Friday, September 29, 2006

As We Forgive Those... (part 3)

To conclude these reflections, we have to ask one more question: how to forgive? The simplest way is to apply the “just do it” principle. Remember that forgiveness is not a matter of feeling but of willing and doing. We need simply to choose, to decide to forgive, to make an act of the will—or at least desire to forgive, and offer this desire to God. Even if you somehow feel not “ready” to forgive (be careful, though, that you aren’t living more by emotion than by faith), at least be willing to forgive when the grace and strength are granted. You may need to ask Jesus to forgive through you. You may also need to renew this act of forgiveness if negative emotions bubble up from time to time. Give your feelings to God and let Him worry about healing them. Only God can do this, and He will, in his own way and time. These feelings can be brought to Jesus in prayer. It’s OK to feel them—it’s not healthy to try to convince yourself you don’t have them, and then show a pious mask to God—but feel them in the presence of Jesus and allow Him to enter into them, and then to lead you out of them.

Once we forgive we have also to forget, as the expression goes, in order to make our forgiveness complete. We can’t do this literally, that is, to get our brains to actually lose their memory function (though advancing age gradually takes care of that, starting at about 45!), but we can stop reminding people of how they have hurt us (which is very common, even among Christians) and somehow using it as leverage against them. St John Climacus, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, regards “remembrance of wrongs” as one of the most odious of sins, and completely unfitting for a Christian. Still, it is not easy, but we can receive the grace through prayer and a sincere desire to please the Lord and not ourselves. Forgetting as well as forgiving helps restore the broken relationship. This is what God’s forgiveness does for us: it restores our relationship with Him which was broken by our sin (see Jer 31:34). In human relationships it may not always be possible to perfectly restore what has been damaged, because some people will refuse to offer or accept forgiveness. But we can still be reconciled with them in our own hearts, and our consciences can be clear before God.

Forgive me, I lied, there is still one more question, since life goes on: What next? In order to live with a forgiving heart, we need to heal from oversensitivity to what people say or do to us. We need to accept the “spiritual sandpaper” of living with others—let it smooth down the rough edges. We need to discover why certain of our “buttons” are so easily pushed, why we react defensively or in whatever unacceptable way to certain persons or situations. This can lead us on to our own inner healing, spiritual growth and Christian maturity. The practice of the Jesus Prayer or other forms of simple, quiet, contemplative prayer can root us in Jesus’ love and peace. We can use this prayer, or perhaps the repetition of a favorite verse of Scripture, to keep us from letting our emotional reactions take over. If there is Jesus’ peace within us, we are free to decide how to respond to a hurtful word or act, rather than being led along by undisciplined emotion. I remember praying one morning and a psalm verse impressed itself on me, so I made it part of my prayer: “God is within; it cannot be shaken.” Little did I know how much I would need it, for that same day a hysterical woman called me, with numerous urgent crises in her life, and then a certain man, who has made a lot of trouble for us, called with harassments and threats. So I just had to say to my soul: “God is within; it cannot be shaken.”

Also, as we grow in our spiritual life, we will develop a sense of compassion which is other-centered, rather than the self-centered insecurity that is self-protecting. Thus we can also overcome that sense of becoming weak or of placing ourselves at a “disadvantage” when we grant forgiveness to another. We are not in competition with each other; rather, we are members of the same Body, called to build each other up, and seek the other’s good before our own (see Philippians 2-1-11; also Jesus’ forgiving of his executioners from the Cross. Was that weakness or the greatest power in the world?)

Finally, reflect on First Corinthians, chapter 13. The bottom line is this: if we love we can forgive. Love covers a multitude of sins. In the end, says St Paul, three things endure: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

As We Forgive Those... (part 2)

Continuing with our reflections on forgiveness, we must examine another question: whom do we forgive? The obvious one whom we need to forgive is the one who has offended us. We are to make no judgments as to whether or not that person is “worthy” of our forgiveness, for then we show that we do not really know the true nature of forgiveness, and we do not love as Jesus loves. “Forgiveness is reckless. It squanders itself upon rogues who have no intention of improving themselves” (Simon Tugwell, OP, from his book on the Beatitudes). When God forgives, He is not saying, “Well all right; you’re a good chap underneath, I’ll give you one more chance.” No, He simply forgives 70 times 7 times, which means without limit. This is how Jesus told St Peter—and us—to forgive.

Sometimes it is harder to forgive ourselves for some sin than it is to forgive someone else, so we ourselves are next on the list of whom we must forgive. It may be that we have confessed our sin, and even that whomever we offended has forgiven us. But we still feel guilty or miserable or discouraged because we haven’t forgiven ourselves. This can actually be a sin of pride: a kind of inverted pride—not a pride that boasts, but one that sees our sin as being somehow beyond mercy because we ourselves can’t stand to fail. Some people can't bear failure because pride brings down the verdict of “guilty.” Then they have to punish themselves for not measuring up to their idealized images of themselves. If we say, “How could I have done such a thing?” pride is at work. Then it is time to humble ourselves before God—to accept forgiveness and to forgive ourselves.

Accepting forgiveness means we know we are sinners and therefore need forgiveness. This is living in the truth, which is what humility is all about, and this brings us to inner peace. “We must not try to pretend that somehow we are forgivable and that that is why we are forgiven. We are no more and no less forgivable than anyone else. If we try to privilege our claim to forgiveness, it is not really forgiveness we are looking for, but some other kind of recognition... we must be prepared to accept the company that forgiveness places us in [i.e., sinners]. It is no good wanting to be forgiven and then reserving the right to look round disapprovingly on all the others. This is why forgiving is so inseparable from being forgiven” (Tugwell).

The next Person we may need to forgive is—God. Why forgive God? He is incapable of evil and is by nature Love. How could He possibly sin against us or offend us? When we speak of forgiving God it has to be in a qualified sense, but it still is something we have to deal with. We need to release God from any blame we lay on Him when things go wrong in our lives: “Why did You let this happen to me?” “Where were You when I needed You?” “Why didn’t You answer my prayer?” etc. When we “forgive” God, we begin to acknowledge that his wisdom is superior to ours, that his vision of the future is clearer than ours, that his understanding of our own needs is better than ours, and that his desire for our inner integrity and eternal salvation is also greater than ours. Then we can accept in peace whatever God does—or doesn’t do—in our lives. This presupposes, of course, faith and trust in the Lord, and love for Him, too.

Next we have to ask: what do we forgive? The basic answer to this is simple: everything. But that is not so easy. We cannot withhold mercy if we are to be truly Christian in our relationships with others. We cannot draw the line at a certain point and refuse to forgive beyond a certain measure of pain we experience from others. Forgiveness has to keep flowing like a river—from the Heart of Jesus through our hearts to others. But this readiness to forgive all things does not mean that in order to be Christian we have to throw ourselves to the lions. We are allowed to avoid (to a reasonable extent, anyway) certain persons and situations if we have repeatedly experienced them to be occasions of sin and hurt. Jesus said, “if you are persecuted in one town, flee to the next,” so flight can be a legitimate and even necessary response to a hurtful situation. But we have to be in the Holy Spirit to discern this. We cannot run away from problems or responsibilities if we have been called to face and deal with them in a mature, compassionate, self-effacing, and self-sacrificing manner. We must be willing to suffer for the Gospel’s sake, if that is what forgiveness requires, but we must do this according to God’s will, and not out of a feeling that we have to carry every cross, even those not intended for us. Sometimes we carry crosses of our own making and not what God desires.

