Saturday, December 30, 2006

Continuing Christmas

We’re still in the post-festal time of Christmas, so don’t follow the lead of our commercial society that eliminates all traces of Christmas on the following day (or when they’ve processed all the returned merchandise). Don’t stop singing and playing Christmas carols, don’t take your tree down, and continue in meditation on this great and divine mystery at least for the “twelve days of Christmas.” To that end, I will share with you some of the liturgical texts from our Christmas services, which I find to be a blessing for deeper reflection and poetic beauty.

"Rejoice, O my soul, for in a cave was born Christ the King. A strange and incredible mystery I behold: the cave becomes Heaven, the Virgin becomes the Throne of Cherubim, the manger becomes the place where lies the unplaceable Christ God. To Him we sing praises.

“Plainly foreshadowed by the burning bush that was not consumed, a hallowed womb has borne the Word. God is mingled with the form of mortal men, and so he looses the unhappy womb of Eve from the bitter curse of old. We men give Him glory.

“The choir of shepherds abiding in the field was overwhelmed by the strange sight they were counted worthy to behold: for they looked upon the all-blessed Offspring of an all-pure Bride. And they saw also the ranks of bodiless angels who sang in praise of Christ the King, incarnate without seed.

“Of your own will, O Most High, You have come forth equal to mortal men, taking flesh from the Virgin to purge the poison of the serpent’s head. God by nature, You lead all from the gates that know no sun to the life-giving Light.

“The Master, by his coming in the flesh, has cut clean through the harsh enmity of the flesh against Him, and has destroyed the might of the murderer of our souls. Uniting the world to the immaterial essences, He has made the Father merciful to the creation.

“God the Word, who was in the beginning with God, seeing our nature powerless to guard unharmed its ancient fellowship with Him, now grants it new strength: abasing Himself, in a second act of fellowship He makes it once again free from the passions.

“O Christ our Defender, You have put to shame the adversary of man, using as shield your ineffable Incarnation. Taking man’s form, You have bestowed upon him the joy of becoming godlike. Once he sought this of old and fell from on high into the dark depths of the earth. [Gen. 3:5]

“You have overthrown by your almighty power the fierce sin that raised its head in wanton pride and raged with blasphemy throughout a world gone mad. Those whom in times past it dragged down, today you have delivered from its snares, O Benefactor, who of your own will have taken flesh.

“You have come, O Resurrection of the nations, to bring back the nature of man from its wanderings, leading it from the hills of the wilderness to a pasture rich in flowers. Destroy the violent strength of the murderer of man, O You who in your providence have appeared as man and God.

“The three children of the Old Covenant who walked in the fire yet were not burned prefigured the womb of the Maiden that remained sealed when she gave birth in fashion past nature. It was the same grace of God that brought both these wonders to pass in a miracle, and rouses the peoples to sing in praise.”

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Protomartyr

During the post-festal time of Christmas we celebrate St Stephen, whom we officially call “The Holy Apostle, Protomartyr, and Archdeacon Stephen” in our liturgy. Protomartyr means, of course, the first martyr. In our tradition, “apostle” has wider application that just the Twelve, for it applies to the Seventy as well, and to a few others, like the first deacons. Then we have some who are called “Equal to the Apostles,” like St Mary Magdalen, who was an apostle to the Apostles after the Resurrection. Finally, St Stephen was the most illustrious of the first seven deacons ordained by the apostles.

The protomartyr is, in my opinion, one of the more attractive figures of the New Testament. He gets a great write-up in the Acts of the Apostles. He was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” “full of grace and power,” and he “did great wonders and signs among the people,” and his opponents “could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.” And when he was brought to trial, “his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:5, 8, 10, 15).

He gave a rather long-winded speech to the hostile Council. Finally, he came to his dramatic and pointed conclusion: “You stiff-necked people… you always resist the Holy Spirit… Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” Needless to say, he did not exactly ingratiate himself with the Council members, who by now were grinding their teeth in rage against him.

Stephen sealed his fate by having a mystical experience on the spot. The Lord knew, even if Stephen was not yet quite sure of it, that this deacon was about to become the protomartyr, and so He opened the gates of Heaven to him. “Behold,” cried the witness to Christ, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” To Stephen it was ecstasy, but to the corrupt judges it was blasphemy. So they dragged him out to stone him to death.

His martyrdom is highly significant, and not merely because it was the first. His dying words showed him not only to be a Christ-figure, but also a witness to the divinity of Christ, and to the whole new direction the believing Church was to take. First, his imitation of (or rather, communion with) Christ in his death. When Jesus was dying He said: “Father, forgive them…” When St Stephen was dying, he said: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Jesus’ dying words were: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” St Stephen’s dying words were: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” This is the first time that anyone publicly prayed to Jesus. The apostles had proclaimed his Lordship and worked miracles in his name, but as far as I know, Stephen was the first to pray directly to Him, to entrust his immortal soul to Him. This puts Christ on a par with the Father, and places Jesus squarely in the center of the life of the brand new Church. Jesus was now the Lord, a term hitherto used only for God. Jesus commended his spirit to the Father. Henceforth all believers will commend their spirits to Jesus, and through Him to the Father.

There was someone standing by, who heard St Stephen utter those words. His name was Saul, and it wouldn’t be long before he too would be praying to Jesus and spreading his Church everywhere. And he too would become a martyr for the Lord, joining a long and triumphant procession of witnesses to Him who became man out of love for us, humbled Himself unto death on the Cross, and was glorified at the right hand of the Father. Who knows if we will someday join this procession? But martyr or not, we can still witness with our words and deeds, with our love and fidelity. No price is too high to “be in that number” of the faithful followers of Christ. Lord Jesus, receive our spirits…

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Child and His Mother

Christmas is dedicated to the Son, and the day after Christmas is dedicated to the Mother—without whom there would be no Son, not in the flesh anyway. The Son of God existed from all eternity with the Father and the Spirit, but He entered time through the body and the consent of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Byzantine tradition the day after Christmas is the feast of the Synaxis (“gathering” of the faithful) of the Mother of God.

We heard in the Gospel of Christmas that, having experienced and witnessed such marvelous and divine things, Mary kept them all within herself and pondered them in her heart. Yet events soon made it clear that hers was not to be a life of contemplative solitude, at least not before Jesus completed his earthly mission. Mary, though always a contemplative at heart, was not a nun but a mom, and she had to be busy doing whatever it took to ensure the welfare of her Son, just as her Son said he had to be about his Father’s business. We see in the Gospel for this feast (Mt. 2:13-23) that she didn’t have much time to dwell in idyllic peace and happiness with her divine Child, and Simeon’s prophecy did not take long for its fulfillment, at least its initial stages. Jesus, even as an infant, was a sign of contradiction, someone who would be opposed. Long before Jesus could even place a humanly rational act, Herod sought to kill Him.

