Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Holy Myrrh-Bearers

On the second Sunday after Easter, the Byzantine Churches continue to celebrate the mystery of the Resurrection, this time focusing on the holy myrrh-bearers. We usually speak of the “myrrh-bearing women,” but the Gospel for the day begins with the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea, and we know from the Gospel of John that Nicodemus also assisted in his burial, so there are a couple “myrrh-bearing men” as well. In fact, we learn from John that Nicodemus did something the women couldn’t have done: hauled “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight” (19:39). A hundred pounds! That would have been enough to cover the body of Jesus a foot thick! Even if this measure is not quite accurate, it makes it clear that Jesus was worth the best (and the most) which human love could offer to care for Him.

This love is what compelled the women to take a great risk in going to the tomb before dawn on Sunday. It was guarded by soldiers as well as by a huge stone. They could have been arrested as suspects in attempted grave robbery, which is what the authorities feared Jesus’ disciples would do. But the women were not to be deterred. As a mother’s love for her children is fierce as that of a lioness or she-bear, the love of these women for their Lord could not be restrained. To anyone who would get in their way, they were as formidable as a bunch of babas with umbrellas or rolling-pins!

But they had nothing to fear. God had honored their faith and love in advance and had taken care of everything. He shook the very earth and sent his angel like a flash of lightning to roll away the stone and to send the guards blindly sprawling. Thus the holy women became the first to receive the glad tidings of the resurrection of Christ.

There are a few lessons we can draw from this mystery. First, let nothing deter or discourage or intimidate you in your search for Christ. Let your love for Him be such that you will persevere until you find and embrace Him, come hell or high water or soldiers or boulders. You will see how He will reward such tender love and dogged endurance. Second, don’t come empty-handed. Perhaps the women didn’t know about the hundred pounds, so they brought their own oils and spices anyway. There was so little, really, that they could do for Him at that point, and they had no idea how wholly unnecessary burial spices actually were for the Risen One. But again, God honored their intentions and efforts. We have little to offer the Lord, and what we have to offer He probably doesn’t need—but He wants us to give everything, however little it may seem in itself. So we come to Him bringing the sweet myrrh of our love for Him and our trust in Him. We may not have a hundred pounds’ weight of good works to offer, but if we bring what is most precious and intimate from the depths of our hearts, He will receive us with joy and blessing.

Finally, as one author mentioned, we ought not to neglect the earthquake. That is a symbol, not only of the radical upheaval of the netherworld, and of the utterly earth-shaking revelation of the Resurrection, but it is also a symbol of what we have to undergo as well. Our encounter with the Risen Lord must be like a spiritual earthquake; we have to be wholly shaken and re-made. To enter into the mystery of the living God is not merely to make a few minor adjustments here and there to our perspectives or behavior. It requires an earthquake of biblical proportions!

Let us not allow these Easter days to pass without inviting the Risen One to send that lightning flash of an angel to roll away the heavy stone from our souls, to cause an inner earthquake that makes our old bad habits fall away like those stunned and hamstrung cemetery sentinels. May we come to Him like the holy myrrh-bearers, offering love and receiving Love in return. And let us continue to proclaim, with our lips and our lives, that Christ is risen!

Friday, April 28, 2006

Submit and Resist

I suppose those terms seem mutually exclusive or contradictory. But we can (and must) do both at once, as long as our submission and resistance point in different directions.

St James gives us the submission/resistance advice in one verse of his epistle: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (4:7). I think one could say that we have to do it in that order, because the power to resist the devil can only come from the divine grace that can only come to us through our submission to God. James goes on to say: “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (v. 8). Perhaps the language of drawing near is more appealing than that of submission, but in the end it is practically the same thing. I could almost dare to say that we can make a substitution and say: “Submit yourself to God and He will submit Himself to you.” The only way this can be true, however, is that in our submission to God we embrace his will entirely. And so, as we place ourselves at his service, He places Himself at ours, as it were, for at this point we can ask only what is his will, and He will be happy to grant us whatever we ask.

But let’s get back to resistance. Both edges of this double-edged sword have to be kept sharp. That is because our submission and drawing near to God require our resistance of the devil, and vice versa. If we fail to resist the devil wholly, then we are not submitting wholly to God, and hence we may not be making our requests according to his will. Therefore we can no longer expect that He will “submit” to us, for He will not grant us anything that is not his will for us.

It is usually not prudent to take on the devil directly, since we are easily deceived and outmaneuvered. Therefore the safest and most effective way is to resist the devil by submitting to God. No need to purchase a how-to book on exorcism (not recommended anyway); just submit to God and you are by that very fact resisting the devil. If you are always drawing near to the Lord and submitting yourself to his will, you won’t have time to pay attention to the devil, anyway! Even though we must be aware of his existence and his tactics to derail our efforts toward holiness, the best way to take the wind out of the diabolical sails is to ignore him and give all your attention to God and the accomplishment of his will.

St Peter gives us the same submission/resistance counsel, in a slightly different form: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you… Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith…” (1Peter 5:6-9).

So this is a common and timeless message for the Church: submit to God and resist the devil. Unfortunately in today’s Church we don’t see a whole lot of either. It’s the modern tendency to create a god for oneself that doesn’t require submission, but who is prodigally permissive about one's own desires, and who looks the other way whenever one sins. On the other hand, I just read about an ex-Jesuit who has decided that the devil doesn’t deserve all the bad press he’s received for the past few millennia and has appointed himself to the task of rehabilitating him. Wait, the man must have gotten a faulty text of Scripture! St James said resist the devil, not rehabilitate him!

Make this your motto then: Submit and Resist. You’ll raise a few eyebrows and may even attract a few strange people. But that will give you a chance to preach the Gospel to the curious. In the meantime you will be drawing near to God and drawing away from the devil; and best of all, God will be drawing near to you.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


St James told us yesterday that the testing of our faith produces steadfastness. But just what is steadfastness? I rather like the term myself, for it refers to one of the more solid and noble of the biblical virtues.

The virtue belongs primarily to God, however. God is the one whose “steadfast love” is our hope for restoration and salvation. “I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love and mercy. I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:19-20). This “steadfast love” of God translates the notoriously difficult, but extremely important, Hebrew word, hesed. Practically all of the terms in the above passage can and have been used to try to translate this word. It refers to God’s relationship to his people which flows from the covenant He established with them. Therefore it has been translated “steadfast love,” “loving kindness,” “faithful love,” “mercy,” etc. The “steadfast” element in this relationship denotes God’s fidelity, loyalty, reliability, strength, and unfailing saving presence.