Continuing with our questions: when to forgive? The obvious answer here is: immediately. It is not good to let hurts fester inside of us, not good to nurse self-pity, not good to imagine taking revenge. We must simply accept what has happened and forgive the offender. Then we ourselves are freed from the grip of unforgiveness and all the bad effects in our body and soul. Then we also free the other from the grip of our unforgiveness, giving them the opportunity to repent and be forgiven and healed, as we would like the same opportunity after we have sinned.

I have mentioned the bad effects of withholding forgiveness. Now I should say something about the good effects of releasing ourselves and others from unforgiveness. There’s a true story to illustrate this. A certain woman was responsible for serious failures in raising her daughter. The daughter wouldn’t forgive her, but the woman eventually repented and began to serve the Lord and the Church. After some years the daughter herself had a conversion experience, and she had a vision: she saw herself dressed in a dirty bridal gown; then a hand appeared, with drops of blood falling from it, and the gown was made clean—she knew then that all her sins were forgiven. Then she heard a voice: “Now forgive your mother.” Meanwhile, her mother had long been grieved that her daughter refused to forgive her. After her encounter with Christ, the daughter finally did forgive her. At that very hour, it was later realized, the mother suddenly felt euphoric and free, not knowing why. Then her daughter called her to tell her the good news, and she realized that the burden of her daughter’s grudge was lifted, and the lightness and joy resulted from her daughter forgiving her. There is a real spiritual power at work here, for the lifting of the burden was experienced by the mother before she knew of her daughter’s conversion and forgiveness of her.

Even though there may be a burden placed on another from our unforgiveness, we are the ones who mainly suffer from it. Many people aren’t spiritually sensitive enough to be wounded by another’s lack of forgiveness. We may think we are hurting othrers by withholding forgiveness, but for the most part we are only hurting ourselves, hardening ourselves in bitterness and spite, which will take a mighty act of God to overcome.

Stay tuned for part 3…

Monday, September 25, 2006

As We Forgive Those... (part 1)

I’m starting today a three-part series on forgiveness, since it is such an important element of the Christian life, but one perhaps not practiced often or fully enough. These reflections are an edited version of a talk I gave some years ago. The emphasis here is not God's forgiveness of us, but our forgiveness of each other. My method is to ask and then answer a few basic questions concerning forgiveness. It is not a complete treatment of the subject, but you’ll at least know how to get started. I have to get started by forgiving again, 70 x 7--for its malfunctions, preventing me from publishing this post much earlier...

First: what is forgiveness? Let’s see what Mr Webster has to say. There are three basic definitions: 1) to cease to feel resentment toward an offender; 2) to give up resentment or claim to requital; 3) to grant relief from payment of a debt. When I ask people which is the best one, they invariably say #1, and they are invariably wrong. Why is that? (This will tell you a lot about the modern approach to such issues.) They all think that to forgive is to cease to feel resentment towards the offender, but that’s a very subjective and unhelpful approach, and it doesn’t quite correspond with Christian morality. The second definition is the best, and the third is good, too, though its application is more limited. So forgiveness is not about ceasing to feel resentment (or any other negative emotion), it is about giving up resentment or claim to requital. That is a crucial distinction, because it places forgiveness in the will instead of the emotions. Forgiveness is doing something, not necessarily feeling something. It is a choice, a decision.

All morality, and hence all judgment thereof, is a matter of willing and of doing. On judgment day, God is not going to ask us how we felt about so-and-so, but what we did or did not do for so-and-so, what our choices were—how we chose to think, speak, and act. It is good if our emotions are in accord with our decision to forgive, but even if they aren’t, we can make that decision with an act of the will and it stands as such before God, so we are free of the sin of withholding forgiveness. We can pray for God to heal our emotions so that we also have more warm regard for the one we forgive, but that may take time, and we leave it to God—without, however, falling away from our original decision to forgive.

Forgiveness is letting the offenders off the hook, giving them another chance—as we would wish to receive another chance when we offend God or another person. This is not something that is easy to do, or that comes naturally to us fallen people, who may be too strong on pride and the instinct of self-preservation—and too weak on a sense of security and inner freedom. So forgiveness has to be a work of grace; it is something that restores God’s image in us more clearly, for He Himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (as the Gospel says: Lk 6:35; Mt 5:44-48). We are created in the image of God, and if we are to live according to that image, we must “be merciful, as our heavenly Father is merciful.”

The next question is: why forgive? One reason, though not the primary one, is that it is good for our physical, mental, and especially spiritual health. The bitterness, anger, tension and stress that come from holding grudges and refusing to forgive can produce depression, anxiety, irritability and other psychological symptoms, which in turn can produce psychosomatic problems which harm our bodily health as well. It is obvious that spiritual health suffers from not forgiving as well, since it keeps us in a state of sin—more or less serious, depending on the case—which is an obstacle to grace, healing, and our deeper relationship of faith and love with our Lord Jesus Christ. Hell is the abode of those who eternally nurse their bitterness and grudges, blaming and cursing others, expressing but never satisfying their hatred. Part of their torment is knowing that if they had only humbled themselves and forgiven those who brought pain or injustice to them—and who, ironically, may very well have later repented and are at that very moment enjoying Heaven—they would have had happiness instead of horror as their everlasting recompense.

But the most fundamental reason why we should forgive is simply that this is the word of God. (Read these to get a feel for that: Mt 6:14-15; 18:21-22 and 23-35; Mk 11:25; Eph 4:32; Col 3:13; Sir 28:1-7, 10.) We forgive because forgiveness belongs to our discipleship of Christ, our being like Him. To refuse to forgive is to have the mind of the devil and not the mind of Christ. It is a matter not only of the “Golden Rule,” but Jesus makes it clear that the kindness and love we show to others we show to Him. Forgiveness is not an option to be chosen only by the saints. The Greek word for forgiveness occurs 142 times in the New Testament, so it is clearly an essential part of the Gospel message for all, both for our individual relationships with God and for the whole life and spiritual health of the Church. Are those enough reasons to be forgiving?

To be continued…

Saturday, September 23, 2006

On Fishing and Following

St Paul says in the epistle reading for this Sunday (2Cor. 6:1-10) that now is the acceptable time and the day of salvation. It certainly was so for Peter, James, and John, as they heard the voice of Christ and left everything to follow them (Gospel: Luke 5:1-11). It was the beginning of a marvelous and sometimes harrowing adventure which radically changed their lives and secured for them a high place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul gives a sort of sneak preview of what a disciple of Christ can expect: afflictions, hardships, calamities, labors, hunger, vigils, poverty, etc. Yet he says in the midst of all that we can expect purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, genuine love and truth, the power of the Holy Spirit—and the grace to rejoice even in sorrows, to be spiritually rich even in poverty, to be honorable even when dishonored by others.

The first disciples could not have known all that in advance, but that’s OK. It isn’t the weighing of pros and cons, of advantages and disadvantages, that should be the criterion for the decision about following Christ. The apostles followed Christ because of the grace and wisdom that flowed from Him, because of the irresistible attraction to his very person, and because of the signs that accompanied his words.