So we make a leap liturgically from the celebration of the joy and glory of Christmas to the hardships that followed soon after. Mary and Joseph had to leave their home, had to leave even the Promised Land, fleeing to a foreign country to escape the merciless swords of Herod’s henchmen. But Mary, like her Son, was there to do the will of God, whether convenient or inconvenient, for in his will alone is peace, life, and salvation. It is interesting to notice in this Gospel how God respects the family hierarchy. Before Mary was married to Joseph and moved in with him, God spoke directly to her through the angel. After her marriage, God sent the angel to Joseph, the head of the household, with the instructions as to what had to be done. Though not the biological father of Jesus, St Joseph was still entrusted with the full responsibility of human fatherhood, and he exercised it in perfect obedience to the will of the Heavenly Father.

The angels also exist solely to do the will of God. Gabriel brought the glad tidings of the incarnation of God to Mary. Was he also the one who announced the good news to the shepherds? And was he also sent to St Joseph with the instructions about the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt? If so—and it is likely—it is interesting to see that he can go from profound rejoicing to severe and urgent warnings simply at the word of the Lord. I don’t think there are some angels predisposed to bring good news and some more suited to bringing bad news—they all simply do the will of God, whatever it is, whatever it requires. So again we make that liturgical leap—in only one day!—from “I bring tidings of great joy; a Savior is born” to “flee to Egypt, for Herod seeks to destroy the child.”

It is interesting to note that there’s another subtle clue in the text to indicate that Joseph is not the father of Jesus according to the flesh. When the angel spoke to him, he did not say, “Rise, take your wife and son to Egypt,” but rather, “Take the child and his mother.” He mentions the child first, which is unusual, unless the Child happens to be the Son of God, and then “his mother.” So Joseph is, in a sense, gently put in his place, somewhat outside the impenetrable intimacy of Mother and Son—which is beyond all human understanding or articulation—while still retaining his God-given authority as head of the Holy Family. The angel says the same thing when calling them out of Egypt back to Israel.

So they went, in the middle of the night, leaving their familiar surroundings, their relatives and friends, because this was the will of God. God seems to want to detach his chosen ones from their earthly and material ties in order to free them for total dedication and service to Himself. He called Abraham out of his homeland to show him a new place. He called Moses to bring his people out of Egypt to the Promised Land, and it has often happened in the history of the Church that the saints have had to depart from their familiar place to some unknown land or unfamiliar situation in order to do God’s will. We see a similar thing in the monastic tradition. Jesus said that he would bless a hundredfold those who would leave home and family and possessions for his sake and that of the Gospel. To enter a monastery we have to detach from family ties, and have to leave our former places of residence (sometimes even our native land), embarking on a spiritual journey that may be quite demanding. It is not for us to figure things out, still less to grumble or rebel like the Israelites in the desert—but rather like Mary and Joseph simply to get up and do what the Lord says, precisely because that is his will, and that is what we live to do.

What if Joseph had decided to reason with the angel, explaining how inconvenient and impractical it would be for them to leave right away, and what’s wrong with serving God in their own country and home, etc? Meanwhile, the mailed fists of Herod’s soldiers would be pounding on their door, and the angel would say: that’s what wrong with it—and salvation history would have come to an abrupt conclusion.

So let us follow the example of St Joseph and the Mother of God, who had no agenda, no preference but the will of the Lord, and who did not calculate how things might better work to their advantage, did not count the cost of obedience, but simply said yes, as Mary first did at the Annunciation.

We are still rejoicing in these holy days of the celebration of the birth of our Savior, but we do so with the constant readiness to hear the angel of the Lord tell us to get up and do whatever God’s will requires. For only in this obedience, this fidelity, this love of the Lord that transcends concern even for our own well-being, will we discover the transforming power of divine grace and reap the rewards promised to those who love and obey Him.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Christ is born! This day, said the angel, is born to you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And so today, this day, we celebrate the mystery, not merely as a recalling of a distant historical event, but as present joy, a present revelation of the grace and love of God, a present re-entry into the great mystery of “God with us,” of God become man for our salvation. The grace of this mystery is communicated to us this day, whether or not we have visions of angels. For Christ is in our midst as the Coming One who has come, who brings to us the good news of salvation, the Gospel of joy.

Our prayer as we have been awaiting his coming is the prayer of the Prophet Isaiah: “O, that You would rend the heavens and come down…to make your name known” (64:1-2). We heard in yesterday’s Gospel that St Joseph would give Him that name which would be made known to all the nations: Jesus, which means, “the Lord is Savior.” That’s how He was announced by the angel: this day is born to you a Savior. Again the prophet cries: “Shower, O heavens, from above, let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth…” (45:8). And the psalmist too joins in praise of the Messiah: “May He be like rain that falls on the grass, like showers that water the earth!” (71/72:6). The Lord has come and He has filled the world with grace, yet coming in what seemed to be a quite ordinary, everyday manner. No one is particularly astounded by a shower of rain, or the birth of a baby—happens all the time. Yet as the rain permeates the thirsty ground, the grace of the incarnation of the Son of God renews and transfigures all creation in a hidden manner. He entered this world as a little child, of whom very few took any notice. Yet the world would never be the same again, from that day to all eternity.

Let’s go to the place where a few chosen ones did take notice. It was a field on the outskirts of Bethlehem, and shepherds were keeping the night watch over their flock. It was a winter night like many others, cold and clear, and they probably were wishing they were in their own homes before a hospitable fire, with a warm drink in their hands. Suddenly, the black night was wildly illuminated, and they turned this way and that, stunned and confused and, as the Scripture literally says, they “feared a great fear.” What was happening? They saw a radiant figure descend from Heaven—it was the Angel of the Lord! Would they be allowed to live after having seen him with their own eyes? And that light—that shimmering, sparkling light, casting colors all around that they had never seen before, never imagined possible—it could only be the glory of the Lord shining around them! They were in an ecstasy of terror, wonder, and exhilaration.

Then the heavenly apparition spoke: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” The shepherds were utterly astonished, beside themselves in awe and wonder. If someone said they would see greater things they wouldn’t have believed it. Yet suddenly, they saw a greater thing. Not only one heavenly messenger, but a whole multitude appeared to them! Truly the heavens were torn open to manifest the entire angelic choir, who praised God saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased!”

The shepherds then did two things: they sought the face of God and they became evangelists. First they said: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see the thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” They could hardly have been clear on the fact that it was God Himself in human form that they were about to see, though they did hear from the angel that a Savior was born. They were still reeling from their overwhelming experience of the glory of God, so all they could say was, “let us see this thing that has happened”—whatever it is, we have to see it! Then they found Him, knew Him by the sign the angel said to seek: a baby lying in a manger. The epitome of both powerlessness and poverty: this is Christ the Lord.

