abortion can come to the table of the Lord, to receive the mystical and Holy Communion of Jesus’ precious Body and Blood—after they have approved the dismembering of tiny bodies and the shedding of innocent blood against his divine will. Controversy? Why? It’s a no-brainer. When someone asked that question of Cardinal Arinze, he was appalled. You have to ask me that question? he said, incredulous. Any child who knows his catechism could answer it for you!

Here is the Lord’s answer to those who would approach his holy altar after approving the legalized murder of the little ones: “Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:15-17). America the Beautiful! “How the faithful city has become a harlot, she that was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers” (1:21).

Lord, have mercy on us! All who have ever hurt an innocent person are complicit in this. There’s not enough outcry, not enough action, not enough prayer and sacrifice. We lazily tolerate “pro-choice” rhetoric and at the same time lament sex crimes and other atrocities. Take the rhetoric to its logical conclusion. If it is a "right" to choose the death of unborn innocent human beings, what then are the limits to what or who we can harm or destroy? Someone once suggested that if the right to kill babies was legally connected to a right to kill politicians, abortion laws would change immediately (let’s be clear, I’m not advocating the killing of anyone).

Don’t think you will find peace and justice in this world if you tolerate the slaughter of the little ones. End atrocities such as abortion before you expect success in creating a just and peaceful society; the two cannot co-exist. God’s righteousness will see to that. Meanwhile, ask God what He’s asking you to do to help put an end to the painfully violent holocaust of his little ones. The Church must stand united in defense of innocent life. Enough of this “I can do what I want with my body” baloney. They can’t do what they want with their baby’s body. And their children will rise on judgment day and tell them so.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

I AM

After his extraordinary encounter with God in the burning bush, Moses asked God his name, for God was sending Moses to Pharaoh to liberate his people. “Say this to the people of Israel,” God told him, “I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14). This divine name has been used by Jesus on several occasions in the Gospels. He has not only been sent by God to save his people, but is the eternal Son of God Himself, and as such bears the divine name. This name is inscribed in Greek letters in the halo of icons of Christ. Therefore in the Byzantine Offices, Christ is sometimes called “He who is. (The literal translation of the name of God is more dynamic: “the-being-one”)

The very fact that God is should be a great consolation to us in all our struggles, fears, and needs. For if God is, if God is God, then He has to be all that He says He is, and we can trust Him completely. This is the same assurance that Christ gave to his disciples when they were panicking in the midst of a storm on the sea. He came walking to them across the water—He whose Spirit hovered over the waters of the primordial chaos, and through whom all things were made (Genesis 1:2; John 1:3).

What did Jesus say to calm their fears? “Take heart; I AM; have no fear” (Matthew 14:27). Most translations render ego eimi as “It is I.” Even though that can work here, it is not a literal translation and loses the force of the divine name. He might well have used another of his names at this time, Emmanuel (“God with us”), for in Him God was with them on the raging waters.

Peter, still not over his fear, boldly attempted a test and asked Jesus to prove Himself by enabling Peter also to walk on the water. Humble as always, Jesus simply invited him, and Peter began to walk on the water. Quite a marvelous feat, yet his old fears returned. He took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the wind and the waves (and probably reproached himself: who do you think you are? You can’t walk on water!). Thus he lost courage and began to sink. Jesus proved Himself once again by saving Peter from the waves. “Jesus” means “the Lord is Savior,” so his divine “I AM” was vindicated.

We are going to find ourselves (as we surely already have) in times of turmoil, fear, doubt, and pain. It is important that we hear the voice of Christ calling to us over the troubled waters. “I AM,” He says to us, “It is I; I am here.” Therefore we can take heart and have no fear. He may not immediately calm the storm, and we may even find ourselves sinking because of our feeble faith, but He will always be the Savior—He will not let us drown in the sea of our sorrows and tribulations. But we have to keep our eyes fixed on Him, keep our hope and trust in Him. It is so easy to look at the wind and waves and be afraid, and so hard to set aside our own reasoning and calculations in order to trust the Lord in spite of adverse conditions and the fears they generate. But this is what He-who-is asks of us, because He knows how he plans to help and save us.

As the world seems to move farther from belief and trust in God the Creator and Savior, and puts its confidence in technology and other human achievements and plans, we have to reaffirm that there is salvation in no one else but Jesus (Acts 4:12). We are all finite, contingent beings who can’t even row our way out of a little squall. God is “The-Being-One,” the everlasting Lord who holds us in the palm of his hand. As He says “I AM” to declare his divinity, we can only say “I am not” to declare our radical dependence upon Him for our very existence. Yet this is our joy and hope, for I AM wishes to take us where He is, so that we can share the glory of God that was before the foundation of the world (John 17:24).

