Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Nativity of our Lord (Mass at Midnight)

Titus 2:11-15 / Luke 2:1-14

Near the beginning of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the miserly, cold-hearted, and damnable if not yet lost Ebenezer Scrooge is surpised, unpleasantly for him, by a visit from his nephew, Fred. While Scrooge provides his litany of complaint against the holiday, Fred persists in unassailable joy and goodwill. Finding himself confronted by Scrooge’s claim that Christmas has never done him, or any other man, any real good, Fred presents the following retort: 
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew, “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round  — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to is can be apart from that — as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
In his own way, Fred seems to have taken to heart in this defense of keeping Christmas something of the wisdom imparted by Paul to Titus. The appearance of the grace of God our Savior among men, which is to say, the appearance among men of God himself as man, Paul tells Titus, was precisely to teach us to reject impiety and worldly desires, and to live soberly, justly, and piously in this world, this time, this age.

It is here, though, that the Christmas message today seems to stumble. Good-intentioned men and women who reject the Gospel have come to insist that the heart of Christmas are precisely those things which Fred insists can be valued “apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin,” namely the kindness, forgivness, charity, and pleasantness, the solidarity with one’s fellow man, and especially with those in need. To these who live in unbelief, rejecting impiety and worldly desires, living soberly, justly, and piously can be held as having value even without being taught by the coming of the Savior. If they are correct, if we can keep what is best about Christmas without the Word made Flesh, then do we, the faithful, not confuse matters by insisting, again and again, that Jesus Christ not be neglected in this holy feast? Do we not insert a principle of division and discord precisely in proclaiming not merely peace on earth and good will toward men, but glory to God in the highest as well?

St Paul, in his letter to Titus, does not, however, merely give some laudable moral advice. He notes that the appearance of the grace of the Savior which teaches us how to live also directs our attention to the blessed hope, the coming of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Even as Fred opines that abstracting the good cheer of Christmas might be a mental exercise only — “if anything can be apart from that” — Paul directs Titus from moralizing and ethics, however important they be, to the real hope and joy of Christmas. That is, Paul wants Titus, and wants us, to see that how we relate to our fellow men here and now, how we abound here and now with kindness, justice, and solidarity, especially for those most crushed by the hardships inflicted upon them by our own unchecked worldly desires, is precisely what will make us receive with boundless and unconquerable delight or with inconsolable and unremitting despair, the final culmination of all that is. Said differently, while there can be no final joy for any who remain unmoved by the plight of the poor in their midst, who prefer their own comfort in warm beds to the warmth of human kindness towards those least plausible to receive our love, neither can there be lasting happiness for those whose love extends only as far as the grave, which considers earthly loss final, and so accepts a limit to charity. It is the hope of unbounded and inexhaustible festival, evident already in the choirs of angels attending the birth of the Lord in a place fit for beasts and not men, that transforms our earthly kindness and solidarity into what it was meant to be in the first place.

This is why, without the Cross of Christ, and with that Cross the final and glorious coming of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, Christmas will seduce us again into impiety and worldly desires, either mere sentiment or cold moralizing. Faced by the seemingly insurmountable longings of the world, the only true and hopeful answer is to raise up, along with the tinsel, the holly, and the cheerful songs, the broken body of the Savior. This was the wisdom of Tiny Tim, who even in his broken body, or perhaps precisely because of it, saw that Christ alone can make good the promises and hopes we exchange so freely on this day. Tim hoped, his father relates, that “the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

So, without any desire to take away in the least the true and laudable good that our brothers and sisters outside the faith have done and will do on this holy day, we insist like Fred to return every year and proclaim not merely good cheer and human solidarity, but the true Light that made bright that most holy night in Bethlehem. We do so that we, with them, might know better on earth the mysteries of that Light here on earth, in the hope that we, with them, might together take part in the joys that last forever.

God bless us every one!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Fifth Day of Sapientiatide

Song of Songs 2:8-14 / Luke 1:39-45

It is altogether natural, a basic and healthy part of human life, to be drawn to and inspired by excellence. It is right that we should be attracted to an impressive athlete, a beautiful singer, or a powerful orator. It is likewise right and proper for those who are drawn to the same person on account of his excellence to be drawn to one another in friendship, even in love, for one another: the mutual fans of a movie star, avid readers of a talented novelist, or the staff of a gifted politician. In their love for the one who excels, they are moved to love others with the same insight, the same passion.