So then they became evangelists. Actually, the angel was the primary evangelist. The angel (angelos, “messenger”), brought good news (evangelizomai, literally, “gave a good message,” same root as evangelion, gospel). But when the shepherds found Him whom they were seeking, they “made known [to Mary and Joseph] the saying which had been told them concerning this child.” Perhaps you could say they were “preaching to the choir” at this point, but when they left, they went on glorifying and praising God and telling anyone who would listen all that they had seen and heard.

Perhaps the shepherds went away singing the glorious canticle of the Prophet Zephaniah: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart… The Lord has taken away the judgments against you… The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion… the Lord your God is in your midst… He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will renew you in his love; He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. ‘I will remove disaster from you [says the Lord], so that you will not bear reproach for it… I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you together… when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,’ says the Lord” (3:14-20).

What exactly is He restoring? In the original context it was the material riches and glory and the esteem of the nations that the Israelites had lost after their exile to Babylon. But for us, as it says in one of our liturgical texts, Christ is born to restore our long-lost likeness to God—the image in which we were created, but which we had disfigured or obscured by sin. We have been exiled from Paradise, but in the liturgy of this feast we sing: “As for me, I am returning to the bliss of Paradise, from which I had been banished by disobedience.”

Finally, I came across another text, a hymn to Our Lady, which concisely summarizes the mystical essence of this feast: “Angels were seized with amazement and mankind fell silent in awe at your birthgiving, O Mother of God.” This is a feast of both worshiping Him in silent awe and in singing praise with angelic amazement and joy.

Come, then, let us adore Him silently in our times of solitary contemplation, and for now let us, with the Prophet Zephaniah, sing aloud and rejoice with all our hearts. For the Lord is in our midst. Let us glorify Him with thanksgiving for the immeasurable price He paid to take away the judgment against us, to change our shame into praise. Who else would have done this for us sinners? Who else could have done it? Who is like God? A God so powerful He became a baby in a manger! A God so pure He bore all our filth in his own body on the Cross! A God so righteous He took away the just judgments against us and turned our shame into praise! Do you want to know what God is like?—that is what God is like!

Christ has come to restore our long-lost likeness to God, so that we can claim the heavenly Paradise as our homeland and sing to Him with the angels forever. Christ is born!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Fullness of Time

This Sunday is the Sunday of the Genealogy of Jesus (Gospel: Mt. 1:1-25), the immediate preparation for the celebration of his nativity. It’s all the more immediate this year, since the last Sunday of Advent happens to fall on Christmas Eve. The long list of names of Old Testament figures may seem to be obscure or even irrelevant to many, but its purpose is important. Jesus must be known to be both true God and true Man. When St John says, “the Word was God,” and when Christ says, “I and the Father are one,” it is clear that He is true God. But the testimony of the genealogy says that Jesus is also true man, that He has a lineage just like any other human being, that He was born into the human family from a woman, just like the rest of us—even though his conception and birth were miraculous, unlike ours, but that part testifies to his being true God, which we are not. We see a subtle hint of this in the genealogy itself. The whole list is in the form of “so-and-so was the father of so-and-so”—until we get to St Joseph. It doesn’t say he was the father of anybody. The format changes in his case. It says: “Joseph was the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” So here we have another testimony of the divinity and humanity of Christ: He had no human father (divinity), but He did have a human mother (humanity).

At the end of the genealogy, St Matthew divides salvation history into three stages: the time of the patriarchs and judges (from Abraham to David), the time of the kings (from David to the Babylonian exile), and the time of restoration (post-exilic Judaism to the coming of the Messiah). He begins the time of the kings with David and not Saul, even though Saul was the first king. Why is that? And why doesn’t Saul appear in the genealogy? As to the second question, the genealogy is only in the line of Judah, and Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin. He began no dynasty, for he and his son Jonathan, the heir apparent, both died in the battle of Mount Gilboa. But Saul was rejected for a more important reason: his disobedience and infidelity. David, despite his sins, was a man after God’s own heart, who loved the Lord and strove to do his will. It was he whom God accepted to begin the dynasty of kings, and it was in his line, that of Judah, that Jesus the Messiah would be born.

It is clear from St Matthew’s arrangement of the genealogy into three sets of fourteen generations, that once these had been completed, the fullness of time, the kairos, the moment of unprecedented divine intervention into human history, had come.

So St Paul wrote to the Galatians: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” But weren’t all human beings children of God even before the coming of Christ? Wasn’t God our Father even before He sent his Son as man? Scripture and theology answer: no. If in any sense God could have been considered the Father of human beings before the coming of Christ, it could only have been so in virtue of the Incarnation yet to be manifested. Just because God created us doesn’t mean He is our Father. He created mice and mushrooms, too, but He is not their Father.

St Paul makes this clear, again in Galatians. In the passage just quoted, he said that God sent forth his Son, born of woman, so that we could be adopted as children of God. This means, a) before He sent his Son we were not children of God, and b) the purpose of God sending his Son was to make it possible for us to become children of God (see John 1:11-12—“…his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”). We aren’t God’s children by nature; that’s why Paul says we had to be adopted, and that only happens through the mediation of Christ. Many people blithely assume that we are all indiscriminately and automatically children of God, as if sheer existence somehow elevates us to this incredible status. It is rather a priceless gift, one that was given at an immeasurably high personal cost: the incarnation, death and resurrection of the only-begotten Son of God.

St Paul then says: the promises were made to Abraham and his offspring, not in the plural but in the singular, that is, referring specifically to Christ. So it is only in Christ that we are children of God and hence inheritors of the promises made to Abraham, our father in faith. Paul concludes by saying that only if we are in Christ are we Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. Whoever is saved is saved by Christ; whoever is entitled to call God “Father” is entitled only through union with the Son. If there are among the saved those who do not explicitly confess faith in Christ—and I think we ought to acknowledge that there must be—it is only through some mystery of divine love and providence that has not been revealed to us. But in any case it is always and only through Christ, the only Savior, that anyone is saved. So we see why St Matthew so carefully presents the genealogy, showing how it leads to the incarnation of the Son of God at the fullness of time, for only in Christ are we children of God and thus eligible to be received into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us look briefly now at the second part of this Gospel, the angelic revelation of the incarnation to St Joseph. I will not try to enter his psychological or emotional state here—though that can be fruitful for meditation—but just to look at the essential point. Mary was betrothed to him, and betrothal at that time had the legal force of marriage. She was pregnant, and Joseph knew he was not the father, for his relationship with her was free from sexual intercourse. Being faithful to the word and will of God as he knew it in the Scriptures, he had to leave her, for this was God’s law, and even though he loved his betrothed very much, He loved God more and was committed to his will.

But the angel clarified God’s will, revealing the utter uniqueness of this situation in words that the humble carpenter could not fully have comprehended: “that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” Surely he would reflect on those few words for years to come. But whether or not he comprehended the incomprehensible, he knew how to obey. “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” He could name the child and do whatever else God told him to do. The evangelist then reminds us of the fulfillment of a messianic prophecy about a virginal conception and the birth of a child who would be Emmanuel, God with us. In the original text, the child to be born in the time of the Prophet Isaiah would carry the name of Emmanuel, as a sign, a reminder that God is always with his people. But the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy—the Child of Mary—is Emmanuel, is God with us in person. No prophecy, no reminder: God Himself is with us in Jesus, the Son of Mary.