Take heart, then; do not fear. God is with you and loves you and is preparing eternal joy for you. I know, because I AM sent me to tell you…

Friday, November 18, 2005

It's Worth It

I’ve been writing for the past week on the call of the Gospel and how all our efforts toward fidelity and love are well worth the great reward of the heavenly Paradise. I’d like to share a story here from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that highlights the marvelous glory that awaits us. (It is given in the form of a dialogue with a number of breaks in it, but here I will just present the story. In the novel, the devil discounts it as the kind of thing believed only by “two-hundred-fifty-pound merchants’ wives,” but that’s the devil for you!)

“There was a certain thinker and philosopher who rejected all—laws, conscience, faith, and, above all, the future life. He died and thought he’d go straight into darkness and death, but no—there was the future life before him. He was amazed and indignant: ‘This,’ he said, ‘goes against my convictions.’ So for that he was sentenced to walk in darkness a quadrillion kilometers, and once he finished that quadrillion, the doors of paradise would be open to him and he would be forgiven everything.

“Well, so this man sentenced to the quadrillion stood awhile, looked, and then lay down across the road: ‘I don’t want to go; I refuse to go on principle!’ Take the soul of an enlightened Russian atheist and mix it with the soul of the prophet Jonah, who sulked in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights—you’ll get the character of this thinker lying in the road.

“He lay there for nearly a thousand years, and then got up and started walking. [He eventually walked the quadrillion kilometers.] The moment the doors of paradise were opened and he went in, before he had been there two seconds, he exclaimed that for those two seconds, it would be worth walking not just a quadrillion kilometers, but a quadrillion quadrillion, even raised to the quadrillionth power!”

That's the overwhelming, exhilarating, all-inviting wonder of the brilliant glory of the life to come in God. That's how worthy it is of our love and sacrifice and suffering. Truly, it has not yet dawned on us what God has prepared for those who love Him. We sell heaven short, we don’t give God credit for being God, the Creator of the universe and the Lover of Mankind, who is more than willing to give us unimaginable riches, inconceivable glories and undreamed of happiness—just for saying “yes” to what He has revealed, putting it into practice, and enduring the hardships of this swiftly-passing life with undying trust in Him. People throw it all away for the sake of ephemeral pleasures and the cheap satisfactions of human pride, ambition, or greed—but if only they knew that Heaven was worth walking 1,000,000,000,000,0001000000000000000 kilometers in hope!

These days fewer people seem to “set their hearts on things above” (Colossians 3:1-2), even those who call themselves Christian. Heaven (if they believe in it at all) is understood as at best a happy postscript to this life—instead of the everlasting love story that follows the prologue which is this life. Heaven is our destiny, that for which we were created. Who would wish to cast aside that marvelous glory, that supremely desirable bliss in the presence of God, with every precious and delightful blessing that an infinitely loving Mind can come up with? Nothing on earth is worth risking the eternal loss of Heaven. Nothing.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Call of the Gospel: Communion

We come now to the conclusion of this series on the call of the Gospel. Everything that I’ve written up to now finds its fulfillment here. The call of the Gospel is ultimately a call to communion with God, and all the various elements serve that purpose and tend toward that goal.

The call to communion may be expressed in many ways, the most clear and simple of which is “Come to Me” (Matthew 11:28). There is no true communion with God without coming to Christ, for He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one goes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). In the farewell discourse and high-priestly prayer in the Gospel of John, several more images of communion are given: Jesus and the Father making their home with us (14:23), the indwelling Spirit (14:16-17), Jesus the vine and we the branches (15:1-6), the Trinitarian communion into which we are invited (17:20-26). That is why God created us in the first place—not primarily to build complex civilizations (with their inevitable “towers of Babel”), to discover the secrets of the material universe, or (still less) to live for the indulgence of our disordered passions. He made us for Himself, and for our fulfillment in Himself, so that Creator and creature could live in an everlasting communion of love, as the Three Persons have been doing for infinite ages past. God made us free, so that we could freely choose to respond to his offer of love and eternal salvation—thus choosing the fullness of joy as well.