The dictionary defines “steadfast” as follows: 1 a: firmly fixed in place: immovable b: not subject to change 2 : firm in belief, determination, or adherence: loyal. It is clear how God is thus our rock and firm support and place of refuge, where we can be sure to find divine fidelity and unshakable strength and goodness.

But we are called to be steadfast as well, and St James tells us that that it is the testing of our faith that makes us so. If we are steadfast, then we are firm in our faith—if we have passed the test!—and are determined to love and serve the Lord, immovable in our adherence and loyalty to Him. This is really a priceless virtue, especially in these times when commitment is devalued, when loyalty seems a quality of former ages, when unshakable fidelity is deemed impossible, and when firmness in faith is considered rigid and intolerant. Fr Bernard O’Connor recently wrote that in this day and age, “So-called tolerance may well be the preferred filler for the vacuum created by an abdication of courage and conviction.”

St Paul says that we will be found holy and irreproachable before the Lord only if “you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard…” (Col. 1:23). And again: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, with watchfulness and thanksgiving…” (4:2). Steadfastness is a virtue sorely lacking in the world today, for it is much more popular to blow with the winds of change, to shrink from the demands of fidelity to the truth, and to practice a phony brand of “compassion” which is little more than sloppy sentimentality or a weak indifference to that which true love and mercy require.

So let us be steadfast in our faith, courageous in the practice thereof, immovable in our adherence to the truth, and loyal to Him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. If our faith has to be tried by fire to produce this steadfastness, so be it. Better to be painfully trained in the ways of righteousness than to be merrily carried along in the polluted currents of passing fads, dubious trends, and the misguided (or even positively evil) agendas whose outcome—it will be discovered all too late—is human degradation and ultimately damnation. Steadfastly adhere, then, to the steadfast love and mercy of the true God!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Count It All Joy

Here is one of the more difficult, and hence probably more helpful, passages of Scripture that I regularly come across: “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials…” (James 1:2). That’s the very first thing he says after saying: Hi there, it’s me, James. He doesn’t beat around the bush or mince words or go in for flowery introductions.

So what are we to make of this? Are you all smiles when disasters crash down on you, or even when nothing more than the day’s accumulated annoyances start weighing upon you? Let us look carefully at what he says—and what he doesn’t. He doesn’t say that we should feel happy or experience joy in trials—he says we should count it joy when they happen, that is, to reckon or asses them as something beneficial and hence productive (eventually, anyway) of joy. Why are they beneficial? He says immediately: “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” And the goal and full effect of steadfastness is this: “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing”—especially in wisdom, as he goes on to say. I suppose if something led to my completion, perfection, and to lacking in nothing, I ought count it as joy!

To come full circle, the irksome things we’re supposed to count as joy, and which produce steadfastness, end up leading not only to completeness but also happiness or blessedness. That is, the unpleasant things we are to count as joy lead ultimately to genuine joy: “Behold, we call those happy [or blessed, from the Gk. makarios] those who were steadfast.” This is all part of “the purpose of the Lord,” who “is compassionate and merciful” (5:11).

Now let me get this straight: The Lord, because He is compassionate and merciful, has made it part of his purpose to allow us to be afflicted with trials—which we are to count as all joy—so that this testing of faith can produce steadfastness unto perfection and blessed happiness. Well, that just seems to be another way of explaining the doctrine of the cross that we are supposed to bear daily in our following of Jesus unto the fullness of life.

St Peter gives us a bit of a different slant on this mystery, looking rather further ahead than does St James. James focuses on the effects in this life of our bearing trials joyfully (or at least reckoning them as means to blessedness): steadfastness, maturity, happiness. But Peter looks straight toward heaven. In his first epistle (he likes somewhat richer introductions), he describes the imperishable and glorious heavenly inheritance being kept for us until the appointed time, and then he says: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials…” (1:3-7).

There’s no contradiction here. Neither James nor Peter asks us to find happiness in suffering as such, but both point us to the reward of patient and even joyful endurance: James points to our personal transformation and maturing by our efforts and God’s grace, and Peter points to the ultimate goal: the “outcome of your faith…the salvation of your souls” (1:9).

Count it all joy, then, when you have to endure trials, for the test produces steadfastness unto perfection, and fire-tried faith unto salvation. Hey, it could be worse. Unbelievers have nothing but the raw absurdity of chance happenings that produce suffering to no good end. So they either rage against the impersonal universe, or they just keep a stiff upper lip (and all that) while living lives of quiet desperation, or they eat and drink and fornicate today, for tomorrow they die. But none of that is for us. We get to count our trials as joy!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

He Opened the Scriptures to Them

There’s something (among other things) that Jesus did for his disciples after his resurrection that He didn’t do before it: He “opened” the Scriptures to them, that is, He gave them clear understanding of their meaning, especially in relation to Himself. This may have happened when He breathed on them and gave them the Holy Spirit, though we hear of this “breathing” and this “opening” in two different Gospels, and in two different ways.

In any case, we see, whether it was concerning Jesus’ spoken words or the Old Testament Scriptures themselves, that the disciples were rather clueless before the resurrection. “They did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, that they should not perceive it” (Luke 9:45). “When he was raised from the dead, the disciples remembered that he had said this” (John 2:22). “His disciples did not understand this at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered” (John 12:16). “As yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9).

Luke tells us clearly of the opening of the Scriptures to the disciples after the resurrection. As He walked along the road to Emmaus with two disciples (who still did not perceive who He was and hence did not yet understand the meaning of the Scriptures), “he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (24:27). When the disciples finally recognized Him in the breaking of the bread, they exclaimed: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (24:32). So this opening of the Scriptures brings not merely an intellectual understanding, but also enkindles a fire in one’s heart, a fire of love and joy and zeal to bring the Gospel to others.

Then when Jesus appeared to the other apostles gathered in the upper room, He spoke of the fulfillment of the law and prophets and psalms in Himself. “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (24:45). I have always found this a fascinating passage. What must it have been like for the disciples suddenly to see, to understand, to be overwhelmed by the loving wisdom of the great plan of God for our salvation, perfectly fulfilled in the glorified Savior standing at that moment in their midst? Suddenly it all made sense, all the pieces fit together, they discovered the promise and the fulfillment, and were about to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that they could take this revelation to the world, so that all hearts would burn with divine love and light as the Scriptures were opened to them.

I often pray that the Lord will open the Scriptures to me, that I may enter the mysteries contained therein—not only to know, but to live them, to be immersed in them, to walk in the same Spirit the disciples did after Jesus opened their minds and hearts. We all ought to pray that He open the Scriptures to us, for we have barely begun truly to understand and live them. May our hearts burn with the revelation of his truth and love!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Seaside Musings

On our little “bright week” outing I escaped for the better part of one day to the coast, to sit at the seaside and drink in the wonders of God’s creation, in a silent solitude that was nevertheless rich with angels. I think that the ocean is one of God’s most marvelous achievements on our unique planet.

