Monday, November 27, 2006

Watching and Waiting

Advent is a time for spiritual vigilance (the Advent fast begins in the Byzantine tradition on November 15), so we’re going to do some serious watching and waiting this week, with our annual Advent silent retreat. So I’ll not be blogging this week, but I’ll be back on the weekend. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a brief reflection by Cardinal Newman on watching and waiting for the Lord. Let us pray for each other!

“Our Saviour gave this warning when He was leaving this world—leaving it, that is, as far as His visible presence is concerned. He looked forward to the many hundred years which were to pass before He came again. He knew His own purpose and His Father's purpose gradually to leave the world to itself, gradually to withdraw from it the tokens of His gracious presence. He contemplated, as contemplating all things, the neglect of Him which would spread even among his professed followers… He foresaw the state of the world and the Church, as we see it this day, when His prolonged absence has made it practically thought that He never will come back…

“He mercifully whispers into our ears, not to trust in what we see, not to share in that general unbelief, not to be carried away by the world, but to ‘take heed, watch, pray,’ and look out for His coming. Surely this gracious warning should be ever in our thoughts, being so precise, so solemn, so earnest.

“He foretold His first coming, yet He took His Church by surprise when He came; much more will He come suddenly the second time, and overtake men, now that He has not measured out the interval before it, as then He did, but left our watchfulness to the keeping of faith and love… We are not simply to believe, but to watch; not simply to love, but to watch; not simply to obey, but to watch; to watch for what? For that great event, Christ's coming…” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 4, #22).

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Word of Truth Sets Us Free

Jesus said that if we continue in his word we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. Primarily, the truth we come to know is Jesus Himself, for He said, “I am the Truth.” The crippled woman whom Jesus healed in the Gospel (Luke 13:10-17) must have come to know Him, for He said, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” A few verses later, as Jesus was explaining this Sabbath cure to the synagogue leader, He again spoke of her liberation: “This daughter of Abraham, whom satan has bound for 18 years, ought she not to have been set free…?” So we see that it is not a matter of indifference that we come to know the liberating truth of Christ. For if we are not set free by Him we remain bound by satan.

Jesus said elsewhere that to sin is to enter into bondage or enslavement. So the primary liberation Christ brings is freedom from sin—because the bondage to sin prevents us from entering the Kingdom of Heaven, and Jesus came to seek and save the lost. Was this crippled woman in sin, that Jesus should say she was bound by satan? Perhaps, but we are not told explicitly. It could be that, as in the case of the blind man (John 9) that her affliction was not due to sin but was for the sake of the manifestation of the glory of God when Christ should appear to heal her. But all sickness and bodily sufferings are generally categorized as “physical evils,” and as such have a relation to sin—not necessarily as a direct result of one’s personal sin, but the fact is that suffering is in the world only because sin is in the world.

Our liberation comes from continuing in Jesus’ word, as He said. But what does that mean? Does it mean reading the Bible every day? Yes, but that’s not all it means. Just as Jesus is in his own person the Truth, He is also in his own person the Word. So continuing in his word is not only regularly reading the words on the pages of the Bible. The term translated “continue” is a form of the Greek meno, which has several meanings. It means persevere with, remain, abide, dwell within. It’s the same word used when Jesus said: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (Jn. 6:56). So in order to know the truth that sets us free from satan’s bondage, we have to abide in the Word, in the living and eternal Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. There are no simple formulas or techniques for gaining sanctity or salvation. Everything always hinges upon a personal relationship of faith and love with Christ, and through Him with the All-holy Trinity. That’s how we come to know the truth; that’s how we are set free from the crippling bondage of sin and spiritual slavery.

I would also like to look at this Gospel passage in light of the previous nine verses, which in a certain way set the context. Here Jesus speaks in two different ways about repentance. He first gives examples of two groups of people who suffered sudden and tragic deaths. His question was: Do you think they were worse sinners than everyone else because that happened to them? And his conclusion: No, but I tell you that you will all likewise perish if you do not repent. I referred to this Gospel five years ago in an article on the 9/11 tragedy: do you think that those who were in the World Trade Center were worse sinners than all other New Yorkers? No, but if people don’t repent, they can expect similarly to perish. Such events serve as reminders of our need to repent. The victims of these tragedies were not singled out for their greater sinfulness, but their deaths show us what can happen at any time, and hence the need for always being ready to stand before God when our souls are required of us.

Similarly, what about the woman bent over by infirmity for 18 years? Was she a worse sinner than all others in Jerusalem? No, the Lord would say, but if you do not repent, you will in some way also be bound by satan. This woman, unlike those upon whom the tower in Siloam fell or those that died when the Twin Towers fell, was given time, allowed to live to see the day of her healing and liberation, and perhaps this was evidence of her repentant heart and her faith in God. This leads us to look at the parable of repentance that immediately precedes the account of her healing. Here there is a call for repentance, but without the sudden death of the sinner. Here a plea is made for a little more time to amend one’s life before the definitive judgment comes.

The owner of the fig tree noticed that it had not borne any fruit for three years, so he ordered it to be cut down. But his gardener said that he would work with it for one more year, and if it bore fruit, all well and good; if not, it would be cut down. I wonder if perhaps we could consider our guardian angels to be the gardeners of our souls (then they’d be gardening angels!). They work with us and try to get us to bear the fruit of the Spirit. Perhaps the Master, if He sees we are bearing no fruit, will prepare to pronounce an unfavorable—though righteous and true—judgment upon us, but our angels ask Him to give us a little more time. They will work with us, so that perhaps we will begin the bear the required fruit. And if so, then there will be rejoicing among the angels of God, as Jesus said, over the repentance of a single sinner. But we have to be aware of the importance of preparing our souls to meet God, because even if we are granted a “stay of execution,” it will not be permanent; our accountability still remains, and the day of our death will inexorably arrive.

Advent is a time for reflecting upon our spiritual lives—the extent to which we may still be in bondage to sin, and hence to satan; the extent to which we have heeded the call to repentance, to change our lives sufficiently to bear good spiritual fruit. Let us ask our “gardening” angels to do whatever it takes to enable us to bear this fruit so as to be pleasing to the Master and be allowed to flourish, not only in the harsh climate and rocky soil of this life, but forever in the heavenly paradise.

If we ask our angels what we have to do to co-operate with God’s grace and their labors to make us fruitful, they will probably say: If you abide in Jesus’ words, that is, in the Word who is Jesus, you will come to know the truth, that is, the Truth that is Jesus, and the Truth will set you free from your infirmities and bondage—free to bear fruit for the glory of God and for the happiness of the angels who rejoice over repentant sinners.

So, as we come one step closer to the great celebration of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, let us go a little deeper into prayer, into the examination of our consciences, into reflection upon the mysteries revealed in Sacred Scripture, into the spirit of watching and waiting that characterizes this holy season—all of which means abiding in the Word, the Truth that sets us free to live as disciples and friends of our Lord. How wonderful it will be to feel the healing hand of the Lord upon us, to hear Him saying to us: “You are set free from your infirmities.” Then, like the once-bent woman, we will stand up straight and give glory to God!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Structures of Plausibility

I read something interesting in a book by John Breck entitled Longing for God. He refers to a book by a theologian named Frances Young (the book is called Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture—it seems daunting in its scholarship, but I decided to order it anyway!).