Finally, a brief note on a disputed word—one which is put forth by some as evidence against Mary’s perpetual virginity. The word is “until.” The text says that Joseph had no intercourse with Mary until she had borne a son. They assume (wrongly) that this implies that the chaste couple had intercourse after she had borne a son. If these events had occurred in America, and if the evangelist’s culture and language were English, they might have a point. But this “until” is a semitic idiom, which does not imply that the situation changes afterwards. For example, in the book of Genesis, God says to Jacob: “Behold, I am with you and I will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you” (28:15). Does that mean that God is going to leave him after he brings him back to the land? Of course not! And has anyone, anywhere, ever tried to make a case that God was going to leave him, because of that word “until”? No. Why? Because the idiom is understood. Why then should we not understand it in the case of Mary and Joseph? ("Brothers" and "sisters" are also semitic idioms for relatives in general, in case a similar question occurs to you later!) The Church in her wisdom reveals the most profound meaning of the texts of Scripture.

Let us now, as there is only a brief time between us and the celebration of Christ’s nativity, reflect on these mysteries: the full divinity and humanity of Christ, the gift of adoption as children of God through Him, the grace of the Holy Spirit and the angelic intervention in the lives of Mary and Joseph. And let us follow the example of St Joseph, who even without full knowledge, obeyed the word of God and assisted personally in the manifestation of the Savior to the world: “he did as the Lord commanded him… he called his name Jesus.”

Friday, December 22, 2006

Fruit that Befits Repentance

Why am I writing about repentance at this late stage of Advent? For three reasons. One is that this time of year is still a penitential season in the Byzantine tradition, notwithstanding the several feasts and mitigations of the fast that make it “lighter” than the Great Fast of Lent. As far as I am aware, the penitential character of Advent in the Latin rite has been quietly suppressed since Vatican II, in favor of a spirit of prayerful waiting—which is important, but one approach need not (and should not) exclude the other.

The second reason is because the one who insisted that we bear fruit that befits repentance was St John the Baptizer, the Forerunner of Christ, who plays a prominent spiritual role in our Advent spiritual life as one who “prepares the way of the Lord.” If we are spiritually unprepared, our Christian Christmas will bring us no more benefit than the superficial good cheer of the secular one. The third reason, a more general one, is that there is virtually no time in which repentance is inappropriate. Repentance isn’t only about focusing on sin, confession, and penitential practices. It is fundamentally about making sure that the direction of our life—our thoughts, emotions, words, behavior—is toward Christ and in accord with his word. Repentance is a way of life, a constant turning away from what is not of God to what is.

Let’s get back to the Forerunner. No one could pull the wool over his eyes. He could easily see through the hypocrisy, ostentation, and sham righteousness of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who had decided to come to him for baptism—lest they seem “out of the loop” of the great religious revival John had inaugurated. They were the religious “professionals” after all! But St John’s laser-like spiritual vision immediately assessed their interior condition, so he cried out: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10).

“We have Abraham as our father,” is a kind of Jewish “once saved, always saved” mentality. They erroneously thought that simply being a blood-member of the chosen people was sufficient for righteousness, just as some Christians erroneously think that a single profession of faith is sufficient for salvation, regardless of the way one lives one’s life. But John makes two essential things perfectly clear: you must repent, and you must prove that your repentance is genuine by living accordingly.

John knew that the interest of the Pharisees in his baptism was merely formal and external. They had to publicly manifest their piety if they were to keep up appearances as the spiritual authorities of Israel. But John was aware that they had no intention to make any significant changes in their attitudes or behavior, and he clearly implied that their “repentance” was phony by saying: “Bear fruit that befits repentance… every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

What kind of fruit befits repentance? For starters, go to Galatians 5:22-23 for the fruit of the Spirit. This is essential for any Christian life. Fruit that befits repentance is any sort of virtuous behavior that manifests one’s change of heart, one’s change of direction toward God and the will of God. It proves that one’s Christianity is more than a veneer of Bible jargon or of holier-than-thou snobbery. It is faith working through love, practicing what you preach, living what you believe, manifesting your faith by your works (James 2:18), in short, proving that your repentance is genuine by not continuing in your former sin—let alone justifying it, as people tend to do when they’ve given up the struggle.

So as Christmas approaches, let us examine the extent to which our deeds reflect what we believe and profess. Let us realize that bearing good fruit is not an option if one wishes to “flee from the wrath to come,” to avoid being cut down like a dried-up tree, good for nothing but firewood. In bearing love, joy, peace, and the rest of the fruit of the Spirit, we will have gifts to bring to the newborn King, and He will bless us, seeing that we have done what is true and have come to the Light, that it may clearly be seen that our deeds have been done in God (see John 3:21).

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Freddie the Fox

About ten years ago I made a retreat at a monastery on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There were a number of marvelous views on the long, winding road that led back to Highway 1. I was in need of much solitude, and I was able to stay in a hermitage, so my days were spent in the presence of God and his great ocean—and Freddie the fox.

I think it was one or two days into my retreat when I first met him. Initially he was little more than a pair of watchful eyes in the dusk, which could have been almost anything. But I became curious and stood a bit out of the way, behind the sliding glass door of the hermitage. As he cautiously drew nearer, I discovered, to my delight, that my new friend was a fox. I named him Freddie, if for no other reason than the alliteration. Occasionally his girlfriend showed up, too, and I named her Georgette, for no particular reason at all.

Foxes (or at least Freddie, since I know little about foxes in general) have a curious way of approaching what I assumed was a hoped-for handout. He came a few steps toward the hermitage, then seemed frightened and ran back. Then a few steps closer, then ran back—but not so far this time. I guess he was testing how safe he’d be with the new occupant of the place. I started leaving bits of food on the concrete step outside the door. Freddie would go through his ritual while I watched, partly hidden. He would approach, run away, come a little closer, run back a little way, come a little closer, till he finally came close enough to snatch his little snack and take it back to share it with Georgette (I didn’t see that, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he was a gentleman, fox or no fox). Night by night, I was making myself a little more visible to him.

Finally, the great moment came. On the last evening of my retreat there was not merely a bit of food on the step, but a human creature holding a bit of food in his hand. Would Freddie go for it? I was quite excited to see what would happen. (Really, though, I did spend a little time in prayer on the retreat as well!) He began his ritual: approach, draw back, approach, draw back. Freddie got closer; he was taking a risk now. There was the food, but it was attached to a hand that was attached to something much bigger than he was. Closer, closer, snatch! He did it! Freddie took the food from my hand and ran off into the night, and I’m not sure which one of us was more satisfied as to the outcome of that little encounter.