A flat rock just slightly above the incoming tide was my vantage point. The sky was clear, eternal, and the water green-blue—rough waves looming large, just as I like them—and the air was slightly cool and very fresh, full of salt and joy. The sound of the surf, rhythmic in its advancing and receding, filled not only my ears but my very flesh and bones, till I resonated like a crystal wineglass to a tone it recognizes as its own.

I watched the waves with delight, as they rolled and rollicked, slipped and somersaulted over themselves in their reckless haste to reach the shore, finally stretching foamy fingers across the dark sand—sometimes depositing cargoes of strange flora that would soon dry in the midday sun and become labyrinthine playgrounds for myriad sand-flies.

Reflecting on the waves, at once ferocious and soothing, I thought that in this they were an image of our Ferocious and Soothing God—ferocious in his uncontainable ardor and passionate pursuit of our perfection (and oh, what this often costs us!), but soothing in his gentle and healing compassion that washes clean the sullied shoreline of our souls.

As the magnificent sun of springtime advanced across the sky, he liberally scattered sparkles across the incoming waves, and they rode the curls to shore with joyful abandon (and I thought I heard them crying out, mysteriously: “He is risen!”). The living, shimmering lights immediately hastened to attach themselves anew to fresh formations of the ceaseless surges of the deep. “Wave after wave, crest after crest,” wrote the psalmist. So the restless sea rises and falls with its irrepressible energy of worship, giving its blue and white glory to God, inviting all observers to join the chorus of praise.

“Let there be life!” cried the Lord God as He created the ocean, and soon it was pullulating with every kind of fantastic form of life. Just in my little corner of the sea there are barnacles, mussels, and sand-dollars, crabs, starfish, and seals, several varieties of wailing sea-birds, and a curious array of shiny, rubbery ocean plants that could have been conceived only by the Divine Imagination.

Time passed unnoticed, as I gazed out upon what appeared to be a living, blue eternity, stretching to untold reaches and endless ages—yet held in that same divine hand that set the stars in their places and is greater still than the majesty of his works.

Soon my little rock was becoming gradually engulfed by the advancing embrace of the inexorable sea. I thought that perhaps it was my turn to recede, lest the creamy brine begin to give me love-taps on the face in its playful mischief. So I reluctantly made my way back to artificial things like automobiles which had to carry me home—when I would have much preferred to be transported on the wings of the wind. I was refreshed but not satiated; it’s always good to leave the table just a little hungry, for then it is easier to hear the call to return, and to drink a bit more profoundly the next time.

For deeper than the ocean is the treasury of God’s grace and glory, and of all He has prepared for those who love Him.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

My Lord and My God

The Gospel says that eight days after the Resurrection, Thomas was with the disciples in the upper room. Therefore, eight days after Easter we celebrate that very mystery. Jesus first greets the apostles with: Peace be with you. Peace is one of the great gifts of the New Covenant. But this peace is not merely the absence of conflict or aggression—it is the fullness of spiritual well-being and confidence that comes from communion with the Lord. Before He left them, Jesus had said: My peace I give you, but not as the world gives. Peace that the world gives is transitory, superficial, ineffectual. It cannot lead to the depth of life in God. It is only the Spirit of God that can communicate this divine and true peace. So after Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” He breathed on them with the very breath of God, saying: Receive the Holy Spirit. The psalmist says that by the breath of his mouth God created the stars; here the Son of God re-creates his disciples, transfigures their inner lives by the same divine breath, divine Spirit.

Unfortunately, Thomas was not there at this first appearance of the risen Lord. When he finally showed up, I’m sure he deeply regretted going wherever he had gone. He was greeted with a great chorus of all the other apostles: “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas probably didn’t totally disbelieve their testimony, but there may have been a sour grape or two in his heart, or maybe he was so crestfallen that he tried desperately to force the Lord’s hand, as it were, to appear again so that he too could see Christ, for this was his heart’s desire. So he made his famous statement that has ever since then earned him the moniker, The Doubting Thomas: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” I can imagine it being said with tears, not with defiance, with a longing to see what all the others had seen. It is painful and humiliating to be the only one out of the loop, the only one apparently judged unworthy of blessing, the only one missing out on the greatest imaginable and most desired experience.

Out of his love and compassion, and his desire to communicate an important lesson, Jesus appeared once again when Thomas was with the others. He again blessed them with peace, and then turned immediately to Thomas saying: “Put your finger here, and see my hands, and put out your hand and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” The doubting Thomas became the believing Thomas, and to make up for his former lack of faith, he bequeathed the Church with the clearest expression of Christ’s divinity we can find in the Gospel: “My Lord and my God!”

Why did he say that—because Christ was risen from the dead? Or was it because Jesus heard Thomas’ expression of doubt when He wasn’t even there in the flesh? Only God could do that. Before Thomas could say anything, Jesus gave his own words back to him. It’s something like Nathanael under the fig tree—when he realized that Jesus told him something only he and God could have known, he cried out: “You are the Son of God!” Then Jesus said something crucial to our faith, and to that of all generations: “You believed because you have seen Me. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” These are words of which we have to remind ourselves every day. That’s because we don’t see, but are called to believe, and in that believing lies the blessing of God. Blessed are you who hear the Gospel and believe, who come to church to worship what you cannot see, and yet believe, who walk in apparent darkness, devoid of tangible experience, and yet believe, who see what seem to be contrary evidences, and yet believe. Blessed are you! exclaims the risen Lord.

We can see in the contrast of chapters 20 and 21 of this Gospel that Thomas was at the beginning of his relationship with Christ, and that Peter was more advanced. For Christ’s words to Thomas were a call to faith, but his words to Peter were a call to love. “Do not be faithless but believing,” Jesus said to Thomas. “Do you love Me?” He asked Peter. Evidently St Peter remembered all this, for in his first epistle, he writes not only that we are to believe without seeing but also to love without seeing: “Though you do not see Him, believe in Him and rejoice” and again: “without having seen Him, love Him.” I think it is easier to believe in someone you’ve never seen than to love someone you’ve never seen, for it requires a deeper opening of the heart, a fuller commitment of life. Someone can say, “I believe in God,” and not do much about it, but no one can say “I love God”—that is, in all sincerity and truth—and not manifest it in the way he lives, and in his entire world-view. A hypocrite may say he loves God, in pious affectation, but only by its fruits will true love be known.