I’ll first give Fr Breck’s comments: “There she speaks about the current secularized worldview that hampers interpreters of the Bible in their attempts to uncover its true message because of the inability of that worldview to perceive transcendent, spiritual reality present and acting within the material universe. Young notes that a culture ‘receives’ a text in such a way that the meaning of the text is accepted or contested depending on the ‘plausibility structures’ of that culture. Where the plausibility structures of a particular mind-set do not allow for an interpenetration of transcendent, spiritual reality in the material world, then the ultimate criterion for what is true will be factuality: that is, whether the matter in question is objectively real and therefore historically determinable… To acquire the ‘mind of the Fathers’ is to adopt and internalize ‘structures of plausibility’ that see beyond historical facts to the transcendent, divine Presence revealed in and through those facts. The Exodus, like the Exile into Babylon, is grounded in historical occurrence… The same may be said for the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ, which we affirm without qualification to be historical events. Yet for those events to have meaning for us—to work their saving power in our lives—they must first be interpreted for us by the biblical authors, and then received by us in faith. Our worldview must be marked by a profound plausibility, a bedrock conviction that the material universe is indeed interpenetrated by another reality, a reality that is God—transcendent divine Life—who is present and active in every aspect of material reality, with the aim of leading us through this world and into His eternal embrace.”

I find this very interesting. It may be that, to a certain extent, the widespread falling away from faith which began with the so-called Enlightenment, and which has accelerated in the past few decades, has been facilitated by a change in the “structures of plausibility,” the criteria which are generally accepted in a given time or culture for determining what one will believe to be true or real. If such structures are based solely on scientific or empirical verifiability, then it will be hard for people to believe in a God who is not subject to such verification—and who, even if it were possible for Him to be thus subject, would probably resist it anyway, because He wants us to live by faith!

The secular worldview does not allow for the presence of God in the world, even if it does barely tolerate a notion of subjective religious belief. It does not give the Creator a place in creation, does not take seriously any worldview that accepts the reality of God as inseparable from the reality of the world we perceive through our senses. This is one reason that there is such hatred for anyone who would attempt to justify, by religious principles (even very general and non-confessional ones), their positions on various social and political issues. Believers have different structures of plausibility than unbelievers do, but the unbelievers are adamant in insisting that their criteria for what is true and real must be the foundation for the law of the land, and every other voice must be silenced—especially if it happens to be a Christian voice!

What we see today in Western society is not merely a diversity of views on various issues, but conflicting structures of plausibility which serve to define the worldviews of different groups of people. Therefore one cannot hope simply to convince another of the truth of one’s position by the rational force of a more convincing argument. One has to first discover the criteria another employs for accepting the very possibility that a given proposition or argument may be true. A worldview that is influenced by the Bible and the Church will be quite different from an atheist/materialist one, and there’s a point at which dialogue ceases because of irreconcilable fundamental assertions or denials.

I won’t try to go into more detail until I read the book! But one of the conclusions I come to is (for believers) the necessity of prayer, because the grace of God reaches places where dialogue fails. If someone’s worldview includes the rejection of the supernatural and the divine, then only an interior enlightenment by the Holy Spirit will be of any use in enabling him to see the whole truth. And the grace of the Spirit works through prayer.

Also, we may wish to ask ourselves what our own structures of plausibility are. What criteria do we use to determine what is real, what is true? Do miracles, angels, divine providence, Heaven and Hell fit into your worldview? To what extent do you accept the presence and activity of God in the world, in your life? We have to be careful that we don’t inadvertently or gradually allow secular or solely scientific plausibility structures to become our own, and thus to interfere with our reading of Scripture, our acceptance of Church tradition and teaching, and the way we look at life and the world. It’s all too common for people to jettison traditional beliefs and ways of interpreting reality in favor of “evolved” mentalities and approaches that dismiss as hopelessly antiquated anything other than their own limited (and often flawed or even dishonest and self-serving) criteria for knowledge or belief.

It’s not a matter of forcing ourselves to adopt a “pre-scientific” worldview in the name of religion. It’s a matter simply of realizing God’s place in the world—at the heart of all that He has made, present and active in human history, giving meaning and hope where the secular worldview can only offer despair (or a web of lies, to keep you from seeing that their position can only lead to despair). When our plausibility structure includes transcendent realities, then we’re on the way to the truth that sets us free.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Responsible Thanksgiving

Usually on Thanksgiving Day I make some remarks about the choice of readings for the Divine Liturgy, since they are, well, remarkable (1Tim. 6:6-11,17-19 and Luke 12:13-15,22-31). They are remarkable inasmuch as they are counter-cultural, and may even be seen by some as throwing a wet blanket on the usual self-indulgent festivities. While everyone is overeating and overdrinking, Jesus says: “beware of greed, for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” and “do not be anxious about what you shall eat… instead, seek the Kingdom of God…” And St Paul warns the wealthy (and those who want to be wealthy) that they are setting themselves up for ruin and destruction, and not to set their hopes on uncertain riches, but to be content with God’s providence.

We know that 1-2% of the world’s people are extremely wealthy, another few percent are moderately well-off, and the rest are relatively poor or extremely destitute. Our celebration of Thanksgiving should not be pharisaical, using, in effect, the same words of prayer that the Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel used: “I thank you, O God, that I am not like the others…”—the poor and starving, those without shelter or medical care. Thanksgiving is not about being grateful that we’re better off than others, for that very state of affairs indicates a situation of injustice in our world. We’re not supposed to be better off than others, and if we are, we have to share what we have so as to help others become better off than they are right now.

It is not enough for us to sit back in our easy chairs and say, “hey, like thanks, God, for all this stuff,” and then return to our turkey and beer and football without a second thought. For God will say, “hey, like when are you going to truly thank Me by sharing your stuff with My poor ones?” Remember that little story about the man who complained to God about all the poverty and misery he saw around him, and asked God why He didn’t do anything about it. God answered him: “I did do something about it. I made you.”

Thanksgiving does mean gratitude for what the Lord has granted us, materially and spiritually, but it does not imply luxuriating in comfort and abundance. Rather, it implies a response that shows that we care as much about others as God cares about us. “Thanks-giving”: first we thank, then we give, so that others may be able to thank.

Responsibility as an element of thanksgiving is found throughout the Scriptures. When the Israelites were about to take possession of the promised land, the Lord reminded them of all the blessings He was granting them, but warned them that if they disobeyed his commandments then curses would fall on them. And when Jesus healed the paralytic by the pool, he said to him: “sin no more, lest something worse befall you.” We are not only to receive, but to give; what we receive is not to be jealously hoarded but responsibly shared.

God has ways of rewarding those who are generous with what they have received from Him. I remember making a fairly large donation to the poor at one time, and wondering if I was perhaps giving away too much, due to our own financial situation. Well, that same day a woman walked in, and without a word of explanation handed me the exact amount I had just given away. So I knew that I had done the right thing (it was the right thing anyway, but that kind of confirmation is always welcome!). And that is not the only time such things have happened. God not only loves a cheerful giver, He rewards a generous giver.