We see something of this in the mystery of the Visitation, something of this kind of infectious love. Mary, after all, did not travel leisurely but rather in haste to the hill country to visit Elizabeth. John leaped with joy even while still in his mother's womb at the arrival of his Lord. Elizabeth, though older than Mary by far, was more than merely pleasantly surprised at her arrival. She was overjoyed and humbled in awe and love, that the mother of the Lord should come to her.

Now, while there is a natural love among those who mutually admire the same person, we do not normally imagine that the one who inspires our love from afar by his excellence actually cares about us. If we are sane and sound of mind, we grant that he might love us in a remote and general sort of way, the way a celebrity says she is grateful for her fans. Even so, unless we are unhinged, we do not imagine that she loves us personally.

Yet, with Jesus Christ, we find just the opposite. However intense and infectious our love and longing for him, all the more, and infinitely so, is his love and longing for us. It is Jesus Christ who leaps across the hills to greet us, Jesus Christ who peers through the lattices to catch even a glimpse of us. It is Jesus Christ who speaks sweetly as though it is not we who need to win his love, but rather that he, like a young and earnest love, so deeply needs to win ours.

This is the source of our Advent hope in the last days before we celebrate Christ's birth. We need not fear that we have not done enough this season to draw close to God when God is so desperate like a lover to draw close to us. When his love for us is so strong, so certain, we have no cause for fear or doubt. If our souls are still burdened in any way, we can be assured that the winter of sin is past, the rains of sorrow are over and gone. Hear, then, the voice of Jesus Christ: Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one, and come!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Fourth Day of Sapientiatide

Isaiah 7:10-14 / Luke 1:26-38

In A Charlie Brown Christmas Special, Sally asks her older brother Charlie Brown to help her write the letter she wants to send to Santa Claus. After some pleasantries asking after Santa's life and health, Sally gets to the heart of the matter:
I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want ... Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?
Charlie Brown is understandably disgusted that even his little sister has succumbed to the materialism and commercialization of Christmas which so troubles his soul. After all, the year was 1965, and tens and twenties then would be worth more than fifties and hundreds in today's buying power!

Yet, more than that, we can see something more spiritually troubling in Sally's request for cash. In seeking money, Sally is refusing the joy of receiving a gift, something which, precisely as gift, lies in the power of the giver to determine, and not in herself. On the surface, Sally masks her request with an appearance of virtue. She claims merely to want to make it "easy" on Santa, less complicated. In fact, Sally, and most others who want cash for Christmas, have their desires rooted in fear, the feat of receiving what they do not expect. What looks like a humble motive to avoid trouble for the giver turns out truly to be an assertion of control on the part of the one who receives.

We see this same dynamic, but of greater import than a letter to Santa Claus, in the words of Ahaz. Like Sally, Ahaz hides behind a pretense of piety. He claims that his not asking a sign comes merely from the righteous motive not to put the Lord to the test. However, the truth of the matter is that Ahaz does not want to lose what he takes to be his control over the situation in Judah. To request a sign would mean to set aside one's own plans and projects and yield instead to God's priorities. Asking for a sign for the Lord means letting God's initiatives come first.

Grace, whether in the trivial form of a Christmas gift or in the most profound sense of the coming of Emmanuel, is always unsettling and decentering. A true gift is never the result of our own planning. It sets us, as it did the Blessed Virgin Mary, on a new and unlooked for course in life. More often than not, the coming of grace in this life, of God's gifts, sets more and deeper responsibility on the recipient while, at the same time, asking him to admit more and more that it is not he, but God, who is in charge.