So let us be willing to advance to the fullness of life in God and realize the blessing promised to those who believe without seeing, and then believe wholeheartedly. Let us open our hearts to Jesus’ peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of divine grace and love, who alone can lead us to that next and all-important level of our spiritual growth: not only to believe without seeing, but to love without seeing. Then we will know the full blessedness of the life of a disciple and friend of our risen Lord Jesus Christ, who is in our midst today saying: Blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe, who do not see, and yet love.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Christ is Risen!

I’d like to go back in time—either 2000 years or a week, whichever you prefer—either to the raising of Lazarus or the liturgical celebration of it last week. At that point Martha was trying to go forward in time, to the final resurrection, when speaking with Jesus about her dead brother.

“I know he will rise,” she said, “in the resurrection on the last day.” What Jesus said next just blew her away: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Don’t just dream of a distant Paradise. Where Christ is, there is the presence and power of resurrection. He is saying that to us today as well, for that is what we are celebrating. He proved that He is the Resurrection, not only by raising others to life but by raising Himself to the life of glory that will never die. And He asks us to believe and to follow. He told Martha: “whoever believes in Me, though He die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” Immediately one might object: but even believers obviously die. But He didn’t actually say they shall never die. It’s just a bad translation. The Greek literally says, “will not die forever.” We will not die what Scripture calls the “second death,” the eternal separation from God, who is the source of life.

In any case, from the Christian perspective, death is not the thing to fear; sin is. For death is the means by which we enter into a permanent and complete union with the living God. Sin prevents that union, and if one dies without repenting of one’s sins, then sin turns death into everlasting exclusion from happiness and divine communion. But when our sins are forgiven, we accept with peace and trust the passage from this life to the next. It will be like Adam when he first opened his eyes in Paradise.

Christ is the resurrection and the life. The resurrection in all its fullness and glory will only be manifested at the end, but the life is for now. His life begins in us now. The power of his resurrection is what enables us to live this present life well—as we prepare for the life of glory and joy that awaits those who believe in Him and love Him.

The most powerful way for us to receive Christ the Life is through the Holy Eucharist. This is union with the risen Lord, viaticum for eternity. We are fed daily with life, as we prepare for the everlasting Kingdom. St Paul says that we do not lose heart, even though our outer selves are wasting away, for our inner selves are being renewed each day; we look to that which is unseen, eternal, not to the passing attractions of the present life. So we focus on the inner renewal by filling our souls with life through Holy Communion. The fathers have called it the “antidote to death,” and this has the same force of Jesus’ words: He who believes in Me will not die forever. For we have the antidote: His very life within us! As we receive the Body and Blood of the risen Christ, we are, as it were, acclimating ourselves to the life of heaven, we are putting on the wedding garment required for entry into the eternal banquet, we are marking ourselves with the Blood of the Lamb of God who takes away sin, as the Hebrews marked their dwellings with the blood of the Passover lamb—the destroying angel will not touch us, but the Son of God, who promised not to leave us orphans, will come and rescue us that we may share eternal life with Him.

Jesus has made us a pledge concerning the Eucharist: He has said not only that those who receive Him thus will abide in Him and He in them, but most importantly for our celebration today, He promised that He would raise them up on the last day. The power of resurrection is hidden within the Holy Eucharist. So Martha was right about Lazarus being raised on the last day, but she didn’t know that being raised on the last day depended upon Jesus living within us today!

In the Prologue of the Gospel of John that is read at the Divine Liturgy today, we hear that grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ. These correspond to the covenant love and fidelity by which God is characterized in the Old Testament. All of Christ’s words and promises are vindicated in his resurrection. The disciples declared it. When the two ran back from Emmaus to share their experience of the risen Lord, they were greeting with: It is true! He is risen and has appeared to Simon!

This is the message the Church has for the world today: It’s all true! Grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ, for He is risen from the dead! All his promises shall come to pass, for He left the grave alive and shall never die again! He who brings the dead to life abides in us and we in Him, and He will raise us up on the last day!

We know that Christ is risen. But, having entered into the mystery of his passion these past few days, we know that He did in fact have to experience death. And we will die. Yet He arose, and we will rise. Because He lives, we shall “not die forever” but will live with Him in the glory of his kingdom with all the angels and saints. Death does not have the last word, for Christ is risen!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

He Descended Into Hell

I want to take you on a little journey—to Hell… and back! A journey with Christ, the crucified One, to those who were anxiously waiting for the Redeemer, the Son of the living God, in the abode of the dead. Christ is also coming to those who had chosen Hell for their home, the demons and all unrepentant evildoers. The gatekeepers and rulers of Hell await the Lord in fear, for He has come to destroy their dominion. I’m really not worthy or able to take you there myself, so I’ve asked the French poet and spiritual writer, Paul Claudel, to be our guide on this descent to Hell.

“Listen to the noise of these gates being torn off their hinges, these sections of wall giving way, steel being dismantled, these huge mobs of bottled fiends, who screech and clamor like a pack of boars, laid open to their very vitals by the crack of the divine lash. Someone approaches in a roll of thunder: He is coming! He is drawing near; he is almost here—someone irresistible, inexorable, who will ride roughshod over all this swarming bestiality! The very roots of things are filled with dread. It is as if someone were shaking the tree of life with his two bare hands…

“Into this pit of corruption, this larder of corpses, this morgue, this warehouse of coffins, this garden of skulls, this valley of the shadow of death, Jesus Christ suddenly brings his presence, his unequaled power, his poignant fragrance, his sweet and austere majesty, his invincible and inexorable light, at once merciless and desired. Not long ago the door of the grave had been violated for the first time, and at the summons of that terrible voice and that awful right hand there was seen rising from the tomb a Lazarus who was half-consumed. But now it is no longer death who comes to confront God and offer to his eyes this handiwork that is not his, it is God himself in the person of his Second Power who, availing himself of this opening, descends toward death and sin, and comes to cross-examine Chaos.

“It is truly he, it is the sun we had heard about! Forward, [O Christ], divine pilgrim! There is many a swamp, many a quagmire yet to be crossed before you reach your destination, many a tenacious river where some unnamable and viscous slime darkly flows. …At the central knot of our nature, almost embedded in the rock, as deeply rooted as the stump of an oak through all the geological ages, you place your hand at last on the shoulder of the ancient Adam.