While we are celebrating Thanksgiving, let us not limit our reflections or actions to the sphere of material things. We should all make the effort to be present on Thanksgiving Day at the ultimate act of thanksgiving, the Holy Eucharist which, I’m sure you’ve heard many times, means “thanksgiving.” We often give thanks in our liturgical prayers. In the priest’s prayer before the “Holy, holy, holy,” we give thanks several times: “It is proper and just to sing hymns to You, to bless You, to praise You, to thank You, to worship You…” After a short summary of what God has done for us, we continue: “For all this we give thanks to You… for all that we know and do not know, the manifest and hidden benefits bestowed upon us. We thank you also for this Sacrifice, which You have willed to accept from our hands…”

We thank God the Father for the sacrifice of his only-begotten Son, by which we are sanctified and saved, and that this sacrifice is made present to us, in its fullness of grace and love and spiritual fruitfulness, every time we approach the holy altar to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. This is a gift for which mere thanks are not enough. So we fall down in worship before the Lord, and we recognize in gratitude our responsibility to live what we receive, to be other Christs in the world, to live his Gospel and to allow the grace of the Holy Eucharist to refashion us in the likeness of God which we had lost through sin, and which is daily obscured by our perseverance therein. God has a continual remedy for our continual failures, but we may not take his grace for granted, lest we share the fate of that lazy servant who “begins to…eat and drink and get drunk,” thinking his Master is a long way off, and that his accountability can be postponed. But the Master suddenly shows up and catches him in the act of his unfaithfulness and punishes him severely.

So let us be faithful stewards of the gifts of God, whether they be food, clothing, and shelter, love and friendship, protection from visible and invisible enemies, the gifts of grace in the sacraments and scriptures and in prayer, and the hope of eternal life. Let us receive all in a spirit of humility and gratitude, and with a responsible resolve to be good to others as God has been good to us. And remember, as we pray in every Liturgy, that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming from the Father” (James 1:17), so in seeking first his Kingdom we receive everything we need, in this age and in the age of glory to come.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Temple Enters the Temple

The following is my homily for the Feast of the Entrance (or Presentation) of the Mother of God into the Temple. It is still a solemn feast for the Byzantine Churches, though it is evidently something of an embarrassment in the West, since it has been reduced to a mere memorial after Vatican II. Such feasts, like those of St Nicholas and St George, are deemed not to have sufficient historical basis, and so are quietly relegated to the lowest ranks of liturgical observance, if they are allowed to remain on the calendar at all. Therefore:

Today I’d like to say something about history, or rather, salvation history, which is not exactly the same thing. History, at least from a kind of journalistic perspective, deals with events and the facts that constitute these events (though even the most "objective" historical accounts are seldom free from interpretive reporting). Salvation history also deals with events, but insofar as they reveal something about the intervention of God within these events, and hence the most profound meaning of these events. Divine intervention and spiritual significance are the keys to the proper understanding of salvation history.

Therefore, for example, in the account of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, the event of the parting of the Red Sea (astounding as that was) and the trek to the Promised Land are not recounted merely to preserve a record of what happened in those days, but to celebrate what God had done on behalf of his people. What happened was that the Red Sea parted, Israel crossed, and the sea covered and drowned the pursuing Egyptians. But what it means is that God chose this people out from all the nations as his own and manifested Himself as their Savior by miraculously rescuing them, making a covenant with them in the desert and giving them a rich and fertile land.

Similarly, in the New Testament, we might read, for example, the account of the darkening of the sun at Jesus’ crucifixion as mere history, an interesting solar phenomenon, perhaps a total eclipse. But from the perspective of salvation history, that is not what it means. Theologians and hymnographers will tell you that it is an apocalyptic sign of the advent of the Day of the Lord, a symbol of the mourning of all creation over the death of the Son of God, etc. The meaning of the event is valued much more highly than the mere accounting of its details. I don’t think you’ll ever find a liturgical hymn that reads: “O Lord, the moon, following its established orbit, happened to pass between the earth and the sun, momentarily darkening the land, which coincidentally occurred while You were crucified, and then continued its orbit just like any other day, until the calculations of astronomers inform us that such a rare, though natural, phenomenon will happen again. Glory be to You!”

We ought to look at the mystery of today’s feast from the perspective of salvation history—the intervention of God and the spiritual significance of the event. The historical event is that of young Mary of Nazareth being brought to the Temple in Jerusalem to be offered to the Lord by her parents, a common enough occurrence in those days. But the meaning of this event, as we learn from the liturgical texts, is far deeper, and in order to liturgically explore this meaning, certain embellishments have been added to the historical event. But everything hinges on who Mary is and what it means that she was brought to the Temple to be consecrated to God.

The essence of the feast is found in these lines: “Today the living temple of the holy glory of Christ our God, Mary, the pure and blessed one, is presented to the Temple… She will become a most holy temple to our Most Holy God who, by dwelling in her, sanctified the whole creation and made our fallen nature godly.” Let us try to understand the meaning of this bit of salvation history.

In the Tent of Meeting in the desert and in the Temple at Jerusalem (as we heard in the readings at Vespers) the glory of the Lord fills the place, whether tent or temple, to signify the divine presence. “The glory of the Lord filled the temple,” and the people worship Him with reverence and awe. So Our Lady is first of all called not just the new temple of the Lord, but the “living temple of the holy glory of Christ our God.” To say that his glory is in her is to make clear the connection between her and the places God had chosen to dwell on earth before the incarnation of his Son.

For this living temple to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem signifies two related things. First, Mary is replacing the Temple of Jerusalem as God’s chosen dwelling place, and second, as the new and living temple of the living God, her very presence there prophetically declares the old Temple to be obsolete. St Paul spoke of the law of Moses becoming a dead letter with the advent of the grace of Christ, and so the glory of the Lord will soon depart the inanimate Temple of Jerusalem and fill the living temple, Mary, bringing about the incarnation of the Son of God.

According to the liturgical text I quoted earlier, the entrance of God into the temple that is Mary (which is his foreordained response to the entrance of Mary into the Temple of God) accomplishes first the Incarnation of Christ for the salvation of our souls, but then two fruits of this incarnation are mentioned: the sanctification of creation and that of fallen human nature. Both humanity and the whole universe are at least potentially sanctified by the very fact of the Incarnation. By uniting the uncreated divine nature to the created human nature, especially in the material aspect of the body, God has immeasurably ennobled creation and especially man. This intimate, inseparable union of God and man in Jesus Christ is the fountainhead of all sanctification of matter and hence is the source of grace for the sacraments, the icons, and every way that grace can be communicated through a created medium. The mystery of Christ’s transfiguration is a visible manifestation of this power of the Incarnation, for the divine glory was seen shining through the created medium of the body, the humanity of Christ.

All this, by extension, is what we celebrate today in prefigurement and prophecy. Because Mary was set aside to be the living temple of the glory of God; because God chose her to be the one through whom the eternal Son and Word of God would become man for our sanctification and salvation, the whole mystery of uncreated grace communicated through created matter would begin to unfold. It is no coincidence that Our Lady, as the living temple of God, would become the living icon of the redeemed and sanctified Church of God which, as St Peter says, is built with living stones—all those saved by the grace of the Lord.