Let us see what happened at that first meeting of Jesus with Peter and the others. Jesus wanted to preach from a boat, because the crowds were pressing in on him. Simon Peter was elected for this even though he was very tired. Fishermen usually work the night shift, for that is when the most fish are easily caught. So, after a long night’s work, he was cleaning his nets and getting ready to go home to bed. But Jesus had other ideas. He got into Simon’s boat and taught the people at length. Perhaps then Simon thought, “Now that He’s finished, maybe I can go home and get some rest.” But Jesus wasn’t finished—not with Simon, anyway. If there was one thing Simon didn’t want to hear, it was precisely what Jesus said next: “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon gave a two-part answer: the first out of his own human weakness, fatigue, and irritable resistance, and the second out of an admirable respect for, and obedience to, Jesus. “Master, we worked all night and took nothing!” he initially exclaimed. (He may have thought, “Hey, I’m the fisherman, you’re the preacher. I know the sea, and there aren’t any fish around now!”) But then he immediately added, and this is the saving grace, the decision which opened the door to divine blessing: “But at your word, I will let down the net.” At your word, I will do it: this is Peter’s first response to the call of the Lord. There will be more, even one more in this same Gospel, but this first one is indispensable, because he shows that he knows how to hear and obey. If You say so, I will do it. It is an echo of the response of the Israelites after the Lord manifested his power and his law on Sinai: “All that the Lord has said, we will do.”

Jesus knew Peter was tired, but He also knew that if Peter would overcome his fatigue for the sake of obedience, then he would be his chosen and faithful disciple. After his resurrection Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him and then told him to feed his sheep. Here Jesus is saying, in effect, if you love Me, do what I say and go out and catch some fish. So he did, and the result was miraculous—which is a lesson for us that the fruits of hearing the word of the Lord and obeying are always good, always abundant.

Peter then entered into the first stage of a true revelation, a true encounter with God. He fell down before Him in repentance and confessed his sinfulness. Peter must have seen something of the glory of God in the face of Christ, and it filled him with fear—as happened to Isaiah, after his vision of God: “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips…and my eyes have seen the Lord!” This is an indispensable stage in our relation with God, for He is a God of truth. We cannot approach Him with sins on our soul, for in that case, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But if we repent and confess, as Peter did, then it is not fearful at all but blessed and consoling. Peter, conscious of his sins, as least had the integrity to want to be removed from the presence of the All-Holy. (People who refuse to confess their sins ought at least to have the integrity to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until they have the good sense to go to confession.) Jesus accepted Peter’s repentance but did not depart, for unworthiness is made worthy through repentance. We can assume that Jesus forgave his sins at that very moment: Peter fell down in fear, confessing his sinfulness and asking Jesus to depart, but since Jesus did not depart, and since Jesus said, “Do not be afraid,” we conclude that there was no longer anything left to alienate Peter from Christ.

Jesus also gave him a mission at that moment, saying that he would henceforth be a fisher of men. This is a development of the initial call, and Peter gives a further response, along with James and John: they left everything and followed Him. They discovered the one thing necessary, the fulfillment of the deepest, inarticulate desire of their hearts, and it would be madness to do anything else but cling to Him henceforth.

We have constantly to be listening for the voice, the call of the Lord, for it is not a once in a lifetime thing, but is meant to be an ongoing dialogue, call and response. If we hear and obey, abundant blessings will be ours, even if accompanied by the trials St Paul wrote about. We can hear his voice in many ways, especially through Scripture and prayer, but I’d like to focus here on prayer, especially contemplative prayer, for to pray in silence and solitude and with an open heart is to put out into the deep. That is, we go to our inner depths where Christ dwells—not to “get in touch with ourselves,” for that usually leads to self-absorption and sterile isolation, but rather to encounter the indwelling God. We put out into the deep and let down our nets, that is, drop our defenses and make ourselves radically open and surrendered to the presence of Christ. Many people do not want to do this. They are terrified that they might actually meet Christ, that He might actually speak to them, might require something of them. So they close their hearts and their ears and say, in effect: depart from me. Maybe they will say their prayers even louder and more vigorously, so as not to hear the voice of God. This is the prayer of the Pharisee. But if we merely say prayers without going deep enough to listen to God, then we are not praying at all—we are merely deluding ourselves that we are devout, creating a pious self-image, which has nothing to do with reality. We are keeping God away from us by means of the very prayers that should be drawing Him near!

So let us be willing to hear the voice of the Lord, for it is, as the psalmist says, “a voice that speaks of peace,” and it is a voice of love and holiness. It is a voice that calls and exhorts as well, but obedience to Him bears fruit unto salvation. Peter at first didn’t want to do what the Lord asked of Him, but now he is thanking God for all eternity that he in fact did what Jesus said. We have to leave everything and follow Him—everything that promotes selfishness or attachments, that hinders us from a free embrace of Christ and the fullness of his Gospel. Let us go to Him, for when He speaks, it is the acceptable time; when He calls, it is the day of salvation.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Not Impossible With Faith

For the following reflection I rely on Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus and his chosen three disciples had just come down from Mt Tabor where Jesus was transfigured. Down from the mountain of glory into the valley of suffering and confusion. The text says that Jesus went toward the gathered crowd, and at the same time a man came toward Jesus. These two uses of the word “toward” express the search for one another and for a face-to-face encounter between man and God.

The man came up to Jesus and fell on his knees before Him. The man instinctually knows that, in dealing with Jesus, the heart’s adoration is the necessary context for a prayer of petition. It is the best way of putting oneself in the position of deep and true relationship with God—the interior attitude of total self-surrender and the resulting receptivity. The man’s first words are: Lord, have mercy! It is the most fundamental of all Christian prayers. It includes an act of faith that sees the personal presence of God abiding and acting in the person of Jesus and it acknowledges man’s extreme and continual need to cling to the mercy of God, and to God’s power and willingness to heal.

Then the father of the boy explained to Jesus his condition: he often falls in fire or in water. These elements form a biblical symbol for the totality of all dangers, precisely those most dire threats from which the Lord has promised to deliver his faithful ones. God said through the prophet Isaiah: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you… When you pass through the waters I will be with you…they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned…” (43:1-2).

So far this story reads like many other miracle accounts. But after presenting the problem and asking for help, the father drops this bombshell, to the great consternation of Jesus’ disciples: “I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” Perhaps they were hoping that their bungled attempt at healing would go unnoticed. But now the Master knows. This pushes Jesus’ patience to the limit (if it were possible) and He exclaimed—not to the nameless crowd but directly to his own disciples: “O faithless and perverse generation; how long am I to be with you? How long can I endure you?” What if Jesus stood before us today, saying: How long can I endure you? His disciples were his specially chosen ones. He rebuked his own disciples before He rebuked the demon. Jesus denounces most woundingly those He loves most, those He has been painstakingly and intimately molding with the secret touch of his hands. But they still didn’t get it. Later He would say to Philip: “You have been with me all this time and still you do not know Me?” Jesus’ disciples had not yet internalized the truth of who He was to the point that this reality could transform them interiorly. Thus they could not heal the boy.

Jesus was trying to teach them that they can communicate only the life that they have come to possess within themselves, and that not even the invocation of the name of Jesus will be efficacious in the absence of faith in the soul and love in the heart. This is the structure of the Christian experience. No one can give what he doesn’t have. To startle us out of our lethargy and pious accommodations, Jesus is likely to turn the tables on us at any moment, compelling us to see things from his perspective.

So Jesus commanded his embarrassed disciples to bring the boy to Him, and He immediately cast out the demon that was causing the boy’s illness. Jesus’ compassion toward the suffering boy has as its goal not only the deliverance and healing of the boy, but also the awakening of the faith of his disciples by their vision of the greatness of God’s power presently working both in Jesus and in those who believe. This is the anticipated power of the Resurrection, casting back its healing rays upon the earthly life and deeds of Jesus, seeking out the lost and wounded so as to embrace them and heal them and bring them home to the Father.

The disciples, still stung by their failure, asked Jesus—out of earshot of the crowd, lest they be humiliated again—why they were not able to heal the boy. Jesus said it was because of their lack of faith. If they had even a tiny bit of faith nothing would have been impossible for them, He said. The evangelist uses a little play on words, for “not able” and “impossible” are forms of the same word. Why were we not able? they said. Nothing is impossible, said Jesus, if you only have faith. The presence of lively faith effects a conversion of human incapacity into the power to accomplish all that God wills.