Why am I telling this story? Well, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the relationship of Freddie to me is something like the relationship of many of us to God. We have a sort of instinctive sense that something good is being offered at the well-lit house and we know that we have to come out of the darkness to receive it. Only gradually do we realize that gifts are being placed before us, not randomly, but by Someone. Yet we don’t really know very well this extra-large Being who dwells there, so we’re not sure if we can trust Him. So we begin with a cautious approach—making sure we have a clear getaway path should things get too uncomfortable. But we haven’t received that which we truly seek, so we come a little closer, still afraid, still drawing back, though maybe not quite so much. After all, He hasn’t done anything to harm us, and He seems welcoming enough. It’s just that it’s all so new and strange to us, and we bear within us an inarticulate fear of the Unknown.

But we’re hungry, and there He is with the Bread of Life. So we come a little closer. Our little ritual of running toward and away from Him becomes wearisome—and certainly unfulfilling—and we finally draw near enough to hear Him say, “Come to Me, you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.” Is it worth the risk? Hopefully we decide that it is, and we begin to eat out of his hand. The analogy breaks down somewhat with Freddie taking the food back into the darkness, but who knows if he wouldn’t eventually have allowed himself to become domesticated and live in the light with his master on an ongoing basis? Once we come out of darkness into the Light, and eat from the Master’s hand, we are called to go on living in the Light, “that we might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life” (Luke 1:74-75).

The Lord wants us to approach Him with confidence, with love and trust, for He will provide all things for us unto everlasting life. Our simultaneous movements toward and away from Him will not enable us to achieve our goal, but will keep us in a kind of uneasy relationship, refusing the risk of the self-surrender in trust that alone will secure our happiness and fulfillment.

Walk toward the Light—in these days that Light shines in the Star over Beth-lehem, the “house of bread”—walk toward the outstretched Hand bearing the Bread of Life and the promise of salvation. Don’t turn back, even momentarily, but confidently approach Him of whom the psalmist spoke: “The eyes of all look hopefully to You, and You give them their food in due season; You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Ps. 144/145:15-16). Foxes have lairs but the Son of Man will give them a better place to lay their heads…

Monday, December 18, 2006

Could be Worse

I was thinking the other day (and you never know what will happen when I start doing that!), after I had been reading more stories of divine providence and angelic intervention in Joan Wester Anderson’s books. I thought, first of all, of the many healings and exorcisms Jesus performed in his earthly ministry, and the many more worked by Him through his apostles and saints through the ages. I thought of the many stories I had read of the ways that God sent his angels to protect his people from injury, illness, or premature death. Then I thought: what would the world have been (and be now) without them? How would history have changed, and for the worse?

It’s impossible to trace or to speculate on all the possibilities, but in very general terms, what would this world be like? All those people that Jesus and his saints cured, exorcised, or even raised from the dead: what would have happened without that blessed intervention? Thousands of prolonged, painful illnesses, thousands of premature deaths, thousands of people still possessed by demons. And without all that angelic ministry? Thousands more accidents, injuries, and again, premature deaths—and who knows what marvelous contributions of culture and holiness the world might have lost thereby!

We may complain today about the number of people that suffer from illness, accidents, or other afflictions. But it could be worse—much worse. Without divine and supernatural governance and even direct intervention, this world would very nearly be a chaos of misery, mayhem, and an endless series of relentless tragedies. I thought: we don’t really know what it means to say that this world is fallen; we can’t begin to understand the terrible consequences of sin. There is suffering, sickness, death, and every sort of agony and tragedy solely because there is sin in the world—not that your or my specific sin created this or that particular disaster (though it’s possible), but that the universal fact of sin results in the universal fact of suffering. The real consequences of sin are that none of all the evils I mentioned above would be prevented or mitigated, and earth, despite its natural beauty, would be akin to Hell—or at least purgatory. But God, though righteous in his judgment of human sin, loves us so much that He softens the blow, prevents any disasters that could in no way fit his plan for our salvation or contribution to the good of humanity.

Here’s a small part of what St Basil the Great wrote in the anaphora of his magnificent text of the Divine Liturgy: “…for having taken clay from the earth and having formed man, and honored him, O God, with your likeness, You placed him in a paradise of delight, and promised him immortality of life and the enjoyment of eternal goods in the keeping of your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God and his Creator, and was deceived through the serpent’s guile, and was subjected to death through his own transgression, in your just judgment, O God, You cast him forth from paradise into this world and turned him again to the earth whence he had been taken, and devised for him the salvation of regeneration which is in your Christ. [notice that without missing a beat he goes from God’s expulsion of Adam from paradise to devising his salvation—God does not rejoice in the death of any sinner, but immediately seeks to reconcile him]

“For you did not turn away forever, O gracious God, nor did You forget the work of your hands: You watched over man in many ways through the depth of your love; You sent forth prophets, You worked mighty signs through your saints who were pleasing to You in every age. You spoke through the mouths of your servants the prophets, promising the salvation to come. You gave man the Law to aid him; You set angels over him as his guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us by your Son, through whom also You made the universe, who being the brightness of your glory and the express likeness of your Person, upholds everything by the power of his Word…” He goes on to describe the birth, life, teachings, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord, and then returns to the narrative of the Last Supper, to introduce the consecration.

So we see that despite the evil and suffering and injustice in this world, it could be worse. God could have allowed his just judgment to stand forever; He could have refused to send angels and work miracles and heal the sick and raise the dead; He could have allowed us to bear the full consequences of sin. But in his love for us, He invited his own eternal Son to bear them: “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

There is still suffering to be endured as our share in the Cross of our Savior. The Fall has not been reversed but redeemed. Suffering is no longer (or need not be any longer) punishment, but offering—a contribution, in union with Christ, to the advancement of the peace and salvation of the world. Know, then, how bad it could be without the loving providence of God, and how good it really is, despite the darkness and trials—and how blessed it will be, when He comes once more to wipe away every tear.

Emmanuel: “God is with us”. He who seeks finds. He who opens his eyes shall see.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Walk With Me in White

When I was just beginning to embrace a more or less adult faith in my early twenties, returning to the Scriptures and, in general, to a life more in keeping with the grace of my baptism, I remember going to the Book of Revelation, to see how things were to turn out in the end. I guess I was a little disappointed overall, because the prophecies were not as precise as I’d hoped, and I couldn’t make much sense of most of it. But there was something that struck me in the early chapters of the Book, and I remember that I even wrote a little poem about it (though that, for better or worse, is forever lost). It was something that Jesus had said about the worthy.