“When Jesus walked through the public square of Capernaum or when, emerging from the synagogue, he was greeted by that whole bazaar and clinic of the blind, crippled, epileptic, and leprous, which people took pains to shove under his nose, what an uproar carried to the booths and back rooms of the shops when all this humanity, still a little unsteady, but strengthened and cleansed, began to advance behind him. But now it is no longer a few dozen unfortunates, a small proportion of the vast swarming misery of an oriental town; now it is all eyes that are opened simultaneously, myriads at a time; it is untold generations that he reaches and revives, one after the other, like the sun when it appears at the eastern gates and illuminates a continent in one flash: a general stampede of humanity, the whole vast pocket of darkness that evacuates its population! The world meets and recognizes itself; the whole human family is reorganized under the eye of God…

“Presently he will appear in the flesh to the world of the flesh; but today it is in spirit that he will appear to the world of spirits, be it those demons who by their denial of God have made themselves a fitting habitation, or those untold generations of the disembodied, surrounding Adam and Eve, that root transplanted from Eden, and bound to them by the teeming fertility of the original sin. They have been waiting thousands of years from deliverance from—or confirmation of—their punishment… He descended into hell, to those dwelling below.

“Jesus came to bring deliverance to the multitudes below who awaited him ‘in the shadow of death.’ Let us clearly understand the meaning of this phrase. There is death, that second death spoken of in the Apocalypse, which is hell proper; and there is the shadow of death, that is, not death itself, but the shadow it casts, the effect produced by its proximity, that interception of the light, that paralysis resulting from a loss of direction, that accumulated sense of our own weight. We read in the Book of Acts that the shadow of Peter was sufficient to bring about healing and life; so the shadow of satan, the dark area described by his intervention, is sufficient to spread around him paralysis and cold.

“[But] the Father does not abandon his child at the bottom of the well; the shepherd will contrive to recover the sheep who has fallen into the mouth of the cistern. ‘I will descend,’ says Jacob the patriarch, ‘to my son in the nether-world.’ …Scripture shows the divine mercy to be eternally vigilant for any opportunity to outwit its justice.

“For these refugees from hell on Easter morning, it is the whole landscape of eternity that each new arrival must learn to survey for himself… As for us, we will remain bound to Jesus Christ, as intimately associated as possible with that group of patriarchs and prophets who prepared his way and can now no longer be separated from him.

“Let us lie still with our eyes closed a moment before dawn breaks on the day of the Resurrection. It is yet night, but already someone is stirring in two or three houses in Jerusalem. Lamps are being lit, and women are hurriedly dressing and combing their hair. The Sabbath is over… It is no longer Passover; it is Easter! Look, listen: in the Hebraic stillness there takes place, at the joining of three roads, a meeting of veiled women who exchange questions in hushed voices. ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?’ Who will take it away? The very fragrance they bear provides the answer. It is this irresistible quality of hope in their hearts, this emanation of mysterious ingredients prepared in the bosom of the night by the very hands of the dawn. Stored up for centuries, slowly expanding, this sacred chemistry that just now rose from sleep advances to triumph over death. As for the remaining events of that wondrous morning…they reverberate to this day in every church in Christendom.

“‘O death! Where is your sting?’ The grave is empty. ‘O truly blessed night, you alone were worthy to know the hour and the moment when Christ was risen from hell!’ Death is vanished; the grave, deserted; time now exists only to flow into eternity: Is this not an event that resounds to the very ends of the earth, shaking all foundations and robbing humanity of all possibility of yielding to the ancient despair? It is done; I promise you that all that is at an end! Ah, I swear that the day is come!”

Amen! Alleluia!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Mystical Supper

(Note: There will be no post tomorrow, for I am observing Good Friday as a computer-free day, and perhaps you should too. There is plenty here for your meditation.)

For this meditation I draw heavily on Pope Benedict XVI’s reflectio
n on the Eucharist as the “Sacrament of Transformations.” At the Last Supper (and at every Divine Liturgy and Mass) bread is transformed into Christ’s body, wine into his blood. God nourishes us with this transformed Bread and Wine in a way that transcends earthly life, which prepares the Resurrection and even initiates it. The Lord could have turned stones into bread to satisfy his physical hunger, but He turned bread into his body to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the whole world.

To transform the bread into his body, there is more to say than “this is my body”; He has also to say, “which is broken, given up for you.” The same with the wine: not only “this is my blood,” but also “which is poured out for you.” Thus the transformation of bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood is inseparable from his sacrificial death, which itself is a transformation.

What happens to Him during his passion is a series of acts of violence and hatred which result in his suffering and death. But Christ transforms, from within, men’s acts of violence against Him into an act of self-giving, an act of love. He does not counter violence with violence but puts an end to violence by transforming it into love; violence is conquered by love. By Christ’s loving acceptance of the Father’s will, forgiving those who killed Him, Jesus showed that love is stronger than death. This is soon manifested when death is transformed into resurrection.

At the Last Supper Jesus anticipates and interiorly accomplishes the essence of the Calvary event. He accepts suffering and death, and by this acceptance transforms it into self-giving love. For the inner core of his sacrifice is his “yes” to the Father; its external manifestation we see on the Cross. The mystery of the Cross is accepted and interiorly transformed at the table with his disciples.

Because the essence of his bloody sacrifice is a transformation—transforming evil into good, the murder of the Son of God into the redemption of mankind—and because the essence of this sacrifice is interiorly accomplished at the Last Supper—every transformation that is necessarily related this is also mystically present at the last supper: mortal body into glorified body, with the power that makes possible the transformation of bread into body given, wine into blood poured out. So when Jesus says of bread, “this is my body,” and of wine, “this is my blood,” He makes of them an external manifestation of the interior essence of his redeeming sacrifice.

What is happening, then, at every altar where the Holy Mysteries are offered? Christ is present through those He commanded to do what He did, in memory of Him. Not just anyone can do this, but only those whom He has chosen as instruments of that same transforming power. The essence of the same sacrifice that Christ interiorly accepted and accomplished at the Last Supper, and then finally accomplished in a bloody manner on Calvary—the essence of that same sacrifice is manifested here; his act of self-giving is perpetuated till the end of time. He doesn’t just give Himself to us once. Of course, He doesn’t have to suffer the bloody immolation of the Cross repeatedly, as Hebrews says, for that dimension of his sacrifice happened at a certain time and place and was once for all.

But the essence of his sacrifice, the redeeming power of his total self-offering, is perpetual; it stands before the face of the Father forever, and hence is always fruitful, always available, and that is what we ritually and mystically make present on our altars. He never ceases to love us, to give Himself to us, so the transforming power of his sacrifice is available to us as it was to the first apostles, when Jesus said: take, eat, this is my body, drink, this is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins.