In the end, it is the power of Christ that is the only real power, one that we must access by faith. Only the presence and will of Christ can dispel the power of darkness from our souls. In all our distress, we must go to Jesus, invoke his name ardently, cast ourselves at his feet, hear our own sin condemned by his anger, and finally allow Jesus’ commanding rebuke to resonate in every ailing fiber of our being. Only then shall we be healed. That will be the hour of our liberation. We must not be afraid to confront and accept even the most frightful diagnosis concerning our interior state, so long as that prophetic insight is coming from the lips of the One who has the will and power to remedy it. As we see in this Gospel account, Jesus is always ready to do it, provided we bravely grant Him access to our diseased interior.

We can have confidence in the Lord, for He came to enter into the condition of our suffering, to share it with us, to give it meaning, and finally to raise us out of it for an eternity of life and joy in his heavenly paradise. If He has to rebuke us along the way, let us simply accept it and learn from it. He does not stand above us but is with us in our stumbling inadequacy. Even though Jesus manifested his omnipotence by casting out the demon and healing the boy, this Gospel passage ends with Jesus saying that He Himself will soon be suffering, bearing all our sins and sorrows in Himself. And who would deliver Him? Only his Father, but not until He would pass through agony and death in order to be exalted unto the glory of the resurrection. Resurrection will be our glory too, if we only believe in Him and live our faith with devotion and diligence, accepting the Cross as the way to resurrection.

Finally, to live by faith is to cease relying on ourselves, our own ideas or ways of doing things. The disciples had to learn that. They were still without faith when they asked: Why couldn’t we cast it out ourselves? Faith doesn’t mean seeing what Jesus does and then trying to imitate Him. It means allowing Jesus to act in and through us by his own power, and according to his own will—which means we have to renounce our own will if faith is to bear fruit in our lives. So let us deeply and joyfully receive the mustard seed of the grace of Christ into the soil of our souls, where it can grow into a fruitful Tree of Life, and all things will be possible with Him who comes to heal and save us.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Wart Hogs from Hell

There, now that I have your attention, I’d like to say something about a Flannery O’Connor story called Revelation. It’s basically about the pharisaism of “decent” and even “religious” people, a theme that has been coming up in my reading here and there lately. I won’t try to analyze the story or give all its details, just the general impression.

A woman who had prided herself on being a decent, churchgoing person, who did right by other people, who tried to be helpful and unselfish—Lord knows!—and who lived a respectable life, was sitting in the waiting room at a doctor’s office. She noticed there was some “white trash” there, a snot-nosed kid, an unattractive college student reading a big book, and other people whom she found reason to judge or look down upon. They were certainly beneath her standards and, oh, it wouldn’t take them so much effort to be a decent person like her, would it? But why was that homely college kid with the acne staring at her, and looking angrier by the minute?

Suddenly the girl got up and hurled her book at the woman, hitting her near the eye (perhaps trying to open it?), and loudly calling her a “wart hog from Hell.” The girl was quickly subdued, given an injection of something and taken out of the room—the usual protocol for prophets. Meanwhile, the woman got her new injury treated and left, thinking. Why did she call me that? Me! But I’m the decent one, I do good to others, I don’t think of myself, I go to church. Why call me such a horrible thing? Hell is for devils, and hogs are dirty animals. The woman didn’t get it.

When she felt a little better, she went out to her farm to hose down the hogs, still thinking. While she was contemplating hogs and cleansing them, she had a vision. She looked into the sky and it opened up, and she saw a procession of people entering the Kingdom of Heaven. She other decent people like herself, but they were at the end of the line. At the front were white trash, black slaves, and all the other types she had grown accustomed to looking down upon. She began to realize the truth of Jesus’ words: “the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt. 21:31). She realized also that even her supposed virtues had to be burned out of her before she could enter, because she had lived by her own righteousness and not by the Lord’s. But now the hellish wart hog was washed by a vision of truth, and we’re left to hope that she would see things quite differently henceforth.

Alexander Schmemann remarks (in a different context): “The Gospel is quite clear: both saints and sinners love God. ‘Religious’ people do not love Him and, whenever they can, they crucify Him.” He laments repeatedly in his journals about the superficiality, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy of church people, people who are “religious” and who thus are supposed to know the Lord, but they don’t. They only know their own narrow vision of things and are quick to judge and condemn—not manifest evildoers but their own neighbors and fellow church people, or anyone who is “not us”—wholly unaware that the entire drama of the Gospel is being played without them, in the arena of repentance and sanctification, of love and mercy, of humility and of suffering for the sake of Christ.

There may be more “wart hogs from Hell” in our churches than we’d like to admit, or perhaps we are already painfully aware of it. Or worse, perhaps we’d see one if we honestly looked in the mirror. We ought to pray that everyone in the Church would receive the kind of cleansing vision that will open them up to the deep truths of the Gospel. No one gets to Heaven by being decent, respectable, or even religious, especially if they think that qualifies them to look down on others (see Lk. 18:9-14). The Lord looks kindly on the poor in spirit, the strugglers, the despised, those who don’t “have it all together,” who know they aren’t worthy but who put all their hope in his mercy. They head the line marching to the Kingdom, while the Pharisees must hurry, flinging away their collection of masks and baggage, if they’re even to allowed to bring up the rear. For whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Sacrament Most Holy

Many reasons can be given for the crises in which the Catholic Church (especially Roman Catholic) finds herself today: the influence of secularism, politics, and modern psychology, the disdain for tradition and the uncritical embrace of unauthorized innovations, the corruption of some priests and the lack of courage and wisdom among the hierarchy, faulty catechism and poor preaching, irreverent or trite liturgical celebrations, and an apparent general desire to follow every popular trend at the expense of the Cross and the Gospel, etc. There is truth in all of the above (and you could probably add some more), but I think there is a fundamental solution to them all: recover faith and devotion to Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Saints and popes (including our present pope) and the official teachings of the Church have for many centuries insisted that the Holy Eucharist is at the heart of our faith, as the Source of grace and the summit of our life of faith and worship. The Church stands or falls according to her faith and love for Christ in the Eucharist. Yet polls have shown (not that I put much stock in polls, but these all have consistently agreed for decades) that only a minority of Catholics believe that the Eucharist is really the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is not entirely the fault of the people, but primarily of the priests, liturgical and theological “experts” who have lost their faith and have communicated their malaise to the people by word and example—or by simple neglect to teach and live the truth. No wonder the Church is limping so badly: so many of her members have exchanged their precious faith for the findings of conferences and committees dedicated to the dilution of doctrine!

Let’s put it this way. Here are some things we would not see if all the churches manifested vibrant faith and devotion to Christ in the Eucharist, if the sense of the sacredness of the Divine Mysteries were restored. We would not see “Eucharistic ministers” in t-shirts and jeans sauntering up to the tabernacle and removing the ciborium as if it were some leftover pizza in the fridge. (It is my guess that Communion in the hand would gradually disappear also, not by law but by devout consensus.) We would not see priests sitting down while the lay people distribute Communion, consume the remainder and perform the ritual ablutions. We would not find consecrated Hosts on the floor or in the pews after the Mass—this happens more often than you may be prepared to believe. We would not have all sorts of liturgical abuses or priests acting like game-show hosts. In general, the whole liturgical life of the Church would be renewed.