“They shall walk with Me in white” (3:4), He said to the seer in his message to the Church in Sardis. Somehow that fascinated me then and it still does now. There is something pure and peaceful about that image. It speaks to me of the joyful radiance of the presence of Christ, a radiance that is received by those who love Him and who, having been transfigured thereby, in turn radiate it to others. To walk with Him in white is to “walk in the light, as He is in the light” (1John 1:7). It is to have fought the good fight and run the race, to have arrived in the place of joyful repose and of the assurance that every word He ever spoke was true. It is to have all eternity spread out before us, in which we can stroll through Paradise in complete leisure with the Son of God, with his Mother and the angels and saints. In short, it is to enter into the full enjoyment of the reason of our being, the meaning of God’s creating us in his image and destining us in love to be his children through Jesus Christ (see Eph. 1:5).

What is the context of this saying of the risen Lord? “Yet you still have a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” Here on earth we are enjoined to confess his name, but lo, in Heaven Jesus will confess our names in the presence of the Father and the angels, as those who were faithful to Him in this life, who preferred nothing to his holy will.

But the promise of walking with Him in white is made to those “who have not soiled their garments,” that is, have not defiled themselves by sin. What hope then is there for us sinners? Let’s turn ahead a few chapters, for there is another mystery to explore: “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). A strange image, this. Wash your robes in blood and they become white! Of course, this is figurative language, but the reality is unmistakable. It is not outer garments but our souls that are “soiled” by sin, and it is only the mercy of God, manifested by the sacrificial blood of his only-begotten Son, the Lamb who was slain for our sins, that renews in us our baptismal grace. We were given a symbolic white garment at our baptism, and now through the grace of the death and resurrection of Christ, we are cleansed anew and made worthy to walk with Him in white.

It says of those who had washed their robes white in Blood: “these are they who have come out of the great tribulation.” We do not have to speculate about global upheavals or persecutions by tyrants. Let’s face it, the great tribulation for us is sin, and the tyrant is our self-will! That is what we have to come out of. Neither sword nor famine nor persecution can separate us from the love of Christ (see Rom. 8:35-39). Only our choices can do that; only our embracing of the myriad forms of idolatry this world offers, only by choosing our own will or pleasure over God’s word do we succumb to the great tribulation.

So let us not fear for having soiled our garments. They can be made white in the Blood of the Lamb. Let us only fear to offend his generous goodness and merciful love by our obstinate self-will or clinging to old habits or any other idol that will make us ultimately unworthy of Him. For He wants us to walk with Him in white, to rest from our labors as we enter into our Master’s joy.

Friday, December 15, 2006

1940 Dictionary

It all started when I asked the brothers if anybody knew what was meant by “ember days” in the pre-Vatican II Roman Church. Since nobody did, one of the brothers grabbed a dictionary and handed it to me, and I learned that they are “in the R.C. and Anglican Churches, twelve days of the year set apart for fasting and prayer, namely the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays after the first Sunday in Lent, after Whitsunday, after September 14, and after December 13.” The more significant discovery, however, was not the meaning of ember days but the dictionary itself.

It is called the New Universities Webster Dictionary, published in 1940. Being interested in words, I leafed through it a bit. My usual dictionary is the latest edition from Merriam-Webster, but I am dissatisfied with it. Probably 20-25% of the words I look up are not in it. Often such words are archaic or of chiefly British usage (OK, so I like to read British authors!). But this old dictionary offered me some hope. I remember a reference in a book, by a turn of the 20th century British author, to a “cup of bastard.” Naturally, this intrigued me, so I looked up “bastard” in my all-too-modern dictionary and found only the most common definition of the word. Ah, but in my 1940 dictionary I found out that a cup of bastard is a cup of “a coarse brown sugar made from syrup previously boiled.”

Now it is not only for such curiosities that this dictionary is valuable. It is a testimony to a time when language was not merely a tool of technology or a functional bit of the apparatus of communication. It was a time when people used to delight in words and in expressions that were not necessarily concise or utilitarian. For example, the definition of Vespers is “the sixth or last but one of the canonical hours, observed in the R.C. Church by the chanting of psalms and Magnificat or antiphon of the Virgin Mary.” It’s not merely the sixth of seven hours; it is the “last but one.” And in what modern dictionary would you find this detailed definition of mysticism: “the doctrine that communion with God and a knowledge of the divine essence may be attained independent of the senses or processes of reason through intuition or insight; hence, the ecstasy of those who claim they have had insight or visions bringing them into spiritual union with the eternal and giving them knowledge of the supernatural; the teachings or doctrines of the Mystics who claimed they had direct communication with God and gained knowledge of spiritual things which are beyond the natural faculties to understand and, consequently, unexplainable: Bernard of Clairvaux and St Bonaventure are the best known of the men Mystics, while St Theresa is the outstanding figure among women Mystics.” Not the kind of stuff you find in today’s dictionaries full of computer jargon and carefully defined obscenities.

And do we not wish that the most up-to-date dictionary offered this definition of “abortionist” that we find in the 1940 edition: “one who is guilty of the crime of procuring a criminal abortion.” The modern dictionary has “one who induces abortions.”

It is quite striking that in the course of a few decades, not only has the way we use language changed, but the respect for the Church and her life, which was evident then even in secular reference works, has all but disappeared. We see as well how the mentality has changed towards what was formerly and universally considered evil. I must confess that I much prefer the 1940 dictionary to the modern ones, even though I must use these latter if I’m looking up the definition for “blog” or some other newfangled word. In losing the feel for a somewhat quaint (and not merely quaint, but actually more robust) expression of the English language, we’ve also lost something of the spirit of poetry, imagination, and even faith.

Now there’s even a “text message” Bible, which reads like this: “In da Bginnin God cre8d da heavens & da earth” (Gen. 1:1), and like this: “God luvd da ppl of dis wrld so much dat he gave his only Son, so dat evry1 who has faith in him will have eternal life & neva really die” (John 3:16). Visualize me putting my finger down my throat!

Well, I won’t go on and on. I’ll just look up a few more words in my newfound old dictionary. I just noticed, under “Protestant Reformation,” that after a fairly standard definition, they added: “Roman Catholics very much resent the word Reformation, as applied to the movement.” And for a final bit of edification, I leave you with the definition for “Holy Roller”: “one of a religious sect in the U.S., the members of which, when under influence of religious fervor, give way to exciting emotions, jump up and down and, at times, roll themselves on the floor.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On Rebellion

This was going to be a comment on a recent post at the insightful blog Heirs in Hope, on rebellion. But as I reflected upon it, it was getting too long for a combox, so I thought I’d just write it here.

Rebellion can take many forms, some obvious and grievous, others subtle or even trivial; some affect or direct one’s entire life, some are regular occurrences, manifesting daily weakness or snottiness. All sin is a form of rebellion, be it small or great. It has been that way since the first rebel angels fell, then Adam and Eve, and down to the present day. The many millennia that have passed since the original rebellions don’t seem to have imparted the necessary wisdom to live life in a different way.

When I speak of rebellion in your case or mine (giving us both the benefit of the doubt), I do not want to compare it to the arrogant satanic rage of the primordial fallen spirits. Rather I’d like to see us as we are: “poor, banished children of Eve,” who are mostly not inclined toward colossal evils, but who are culpable nonetheless for our sinful and selfish little rebellions.