So when the priests say his words, this is my body broken, this is my blood poured out, and when the Holy Spirit is invoked upon the gifts, Jesus is giving Himself to us, here and now, with the very same power of transforming love by which He reconciled the world to his Father from the Cross. That power is so great that it transforms the bread and wine we offer into the body and blood He offered on the Cross. Everything is transformed in the gift of Himself for our salvation. What Jesus gives is Himself; He cannot do otherwise. It is of the very essence of the Trinity that each divine Person exists in the gift of himself to the others, and in receiving the self-gift of the others. So when Jesus wants to give Himself to us and says, eat and drink—the bread and wine are transformed because He is giving Himself; the bread and wine become Himself in the very act of His giving them to us. We offer them to Him in the liturgy as humble gifts; He returns them to us as Himself, because at his command we have lifted them up into the sphere of his transforming sacrifice, the love that is stronger than sin and death, the power of his Cross and Resurrection. The inner divine energy of that sacrifice changes bread and wine into his body and blood, takes away the sin of the world, and will raise us up on the last day.

All this shows that the consecration of the Eucharist is not a kind of magic act, a display of sheer divine power to work a miracle simply because He can. The Eucharist is not a thing that is invested with a certain power to achieve a specific effect, like a drug that you take which infallibly produces some effect through chemical reactions. That is why some people benefit from Holy Communion and some don’t. It is Someone who is giving Himself to us, and we have to be open to receive Him. We have a part to play; it depends to a great extent on us whether or not the Eucharist will bear the fruit of sanctity within us. Why aren’t we any better after having received the Eucharist thousands of times? Maybe we’re not aware that we are being drawn into a momentous encounter with the living God, who wants us to be caught up in the great heavenward movement of worship and thanksgiving, who wants us to enter the divine mystery of his everlasting love. Like the wise virgins we have to go out with joy to meet the Bridegroom, for He comes! He is here! We have to have faith and love and a commitment to do His will. Only then will the next transformation take place. We are transformed by Holy Communion. When we receive the Holy Eucharist, we are meeting Christ in the act of his self-giving, we are sharing in the mystery of the love that neutralizes the power of evil, that makes all things new. If we come as repentant sinners He sanctifies us—his divine grace meets our weakness and suffering and He transforms it, gives it meaning, invests it with the power to transform the lives of others, to conquer their evil with love, for we are now members of the Body of Christ, called to love as Jesus loves.

So let us be more aware of the incredible gift God has given us. Let us never take the Holy Eucharist for granted. It is Jesus Himself giving Himself, that the fruit of his Cross and Resurrection be borne in us: reconciliation with the Father, the forgiveness of sins, the sanctification of our souls and bodies—unto life everlasting.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Tenderness and Betrayal

The liturgical texts for Great and Holy Wednesday offer an interesting contrast. The tender love and repentance of the sinful woman is juxtaposed to the avarice and hard-heartedness of Judas. There seems to be a little confusion here about the identity of the woman, for it seems to identify her with Mary of Bethany or the woman who anointed Jesus at Simon the Leper’s house. But that shouldn’t get in the way of our meditation on the mystery. I will share a few of those texts here.

“O Son of the Virgin, the harlot knew You to be God and she prayed to You lamenting, for she had committed many sins worthy of tears. ‘Loose me from my debt,’ she cried, ‘as I unloose my hair. Show love to her who loves You, though rightly she deserves your hatred, and with the publicans I shall proclaim You, O Benefactor who love mankind.’

“While the sinful woman brought oil of myrrh, the disciple came to an agreement with the transgressors. She rejoiced to pour out what was very precious, he made haste to sell the One who is above all price. She acknowledged Christ as Lord, he severed himself from the Master. She was set free, but Judas became the slave of the enemy. Grievous was his lack of love! Great was her repentance! Grant such repentance also unto me, O Savior who have suffered for our sake, and save us.

“O misery of Judas! He saw the harlot kiss your feet, and deceitfully he plotted to betray You with a kiss. She loosed her hair and he was bound a prisoner by fury, bearing in place of myrrh the stench of evil: for envy knows not how to choose its own advantage. O misery of Judas! From this deliver our souls, O God.

“The harlot spread out her hair before You, O Master, while Judas stretched out his hands to the transgressors: she, to receive forgiveness, and he, to receive money. Therefore we cry aloud to You who were sold and have set us free: O Lord, glory be to You!

“The harlot drew near You, O You who love mankind, and poured out on your feet the oil of myrrh with her tears; and at your command she was delivered from the foul smell of her evil deeds. But the ungrateful disciple, though he breathed your grace, rejected it and defiled himself in filth, selling You from love of money. Glory be to your compassion, O Christ.

“Today Judas makes a covenant with the chief priests and receives the noose as pledge. Against his will, Caiaphas confesses that one man shall undergo a voluntary passion for the sake of all. O Christ, our God and Deliverer, glory to You!”

The emphasis on Judas seems to be meant as an examination of conscience for us, who may be avaricious, self-centered, ungrateful or spiritually blind. The woman is offered as a model to emulate, for the liturgy never tires of proposing repentance and love as the way to salvation. Now that we are in the midst of Holy Week, we ought to bring all our energies to the celebration of these mysteries of our salvation. We can’t afford to let these days go by in distraction and fruitlessness. All that has to do with Jesus is coming to a climax in our liturgical celebrations and in the prayer of our hearts. Rise! The time is coming for us to accompany Him to his Passion.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Bridegroom Comes

“Behold! The Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching; and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and the door of the Kingdom be closed on you. Watch instead, and cry out: Holy, holy, holy are You, O God! Through the prayers of the Mother of God, have mercy on us!”

Thus begins Matins of Great and Holy Monday (through Wednesday). It is a call to vigilance, for the great and awesome mysteries of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection are about to unfold, and we can’t afford to be caught napping or unprepared when the Lord comes into our midst to renew the grace of these saving events.

There is a beautiful icon of Christ, robed in the scarlet cloak, crowned with thorns, hands bound. There is a sense of sadness about it, but also of inner strength and courage, and especially of his tender love for mankind through which He allowed Himself to be subject to humiliation and torture. The name of this icon? The Bridegroom. This manifests a deep sensitivity in Byzantine spirituality. The Lord is not primarily a warrior but a lover. Yet He comes as the Crucified, the Man of Sorrows. For his bride has been grievously unfaithful, yet rather than punishing her He sacrifices Himself for her.

Instead of a wedding garment, the Bridegroom is clothed in a cloak of mockery. Instead of being free to embrace his beloved, his hands are bound. In the Byzantine tradition, the bride and groom are crowned during the marriage rite, symbolic of the dignity of marriage and of the heavenly crowns for which they are to strive together. But behold, instead of a golden or flowery crown, the Bridegroom wears a crown of thorns. This is how He comes to his wedding day, how he approaches the altar of the Cross.