We would also not have to witness the lamentable phenomenon of priests leading sordid double lives or merely living as wealthy bon vivants when they have been consecrated to follow the Crucified—for they would know Him whom they take into their trembling and unworthy hands. Their teaching and preaching would therefore be orthodox and alive. We would not see Holy Communion given to public evildoers like pro-abortion politicians or others who manifestly disregard the teachings of the Church. The Church has every right to refuse Communion to such, despite the rhetoric of cowardly hierarchs who instruct us that we have to assume that the killers of innocents are approaching in good conscience. No one has a “right” to Holy Communion, and there are clear norms for properly disposing oneself to receive the Gift.

We also would not see churches designed so that people face each other, while the celebrant drones on about building up the worshiping community. After reading what some hierarchs say about liturgy and Eucharist (which, I noticed in a recent missalette, is now “eucharist”), I’m afraid that what the worshiping community is worshiping is the worshiping community instead of God. Traditionally—and this is still true in the Eastern Churches—the church is supposed to face eastward, and everybody in it is supposed to be facing the same way. The priest stands at the head of the people, leading them toward Christ. The tired old complaint has been, “I don’t like the priest turning his back to me.” Get yourself out of the center of the world! It’s not about you, or the priest’s position in relation to you! The priest isn’t turning his back to you; he’s turning his face to Christ—and you should be too! But why should everyone be facing east? Because, symbolically, since it is the direction of the rising sun, it is the place from which He is expected to return—see also Mt. 24:27, “As the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man”—and it has always been an essential mark of the Christian that he is one who awaits the return of his Savior. But I would shudder to see the results of a poll asking how many really believe in the Second Coming of Christ! Restoration of the Eucharist will bring a restoration of proper Christian eschatology—uniting “I am with you always” to “I am coming back for you.”

This is just a brief reflection, but take some time to think about it yourself. I don’t say that recovery of true faith and reverence for the Eucharist will solve every particular difficulty in the Church, but it will positively affect the whole life of the Church. For the Eucharist is not one issue among many but is intimately and necessarily related to all that is truly Christian, so it can’t help but renew the Church. Restore the Eucharist and the priesthood is renewed, the laity are enkindled, the fruit of the Spirit flourishes, liturgical art and music are beautiful once more—for they are once again the fruit of adoration instead of narcissism—the joy and the depth of the life of the Gospel of Christ are manifest everywhere. When the Eucharist is really at the center of faith and life, true humility and selfless service replace intellectual pride and power struggles—and all the evils that flow from irreverence, loss of faith, compromises with the “world,” and cheap, feel-good religion are cast out.

What can you do? Try to find like-minded people in your parish and petition for Eucharistic adoration, for one thing (this applies only in the Latin rite, but that’s mainly what this is about). Make it known to your priests (respectfully, humbly) that you are spiritually hungry, that you want to learn about the mystery of God in Christ, the sacraments, and the word of God. Ask them how you can increase your reverence for the Eucharist and bear more fruit from Holy Communion. I try to give a little food for thought on this blog, but it will take many priests all over the country to spread the fire of the Holy Spirit. Every individual effort helps, though, so be yourself a window through which the light of Christ can shine. If no one else in your parish believes anymore, then you believe and be the first spark of true life. God will work with that in his own way.

Pray that Christ will once again be the center of his Church in the Holy Eucharist, and we will soon see the end of all the havoc wreaked by those who have lost their faith but still cling to positions of authority. And pray that the faithless will be enlightened and will fall facedown before the Holy God, who lives and reigns in his Holy Church—if only we would recognize Him!—and who calls us to holiness by abiding in us, and we in Him, through the divine Mystery of the Bread from Heaven.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

This World, That World

I’ve been reading The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann lately, and I find it to be a treasury of insights (forgiving his occasional not-quite-on-the-mark critiques of Catholicism). My only disappointment is that he did not develop his theological reflections in greater detail, but one cannot ordinarily expect that from a personal journal. Probably I will have recourse to this book for several posts in the future.

One of the dominant themes in just about all his writings is the Kingdom of God, for this is the reality for the Christian in this world—supposed to be, anyway. And the Church is the manifestation, or at least anticipation, of the Kingdom in this world—supposed to be, anyway. He writes: “In those rare moments when through religion one manages to reach God, there are no problems, because God is not part of the world. In those moments the world itself becomes life in Him, meeting with Him, contact with Him. The world does not become God, but life with God, joyful and full. This is God’s salvation of the world. It is fulfilled every time that we believe. The Church is not a religious establishment, but the presence in the world of a saved world. But so often the church is entangled in problems… dangerous and ambiguous concepts. So often many people whom I knew as seekers of spirituality were narrow-minded, intolerant and dull, joyless, quite often accusing others of not being spiritual enough. They were often the center of their conscience, not Christ, not the Gospel, not God… But where is true spirituality to be found?”

Fr Schmemann had little patience for “religion,” for it is often little more than a phony pious cloak for hypocrisy and hardened hearts. That is why the Church cannot be reduced to a “religious establishment,” but rather, as the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, it must be “the presence in the world of a saved world.”

He will say in other places that there really is only one world, God’s world, with all its visible and invisible creations. But through sin man has, in a sense, created his own world, a world alienated from God, with its own logic and agendas. Therefore the Son of God had to enter this alienated world to save it, to reconcile it to the Father, that all may be one in God again. By his Cross and Resurrection, and throughout the ages by means of his Church, the Spirit of the Lord permeates this fallen world and leads it to its ultimate transfiguration in the Paradise of Heaven. Allow me to share an extended passage from Fr Schmemann:

“Christianity…[is] now undergoing a real test to determine what will enable [it] to remain alive in the world of today… I hesitate to come forward with my feeling—it sounds arrogant—that I have an answer… It is simply a vision of life, and what comes from that vision is the light, the transparency, the referral of everything to the ‘Other,’ the eschatological character of life itself and all that is in it. The source of that eschatological light, the lifting up of all life, is the sacrament of the Eucharist…

“To understand St Paul when he says, ‘The image of this world is passing away,’ to make it real, we need in this world the experience of the other world, its beauty, depth, treasure, the experience of the Kingdom of God and its Sacrament—the Eucharist. The Church has been established in this world to celebrate the Eucharist, to save man by restoring his Eucharistic being. The Eucharist is impossible without the Church, that is, without a community that knows its unique character and vocation—to be love, truth, faith and mission—all of these fulfilled in the Eucharist; even simpler, to be the Body of Christ. The Eucharist reveals the Church as a community—love for Christ, love in Christ—as a mission to turn each and all to Christ. The Church has no other purpose, no ‘religious life’ separate from the world. Otherwise the Church would become an idol. The Church is the home each of us leaves to go to work and to which one returns with joy in order to find life, happiness and joy, to which everyone brings back the fruits of his labor and where everything is transformed into a feast, into freedom and fulfillment, the presence, the experience of this ‘home’—already out of time, unchanging, filled with eternity, revealing eternity. Only this presence can give meaning and value to everything in life, can refer everything to that experience and make it full. ‘This image of this world is passing away.’ But only by passing away does the world finally become the ‘World’: a gift of God, a happiness that comes from being in communion with the content, the form, the image of that ‘World.’”