I think that historically we can’t assume that Mary was aware all this (or perhaps any of this, for at the time of her entrance into the Temple she was but three years old), so this exhortation is given her in the liturgy: “Enter the veiled places and learn the mysteries of God. Prepare yourself to be a delightful dwelling place for Jesus…” This exhortation is given to us as well. We are called to enter the veiled places, that is, the depths of contemplation that lead us to the threshold of the presence of God, who dwells in inaccessible Light and awe-inspiring glory. There we are to learn—if we are pure of heart and filled with faith and love for the Lord—the mysteries of God. We will then not only be able to rightly interpret salvation history, but we will become dwelling places for Jesus, we will walk in the light of the glory of his face. We don’t always have to be aware of what God is doing in us—sometimes his purposes are better served if we don’t—as long as we trust that He is working all things for the good. We will, in time, discover what can be revealed only to those who believe and who love, and who are willing to be consecrated to the fulfillment of the will of God in total surrender to his mysterious—and perhaps seemingly obscure—yet all-captivating beauty and irrepressible life, which, as St Ignatius the God-bearer says, murmurs like a subterranean stream within us, saying: “Come to the Father.”

So let us, who have entered this temple to worship God and honor Our Lady, allow the incarnate God, the Son, to enter the temple of our souls and bodies in Holy Communion. And may He take us to the veiled places where we can learn the mysteries of God and thus make it the vocation of our lives to be living temples of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

It is the Lord!

Fishing all night on the Sea of Tiberias, the disciples drew up nothing but empty nets. Still incredulous over the astounding events of the past few days, they probably had wanted to engage in some familiar activity in order to ground themselves in some accustomed reality, to give themselves a chance to reflect upon what they had so recently experienced. But they could never just pick up where they had left off before meeting Jesus, so their attempt to return to their old way of life was necessarily fruitless. On the advice of a stranger standing on the shore, however, they cast their nets once more and made a catch worthy of the most extravagant "fish story." So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" (Jn 21:7).

How did the Beloved Disciple recognize the Lord? Jesus was a hundred yards away, so he couldn't see his features. Even if he could, Scripture implies that after Jesus' resurrection one couldn't always tell who He was, even by looking Him in the face. Once on shore, "None of the disciples dared ask him, 'Who are you?', for they knew it was the Lord" (Jn 21:12). It would have been pointless for the evangelist to make such a statement if Jesus was immediately and physically recognizable to them, as He had been before his resurrection. This phenomenon is even more explicit in Mark: "he appeared in a different form to two of them, as they were walking into the country" (16:12). So Jesus didn't always look like Jesus once He rose from the dead.

The risen Christ was recognized by the miracle He performed. It was upon seeing the unexpected catch of fish that John exclaimed to Peter that it was the Lord. Therefore, says the Scripture, John knew it was Jesus. We learn, then, that it is not necessary to see Jesus with our bodily eyes to be aware of his presence and activity in the events of our lives. We just need to read the signs and credit Him with the wonders. Blessed are those who believe without seeing, but who can perceive and recognize the divine presence by faith and spiritual awareness.

When we live by faith we realize that our lives are governed by Providence and not by chance. In the Christian world-view, God is not far away but ever-present to our needs and concerns, responding with a generosity that can only be called divine. Have you received a blessing? It is the Lord: "Blessed be God...who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing..." (Eph 1:3). Have you ever been treated with compassion or received any consolations? It is the Lord, "the Father of compassion and God of all consolation..." (2Cor 1:3), working directly or through others. Have you received gifts or had any good experiences? It is the Lord, for "every gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights..." (Jas 1:17). Jesus is standing on the shore, trying to direct our labors on the sea of life, and if we obey his word we will discover unexpected treasures and recognize that they all come from Him.

"We walk by faith, not by sight" (2Cor 5:7). Jesus is with us always, but we have to look for Him with eyes of faith. Often He appears "in a different form," as He did to the disciples on their way to Emmaus, who recognized Him only "in the breaking of the bread" (Lk 24:35). In the Holy Eucharist the Lord appears to us in a different form. He doesn't look like Jesus; He looks like bread and wine. But when I stand at the holy altar and see the consecrated Gifts, I dare not ask, "Who are you?", for I know it is the Lord.

Our spiritual senses need to be sharpened if we are to experience the enrichment of life that God wills to grant us through his constant loving activity in and around us. We can leave the complete and visible manifestation of his glory to the Last Day. For now let us live by faith, with the sensitivity it gives us to "see" the Lord in his works, to know his presence in sunsets and sacraments, in little signs and great wonders. Then we can, with conviction and joy, bring the message to others: "It is the Lord!"

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Ninefold Fruit

After having explained the Pauline doctrine of the “works of the flesh,” I think I ought to give equal time to the fruit of the Spirit. For it is not enough simply to avoid evil, but we must positively do good if we are to please the Lord. Remember what He said about the possibility of more evil spirits returning after the first one has been cast out…

So here’s the list of the ninefold fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. We begin with agápe (love). Notice he did not use other words for love, like eros (desire and passion) or filia (friendship). There’s a place for each of those in the Christian life (though eros is the one most susceptible to distortion, exaggeration, or abuse), but as fruit of the Holy Spirit, Paul chooses agápe, because this is the self-giving, self-sacrificing love which is most characteristic of Christ and hence of Christians. It is a love that is wholly focused on the beloved and not on the benefit of the one who loves. Thus it is devoid of self-interest. Of this love Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Next is khara (joy). This, as you might guess, does not mean mere fun or superficial, fleeting happiness. For St Paul often says that he rejoices in his sufferings, and sufferings are no fun at all! This is the kind of joy that comes from a deep faith and trust, that endures trials in hope—in short, the “joy that no one will take from you” (John 16:22). As such it comes from life in the Holy Spirit, for all lesser joys can be easily lost. Likewise, the next on the list, eirini (peace), is not a mere emotional tranquility or absence of conflict but, as a fruit of the Spirit, it is the “peace that passes all understanding,” the peace that “keeps your heart and mind in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). Thus it remains deep in the soul even during struggles or trials, for this peace comes from, and reaches out to, Heaven, in which our souls are anchored if we are living in the Spirit.

Continuing the list, we come to makrothymia (literally, “long-suffering,” but often translated “patience”). The manifestation of this fruit indicates that we are most likely already bearing the first three. For if we love we can rejoice, and if we are rejoicing in love we are at peace, and fortified with these three we can endure patiently whatever hardships we are required to bear in the service of the Lord and of his people. The fact that it is so hard for many of us to be patient and long-suffering ought to give us pause to reflect on the measure of love, joy, and peace in our lives.