But our Lord was not content with giving us metaphors about mutual abiding, since He is not, for example, a literal vine and we are not literal branches. So He devised a most wondrous means of communion, which the Church has rightly called Holy Communion. “I am the living bread which came down from heaven,” He said. “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (John 6:51). He repeats this several times, in clear, graphic terms, so we’ll be sure to “get it,” to realize that this is no mere metaphor: “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him… He who eats this bread will live forever” (6:55-58). (Jesus certainly wouldn’t have risked the loss of many disciples—see 6:60-69—merely over a misunderstood metaphor.)

The Holy Eucharist is true communion with the Son of God; this is the most precious and intimate way in which He can abide in us and we in Him. It is a sign of the true faith and a pledge of resurrection unto eternal life: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (6:54). Thus our sacramental communion with Him paves the way to our total and eternal communion with God in the Kingdom of Heaven, in the glory of the final resurrection.

We must put all our energies into hearing and living the call of the Gospel of Christ, in all its dimensions. There is nothing more worthy and noble to do with one’s life, and it promises ineffable delights in an everlasting Paradise far beyond our wildest dreams. Heaven is worth the repentance and the sufferings required by the Gospel; it is worth the sacrifices that belong to living by faith and love. So be faithful and loyal to the Lord, in good times and bad, in sorrows as well as joys, and live for that day when the heavens will open and this announcement will be heard by all creation: “Now the salvation and power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come!” (Revelation 12:10). Then the divine communion for which we have longed and labored, and of which we experienced a foretaste through prayer and the sacraments, will be given us—in fullness, forever.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Call of the Gospel: Suffering

Perhaps you would rather read about love, joy, and peace, but suffering is also part of the call of the Gospel. In a sense, it is actually the highest form of love, for if one can have a profound peace and even joy in the midst of suffering, then one’s love has been purified of all self-interest, superficiality, and desire for emotional fulfillment. The price you’re willing to pay is the measure of the depth of your love.

In case you’re not convinced that suffering is really part of the call of the Gospel (have you ever heard people say that Jesus suffered so that we don’t have to?), let’s look at a few examples. “One is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly… For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1Peter 2:19-21). Evidently, then, Jesus suffered not so that we don’t have to, but as an example that we should follow! Those who love the Lord and understand something of the mystery of the Cross even desire to share in his sufferings, which both manifested his everlasting love and brought salvation to the world. “…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

St Paul several times speaks of actually rejoicing in his sufferings, either as a means of growing in virtue (Romans 5:3-5; see also James 1:2-3) or as an offering for the good of the Church (Colossians 1:24). He also made it a condition for our future glory: we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). Now, we may not yet have attained the level of spiritual maturity at which we can rejoice in sufferings, but we ought at least to accept them without complaint and make an offering of them to God in union with Jesus’ sufferings on the Cross. To accept the inevitable is perhaps not the highest virtue, but it is certainly better than raging against it! You surely have experienced that in this life suffering is inevitable. “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings…” (1Peter 4:12-13). “You will suffer in the world; but take courage, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

OK, enough biblical support. We have simply to accept that taking up one’s cross and following Jesus is essential to the meaning and practice of the Gospel. That cross may come in various forms—usually unexpected ones—but come it will, for no servant is greater than his master. We can’t eliminate freely-accepted suffering from the elements of genuine Christian life. If the way Jesus chose to manifest his love for us was “obedience unto death, death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8), then sacrificial love must be the best way there is. So when He calls us to take up our cross and follow Him, He’s asking for an expression of love and trust that is perhaps beyond unaided human ability, but which is possible with the grace He richly bestows upon us. Nothing less than a total self-offering was Jesus’ gift to us, and He asks nothing less than that in return. It will cost us, make no mistake. But He also promises that sorrow will turn to joy (John 16:20).

So make sure you integrate suffering into the joy and peace and the other elements of the call of the Gospel. The saints, the mystics, those who were most in love with the Lord, all endured profound (and often prolonged) sufferings for his sake. But because they loved Him and knew his love for them, they could easily say with St Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). When we finally see what God has prepared for those who love Him, our only regret will be that we didn’t offer Him more…

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Call of the Gospel: Peace

“Peace” is a term that has many meanings, not all of which are what the Gospel offers or requires. Peace is not merely an absence of turmoil or tribulation. Jesus said that He did not come to bring that sort of peace, for the message of the Gospel will pit truth against falsehood, faith against unbelief, love against hatred, so that any type of superficial smoothing over is not true peace. Peace is something more positive, active, and profound.