This world, that world; two worlds, one world. Christ is the life and the destiny of all He has made, all He has redeemed. Let us pray that the Church, especially through her sacraments and the witness of her saints, will faithfully lead us to the fullness of eternal life—and will be for us, even in this passing world, a foretaste of divine encounter and fulfillment, that is, of the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross

A few days ago I wrote that Jesus would be lifted up, that is, crucified, for our salvation. Today is the feast of the lifting up, or exaltation, of the Holy Cross. There’s a play on words here. To exalt the Cross is to praise and honor it, yet we literally lift it up during the special rite at Matins at which we bless the four directions of the earth with the upraised cross, singing “Lord have mercy” hundreds of times. So we exalt Him who was lifted up on the Cross, and we lift up the Cross as an exaltation of the Lord our God, worshiping Him, for He, the Lord, is holy, as the psalmist says (Ps. 98/99). Even though we read the Gospel of the crucifixion today, the liturgical texts present this feast as one of joy and glory. This feast is the other side of the coin of Good Friday, and the two feasts of the Cross occur at opposite ends of the year.

Included in the Gospel reading is Jesus’ giving of his mother to the beloved disciple and the disciple to his mother. In the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God as the “Joy of all who sorrow,” it says that she adopted us at the foot of the Cross. That is a beautiful way of putting it. It is as if we were lying there, orphaned and banished from our true home because of our sin, and the Mother found us and presented us to the crucified Savior, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He looked at us with compassion and said, “Behold your mother.” Now we are no longer orphans, for through the sacrifice of Christ, God has become our Father and Mary our mother.

But there is more to being adopted at the foot of the Cross. We have to understand what it means that precisely there we became children of God and of Mary. Lovers and spouses recall with special fondness the place they first met, as a graced moment in their lives, the beginning of the life of growing love that would follow—a kind of reference point that defined the direction of their whole future. For us, this reference point, this place of decisive and graced encounter, is the Cross. It is the place of the sacrificial death of the One who loved us first, who secretly called us to this meeting place, hoping to mark our lives indelibly, setting us on a course of a life of love and fidelity, consummated in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The paradox is that the fountainhead of our life and joy is the deathbed of the Beloved. It is so for two main reasons: by his death He took away our sins, the only obstacle to our life of love with Him and to our everlasting joy in the new Paradise of the redeemed; and also because his death would be followed by resurrection, so our grief would be short-lived and our joy everlasting. At the night of his death and burial there are tears, but joy comes with the dawn of his rising to ever-glorious life.

We must see, then, in the
crucifixion of Christ, more than suffering and sorrow, more than tragedy and injustice, more than the malice and blasphemy of those who murdered the innocent Lamb of God—we must see love, and we must see glory. For the evangelist John, the crucifixion was an integral part of the glorification of Christ. Indeed, as the Lord was about to begin his Passion, He said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified…” The Gospel tries to convey the mystery of the beauty and glory of God in the suffering and humiliated Man of Sorrows. The Pope has used these two Scripture passages—“You are the fairest of the children of men,” and “He had neither beauty nor majesty”—to highlight this mystery. Christ is the most beautiful of human beings, yet at the climax of his life He had neither beauty nor majesty. Through such a paradox, the Pope says that the Holy Spirit “sets before us the totality of true beauty, of truth itself.”

“Whoever believes in God,” he goes on, “knows that beauty is truth and truth beauty; but in the suffering Christ he also learns that the beauty of truth also involves wounds, pain, and even the obscure mystery of death… Beauty wounds, but that is precisely how it awakens man to his ultimate destiny.” Beauty in its fullness is the “glory of God on the face of Christ” (2Cor. 4:6), be it the face of the newborn King in Bethlehem’s manger or that of the bleeding Man of Sorrows on Golgotha’s Cross. To be wounded by beauty is to be called to transcend the merely aesthetic and to enter the heart of truth, of reality. The beauty on the face of Him who “had neither beauty nor majesty,” as the eyes would perceive it, was the beauty of truth and love. It is a beauty experienced in one’s heart and spirit.

As I wrote some months ago, this beauty is a counter-argument to that which declares beauty an illusion, which sees the violence, horror, and degradation of this fallen world the only actual truth and reality. A certain one-sided view of human history may seem to confirm that. But this is precisely why the “fairest of men” accepted the loss of his external beauty: to manifest that the enduring, profound beauty of divine truth and love can shine through the darkest night, the deepest horror, the most excruciating pain. The fact that there is ugliness and absurdity in the world should not make us think that these are the ultimate realities, but should urge us to seek the hidden beauty, the deeper truth about what God has made. It is man who has disfigured the face of the earth and then proclaimed this distortion to be the fundamental truth. But Christ came to dispel the lie and to manifest redemption and transfiguration in this fallen world.

The transfiguration of Christ on Mt Tabor is one aspect of his glory, one that we might more easily identify as glory. But it is noteworthy that St John does not relate the event of the transfiguration in his Gospel, even though he was an eyewitness of that most extraordinary event. This is for two reasons: first, his whole Gospel is meant to be a transfiguration account, a revelation of the glory of Christ, from the very beginning—“we beheld his glory” (ch. 1), “Jesus…manifested his glory” (ch. 2), etc—and more to the point, the evangelist wanted to show that it is precisely in the lifting up of Christ, his simultaneous humiliation and exaltation on the Cross, that the glory of God is revealed. John is the one who told us that God is Love, and it is the love of God revealed in the self-emptying, self-sacrificing, complete and total oblation of Christ (“He loved them to the end,” ch. 13) that is the measure and manifestation of the true glory of God—even more so than the awe-inspiring, taboric experience of the blinding radiance of Uncreated Light.

So let us look upon Him whom we have pierced, and humble ourselves before Him with love, gratitude, and adoration. Let us, in our contemplation of the inscrutable mystery of the Cross—the place of our profound and life-changing encounter, of our divine adoption—see the love, the beauty, and the glory of God shining on the face of his Son. And therefore let us not flee from the Cross, from its inexorable demands, from its call the share the sacrifice of the Beloved, so that the love and glory of God may take root in us as well, and bear fruit in a life of faithful service, profound gratitude, and a willingness to follow the Lord wherever He leads us. If we lived this life wholly and simply as a grateful response to the forgiveness of our sins, it would be a life well-lived. We exalt the Precious and Life-giving Cross today, not merely as a fitting ritual tribute to the Lord, but as a personal pledge of fidelity, a recognition of his boundless and sacrificial love, and a grateful recollection that only there, the place of the death of the God-Man, were we born anew from his pierced heart and invited to return to Paradise.

All of this, as St Paul says, seems like foolishness to those who live by the “wisdom” of the world, who deny the Cross and mankind’s desperate need for a Savior—that is, to “those who are perishing”—but to us who are being saved, it is the power and the wisdom of God.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Let Delight Shine!

“Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord... Let us greet Him with thanksgiving; let us joyfully sing psalms to Him” (Ps. 94/95:1-2). What for? Sometimes we may feel like the person who, when greeted with a cheerful “Good morning!” responds with a grumpy “What’s good about it?” I'm pretty sure that you are not like that, but just in case....

A few of the obvious reasons we find in Scripture for rejoicing in the Lord are that He is a great God, the Rock of our salvation, and the great King. The Lord is our Shepherd, our Refuge, our Stronghold, and our Savior. He is our Creator, and He is good. The inspired word reminds us that He is faithful, He is loving, He is slow to anger and full of compassion. The Lord is Almighty, Holy, Righteous in judgment, Gracious and merciful, and He is super-eminently worthy to receive honor and glory and blessing, etc., etc. Are you happy yet?

If not, let’s see whence comes our joy in the first place. “At that moment, Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit...” (Lk. 10:21). St. Luke tells us that Jesus burst into joyful praise of his Father, hardly able to contain Himself because the Spirit in Him was overflowing. I describe it like that because Jesus did more than simply rejoice. When St. Luke spoke of the joy of Jesus' disciples after their completion of a successful mission, he used the usual word for rejoicing (khairo). But when he spoke of Jesus’ “rejoicing in the Holy Spirit,” he used a special word (agalliao). This word means to exult, to celebrate, to rejoice with exceeding, even extreme, joy. What was it that so utterly delighted our Lord at that moment?