The next two are practically synonyms: khristotis (kindness) and agathosyne (goodness). The former we might call gentle, benign, obliging, gracious, agreeable, and the latter beneficent, generous, upright, and in general, virtuous. (You may think that khristotis is a form of khristos, Christ, but the difference is between a Greek iota and an ita, which are pronounced the same, but are different letters in Greek. You can guess that there would be plays on the word in Scripture, as in 1Peter 2:3—“the Lord is kind” sounds just like “the Lord is Christ”). Be that as it may, kindness and goodness are Christ-like virtues and hence belong in the life of anyone who wishes to bear the fruit of the Spirit. These too, are not easy, for we often see much more rudeness, roughness, stinginess, and disagreeable selfishness than kindness and goodness.

Pistis (literally, “faith,” but usually translated “faithfulness,” for it also means honesty and integrity) is the next fruit of the Spirit. This is what keeps us bearing all the above fruits, for without faithfulness and integrity, we may sometimes bear the fruit of the Spirit and sometimes indulge in the works of the flesh, manifesting ourselves as the unstable, double-minded (literally, “two-souled”) people that St James says cannot expect to receive anything from the Lord (1:7-8). Faithfulness carries us through both good times and bad, and will place us among the good and faithful servants who enter forever into their Master’s joy.

The eighth element of the fruit of the Spirit is prautis (meekness, forbearance, gentleness). It is similar to “kindness” above, though it seems that meekness is a kind of quality of being which bears all with equanimity, while kindness has a more active expression toward others. It seems also to be similar to patience and long-suffering. These are attitudes that reflect Him who went like a lamb to the slaughter, who opened not his mouth in the face of unjust condemnation—and who said to learn from Him, for He Himself is meek (praus) and humble of heart (Mt. 11:29).

Finally, we come to the end of the list with egkrateia (self-control). This is sometimes translated “chastity,” which is certainly an important part of the meaning, but the term has a wider significance. It also means temperance, and in general the strength that underlies all forms of continence and self-control. This is obviously necessary in our modern society, in which all moral restraints are often seen as undesirable. There’s a curious reversal in the true order of things, where the self-controlled (who are really the strong) are considered weak and bound to archaic taboos, while the out-of-control hedonists (who are really the weak, being enslaved to every desire) are looked upon as the heroes of freedom and zest for life. But as we saw a few days ago, Scripture makes it clear that our freedom is given to serve one another in love, and our wayward passions are to be brought to the Cross, so that the Holy Spirit can make the fruit of self-control grow in joyful abundance.

St Paul goes on to say that if we are to bear the fruit of the Spirit we must “walk” by the Spirit, which means walk in his ways, live according to his guidance and revelation, follow his lead. We must “crucify” what is evil so that what is good can rise and shine forth. This will bring us to fullness of life, in this age and in the age to come. Having seen these past few days the works of the flesh, what it means to be unrighteous, and the fruit of the Holy Spirit, with all that these entail, what kind of person would you like to be?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Do Not Be Deceived

If you put your faith in Christ, are you automatically saved? And being thus “saved,” is it impossible for you to lose your salvation? Or are there things that can still keep a believer out of Heaven should he or she choose to practice them? Do not be deceived, says St Paul, there are whole lists of them. We’ll take a look at his two main lists here.

There’s a list in Galatians 5:19-21 and another in First Corinthians 6:9-10. The former are called “works of the flesh” and are the kinds of behavior that exclude one from Heaven if one practices them. The latter are categories of the unrighteous, that is, the kinds of people who do such things. St Paul minces no words about any of these. In Galatians he says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Clear, no? In First Corinthians he says, “Do not be deceived; neither [he begins his list] nor [he completes his list] will inherit the kingdom of God.” OK, no room for ambiguity or qualification there. Let’s get on with it.

First, the works of the flesh. He begins with sexual sins, three categories of them: porneia (fornication), akatharsia (uncleanness, impurity), and aselgeia (lewdness, licentiousness). Our sex-saturated society ought to be put on notice, for many people are excluding themselves from Heaven through sexual immorality. Next comes eidololatria (idolatry, which takes many forms these days), then pharmakeia (sorcery; covers all manner of occultism, witchcraft, etc). It’s interesting to notice that etymologically—but not morally—pharmacists come under this category, I guess because they mix “potions” for the sick. But perhaps those who create contraceptives and abortifacients are sorcerers in a way.

So far we might be in general, if slightly uneasy, agreement that such practices keep us forever out of the presence of God. But the list is much longer, and includes things which we may find ourselves practicing occasionally or even on a regular basis: ekhthrai (enmities), eris (strife), zilos (jealousy), thumoi (outbursts of anger), eritheiai (rivalries), dokhostasiai (divisions), aireseis (factions or sects, from which comes the English “heresies”), phthonoi (envyings), methai (drunkenness), and komoi (revelings or carousings). Here is much material for examining one’s conscience if one would hope for Heaven. We can assume that it is not an occasional slip into these things that excludes us from Paradise, but perseverance in them, without repentance.

We’re not finished yet. Moving on to First Corinthians, we get a list of the unrighteous. Three of these types are repeated from the list above: fornicators, idolaters, and drunkards. The new list additionally contains: moikhoi (adulterers), malakoi (effeminate persons; the lexicon says, “prone to unnatural lust”), arsenokoitai (sodomites—let us not think that changing social or cultural tolerations reduce the force of the word of God), kleptai (thieves), pleonektai (covetous or greedy persons), loidoroi (revilers), and arpages (rapacious persons, i.e., the violent, or those given to robbery, extortion, or plunder).

There you have it. Now you know what keeps a person out of Heaven. Perhaps these lists are incomplete, and a careful study of Scripture will reveal more, like blasphemy, pride, hatred, and murder, but if we can avoid all that is on these lists, specially drawn up for this urgent apostolic admonition, we will be well on our way to the Kingdom—practicing, of course, all the virtuous counterparts to these vices. We must also be aware that repentance is the remedy for any and all of them. It is only the unrepentant that will be refused entry into the Kingdom of Heaven, but we have to work diligently now, because if vices become habitual, we either become enslaved by them or our consciences become so dulled and distorted that we don’t even recognize them as evil anymore and hence refuse to repent of them.

So do not be deceived—by slick self-appointed re-interpreters of the Bible, by the specious claims of those who don’t even believe in God or accept his righteousness, by the various political or social agendas of the day, by well-meaning but deluded or misguided people who tolerate evil in the name of tolerance, or even by your own "wishing things were some other way so that life would be easier" daydreams. If the word of God says that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, then those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven!

Let us pray for a great awakening of consciences, an enlightenment of minds and hearts, clear understanding of the wisdom of God, an abundance of genuine repentance, and a spirit of faith, love, and obedience to the divine commandments—for God desires all to be saved. But salvation, while a gift on God’s part, is a choice on ours.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Thinking Out Loud on Law and Freedom

I say “thinking out loud” because I don’t really want to present this as a teaching. I haven’t quite come to my own conclusions on this elusive and complex matter of freedom (free will and the biblical “freedom of the children of God”), something that I’ve wrestled with for many years. But here are some tentative reflections.

I wonder sometimes if we even know in what consists the freedom the Gospel grants us. Many seem to like the “security” (even if rather confining) that the clear Old Testament laws give us. St Paul says to the Galatians: “You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid I have labored over you in vain” (4:10-11). We too observe all these things in our liturgical calendars. He says to the Colossians: “Why do you live as though you still belonged to this world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch?” (2:21). We have similar regulations and prohibitions. Have we merely substituted the words "New Testament" for "Old Testament," but do not live much differently? Have we changed the subject matter of the ordinances but left the basic structure and mentality the same?