As Christmas approaches, we must be aware of what we truly ask for when, in our prayers and song, we seek the grace, the gift of the Word made Flesh. Are we, in these last days before the celebration of Christ's Nativity, still clinging to our own projects and plans, or are we ready to take our stand with the Maid of Nazareth? Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Advent

1 Corinthians 4:1-5 / Luke 3:1-6

On December 21, 1511, the fourth Sunday of Advent, Antonio de Montesinos, O.P., preached the following sermon to the colonists on Hispaniola:
I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. In order to make your sins known to you I have mounted this pulpit, I who am the voice of Christ crying in the wilderness of this island; and therefore it behooves you to listen to me, not with indifference but with all your heart and senses; for this voice will be the strangest, the harshest and hardest, the most terrifying that you ever heard or expected to hear….
This voice declares that you are in mortal sin, and live and die therein by reason of the cruelty and tyranny that you practice on these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what right do you wage such detestable wars on these people who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, where you have consumed infinite numbers of them with unheard of murders and desolations? Why do you so greatly oppress and fatigue them, not giving them enough to eat or caring for them when they fall ill from excessive labors, so that they die or rather are slain by you, so that you may extract and acquire gold every day? And what care do you take that they receive religious instruction and come to know their God and creator, or that they be baptized, hear mass, or observe holidays and Sundays? Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves? How can you lie in such profound and lethargic slumber? Be sure that in your present state you can no more be saved than the Moors or Turks who do not have and do not want the faith of Jesus Christ.
 We find ourselves today no less haunted by these words than we were five hundred years ago. Can we say, without dishonesty, that our comfort, our way of life, is not grounded on the drudgery of others, whose toil and labor make morally and physically, if not theoretically, impossible the living out of the life of the Gospel? When we demand the convenience of shopping at any hour we desire, when we seek out low-cost, high-volume goods for ourselves, when we demand an economy that guards the right of every citizen to have access to WiFi and imported, niche blends of tea, do we even think of the men, women, and children compelled to spend their lives and lose their souls for our dreams of a fair and equitable balance of resources and opportunity? Are they not men, those who work for our comfort? Do they not have rational souls? Are we not bound to love them as we love ourselves?

If the words of Montesinos leave us ill at ease, those of the prophet Isaiah, the heart of the preaching of John the Baptist, should strike us to the core: every valley shall be filled: and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways plain: and all flesh shall see the salvation of our God. Do we imagine, congratulating ourselves for being among the ninety-nine per cent, that, not being mountains, we can remain comfortably lofty hills at the coming of the Lord? From what other place but the leisure and plenty we enjoy to our detriment will come the earth to fill in the valleys of the slaves who work across the globe to maintain the lifestyle we demand?

There is, of course, hope. We are perhaps not so bad as we might worry. Or, we might on the other hand be precisely the crooked that shall be made straight, the rough way to be made plain. One or the other, our task is not now to parcel out guilt, not to point fingers and congratulate ourselves for being on the side of right while others, the wicked few, we can safely condemn without fear of hypocrisy. As Paul reminds us: I am not conscious to myself of anything: yet I am not hereby justified, but He that judgeth me is the Lord. Therefore, and here is the key, judge not before the time, until the Lord come.

In these last days before we celebrate the birth of Christ, we would do well to set our lives aright, as we can and as we know how. The raining down of the Just and the budding forth of the Savior we know is a work of God's and not our own. We may be ministers of Christ and the dispensers of the mysteries of God, but we do not orchestrate the hidden counsels of the Almighty. What we can do is seek forgiveness. What we can do is stop, here and now, in doing what we know takes advantage of those who have neither the time, nor the money, nor even the heart to celebrate Jesus Christ as Lord and King.

Come, O Lord, and tarry not: forgive the sins of Thy people!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Monday of the Third Week of Advent

Numbers 24:2-7, 15-17 / Matthew 21:23-27

The same dynamic we heard yesterday, the refusing of what seem on the face of it perfectly legitimate and reasonable questions, is echoed in the Gospel we hear today. Yesterday, it was John the Baptist's less than helpful initial responses to the priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem. Today, it is Jesus himself who refuses to answer the questions posed by the chief priests and the elders. What they ask is to know his authority, by what authority he claims to act and speak as he does. Why does he not simply answer their question? Why does he respond, if it is not too impertinent to say, with such petulance? "I'll answer your question if you answer mine first," hardly seems a perfectly mature retort.