The irrepressible Spirit in Christ moved Him mightily to exult exceedingly in the Father’s gracious will, in the divine wisdom which turns worldly wisdom upside down. He gave thanks to his Father for revealing the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven to the simple and unlearned, and for hiding them from the “wise” and learned of this world. This tells us something about the personality of Jesus, what fills Him with jubilation. To Him, it was just the greatest thing that the Father willed to entrust the Gospel of eternal salvation to the likes of these uneducated fishermen. He was elated that “the mystery hidden for all ages in God” was unveiled for these unpretentious, common men, and that the know-it-alls were kept totally in the dark!

The Spirit is the Source of joy, but how do we “access” this joy? One sure-fire way (though perhaps unlikely at first thought) is obedience. Being the more or less self-centered, self-willed, rugged individualists that most of us Americans are (or whatever form of hyphenated-American you may be), the idea of obedience—submission of our wills to another’s, or more precisely, to Another’s—is not usually one that spontaneously moves us to make merry. Yet the Psalmist says that the Law of the Lord—that which should rule our unruly wills—“rejoices the heart” (Ps. 18/19:9). Notice in the passage above that it was the Father’s will that was the wellspring of Jesus’ jubilation. All this should tell us something about our tendency to question, criticize, or otherwise undervalue the will of God in its concrete expression in the events of our lives: it should tell us that there’s something wrong with that tendency! Obedience to the will of God—and to those through whom God makes it known (aye, there’s the rub!)—is the path to peace and joy. Perhaps we need to begin by earnestly entreating the Lord: “Open my eyes that I may see how wonderful Your will is for me” (Ps. 118/119:18).

After all, Scripture tells us that we don't even know how to pray (Rom. 8:26), that our knowledge is imperfect (1Cor. 13:9), that God’s ways and thoughts are far superior to ours (Is. 55:8-9), that without Him we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5), even that we bear a remarkable resemblance to brainless beasts (Ps. 48/49:13)! And, by the way, where were you when God founded the earth, created the clouds, arranged the stars and commanded the sun to rise (Job 38)? Given all the above, we should be quite actively seeking the will of God and even entreating Him to let it be done in full in our lives, lest we make a total mess of everything. Why did Jesus take the time and trouble to instruct us about how to live in his love, i.e., according to the Father’s will? “So that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (Jn. 15:11), of course!

The more we put on the mind of Christ and begin to love as He loved (which is not an option, but a commandment; see Jn. 13:34 and 15:12), the more we will joyfully accept whatever trials God permits to befall us. This task is beyond human strength (as you will readily agree), but despair not, for here is the answer: “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). This passage should make us realize, though, that the joy of the Lord cannot be identified with mere happy feelings. It has been said that joy is not found in the absence of suffering, but in the presence of God.

Finally, remember the words of the Psalmist: “If you find your delight in the Lord, He will give you your heart’s desire” (Ps. 36/37:4). It is quite logical that if you really find your delight in the Lord, then your heart’s desire cannot be incompatible with his will for you. Love God, and then all things will work for the good (see Rom. 8:28). Trust in Him and He will act on your behalf. Rejoice in the Lord and you will discover that He is your complete fulfillment. Believe in the power of the word of God to achieve its goal in you (Is. 55:11), and then drop despondency, dump discouragement, and depart from despair! Let the lugubrious lag behind, but you run the race rejoicing, you conquer crises and triumph through trials by the power of the Lord who loves you (Rom. 8:37). Don’t be intimidated by the thought that you have to muster the might or produce the power for all this by yourself (as if you could!), for thus says the Lord: “Not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit...” (Zech. 4:6). So let delight shine!

Monday, September 11, 2006

If You Would be Perfect....

In Matthew 19:16-26, Jesus offers immeasurable treasure to a young man who knows all about wealth, yet who refused the offer. The discussion did not begin with treasure, however, but with good deeds and eternal life. The rich young man already had a comfortable earthly life, so now he wanted to secure for himself a comfortable afterlife—but he had no idea that he would be unwilling to pay the price of it, for he never suspected that the attainment of heavenly treasure would require the sacrifice of earthly treasure. He had, either through shrewd business practice or through an inheritance, amassed many temporal goods. Why should he not now be able, he thought, through certain virtuous deeds, to achieve eternal ones?

So he came to Jesus and asked what good deed he had to do in order to have eternal life. First Jesus tested him to see what he had done up to then, and told him the basics that all must do even to have a chance at eternal life: keep the commandments. Here a question may arise for Christians. The man sought eternal life and asked what he could do to attain it. Jesus said, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” At this point, we see nothing more than fidelity to the Old Testament law being enjoined. Jesus said nothing about faith, only about works, as what is required for salvation.

Discussions on faith and works have been endless since the advent of Protestantism. In one sense, it is somewhat unfortunate for Christians that St Paul had to deal with Jewish converts who insisted on observance of the Mosaic law as integral to Christianity. He had to spend a lot of time correcting an aberration instead of simply giving us the teachings of Christ. So misunderstandings naturally resulted. When St Paul writes about justification by faith apart from works of the law (especially in Romans and Galatians), he is not opposing faith to good works, as some seem to think. “Works of the law” is a technical expression that refers to specific Jewish practices or rituals which were considered to be necessary for righteousness before God, and hence for salvation, for example, circumcision and the Sabbath observance, as well as other prescribed practices required of Jews. The whole thrust of Paul’s argument on justification (and the teaching of the Church from the beginning) is that you don’t have to become a Jew first before you can become a disciple of Christ. Faith, not Jewish practices or rituals, is what is needed to enter into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. But in no way does this faith negate the need to obey the Ten Commandments. That is why in this Gospel account Jesus declares that obedience to the commandments is necessary for salvation.

But there is more to this Gospel than that, and here I’m not yet talking about selling all and giving to the poor. It’s what Jesus said after that, and here is where the essence of Christian faith comes in. Once Jesus said, sell all, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, He said: “Follow Me.” Those two words are a summary of the whole teaching, the whole balance of faith and works unto salvation. Following Jesus presupposes faith in Him. No one would follow Him if they didn’t believe in Him, or at least thought they believed in Him. So the “Me” in “Follow Me” is about faith. Christ is the center, the goal, the personal object of our faith. In today’s colloquialism, we would say: It’s all about Him. But faith isn’t something abstract, an idea, a wish, an empty affirmation. That is why the “follow” in “Follow Me” is necessary. Faith has to be expressed in works. Just ask St James, who wrote about that in detail; and even St Paul said that faith has to work through love. To follow the One in whom we put our faith is to keep the commandments. He said in another place: If you love me, keep my commandments. So, to follow Jesus is to believe in Him, and to believe in Him is to express our profession of faith through love, which means obedience to the commandments of God.

Now we come to another point. Our faith, and its application through love and obedience, is impossible if God has not loved us first and thus created the very possibility of a response. So we learn from St Mark’s Gospel that when the man asked what more he should do, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and then gave him the hard saying which was at the same time the open door to salvation. Here in Matthew’s Gospel He says: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

This is sometimes misinterpreted as a call to perfection that is given to some and not to others. Most people tend to hear those words and say: “Who can be perfect? Nobody’s perfect, and nobody can be perfect, so why even try to do the impossible?” Aside from the important fact that Jesus almost immediately says that with God all things are possible, this reaction to Jesus’ words to the rich young man betrays a misunderstanding of the word “perfect.” Jesus is not saying, “If you would be flawless, immaculate, utterly without fault…” The word used is teleios, which connotes fulfillment, completion, the attainment of a goal, the finished product, so to speak. So Jesus is not imposing on the man an injunction to be something he cannot possibly be—in fact it’s just the opposite: He is saying to Him, “If you would be what you are meant to be, if you would attain the goal of your life, if you would realize God’s plan for you, if you would be fulfilled, complete, all that God has made you to be, then sell all, have treasure in heaven, and come follow Me.”