We may well wonder, along with Dostoyevsky, if human beings even want to be free, really, if we aren’t rather terrified with the true meaning of it, if we will do anything to avoid the frightening responsibility of real freedom, though we still champion the cause and use the language of freedom. Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor takes up the matter with Christ: “I tell you that man has no more tormenting care than to find someone to whom he can hand over as quickly as possible that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature is born… Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil? There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either… Instead of taking over men’s freedom, you increased it and forever burdened the kingdom of the human soul with its torments. You desired the free love of man, that he should follow you freely… Instead of the firm ancient law, man had henceforth to decide for himself, with a free heart, what is good and what is evil, having only your image before him as a guide—but did it not occur to you that he would eventually reject and dispute even your image and your truth if he was oppressed by so terrible a burden as freedom of choice?... You thirsted for love that is free, and not for the servile raptures of a slave before a power that has left him permanently terrified…” Do we not secretly prefer to be subject to the terrifying power of the Almighty than to be responsible for the terrifying power of the freedom He has given us?

I wrote the following a few years ago and have yet to find truly satisfactory answers. It may seem to be a bit of a rant, but I wonder if others sometimes think the same:

“Being ‘in Christ Jesus’ is what the New Covenant is all about. But for many people such an intimate relationship is so unsettling, so resistant to control and calculation, that they much prefer someone just to tell them what to do and what not to do, so they can perform the prescribed practices and feel secure in their righteousness. Grace departs, law returns.

“What has happened in the Church over the centuries? Has she lost (except in her saints) the original awareness of the radical newness of the life of Grace, the meaning of the covenant, of the relationship that really is new? Why are Christians, after 20 centuries, still acting as ‘unregenerate’ as everyone else? St Paul had adamantly affirmed our Grace-given freedom from the 613 ordinances of the old law, but our present Code of Canon Law contains 1546 ordinances! What went wrong? Perhaps the Church really has preserved the Gospel truth but has deemed the ‘unwashed masses’ to be of insufficient intelligence, perception, or spiritual maturity to handle the challenge and responsibility of living in true love and freedom—hence the laws and censures are meant to be a kind of fence around the flock, to keep them from doing really seriously evil things. Perhaps experience has proved this. But is not replacing Grace with law too high a price to pay? People who really do not wish to know Christ and who prefer to do evil things will not be deterred by ecclesiastical laws anyway. Those who know God live by Grace. Those who don’t, don’t. ‘He who does not love does not know God’ (1John 4: 8). Or is it a numbers game? Is it better to have a billion lukewarm Catholics on the roster or a couple million true believers, on fire with the grace and love of Jesus Christ? Which group will be a leaven for the salvation of the world?

“If the Church would expend more effort on really showing the face of Christ to the people, with vibrant faith moving the mountains of baloney that are offered as substitutes for true spiritual nourishment, the laws would eventually become superfluous. For when people genuinely meet Christ and open their hearts to Him, their ‘conscience wants to owe him, knowing that it would be a dishonor to fail to honor through gratitude the gratuitousness of God’ (François Varillon). And they would begin to walk in love.

“There is a place for law in the Church, especially for the sake of the smooth functioning of the institutional machinery. But that does not concern most of us, especially in our relation to God. Children, however, often need to be trained by means of rules. But like St Paul, eventually we have to get beyond the things of a child and live in a mature manner (see 1Corinthians 13:11). In general, rules are for the unruly, and Christ is calling us to a nobler way of life.

“I suppose I could be accused of being an idealist, because after all, fallen human nature being what it is, people will always need to be herded and corralled by law, punished and then threatened with worse punishments, to deter them from doing worse things than they’ve already done. People nowadays tend to exploit every loophole. They rail against rules and demand freedom, not because they’ve transcended rules and understand true freedom, but because they want to go on doing wrong, only now with impunity. They think freedom means liberation from biblical morality. But should it be that way with Christian people? We are fallen, yes, but are we not uniquely regenerated by Grace? Well, you might say, just look at Church history—right up to the present day—and see for yourself. Yet I would have to maintain with Chesterton: it is not that Christianity has been tried and found to be a failure; it simply hasn’t been tried yet (excepting the notable exceptions).

“But we probably must admit, as a testimony to our near-universal failure in responding to Grace, that laws are necessary for the Church’s mission in her present condition. There’s so much arrogant dissension, selfish shenanigans, and ‘trafficking in iniquity’ on all levels of the Church today, that without the force of law there might be nothing but anarchy and caprice. Practical as law is at this time, it is a sad commentary on the heights from which we have fallen.”

St Paul deals fairly extensively with the matter of freedom in Galatians. He was concerned about their reversion to “works of the law,” which cancel out the newness of the new covenant. But when he goes deeper into the relation of freedom to morality, in the context of faith and love, he gets to the heart of the matter. On this level, freedom is not liberation from something, but for something. The bottom line is that faith in Christ brings us freedom to love. This combination of faith, love, and freedom by its very nature excludes enslavement to evil, which is how Jesus described sin (John 8:34). Since this is so hard to understand, Paul gives a list of the “works of the flesh,” the practicing of which bars one from Paradise (stay tuned for a brief analysis of these works in a couple days). But constrained as he is to warn people of what leads to damnation, he doesn’t really want to give still more laws, for “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14). He had just finished saying: “you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.” We just don't seem to get it.

To be free is to look into the face of Christ and to live by what you see. The problem with most champions of freedom (or should I say, of license) is that they mistake the face of Christ for what they see in the mirror and project their own agendas and opinions upon that holy face, as surely as his torturers covered it with spittle and blood 2000 years ago. What would Jesus do, they might say, in response to the vexing moral and spiritual issues of the day? He would do what they would do, of course!

So it looks like we haven’t yet found the true freedom. Either we fear it and take refuge in rules for their own sake, or we misinterpret it and use it to justify sinful and self-serving behavior. We may say we need laws to mark the boundaries of right and wrong. So did St Paul, but that only created a kind of vicious circle that led him to an intolerable anguish for which he begged deliverance (see Romans 7:7-25). And he was set free only by “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (8:2). I think we are truly free only when we don’t need the boundaries anymore—not because we’ve given ourselves permission to sin in the name of freedom, but because we are so caught up in our quest for the face of Christ that we’re no longer in danger of stepping over those boundaries anyway. We’ve taken flight, we’ve allowed the mystery of divine grace to make us new, we’ve ceased to look for a liberation unto license, but have bound ourselves in love to our Lord. “And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2Cor. 3:17).

I still don’t know if I understand it any better, and I’ll probably go on struggling, but thanks for giving me a chance to air a few thoughts on the subject!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

On Good Samaritans and Great Commandments

Here’s a homily for you, on Luke 10:25-37 and Ephesians 2:1-10. There are two important teachings in this Gospel: the primary one is that of an essential teaching of the Christian faith, the “two great commandments,” love of God and love of neighbor—and the second one is an application thereof, the message of the parable of the Good Samaritan. We can perhaps understand these teachings in light of St Paul’s word to us in the Epistle to the Ephesians.