“Behold your King!” cried Pilate, but no one understood the meaning of Jesus’ rude and thorny crown; no one recognized royalty in the crimson streams flowing down his sacred face. Perhaps the Bridegroom heard the echoes of angels, singing in what must have seemed a very distant Paradise at that moment: “Alleluia! The Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come…” (Rev. 19:6-7). While such hymns bespeak a future and ultimate consummation, there is still a note of glory in the Lamb’s noble march to the slaughter—the Lamb, whose sacrificed flesh and blood are our holy supper until all is fulfilled in the Kingdom. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (19:9). But as the Bridegroom walks toward his self-oblation, the angels come to earth to surround Him with silent adoration.

The days of this week are the most sacred of the whole year, and we too must worship Him in reverence and awe. Though there are many preparations to be made, they must be given only their secondary importance. This week we are to meet the Bridegroom, in his agony and in his glory. That is the primary preparation. Have oil in your lamps, stay awake, for the Bridegroom comes. We need to be aware of the price He paid to redeem us for Himself, and we must respond to Love with love and gratitude. We may shrink from sharing his crown of pain, but it is the only way to receive the crown of glory and everlasting joy. Come, the Bridegroom awaits you.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Palms of Victory

This weekend, beginning with the raising of Lazarus, begins the holy and divine drama of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. The Lord manifested his power over death by raising Lazarus, and soon He will show that he has power to rise from the dead Himself. And in his resurrected body, glorified and indestructible, He opens our path to Paradise, offering us also resurrection and eternal life.

The entrance into Jerusalem is an event of universal significance. It is as if all creation is joining in the glorification of the Son of God as He proceeds toward his awesome sacrifice. In Luke’s version, when the Pharisees try to tone down everyone’s praises, Jesus said: “If these would be silent, the very stones would cry out.” For it is God Himself in the flesh who is coming to transfigure the entire cosmos by the power of his death and resurrection.

In the Gospel of John this event is prepared by Mary’s anointing of Jesus, a symbol of her love and reverence, which Jesus accepted as a preparation for his death and burial. Judas objected, however, feigning interest for the poor, while the evangelist explains that he was a thief and was distressed that all the money spent on the oil wasn’t going to go into his pocket.

In recent news, though, there are some who are trying to rehabilitate Judas. An Egyptian Gnostic text, called “The Gospel of Judas” was recently translated and published. When it first came out in the second century it was condemned by St Irenaeus, and now it’s just being used as another way to denigrate the Church. In it, Judas is a kind of hero, for his betrayal set in motion the condemnation and death of Christ, which resulted in our redemption. In this phony story, Jesus gives Judas absolution and a little penance, and the betrayer lives happily ever after. That’s similar to that other anti-Christian story, Jesus Christ Superstar. In that one Jesus dies but does not rise from the dead. But Judas does! He returns for a song and dance number all dressed in white, vindicating himself and pointing the accusing finger at Christ.

It has been common in general in modern films to exalt the villains and denigrate the virtuous. The world, as Jesus said, does not know Him; therefore their attempts, whether in books or films, to say something about Him fail to give us the truth. Often enough, they are not merely mistaken, but are deliberately trying to deny or distort the truth of the Gospels. That is one reason why our approach to the mystery of Palm Sunday is important. We come to Jesus in an attitude of praise and worship and welcome, not with criticism and suspicion and demythologizing. We sing Hosanna with the crowds, with the same joy, but not with the same fickleness of heart, for we are not to be among those crying, “Crucify Him!” a few days later. Rather, we are to be like Mary of Bethany, anointing Him with the oil of our faith and love, and following Him, like Mary Magadalen, to the foot of the Cross and to the sealed tomb. We have to have integrity; we can’t be praising him one moment, and even receiving his precious Body and Blood, and then committing sins shortly after we leave the place of worship. We know the judgment Christ passed on the hypocritical Pharisees.

The King, says the Gospel, came in fulfillment of the prophecies of Scripture. The disciples didn’t understand any of this until after the Resurrection. We too have to be in communion with the risen Lord if we are to be able to fully embrace the mysteries of our faith. As St Paul says, spiritual things seem to be madness to carnal people, and they do not understand them, for they have no capacity for spiritual discernment. We have to be open to grace, to the presence of Christ in our midst, if our lives are going to be enriched and transformed by the celebration of these holy mysteries of our salvation. Carrying palm branches isn’t merely a cute little adornment to our Sunday service. The ritual of holding blessed palms is a symbol of our acceptance of Christ as our King and Lord and Savior, and also of our willingness to follow Him along the via dolorosa, the way of sorrow, of his Passion. For these palms are palms of victory, but the victory is only won by engaging in the battle. Christ had to battle the whole of hell; all satan’s armies were mobilized for this utterly decisive moment in the history of the world. But Christ was victorious through death and resurrection, and He now holds out the victor’s palm to those who will follow Him to the Cross and then to Paradise.

So let us rejoice in this celebration, even if we are to weep come Friday. For we know from the psalms that weeping lasts for a night, but joy comes with dawn, the dawn of the Resurrection, which prefigures the everlasting dawn of the Day without end in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Lazarus, Come Forth!

We are about to launch into the most important week of the liturgical year. In the Byzantine tradition, this coming weekend is kind of a festal interlude between Lent proper—which technically ends today, Holy Week being a separate liturgical entity—and the Great and Holy Week of the Passion of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. We celebrate the raising of Lazarus on the Saturday before Palm Sunday every year.

This event in the Gospel of John is a stirring testimony to faith and the power of God. Jesus worked it all to the full benefit of those whom He was trying to lead to a deeper relationship with God. When He heard that Lazarus was dying, He did not immediately rush to his side. This miracle was not going to be simply healing the sick, but raising the dead (the only such miracle recounted by John; it is the climax of Jesus’ public ministry). This mortal sickness of his friend Lazarus was meant to be “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it” (John 11:4). That can perhaps summarize the reason for writing the Gospel of John, along with the author’s own assertion that it was to lead people to faith and thus to eternal life.

The Gospel of John really is about the glory of God, especially that of the Son of God. We see Christ as one who has come from God and is going to God, who has the power to lay down his life and the power to take it up again, and the power to grant life even to the dead. But He wants his disciples and friends to believe in his power even before He dramatically exercises it. So He asked Martha if she believed that those who put their faith and trust in Him will live forever. She is thinking about the resurrection on the Last Day, but Jesus tells her that the mystery of the resurrection is standing right in front of her. “Do you believe this?” He asks her (and you). Once she makes her profession of faith, Jesus sets his face toward the tomb, to rescue his friend from the jaws of death.

Something that is perhaps unexpected happens here, given the glory and the confidence of the Son of God. It is the shortest verse of Scripture: “Jesus wept” (11:35). No explanation is given by the evangelist, only that He was troubled and deeply moved in spirit. From the crowd there are two reactions: “See how he loved him!” and the more cynical “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Both of these are true, but their interpretation is beyond human reasoning and emotion. Yes, He loved Lazarus. And yes, He could have kept him from dying. But it was because of this same love that He delayed—for the glory of God and to put Hades on notice: the days of its dominion were numbered.