So this Gospel is really not about wealth and poverty, or even the so-called evangelical counsels. It is about a vital and decisive meeting with Jesus Christ, hearing Him speak the word that defines and directs our lives, and choosing to accept it or to go away sad—and worse than sad, in despair of our salvation. St Teresa of Avila said, “If we turn our backs on Him and go away sorrowfully like the youth in the Gospel when He tells us what to do to be perfect, what can God do? For He must proportion the reward to our love for Him.” Obviously, if we do not do what He tells us, we have no genuine love for Him, even if we deceive ourselves in our thoughts that we actually do. So St Teresa continues, “This love must not be the fabric of our imagination; we must prove it by our works… by persevering, we shall obtain all for which we strive. But, mark this—it must be on one condition—that we hold ourselves for unprofitable servants.” That is, we rely on grace to save us, even though our works are nonetheless required. This is one of the paradoxes of Christianity. We are not saved by works, but we aren’t saved without them, either. God does for us what is impossible for us to do for ourselves, but He still wants something from us to work with.

The defining, directing word we are to seek from Christ, which opens to us our vocation and destiny, will not be the same for all. For the rich man it was the sacrificing of his wealth that would free him to follow Christ and have his treasure in Heaven. For you and me it may be something different. But for each of us there is a special word from the Lord, a word that addresses what we still lack, a word that goes above and beyond the commandments that apply equally to all.

We have to approach Him, then—as Mark says, the rich man knelt down before Him to ask his question—in a spirit of prayer, of adoration, of humility. We ask not only what good deed must we do—for we already know the commandments—but “What do I lack, what is your word for me that will set me free, that will illumine my path, that will secure treasure in heaven, that will enable me to follow You wholeheartedly? That is, if I would be perfect, attain my goal, fulfill your will, become a whole and complete person before you, what must I do, how must I act, what must my life look like in order to please You?”

Do not fear whatever He might tell you, for, looking upon you, He loves you, and with God it will be possible, whatever that word may be or require. So let us not go away sad, but run to Him rejoicing, with boundless faith and trust, loving Him who first loved us and who calls us to the perfection, that is, the fullness, of Christian life. And, having made the necessary sacrifices here on earth, let us prepare to enjoy forever our treasure in Heaven.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Preparing the Feast of the Cross

The Sunday before the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is referred to in the Byzantine tradition, appropriately enough, as the “Sunday before the Holy Cross.” Likewise, and equally appropriately, the Sunday after this feast is known as the “Sunday after the Holy Cross.” Aside from the unassailable logic of these designations, there is the underlying fact that this feast, and hence the mystery of the Holy Cross, is of exalted importance in the faith and life of the Christian. The only other feasts that have Sundays immediately before and after on the liturgical calendar are Christmas and Theophany. While the Gospel of the crucifixion itself is read on the feast, the Sunday before gives us a little of the theology of the Cross, and the Sunday after gives its practical application. But I’d like to give a little of each today.

In the Gospel reading (John 3:13-17), Jesus instructs Nicodemus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Why did Moses lift up a serpent? You have to get the story from the Book of Numbers (21:4-9). The Israelites were once again grumbling against God and Moses in the desert, and God was getting fed up with it, so He sent poisonous serpents to attack them. With this incentive, the people repented and the Lord told Moses to mount an image of a serpent on a pole, and their looking upon this would be the antidote to the serpents’ venom. But now we have to ask: Is Jesus saying that a serpent is an image of Himself?—“As Moses lifted up the serpent, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” No, we’ve already seen the devil appear in the form of a serpent in Eden, so Christ would not adopt that image for Himself. What connects Him to that event in Numbers is the term “lifted up.” Moses “lifted up” the serpent in the desert, and Jesus would be “lifted up” on the Cross (in fact, “lifting up” was a euphemism for crucifixion at that time—see John 8:28: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, you will know that I AM,” and John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself”).

So, lifting up means crucifixion, but the question remains, why link that with Moses and the serpent? The Book of Wisdom gives us the answer in its own commentary on that event: The serpent on the pole was a “sign of salvation” (16:6), and the author makes it clear that it was not the serpent that healed the people, but God, “the Savior of all.” So Jesus is telling us that his crucifixion, his being lifted upon the Cross, is a sign of salvation, and that He, as the Son of God, is the Savior of all.

This is made clear in the next two verses, the first one being one of the most famous and important verses of the whole Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God sent the Son into the world…that the world might be saved through him.” So we see that even if God gets fed up with us because of our sins, his first choice is not to send the destroying angel, but rather to send his Son, so that we might put our faith in Him and be saved. But Jesus didn’t merely appear on earth, saying, “believe in Me and be saved.” His mission was much more costly than that. He says, “Believe in Me who have come to suffer and die for you, so that your sins may be forgiven, so that it will be possible for you to be saved.” For without the forgiveness of our sins, it is impossible for us to be saved.

The evangelist goes on to say that the Light, meaning Christ, has come into the world for our salvation, but many loved darkness instead of the Light. And his next comment is both spiritually and psychologically astute: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” Everyone who does what he knows is wrong tries to hide it, to keep anyone from knowing about it, because if it comes to light he will be exposed as a transgressor. But the Lord also said that whatever is hidden will eventually be revealed and come to light, so that all will know who has tried to hide his sins, and who is able with a clear conscience to bring his deeds into the light of God.

Taking a quick look at practical applications, we turn to St Paul in the epistle reading for this Sunday from Galatians (6:11-18). “Far be it from me,” he exclaims, “to glory, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” Since he understands so well the mystery of the Cross, he glories in nothing else, for he wants nothing else but communion with Christ, “who loved me and gave himself for me,”
as he says earlier in this letter. Paul realized that we have to undergo a kind of mystical crucifixion if we are to be free from sin and the dead weight of this world. Baptism is the indispensable beginning of this, as he explains in Romans, but there is a whole life’s work that follows it. Death must precede resurrection, and throughout our life of faith, little deaths must prepare the way for little resurrections. If we are to attain humility, then pride must be crucified; if we are to attain purity, then impurity must be crucified; if we are to attain peace and inner freedom, then anger and disobedience must be crucified, and so on.

Paul goes on to say that he bears the marks of Jesus on his body. The word in Greek is stigmata. Does this mean that his hands and feet and side were miraculously pierced, as happened to some later saints? Probably not, but we know that he suffered many actual scourgings and beatings for the sake of Christ, and these are Paul’s stigmata. This should make us aware that anything we suffer for Christ’s sake, or any suffering we offer for his sake, or in union with his Cross, will be in a sense the stigmata on our bodies and souls, our communion with the Crucified.

In any case, let us glory only in the Cross of Christ and not in the passing and deceptive attractions of the world and the flesh. All that matters, Paul concludes, is that we become a new creation in Christ. This can only happen through faith and sacramental immersion in the mystery of his death and resurrection, his “lifting up”—his ascent of the Cross and his ascension into Heaven—for our salvation. God so loved the world that He sent his Son to save us. Do we so love God that we will respond with our whole heart to his offer of salvation? “Peace and mercy upon all,” says the Apostle, for Jesus Christ loved us and gave Himself for us.