Why did Adam and Eve fall in the first place? They didn’t share the kind of rebellious violence of the angels-turned-devils. St Irenaeus says that even though they were created free from sin, they were still as children, naïve and immature, not having reached the full stature of beings made in God’s image. They were free to choose yet were not smart enough to recognize a crafty deception. But they were still culpable. They had received a command from Someone who was both authoritative and trustworthy. They chose to disobey. Even children know they are doing wrong when they deliberately disobey their parents’ clear and serious commands. So Adam and Eve joined the ranks of the rebellious and handed down that tendency from generation to generation.

Just like the primordial rebels (whether human or angelic), our sin-rebellion is ultimately—or sometimes immediately—directed against God. It’s not always as simple as choosing to disobey a clear command. We rebel because God made us a certain way (or allowed us to be formed or to form ourselves in a certain way); we rebel because of what has happened to us, or because things are the way they are and not how they ought to be, that is, how we’d like them to be if the universe were here to serve our desires. Sometimes we rebel if the toilet backs up, or if our anti-virus module fails to initialize, or if a mouse has chewed through our spark plug wires, or if the furnace breaks down on the coldest night of the year. We don’t accept these kinds of things very well because somewhere very deep down there’s a lurking assumption that we ought to be gods. Then life would not be like it is. Our limitations and our powerlessness to manipulate reality make us angry. So then comes the temptation to rebel. But all rebellion is ultimately impotent. The serpent was lying to Eve, of course; they could never be gods like God, even if their eyes were opened to the reality of good and evil. Nothing will ever really “work” if it does not proceed from the will of God.

Some have much weightier matters about which to rebel, and they attract our sympathy and indignant solidarity. But that’s just one more reason for us to rebel. Job had perhaps the most solid case on which to rest his rebellion, but in the end he met God and repented in dust and ashes. His eyes were opened, but not like Adam and Eve’s. He did recognize his own less-than-perfect righteousness, but he also recognized a new level of relationship with God. He no longer limited his understanding to that of rewards for good deeds and punishments for evil ones. He began to love and serve God because God is God, and by that very fact (if it is well-understood) all rebellion is excluded.

But in choosing to renounce the delusional autonomy that spawns rebellion, and in submitting to God’s will, we are not steamrolled by Omnipotent Otherness; we simply awaken from our self-centered childish naïvete, or, if it has gotten that far, we flee from our own monstrous pride and arrogance. We just don’t want to rebel anymore; it doesn’t even give us that tormented satisfaction of saying “no” to something we are invited to accept for our own good—just because we can say it, because it vents a little frustration.

Our founder, Fr Boniface, began the custom here many years ago, that when we begin a new liturgical season (especially Advent and Lent) we ought to make some sort of resolution about how we plan to change for the better during this time. This year at the beginning of Advent I resolved to give up my adversarial relationship with God. Does that surprise you? Probably most of us have at least an element of this in our spiritual lives—poor, banished children of Eve that we are—and if we are honest enough we’ll recognize and then admit it. You don’t have to be an atheist or a murderer or a pervert (or even a politician) to be in rebellion against God. You only have to complain, or grumble, or get frustrated and irritated about what life brings, what God allows, why He seems far away, why He doesn’t remove your nagging liabilities, defects and quirks (not to mention everyone you find a hindrance) when you could otherwise serve Him so well!

Even though our own arguments against God seem airtight, and we can’t for the life of us understand why God can’t see things as clearly as we do (in this case or that), we will have much more peace and joy if we give it up—put down our dukes, drop our defenses, give up the self-image of the mistreated victim or the indignant rebel. Let Satan be God’s only adversary; that’s what his name means. If it is possible for God to get frustrated about anything, I would guess that it would be meeting with so much wrongheaded resistance, ridiculous rationalizing, and just plain stupid stubbornness, while He is pouring out his mercy and love all over us (OK, so it’s tough-love sometimes, but the goal is always our eternal happiness).

To let God be God in our lives is a life’s work, for we are prone to rebellion. But let’s call things what they are. Our regular refusals to repent, even in little things—preferring the “I’ll do it my way” approach—are nothing but so many small rebellions, by which we gradually insulate ourselves from the influence of divine grace. In Hell they eternally recount, to anyone who will listen (but nobody does), how they were right and God was wrong, and they are quite miserably satisfied with their arguments. In Heaven we will rejoice that we admitted we were wrong and God was right, and we’ll forever be supremely satisfied with the results of our repentance.

In case you were wondering, God and I are getting along much better now!

Monday, December 11, 2006

A Forest of Angels

It’s still autumn here, though winter’s chills and rains are already beginning. But when the sun is shining, there’s still a feel of fall all around, still golden leaves against sky-blue skies, still a crispness in the air and a crunchiness underfoot that in some inarticulate way satisfy the soul.

I recently went for a little prayer-walk up the mountain, as I am wont to do on nicer days. I was kicking through the fallen leaves as I proceeded (that’s what they’re there for, by the way). Since we live in a forest and have no “yard” to speak of, and no next-door neighbors to complain, we never have to rake leaves, so their abundant layers are just pure fun.

I was reflecting upon things I’ve been reading—especially about angels and their ever-present activity and ministrations on our behalf—and about a certain spiritual vision of life that seems to be impressing itself upon me more and more (and which I hope to write about in detail in the coming months). I concluded that, after all I’ve been reading and realizing and reflecting upon, this forest ought to be full of angels. But I didn’t see any angels, so I wondered if this were not merely a pleasant though vacuous fantasy.

A few minutes later, a strong wind suddenly filled the forest. I looked around, and with great wonder and joy saw thousands of oak leaves fluttering on the wings of the wind, like lively snow flurries, dancing in the air with joyful abandon. So, the forest is full of angels! I marveled to myself. Not that a leaf is an angel, but rather a metaphor for one, a way of telling us that what we can’t see nevertheless is. What we think is mere tree or dirt or stone is but a curtain for a chorus of immortal beings who can barely restrain themselves from appearing directly to us and telling of the glory of God. I turned round in wonder, looking in all directions as leaves lighted on my head or at my feet or on the nearest madrone or fir. Yea, He has commanded his angels to keep us in all our ways, lest we dash our foot against a stone. And does He not, as the psalmist testifies, “make the winds [his] messengers”? (Recall that in Greek the term angelos means “messenger.”) Ah, so the winds are his angels, and they wear oak leaves on their wings!

As I was walking back down the mountain, behold, one of our guests on retreat was walking up. I noticed that she had stopped and was gazing into the woods. I wondered if she was thinking what I was thinking. As I drew closer, she turned to me and said, “The leaves, they are like snowflakes!” And I immediately exclaimed, without thinking at all: “They are angels!” She looked at me just a bit quizzically, and so I said, “Well, that’s the way I look at it.” She agreed that it was a good way to look at it.