First of all, he says that we were spiritually dead through our sins—this puts us in a similar situation to that of the man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead. This is how Paul describes the sin which is unto death: “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air” [that is, the devil], whom he further describes as “the spirit that is now at work among the sons of disobedience.” He’s not finished yet. Sin is also living “in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind,” and thus sin makes us “children of wrath.”

We see what sin does to us, both through Paul’s description and the image of the half-dead man. But sin is also at work in the image of the priest and the levite who refused to help the half-dead man. They too were following the ways of this world and the spirit of disobedience. Therefore we learn that the devil, by seducing us to sin, not only weakens us to death, but also tries to keep us from realizing our misery and sickness by making us arrogant and self-centered, giving us the illusion of strength or well-being. Thus we are not only sick unto death, we refuse to help others who are similarly sick.

What is Paul’s answer to this sorry state of affairs? He says: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ…that He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” God, like the Good Samaritan in the parable, took pity on us in our self-inflicted misery and woundedness, raised us up, healed us, granted us his mercy, so we would know that it is by his grace that we are saved—not our doing, but the gift of God, as Paul emphasizes, so that we may not boast but rather give thanks. Finally, he says that God has done this for us because He has created and prepared us for a life of good works in the name of the Lord Jesus.

So let us look at the great commandments which are to govern the life which God has given to us, or rather returned to us made new after having forgiven our sins. The scholar of the law asked Jesus what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus didn’t answer him directly, but wanted to see if the man had grasped the essential point of the whole law—which he did, for he responded by saying: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus approved of this answer and simply said, “Do this and you will live.”

Desiring a practical application of the general principle, as we all might so desire, he asked Jesus what it meant to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The parable of the Good Samaritan was Jesus’ response. And just in case the legal scholar might have been content to admire this teaching merely in theory, Jesus hastened to add: “Now you go and do likewise.” There may be a temptation for those who merely study the word of God to settle for the insights they have gained and perhaps even to marvel at the wisdom of God, without actually putting his words into practice in daily life. That is why Christ never said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and admire it,” but rather, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it,” that is, do it, put in into practice with the real people you meet every day.

We have in the two great commandments, in summary form, all we need to live a life that is pleasing to God and hence, as the original question was formulated, to inherit eternal life. That is the only thing that ultimately matters, and henceforth should always be in our consciousness, always form and influence how we think, speak and act, how we regard others and treat them. If eternal life is our goal, we will begin by loving God with all of our faculties and powers, and thus having grown in his likeness we will be able to look with compassion on those in need and bring God’s love to them, so that all might have the opportunity to experience the forgiveness and love of God, and begin to live this same life of faith, love, and good works that God has granted to all who will turn to Him.

But how many of us really love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength? Do we not reserve something for ourselves, even for sinful attachments and other selfish pursuits? The Christian life is a constant purification, a sifting out of the evil from the good; it is an ongoing process of growth, leaving behind immature and selfish ways and embracing the values of the Gospel in imitation of and communion with Christ. Even if at the present moment we cannot honestly say that we love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, we must allow this humble admission to spur us on to greater growth and progress, to purifying and refining our intentions and desires, to strengthening our “no” to what displeases God and our “yes” to what pleases Him. For no one will be admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven who does not love God wholly, entirely, 100%. If we die without having made it to the point of loving with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; if we haven’t learned fully the lessons of the Gospel, then we have to go to summer school in purgatory—and the summers there are really hot, so I would advise all to learn your lessons now, allow divine grace to perfect you now, desire with all your heart to be wholly in love with the Lord, and thus wholly obedient to his will, which means you will not only love God but will love others with the love of Jesus.

We may still feel beaten up and half-dead because of our passions and sins, but let us to turn to the Lord, who is rich in mercy, who will heal our wounds through forgiveness and grace, who will nurse us back to spiritual health by feeding us with his own Body and Blood, who will care for us and teach us the ways of his wisdom, that we may learn to love him wholly, and our neighbors as ourselves. In order to do this, however, we have to give up following the course of this world and our own passions, cast out that evil spirit that makes us children of disobedience, and decide that we want to embrace the life, the salvation that God mercifully offers to us.

I’ve been reading lately about the angels, and the way God sends them as mystical Good Samaritans to help many people in serious need. It is a common testimony of those who have received these angelic visitations that their lives have subsequently changed—they are more grateful, more loving and faithful to the Lord, more compassionate and helpful to others. They have heard the word of the Lord and they are putting it into practice.

We may not have had extraordinary angelic experiences, but the Lord is with us always, especially in the Holy Eucharist. We are saved by his grace. It is meant to change our lives, make them more like his own. What He gives us is his everlasting love and compassion, along with this word: “Go now and do likewise.”

Friday, November 10, 2006

More on Angels

“O holy God, who rest in the holies, who are praised by the thrice-holy voice of the Seraphim and are glorified by the Cherubim, and are adored by all the heavenly powers…” Thus begins the prayer of the trisagion in the Byzantine Liturgy. Angels are ever-present in our worship. Here’s another example, before the entrance with the Gospel book: “Lord God our Master, who established in Heaven the ranks and armies of angels and archangels for the service of your glory, grant that as we make our entrance, the holy angels may enter too, serving with us and joining in the praise of your goodness…”

I did a brief survey in the wee hours of the morning on the feast of St Michael and the Holy Angels, to find some of the high points of angelic visitations in the Scriptures. A complete study could fill a book, but I want to just touch on a few points. I first checked the texts on the major archangels: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.

Michael, arguably the most powerful of them all, is also the most reticent as far as public speaking. In fact, he says nothing at all in the Scriptures, unless he is to be identified with the “commander of the army of the Lord” who appeared to Joshua (Jos. 5:13-15), though there he isn’t named. He is named in the Book of Daniel (chapters 10 and 12) as a “great prince” who fights evil on behalf of God’s chosen people. Then of course he is the leader in the primordial battle against the diabolical dragon, whom he cast out of heaven with the help of his angels (Rev. 12: 7-9). His name means “Who is like God?” and this name seems to be a challenge and response to all the wavering people who felt helpless against the power of the infernal beast, and who therefore lamented: “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (13:4). Ask St Michael; he’ll tell you!

Gabriel is the messenger of good tidings (perhaps he was the leader of those who appeared to the shepherds on the first Christmas night, but we aren’t told that). But when he introduces himself to Zachariah, he explains his general mission: “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God [always his primary vocation]; I was sent to speak to you, to bring you this good news” (Luke 1:19). He brought the best news to Mary: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus… the Son of the Most High” (1:31-32). Gabriel is traditionally thought also to have been at the empty tomb of Christ, bringing the good news of the Resurrection to the myrrh-bearing women. He appears as well in chapters 8 and 9 of Daniel to bring revelations to him.

Raphael has a dual mission, along with standing in the presence of the Lord. He brings our prayer to God, and he is an instrument of God for healing. Here is part of the dramatic revelation he made to Tobit and his family: “God sent me to heal you… I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One… And now give thanks to God, for I am ascending to Him who sent me” (Tobit 12:14-20).