Yet, while on the face of it the chief priests and elders ask a legitimate and reasonable question, the fact is, and Jesus clearly knows this, the chief priests and elders are not at all interested in the truth. They do not ask out of wonder, of hope, or of longing to know. For them, truth is merely an instrument, an object to be used to come to other ends altogether unrelated to the truth itself. We see this in the argument they have among themselves. In figuring out how to respond to Jesus' question about the origin, of heaven or of men, of the Baptist's ministry, not one of them stops to wonder what the true answer to this question might be. Indeed, they are not even interested in figuring out what they think the answer to be. Rather, they calculate, they instrumentalize, figuring out what answer will give which outcome, and how best to balance out foreseen gains and losses.

The chief priests and elders of Israel have ironically become like the false prophet Balaam. Balaam was a prophet of a sort, but rather than speaking so as to draw people closer to God and turn away from their sins, he wanted to use prophecy as a tool for gain, selling a prophetic curse in the name of the Most High to the highest bidder. When God chose instead to fill Balaam's mouth with blessings for Israel and a true prophecy of Israel's hope, the truth did Balaam no good. Likewise, even had the chief priests and elders received from Jesus the truth about his authority, they could not, remaining as they were, have benefited from the truth even in the least.

In Jesus Christ, it is revealed to us that the truth is not a commodity or a weapon, not a means to winning arguments or putting people in their place, nor some kind of indifferent object able to serve whatever ends we seem. Rather, the truth is grounded in love, grounded in the communion of Persons that is the Holy Trinity. May this Advent open our hearts to receive God's truth, wherever we may hear it, not to serve our ends, but rather to welcome it joyfully as a gift from him who is Truth itself, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Third Sunday of Advent

Philippians 4:4-7 / John 1:19-28

There is a kind of prima facie cheekiness to John the Baptist's responses to the questions posed by the priests and Levites sent by the Jews of Jerusalem. Asked Who art thou?, the Baptist gives no positive answer at all, but only a denial: I am not the Christ. The priests and Levites did not ask him who he was not, but who he was, and so on the face of it we might well think John to be non-responsive at best, more likely knowingly evasive. Yet, perfectly aware of this first question, his answer to the second volley — What then? Art thou Elias? — as well as the third — Art thou the prophet? — receive mere negations — I am not and No — without any further clarification.

Of course, this slippery quality on the part of the otherwise direct and forthright John the Baptist merely echoes what seems to many the troubling silence or evasiveness of God himself. Why, many wonder, does Jesus Christ, who promised that the Father would give us whatever we asked in his name, seem to do so, if he does at all, in ways so often difficult to see? Why are not challenges to the existence of God and the manifest truth of his revelation in Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit not met with answers more direct, more undeniable? Why do so many feel that the responses from God find a character more like those of John's, mere negations without any further clarification?

Yet, on another reading, we can see that there is something quite different going on in the responses of the Baptist, something which might open our ears more readily to hear what God himself is trying to say to us. On their first asking, while the priests and Levites appear to ask a simple and open-ended question, in fact we know that they have been sent from Jerusalem for a specific purpose. They do not wonder who this man is; they are certain who he is not and seek to know what he has to say for himself. So, when they ask the innocent-seeming question Who art thou?, John knows their purpose, and answers the limited and restricted question they really meant to ask, namely I am not the Christ.

So, now the Baptist shows that he and the priests and Levites are in agreement: the Baptist is not the Messiah. Yet, these learned men of Jerusalem are still self-deceived about their own purpose. Rather than getting to the point, they start ruling out other possibilities — Elijah and the Prophet — not because they actually think him to be such, but again to see how the Baptist might respond. Their questions, in other words, reveal their closed-mindedness. While now no longer feigning open-ended curiosity as they did at first, they nonetheless look only to clarify and confirm what they already claimed to know. In such a state, the only answers they can receive are the confirmatory negatives — I am not and No.

Led by frustration, something amazing happens. No longer able to get a suitable answer by avoiding their real intentions, the priests and Levites disclose their intentions fully: Who art thou, that we may give an answer unto them that sent us? Now, finally, they reveal to themselves, to the Baptist, and to all present, that they do not come in innocent curiosity or in hopeful wonder. They come as sent and with a mission to provide an answer. Their question is not their own, and this largely because they imagine to know the answer already. Even so, it is from this transparency, this willingness to admit the motivations which being them before him that provides them with the question they meant to ask all along, not Who art thou? but rather What sayest thou of thyself?