First of all, we see from the beatitudes that peace is something that we are able to make. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Peace begins with justice and is fulfilled in that transcendent justice known as righteousness, that is, a right relationship with God. The fruit of peacemaking is righteousness: “The harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18). In a world rife with war, aggression, and violence of every kind, the work and witness of “those who make peace” is needed more than ever. Recent Popes have repeatedly asserted that violence must not be used to resolve conflicts. Thus war is not a means to peace.

From the stage of world peace (which, by the way, must include more than an absence of actual war, for the seeds of new wars are always growing in the hearts of the unrighteous), we come to the need for peace on a more intimate level, that of friends, families, and communities. “Strive for peace with all men,” exhorts the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, “…that no ‘root of bitterness’ spring up and cause trouble” (12:14-15). It will be hard to preach (let alone obtain) peace among nations if we are fighting among ourselves. The peace to which the Gospel calls us is based on mutual understanding, forgiveness, and charity. We have to remember that peace is made, that is, it doesn’t happen all by itself. Peace doesn’t flow from inertia, indifference, possessiveness, self-righteousness, or ambition. There is no peace by default; power will fill a vacuum before peace will—unless the peacemakers work diligently to establish it. Peace is found where you make it.

Finally, there is the peace that transcends anything that can be found in the world, the “peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), the peace that Jesus gives, “not as the world gives” (John 14:27). This “peace of God” within us is what enables us to make any sort of true peace around us; it “keeps our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

When Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, his greeting was “Peace be with you.” His peace. The peace of One who had come from God and was going to God; the peace of Him who promised to abide in us. His blessing of peace still comes upon us, for his Church has retained it in her Liturgy. When the priest blesses you with Jesus’ words of peace, do you open your heart to receive it, or is it (to you) merely a routine or standard liturgical formula that has no effect whatever on your soul? The risen Christ is in our midst when we gather to worship Him, and He breathes his peace upon us as He gave the Spirit of Peace to his disciples after his resurrection.

Let the Lord’s peace remain in you as the deep foundation of your life in Him. Know where you have come from and where you are going. Despite the inevitable turmoil of this life, you can have hope and joy because of that unshakable peace you preserve in your inner depths. This peace no one can take from you—if you follow Jesus with your whole heart. When his peace is the very respiration of your soul, then making peace will be the most natural thing to do.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Call of the Gospel: Joy

After hearing much about the demands of the Gospel and its disciplines and uncompromising exhortations (from me, anyway), you may now wish to hear about the joy that the Gospel communicates and promises. For joy is very much a part of the call of the Gospel. Words for joy and rejoicing occur nearly 500 times in the Bible, so who says it’s all struggle and penance and hardship?

The good news of our salvation begins with an invitation to rejoice. That is how the Archangel Gabriel greeted Mary with the news of the Incarnation. (Usually it is translated, “Hail!” but the Greek khaire literally means “Rejoice!”) At the birth of Jesus, another angel said to the shepherds: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people” (Luke 2:10).

Notice that the angel begins his announcement of joy by dispelling fear. This happens many times in the Scriptures. Fear is an impediment to joy. Often God tries to give his people some glad tidings, but his very messenger terrifies them with even a mere reflection of divine glory. But if we were a little more attuned to his presence and willingness to bless us, we would more likely respond with joy than with fear—though we’ll never be able to stand before Him without a deep awe and wonder at his divine splendor, and we should rejoice in that, too!

Joy is something that is promised, something that awaits us in the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is also something that Christians ought to experience now. That joy comes to us from the Holy Spirit. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), and when Jesus rejoiced it was in the Holy Spirit (Luke 10:21). At that time He rejoiced in the Father’s love and wisdom for opening the minds and hearts of the “little ones” to the truth of the Gospel.

But the joy to which the Gospel calls us is not mere revelry or superficial fun. Jesus would not have become man to give us something cheap or ephemeral. He wants to give us the very joy of God. It is also true that the Cross is never far from the Christian, so we have to learn how to find a deep and abiding joy even when under the shadow of the Cross. In a sense, the Cross reveals the most profound joy as it teaches us how to send our roots deeper into the soil of faith and hope, to find the nourishing underground stream of life-giving grace, which strengthens and revitalizes us, lightening our hearts and turning them heavenward. Then we produce the spiritual fruit of joy—a joy that can weather the storms and still keep smiling, a joy that perseveres patiently and prayerfully while the fullness of divine joy is being prepared for us in the Father’s house.