But I really haven’t answered the question. Why did Jesus weep? I don’t know if anyone can answer that, for it is a secret kept within the heart of the Lover of Mankind. Some say that it was really for the crowd—because He wept when He saw Mary and the others weeping—it may have been his grief at the misery and pain the human race had been reduced to because of sin, which is the primordial cause of death. He shares the sorrow of those in pain, for He came to bear our infirmities and sufferings. In any case, the Son of God, who had power to raise the dead, was also the Son of Man, whose tender love could be moved to tears.

Then, the Lord shows how faith clears the way for the manifestation of God’s glory. Martha wavered a bit when Jesus commanded the stone to be removed from the tomb of the four-day-dead body. But Jesus made the connection for her: “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” And she did, when He cried out: “Lazarus, come forth!”

Everyone wonders what it was like for Lazarus to have gone to the netherworld and returned. I wonder, too, but I also wonder what this experience was like for Jesus. When He healed a sick woman, He said He felt power flow forth from Him (Luke 8:46). What would He have felt after calling a dead man out of the grave! We will not know that in this life, either, but we know that He turned his eyes toward Jerusalem. There was time neither for relishing the victory nor resting after the exertion. His Passion awaited Him.

Let us go with Him then, to Bethany and Lazarus’ tomb, and to Jerusalem with the adoring (yet fickle) crowd. Let us renew our faith in the Son of God, so that we may see his glory. We want to die in his grace, so that at the last day we can hear the divine and joyful cry: “(your name here), come forth!”

Thursday, April 06, 2006

I Will Remember Your Sins No More

Here is more evidence that God is greater than our hearts (see post of April 1). Through Jeremiah the Lord announced a new covenant, one which would ultimately be fulfilled in the redeeming sacrifice of Christ. This prophecy is important enough to be quoted twice in the Letter to the Hebrews. Perhaps the most consoling line is this: “I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34; Heb. 8:12 and 10:17).

There is a mystery of divine mercy here, for it is no small thing for God to “remember our sins no more.” As the God of truth, He cannot deny or minimize the repulsive reality of evil, yet being greater still, He can forgive. This mystery can perhaps be expressed in one of the prayers of the Byzantine Great Compline: “The magnificence of Your glory, Your terrible loathing of evil, and the riches of Your compassion are beyond our power to comprehend.” It’s not a matter of simple human justice, or of kindly writing off a debt, but all of these things—the blinding, transcendent glory, the unimaginable horror of sin, and the infinite outpouring of mercy—are way beyond all our categories of understanding. Many people tend to view God either as a nit-picker over peccadilloes or as a nice guy who lets us off the hook when we goof up. He is neither. He is the All-just, All-merciful God of truth and love, who judges our sin—and who, when we repent, remembers it no more.

All of us, some more than others, can look back upon a long history of sins and failures. This can be very discouraging, and we may still be wounded or damaged because of them. We may fear that our secret shame is going to be graphically displayed to the whole world on the wide screens of the divine tribunal when all must render an account. But the only things that will be thus displayed will be those for which we did not repent and receive forgiveness, for the Lord remembers our sins no more. So our discouragement ought to be replaced by hope.

A few centuries ago, one of the saints (I forget which; it might have been St Margaret Mary Alacoque) had received visions of the Lord, which she related to her spiritual director. Wishing to discern if these were authentic, he put her to a little test. He wanted her to ask the Lord a question only He could answer; then he would know that it was really the Lord who was appearing to her. So he said to her: “I just went to confession. Ask the Lord what sins I confessed.” There’s no way to fake a reply to that one. Hesitant but obedient, she asked Christ the question when He next came to her. His reply: “I forgot!” This, even more than the actual recounting of the spiritual director’s sins, convinced him. Only God could answer in that way, for it manifested a deep theological truth about divine love and mercy.

So let us not minimize sin, or we will necessarily minimize mercy. Let the one retain its full horror and the other its full glory and consolation. Let us run to the Lord like the prodigal, confessing our sins and being restored as children of God. When we are in that divine embrace, He remembers our sins no more.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Hold Fast to the End

The Letter to the Hebrews is unique among the Epistles both for content and style. There is little relation in either content or style to any of St Paul’s letters, so most likely it was not written by him. That is not a contention merely of modern scholars, but of some of the fathers of the Church as well.

One of the main differences in style is the arrangement of doctrinal matters and spiritual exhortations. Paul’s usual style is to give the doctrinal stuff in the early parts of his letters and the exhortations in the later parts. In Hebrews we find doctrine and exhortations alternating throughout the Epistle. It is with one particular type of exhortation I’m concerned here.

Many times in this Epistle we find the author urging his readers to persevere to the end. “We share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end” (3:14). “Let us hold fast our confession” (4:14). “Show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end” (6:11). “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (10:23). “You have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised” (10:36). You get the drift, I trust.

If we had nothing but the Letter to the Hebrews, we could easily dismantle any attempt to put forth a “once saved, always saved” doctrine. Not only are there many exhortations to persevere to the end if we want to be saved—“We share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end”—but there are also severe warnings about the real possibility of permanent apostasy, even for those “who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit…” (6:4-8; see also 3:12 and 10:26-31).

But here I don’t want to dwell on that sad fact, but rather to exhort you, while it is still “today” (see 3:13-15), to hold fast to your faith, and the practice of it, until the end. For things are going to get worse in the world before they get better, harder before they get easier, and great demands may be placed on us which will require even heroic virtue and witness to the truth.

The Letter to the Hebrews was written in a time of persecution, when the hope of future blessings had to be made very clear to those who were tempted to fall away because of current calamities. Today we need that same assurance, that same vision of the life of blessedness promised to those who endure to the end. For many have fallen away from the Faith, from the Church—not because of overt persecutions, but because of seductions, distractions, and deceptions that work on people’s moral slothfulness, intellectual drowsiness, and inclinations to self-indulgence.

Therefore the Apostle cries out: “Lift up your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees… See to it that no one fail to receive the grace of God…that no one be immoral or irreligious… that you do not refuse Him who is speaking.” And he presses on to the glorious climax: “You have come…to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant… Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe…” (12:12-28).

Hold fast, then, to the end. Endure patiently, do not give up faith or hope—neither gradually slide away through lack of vigilance or diligence, so that you aren’t caught unprepared when it is time to stand up for what you believe in. “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12:1), for it is not those who merely begin the race that are crowned, but those who persevere to the end.