There are no two angels alike, just like there are no two snowflakes alike—and there are probably no two oak leaves alike, either! St Thomas Aquinas even says that each individual angel is its own species, testifying to the infinite creativity of God.

It’s time we all started opening our eyes just a bit wider, peering just a bit more deeply into the mystery of life, praying that the veil be lifted just a little more—so we can become aware of forests of angels and of every way that our Creator and God is “everywhere present and filling all things.” He hides, not so that we won’t find Him, but so that we will—and thus rejoice in the discovery much more than if it were always physically manifest before our eyes.

“Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.” The forest is waiting. Let’s go for a walk, shall we?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Grateful Samaritan

“It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praise to your name, O Most High…” Thus the psalmist lays down a basic truth which ought to be manifest in the lives of believers in God. We can see in the Gospel for this Sunday on the Byzantine calendar (Luke 17:12-19) that giving thanks to the Lord is something that Jesus both expects and blesses, and that ingratitude earns only reproach. The healed leper returned to the Lord in gratitude after he realized that he had been healed, and the text of the Gospel states that he loudly gave praise to God. No perfunctory “thank you,” that!

We might wonder why, during Advent, we have a Gospel reading emphasizing thanksgiving when this is a time of waiting for fulfillment, of expectation for something that is coming but not yet given or manifest. Well, it is customary in the Eastern Churches not only to anticipate feasts by beginning to celebrate them ahead of time, but also to give thanks for that which we hope to receive, even if we are not yet in full possession of it. For example, in the priest’s prayer before the “Holy, holy, holy,” he says: “You raised us up again when we had fallen, and left nothing undone until You brought us to heaven and bestowed upon us your future kingdom. For all this we give thanks to You…” Our whole life is a kind of Advent, a waiting and expectation for the definitive coming and manifestation of the Kingdom of God, but here we are already thanking the Lord for bringing us to Heaven, to his “future Kingdom”!

But let us return to the Gospel and see if we can understand its message more fully. Jesus entered a village somewhere between Samaria and Galilee and there He encountered ten lepers. They had to shout to get his attention, because they “stood at a distance.” Why? Well, they had to, both because they had a contagious disease and because they were ritually unclean as a result of it. The latter seemed the more serious issue in the eyes of the people. We almost never hear in the accounts of such healings (if we are using an accurate translation) that a leper was healed or cured. They are “cleansed” or “made clean.” The removal of the physical disease is more or less a happy by-product of the removal of the ritual impurity.

What did the lepers shout to Jesus? “Master, have mercy on us!” They had evidently recognized that He was a wonder-worker and could deliver them, and perhaps they had also heard that He said He was Lord of the Sabbath, meaning He also had power to make clean what was legally considered unclean. But there’s something else in their plea that seems to go deeper than their need for healing and cleansing. They didn’t say, “heal us” or “make us clean,” but rather “have mercy on us.” Thus they situate themselves, at least in the eyes of the evangelist, and in ours as well, in a place of more fundamental need. What they need most of all is mercy and compassion, and if it takes the form of healing and cleansing, all the better. But here they stand for the whole of humanity, exiles from paradise (as lepers are exiles from the community of the chosen, the clean), standing in their helpless need, calling out to the only One who can restore them to the life of the elect, who can re-integrate them into God’s chosen and beloved people. Before all our other physical, emotional, or other needs, we essentially stand before the Master in our profound need for mercy. Having received that, we are confident that all else will be given. Our uncleanness is that of sin, and through repentance and absolution—which is the mercy of Jesus—we are restored to the community of communicants.

One of the lepers was a Samaritan. Jews usually have nothing to do with Samaritans, considering them half-breeds and heretics. But it is interesting to note that a shared affliction brought them together and broke down enmities that the healthy and self-righteous could afford to maintain. They lived together as their own community of outcasts, bonded by a common suffering.

Jesus simply said to the lepers: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” To us that may seem an incomprehensible command, but since they knew the law, they knew that, having been defiled by leprosy, they would not be considered ritually clean unless the priests formally declared them so. So this command must have filled them with hope and expectation. And indeed, on their way to the priests their leprosy disappeared. Nine of the ten kept going, eager to receive their long-desired ritual purity. But one of them, realizing what Jesus had done for him, decided that his Savior was more important than the priests, that the fact of his cleansing (instant and miraculous) was much more worthy of acknowledgement than the priests’ legal declaration of it. It may have been that the Jewish priests would have had nothing to do with the Samaritan anyway. So he returned, loudly praising God and giving thanks to Jesus.

Again, Jesus’ response is perhaps not what we would expect. “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus had said several times during his ministry that his mission was only to the house of Israel, but Luke delights in emphasizing all the cases in which Samaritans, gentiles, or other despised people receive special attention and compassion from Jesus—for in fact his mission (as carried out by the Holy Spirit through the Apostles) was to all nations, and especially to those most in need of his mercy.

We might wonder if the other nine, having discovered they were cleansed and could now take their place among the “righteous,” the “pure,” were suddenly rather glad to be rid of the Samaritan from their company—their newfound health and religious status breaking the bond of their former brotherly relation with one whom they identified with on the level of suffering. Perhaps it is the same for many people today: when we’re down and out, we’ll accept help and companionship from anyone, but as soon as all things are going well for us, we become quite self-righteously discriminating and no longer appreciate the company of those who were willing to share our afflictions, especially if they are of no further use to us or even a social embarrassment, and we’re happy to see them move on.

Finally, let us look at Jesus’ final word to the clean Samaritan, which can be interpreted two ways: “Your faith has healed you,” or “Your faith has saved you.” (The Greek word for “heal” and “save” is the same.) I would venture to say that both meanings apply to the Samaritan, but perhaps only the first to the other nine. They may have had faith to be healed, since they called on the name of the Lord and were in fact healed. But was their faith unto salvation? Jesus reproached them for their ingratitude, making it clear that He expected them, for their own good, to return and give thanks. The Samaritan, on the other hand, recognized that he was not only in the presence of a wonder-worker, and he made it clear that healing was not his sole interest. He discovered in Christ the presence of the living God and so was not content merely to be healed, but needed to go back to Him, to prostrate before Him in gratitude, and thus enter into a relationship unto salvation. So, the faith of the nine made them well, but the faith of the grateful Samaritan both healed and saved him.

Let us likewise come to Jesus—not just to meet our pressing needs, but to discover his compassion and love, and to respond with adoration and thanksgiving. We are on our way to Bethlehem—for what? To pick up a few gifts at the manger? Or is it rather to fall down and worship Him who has come to deliver us, to purify us, to restore us to life in the communion of saints? Let us go to Him, first in our fundamental need for mercy, and then let us follow Him, giving thanks, for He will provide all else besides. It is not only good to give thanks to the Lord—it’s quite necessary for our salvation!