Why did Jesus reveal his Father to us, and all the truths and mysteries and counsels of the Gospel? Of course, it was for our salvation, but is there any other reason? “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). The most profound joy we can experience in this life is Jesus’ joy in us—and He gave that as the very reason for the things He has revealed through the Scriptures. His joy in us! That is what makes our joy full. People who seek happiness elsewhere, especially in forbidden pursuits, will only find a counterfeit, a temporary and ultimately ineffective palliative for the pain and loneliness of this life. But the Lord offers so much more.

So pray for joy. We pray for so many needs, for ourselves and others, but perhaps we need a capacity for joy before we can appreciate God’s other gifts. No one can avoid passing through the “valley of tears” while still on this side of Paradise, but the Holy Spirit is waiting to give birth to joy in you and to carry you to that place, that time, when “no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). So do not fear, for the Gospel is glad tidings of joy to come, and of joy even in the present moment. We may not always feel “happy,” but there can be a place in our hearts that is always rejoicing.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Call of the Gospel: Love

We come now to the heart of the Gospel. In the famous John 3:16 that we cited yesterday, as the offer of salvation to those who believe, the reason for our faith and hope is given: “For God so loved the world…” The Gospel is essentially a testimony to God’s love for us, as well as a call for us to return that love and then spread it around.

There are many commandments and counsels in the Scriptures, but only one is called “the great and first commandment” (Matthew 22:38). This is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (other evangelists include: “and with all your strength”). Jesus immediately says that the second great commandment is like the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” These commandments of love fulfill the law and the prophets, just as Jesus Himself does in his own person and teaching.

Love is thus meant to be all-embracing, all-pervading, demanding all our attention and effort: all your heart, mind, soul, strength. Whatever Jesus said or did (even his severe reproaches of the Pharisees) flowed out of his everlasting love for those He came to save. Jesus does not appear “loving” in the Gospels in the way that many people today are “loving.” The word has been terribly abused and distorted almost to the point of meaninglessness in many cases. It is not loving to be blindly or lazily tolerant of evil, to condone sin for the sake of smoothing out conflicts, or to act as if human happiness can be achieved by acceptance of or indulgence in that which jeopardizes one’s eternal salvation. That is why Jesus’ love is “tough” love: He came to save us, to preach the truth that leads to salvation, and He would do whatever it would take so that we would hear the word of God and keep it—that’s how much He loves us. He even gives us extreme examples to show how utterly important it is to prefer nothing to the Kingdom of Heaven: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:30).

Jesus calls us to love as He loves: loving unto salvation, unto truth and righteousness, not the phony “love” that is emotional excess, lust, misguided tolerance, or any other aberration that contradicts the word of God or endangers one’s (or another’s) immortal soul. Read St Paul’s magnificent hymn to love in First Corinthians 13 for some practical applications (patience, forgiveness, endurance, etc), and then remember Jesus’ words: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Christians who hate or fight or denigrate or condemn one another are a scandal to the whole world and a counter-witness to the Gospel.

To love another is to will the other’s good, ultimately to will the other’s ultimate good: salvation from sin and the gift of eternal happiness in Heaven. Lesser goods should be willed only insofar as they serve or work toward (or at least do not contradict) the ultimate good. Among the most important "lesser goods" are those which our brothers and sisters need just to survive on this earth: food, clothing, shelter, basic medical care, etc. Christian love is manifest in a special way through sacrificial and compassionate service to the poor. Love and sacrifice are two sides of the same coin. It is a prominent theme in the Gospel: Jesus' preference and love for the poor and those of no account in the empires of man.

To love is one of the most natural and at the same time one of the most difficult things to do. We tend more easily to love those who love us and do good to us, but Jesus says: What credit is that to you? Even sinners do as much (Luke 6:32-36). The call of the Gospel is to love even our enemies, to do good to those who do evil to us, to pray for those who persecute or slander us. This is loving as Jesus loved, for He prayed, “Father, forgive them,” as the nails tore through his flesh. He dramatically manifested at that moment these words: “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1Peter 4:8). St Peter declares at the beginning of that verse: “Above all, hold unfailing your love for one another.” Indeed, the Gospel is the Good News of love: God's and ours, or better, God's in ours.

We have much reflection to do, probably much repentance as well, much to resolve and to change if we are to live as Jesus’ disciples and friends. To believe is necessary but inadequate. Faith must work through love, says the Apostle (Galatians 5:6). Love God wholly; love others as Jesus loves. It will take you to the Cross, but it will also take you to Paradise.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Call of the Gospel: Faith

As I noted yesterday, the call to faith comes immediately after the call to repentance. When one turns away from sin, one must immediately turn towards Christ, or else the evil spirit will return with seven other spirits and the results will be worse than ever (see Luke 11:24-26).