Jesus mentions our guardian angels when he says of his little ones: “their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 18:10). In just about all accounts of angels, it becomes clear that their vocation is to stand before the face of God, and anything else they are required to do is in addition to this primary vocation. The existence of guardian angels was evidently assumed by the early Church, for when Rhoda reported to the assembly that Peter was knocking at the door (they were incredulous, for they thought he was still in prison), they exclaimed: “It is his angel!” (Acts 12:15). And Psalm 90(91) reminds us: “He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you in all your ways.”

Though there are many other angels mentioned in Scripture I will mention only two more, or rather two groups of angels, whose ministry belongs to the end of the world. One group is sent to gather up all the evildoers of the world, “and throw them into the furnace of fire” (Mt. 13:41-42). The other group, “when the Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory… will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Mt 24:30-31). So both the evil and the good shall be gathered by angels and dispatched to their eternal destinations. Let us pray that when we see angels coming for us, they will be those sent to gather the Lord’s elect!

Let us also continue to be attentive to the guidance of our heavenly guardians, to be aware of the many ways that angels are employed in the service of God’s glory and his kingdom, to ask them to help us according to their missions and charisms revealed in Scripture, and to join them in their worship and praise of God, in their complete and unquestioning obedience to his commands and, finally, to join them in their everlasting joy in the presence of the glory of the Holy One!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Defend Us in the Day of Battle

On the Byzantine calendar, November 8 is the feast of St Michael and all the Holy Angels. I always find this feast to be a joyful one, and one that renews my gratitude for the presence of the Angels. Who else but God would have thought up such a marvelous group of spiritual beings, who live not only for the unceasing praise and worship of the Lord, but also as our protectors and intercessors? They are heavenly messengers, “ministering spirits,” as the Letter to the Hebrews says, “sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation” (1:14). They’ve received all kinds of treatment in art and literature—not all of it worthy of them—but it cannot be doubted that they have captured the imagination of millions of people. And not just their imagination—stories abound of angelic visions and interventions to assist people, to save them from perils and to guide them to the ways of God.

This feast also includes our Guardian Angels, who are with us at all times, even though we may not often be aware of it. They are given by God as personal gifts to us, to stand by us, protecting us from evil, danger, and harm, and speaking the word of God to our hearts and consciences. And hopefully, they will receive an extra reward in Heaven when they finally escort us safely into the Kingdom of God. I don’t think they’ll be punished if they fail in this task—we’re the ones who will be punished, for our Angels only do the will of God, but they have to respect our freedom to choose.

St Michael the Archangel is the main focus of our celebration today, and the Gospel (Lk 10:16-22) seems to allude to his victory over the great dragon that we hear about in chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation. There it says that Michael and his Angels fought the dragon and cast him down to earth—where we have to fight him now!—and Jesus says in the Gospel that He saw satan fall from the sky like lightning. Yet in the context it seems clear that Jesus was not (or not only) referring to the primordial fall of the devil and his minions, but to the apostles’ victory over the demons. Jesus had just sent them out on a mission, giving them power to heal and to cast out evil spirits, and they returned rejoicing that the demons were subject to them in Jesus’ name. Even though Jesus then affirmed his gift to them of the power to “tread on serpents and scorpions,” He made it clear that it was not in such authority that their glory and joy should reside, but in the fact that their names were written in Heaven. So whatever gifts or talents we may have, they are not ends in themselves, but they must serve our salvation and that of others—therein lies the true and everlasting joy.

We begin the famous prayer to St Michael, written by Pope Leo XIII, by asking him to “defend us in the day of battle.” We assume (and for the most part, rightly so) that this refers to spiritual battles, temptations, demonic attacks, etc. But St Michael and the holy Angels are there to defend us in all sorts of battles. I just read a true story about St Michael’s intervention in a legal battle of a man who was being cheated by a corporation who was trying to steal his patented invention (the account is from Joan Wester Anderson’s In the Arms of Angels).

A man named Louis Saia invented a new way to keep perishable food fresh while being shipped over long distances. He had signed a contract with a company who bought 50% of his invention. But this company was bought out by another one, which wanted the whole thing. They offered him a relatively small amount for it and said if he didn’t accept it, they would take it over anyway and ruin him through litigation. Louis went through all of his money trying to keep the court battle going, but he was at his wits’ end, turning to alcohol and valium and being so stressed out that he couldn’t sleep, etc.

He was a Catholic, but hadn’t practiced for a long time, and when his wife suggested he go to church he said he was so frazzled that he couldn’t sit still. So he decided to go jogging. At the back of his property was a small office building, and standing on the porch of it was a woman in a flowing white gown. He had never seen her before. He wondered to himself: “Why is she here?” When he approached her she said, “I am praying to protect you. Just have faith in my Son, Jesus.” He fell to his knees, praying to God, while all his despair and anxiety left him. He returned to his family, who couldn’t believe he was calm and smiling. “What happened to you?” they all asked. “I saw the Blessed Mother Mary on the porch this morning,” he announced. They all looked at each other, thinking that his stress had finally caught up with him.

But he remained joyful, and prayed without ceasing and kept remembering her words. The court battle began to take a turn in his favor. After a totally unexpected victory in one round of litigation, he walked out of court and fell to his knees on the sidewalk, weeping with gratitude. At the time he was wearing a navy blue suit, a white shirt, and a yellow tie. A few weeks later a priest whom Louis did not know came to visit him. He said, “In a vision, I saw you kneeling on a sidewalk. You were wearing a navy blue suit, white shirt, and yellow tie. Standing in front of you, about nine feet tall with wings about 15 feet high, was a magnificent angel. I believe it was St Michael. His sword was drawn and touching your head. He was doing battle for you. I wanted you to know.”

Louis won every single court case after that, and the company that tried to cheat him was forced to pay millions in damages and costs. Louis turned his office into a chapel and invited people to come and pray. He had an artist paint an image of St Michael and put in on holy cards, which he distributed wherever he went. He eventually built up his own trucking company and had the image of St Michael painted on all his trucks—St Michael Motor Express, the company was called. And all his drivers carry St Michael holy cards and pass them out too!

Louis was happy, of course, about his victories in court, but he was most happy about his recovered faith, about the intervention of St Michael and the Queen of Angels in his life. He was truly defended in the day of battle, and he wants all the world to know it! This is why God blessed him even before he had given his life to Him—God knew what a faithful servant and evangelist he would become, so He sent Our Lady and St Michael to rescue him.

As we celebrate St Michael and the holy Angels today, let us first realize that they live to worship and serve God, with reverence and joy, and that we are called, in our own way, to live such an angelic life. And let us pray for an increased awareness of their presence in our lives, of how they do battle for us, protect us, intercede for us, and intervene in our lives in ways that may not be as dramatic as the one I just recounted, but that still express God’s loving care for us. It is for us simply to obey our heavenly guardians and give thanks. As the Lord said to his chosen people almost four millennia ago, He says to us today: “See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and heed his voice…for my name is in him” (Ex. 23:20-21). Holy Archangels and Angels, pray to God for us!