The word of God declares that whoever believes in Christ shall not perish but shall have eternal life (need I cite this? John 3:16). But what does it mean to believe? If such an astounding reward were to be granted for a simple assent to a few propositions of Christian doctrine, then people would be coming in droves to receive everlasting happiness. But I think that most people instinctively realize that believing in Christ means a lot more than offering an “OK, whatever,” to divine revelation. Therefore many refuse to come to Him.

When Jesus first said “Repent and believe,” He said: “believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). That is, believe in the good news of what He had come to reveal: the love of his Father, the Gift of the Holy Spirit, the hope of eternal life, the saving sacrifice that He would offer, the freedom and dignity—and hence the accountability—of the human person, and what is required if one is to live a life according to God’s will: in short, the Gospel is the mystery of faith.

To have Christian faith is not only to believe that God exists, that God is Trinitarian, that God became man in Jesus, that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead, etc—though all that is, of course, essential. To “believe in the Gospel” is also to live a life that expresses in practical ways what one has come to accept as the truth about God and man. Remember, St James said that faith without works is dead, and that even the demons believe in God, but they are still confined to Hell (2:14-19). So it is not enough to say you believe in God (your faith has saved you!) and then live as if you didn’t. For in the end we will be judged not by what we professed, but by what we did—or didn’t do, as the case may be (see, for example, Matthew 25:31-46; 2Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:11-13).

Faith does in fact save you—that is, faith properly understood. Saving faith is not merely saying something like the “sinner’s prayer” and accepting Jesus along with (what you think is) an impossible-to-lose salvation. Saving faith is an ongoing, living relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, one that can either grow or die according to the free choices we make. God’s grace is always available, always offered, so nothing is lacking on his part. It is we who accept or reject his gift and hence accept or reject salvation. “Do not be deceived,” says the Apostle; “God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7). In a sense (though perhaps unwittingly), those who say they believe—and who thus think they are irrevocably saved—yet who do not live the Gospel, are mocking God, who judges us not so much on what we say we believe, but on how we live it. To make a profession of faith is not to purchase an insurance policy, “the bearer of which shall be spared the pains of Hell at such a time as he or she departs this life.” No, God is personal and has created human persons in his image, and He expects us to enter into a personal relationship with Him, which, depending on our fidelity (his is guaranteed), will result in the saving or the losing of our souls.

That is why repentance (which must be ongoing, as our relationship with the Lord must also be) is required as a condition of faith. One who professes faith must no longer live as he used to (see Ephesians 4-5 and Colossians 3). Otherwise, what you call faith is not really faith, and you are not responding to the call of the Gospel.

So believe all that the Scriptures and the Church teach about God and his Son, that is, the content of the Gospel. Then “let your manner of life be worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). You will be saved by faith if—and only if—you put it into practice. One of Jesus’ favorite admonitions was: “Hear the word of God and keep it.”

I just discovered this text from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I thought it would be appropriate to append it to this post: "Are you worried because you find it so hard to believe? Don't be surprised at the difficulty of faith, if there is some part of your life where you are consciously resisting or disobeying the commandment of Jesus. Is there some part of your life which you are refusing to surrender at His behest, some sinful passion, maybe, or some animosity, some hope, perhaps your ambition or your reason? If so, you must not be surprised that you have not received the Holy Spirit, that prayer is difficult, or that your request for faith remains unanswered... The person who disobeys cannot believe. Only if you obey can you believe."

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Call of the Gospel: Repentance

I’m beginning today a seven-part series on “the call of the Gospel.” It’s a kind of overview of what it means to be a Christian, based on the Holy Scriptures. There could be more topics than I’ve chosen, but since seven is a biblical “perfect number,” I thought I’d limit it to that. The elements of the call of the Gospel I will treat are: repentance, faith, love, joy, peace, suffering, and communion.

I begin with repentance because no less a spiritual giant than St John the Baptizer also did so. And we can’t improve on the preaching of Christ Himself, whose first word of public preaching was, like John’s, “Repent!” (Matthew 3:1-2 and 4:17). Tomorrow we will write about faith, for according to St Mark, that was Jesus’ next word: “Repent and believe…” (1:15).

The Christian life must begin with repentance, as John as Jesus insisted. You can’t even have saving faith unless you first turn to Christ by turning away from evil. Repentance is an act of turning, changing, and even though some have had dramatic “conversion experiences,” repentance is not a one-time event, but it is an essential part of the whole Christian life. That is because repentance (Greek metanoia) means literally a change of mind and heart, and hence a change of the direction, meaning, and practical expression of one’s whole life.

Getting back to the Gospel text, why did Jesus and John first preach repentance? “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” that’s why! The Kingdom was at hand in the person of the King, who appeared on the scene as a poor working man, but a man with a message from God. He alone could communicate this word of God perfectly, for “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The fullness of time had come, the kairos, the moment that transcends time, the moment when the tired, sinful history of humanity was to experience the inbreaking of the divine. For this, people had to change, to re-turn to the One who had Created them and called them to a covenant of love and fidelity.

Today the call to repentance still graces the pages of the Gospel, yet many do not wish to hear it. They want to hear another gospel that is not demanding, that does not hold us accountable, that promises blissful spiritual experience without the carrying of the cross. But you know what St Paul said about those who prefer “another gospel” to that which we’ve received from the Apostles (see Galatians 1:6-9).

The Kingdom of Heaven is always at hand. That doesn’t mean the world is about to end (though you and I may come to our personal “end” in death at any moment). Christ is always present, always calling us to change what needs to be changed in order for us to live his word faithfully and to fulfill God’s intentions in creating us in the first place. Some people, not wishing to embrace repentance with all that it entails (self-discipline, breaking bad habits, standing firm against the seductions of this age, etc), rest in the affirmation: “God loves me as I am.” But there’s a better one, closer to the whole truth: “God loves you as you are, but He loves you too much to let you stay the way you are.”

The Christian life begins with repentance, and repentance (properly understood as the ongoing change or transformation of mind and heart and behavior) remains an integral part of the Christian’s entire life. Repentance isn’t only about being sorry for our sins and confessing them (though that is part of it). It is also—and most fundamentally—about change. That is why if we express sorrow for sin at one moment and go out and do it again shortly thereafter, we have not really repented. We will be known by our fruits. That is why the Baptizer exclaimed to the Pharisees: “Bear fruit that befits repentance!” (Matthew 3:8).

We have a petition in one of our litanies that reads: “That we may spend the rest of our life in peace and repentance…” This does not mean a life of remorse or of wailing “woe is me!” but rather a vigorous embracing of the truth of the Gospel and an equally vigorous rejection of all that comes to us from the “father of lies.”

Repent. Repent again, and still. Continue in repentance and rejoice in the Lord, who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. That’s the Gospel; that’s the Good News.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Consecrated

Yesterday was quite a special day. Not only was it the Feast of the Archangel Michael and all the Holy Angels (Byzantine calendar), but it was also the occasion of the monastic consecration (profession of solemn vows) of our Br Symeon.

This feast day was appropriate for Br Symeon’s consecration, for monastic life is sometimes called the “angelic life.” This is because monks are supposed to be constantly singing the praises of God like the angels—and we do so in church for at least four hours a day, and go on praising Him in our hearts the rest of the time, as far as we are able. Monastic life is called “angelic” also because the holy monastic fathers were said to live like angels in the flesh, that is, they hardly ever ate or slept! Now if God wanted us to live like pure spirits, he wouldn’t have created us with bodies, but there is much value in self-discipline and detachment from the things that the Lord said “all the nations” are always running after (Luke 12:30-31). Not to be anxious about material possessions or comforts is part of seeking first the Kingdom of God.

The readings for the occasion of a monastic consecration are chosen with wisdom and a certain delicacy. There are two selections from the Gospel of Matthew (10:37-39 and 11:28-30). In the first the Lord makes it clear that if one loves father or mother, son or daughter more than Him, one is not worthy of Him. This was all the more poignant since Br Symeon’s parents were present for his consecration. This is part of taking up our cross and following Jesus. Yet to leave one’s family and to take up one’s cross is not merely a negative thing, not cutting one adrift on life’s lonely sea. For in the next selection of the Gospel Jesus says: “Come to Me… I will refresh you… Learn from Me… take my yoke upon your shoulders… your soul will find rest, for My yoke is easy and My burden light.” To die to self, to detach from blood ties for Christ’s sake is to surrender oneself to the Lord’s loving embrace, to be permanently “enlisted” in the service of the King. Many people, in the name of freedom or self-expression, seek after money, possessions, and pleasures, but in the long run end up, as the monastic fathers have said, wearing a heavy yoke. Jesus would remove the heavy yoke of sin and selfishness and place upon us the yoke of obedience to the word of life. “I know that his commandment is eternal life” (John 12:50).

Once a monk chooses to love Christ more than his family, friends, and his very self, and comes to Him in love and the promise of lifelong fidelity, he is given a mission. He joins the angels not only in worshiping God, but also in fighting the devil. Therefore the other reading for the Liturgy is Ephesians 6:10-17—putting on the “armor of God” (truth, righteousness, faith, the Gospel of peace, etc). These points of the reading appear in the rite of consecration as he is being clothed with the tunic, belt, shoes, etc. For our battle, says the Apostle, is not against flesh and blood but against the spiritual hosts of wickedness. So the monk can’t afford to live a soft or self-indulgent life; he has to be in top shape for both worship and warfare!

We felt the presence of the Lord and of the holy angels. The very air was charged with grace as the young novice came forth and prostrated himself, seeking to “embrace the life of asceticism” and making his perpetual vows of fidelity to the monastic vocation. He is warned that he is making these promises before the face of God and in the presence of the heavenly hosts, and that he will be judged by how well he has kept his promises. Even though there are some stern admonitions in the rite, the whole event was full of joy and was a real celebration of faith and love for God. It is not a small thing that a man offers his whole life irrevocably to God (quite rare these days—unfortunately), and God is very pleased to accept such an offering and to shower him with grace and blessing. The Lord alone knows how many souls will benefit from the new monk’s prayer and sacrifice.

I invite you to rejoice with us, that there is another consecrated monk in the world. He stands before the face of God and intercedes for you and for the salvation of all. Pray the Lord of the harvest to send more laborers, for there is still very much work to be done in his vineyard…

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Poor in Spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” is the first of the beatitudes found in the Gospel of Matthew (5:3). In a sense it is the basis of all the beatitudes, for all those that follow give us some concrete applications of poverty of spirit. But there is a little more that can be said about this first blessing of Jesus.

It is not quite the same as the first beatitude in St Luke’s account, the unqualified “Blessed are you poor” (6:20). His second one is also unqualified: “Blessed are you who hunger” (compare St Matthew’s “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness”). Luke’s account focuses on blessings for the materially poor and hungry, for his Gospel highlights the Lord’s preference for the poor and downtrodden (see the conclusion of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus: “you in your lifetime received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish”; 16:25). But in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, the “poor” and “hungry” are spoken of in more spiritual terms.

One can be poor in spirit without being materially destitute, yet a rich man who is unconcerned with the needs of others could never be considered poor in spirit. We can see what it means to be poor in spirit not only by looking at the other beatitudes (e.g. the meek, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers), but also by reading the rest of the Sermon (chapters 5-7). The poor in spirit are poor in self-protecting justifications and psychological/emotional/social defenses (they “turn the other cheek”). They are poor in anger and retaliation (“reconcile with your brother before you offer your gift”; “love your enemies”). They are poor in vice (see Jesus’ teaching on adultery, divorce, false oaths). The poor in spirit are also poor in hypocrisy (see Jesus’ teaching on ostentatious prayer, fasting, and almsgiving), but they are rich in trust, for they serve but one Master and are not anxious about material goods—they seek first the Kingdom of God and expect whatever they need from his hand. They are rich in wisdom, for they choose the narrow gate and know how to recognize false prophets, but they are poor in condemning or judging others, for they leave all judgment of persons to God.

It’s a true program of life, this poverty of spirit, this Sermon on the Mount. It is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching and hence it is that which is distinctively Christian. All religions in one way or another will teach one to avoid evil and do good. But Christ’s words touch the nerve of fallen man, call him to change at precisely the point at which his ego is enmeshed in selfish and uncharitable behavior and pursuits. He turns upside down the “wisdom of the world,” calls “blessed” what the world deems cursed, and preaches instead what St Paul calls “the word of the Cross.” The word of the Cross is the Gospel of the poor in spirit. The Sermon on the Mount ought to be the litmus test of Christians. Jesus does not preach the perfunctory performance of a few religious obligations that subsequently exert no influence on one’s practical life. No, Jesus presents the unvarnished demands of the Gospel—which apply inescapably to all areas of our lives—and then He requires us to choose. Will we build the house of our life on sand or on rock? Our salvation depends upon it.

Meditate on his Sermon and discover (or discover anew) what it means to be poor in spirit, that is, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Blessed are you if you choose the “narrow gate” that leads to eternal life.