Now that the priests and Levites have disclosed to themselves their own real motives and their true question, they are also in a position to hear the full disclosure of the Baptist: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the Prophet Isaias. Even if his audience is not disposed to accept his word as true, it is only on the condition that they ask what they mean to ask, that they own and profess by what motivation they seek him out, that John the Baptist can give anything more than negation or denial.

This suggests to us something of our own relationship with Jesus Christ. We might often complain that what we ask for we do not receive, and what we seek we do not find. We worry that in response to our pleading and our questioning, there is only the unnerving negation of the divine silence. However, do we, in our questioning, place before God our whole selves? Do we admit the motivations that bring us to ask for what we desire? Indeed, do we even name our desires without concealing anything? In the end, when we ask an answer from God, are we even asking the question we truly want to ask?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

St Nicholas, Bishop and Confessor/Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent

Isaiah 40:1-11 / Matthew 18:12-14

Although his popularity is not what it once was, St Nicholas the Wonderworker is still celebrated today across the world. The hallmark of this observance in much of the world is the delight of children, finding treats left by this generous saint in their shoes or stockings. The hallmark as well of his legends is the championing of children and of the poor. Best known, of course, is the legend in which Nicholas came to the aid of three young women, saving them from poverty by dropping, anonymously, three bags of gold into their window or chimney, which bags, in later versions, fell into stockings the girls had had hung up to dry. In another legend, less well known today, the wonderworking saint raised to life and made whole three young boys who had been slain, dismembered, and pickled by a wicked innkeeper.

It might be tempting to dismiss these latter stories as so much fancy, but the sad and tragic fact is that brutal, even demonic exploitation of poor women and children was all too real in Nicholas' day, and indeed it is all too real today. It has been estimated that some seven hundred thousand to two million people are trafficked every year across international borders for prostitution and what amounts to slave labor in gravely dehumanizing contexts. Some one million children every year are forced to enter into the sex trade. What is more, this is not an isolated phenomenon. It is believed that nearly every country in the world is marred by the wicked practice of human trafficking.

So, when Jesus tells us that it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost, we cannot afford to sentimentalize. This is not merely a sweetly pious thought. Rather it is a call to action, a summons to be a champion of the poor, the exploited, and especially of children, as was St Nicholas. After all, the girls in the famous legend were threatened not merely with poverty, but in the absence of a dowry, we at risk to being sold into prostitution. The boys of the other legend were, like far too many children, lured in by false promises of food and care when they were themselves poor and hungry in a time of famine.

We, however, might feel helpless in the face of this kind of evil, ill equipped for combatting such darkness. Yet, the truth is that we are well endowed to respond. First of all we have our knowledge that the evil exists, and the power to make it known to others. Second, we have the consecration of our lives to God, some by formal vows, all of us by our being conformed to Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit in Baptism. Most of all, we have the inexhaustible pleading of our Savior in the Eucharist, available to us in the celebration of the Mass, in the reception of Holy Communion, and in our fervent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

In the face of this evil, then, we have no need to fear. With confidence in the saving power of Jesus Christ, let us seek out those who are lost, that God may gather them in his arms, carry them in his bosom, and lead them with care.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Monday of the Second Week of Advent

Isaiah 35:1-10 / Luke 5:17-26

How incredible do we find the forgiveness of sins? How marvelous does it appear to us when someone receives pardon from God Most High? While we might like to protest that it is the greatest thing, beyond anything in the created order, beyond the healing of any physical malady, I suspect that, if we were honest, such would not be the case for most of us. Consider, for example, the last time a dear friend was assisted by a physician. For all of our medical advanced, even the simplest and most routine of procedures is, when successful, likely to produce a flood of manifest and unmistakable thanks for the doctors, the nurses, even the janitorial staff.

But what is our reaction when someone's sins are forgiven? We are, I suspect, more likely to find other things more compelling. We might be impressed by the courage that brought a long-time and hardened sinner to the confessional. We might be moved by the successful living out of a new life once forgiveness has been received. But, how amazing do we find the forgiveness itself?

In the vision of Isaiah the Church puts before us today, we are shown what forgiveness ought to look like. It is a bursting forth of life from what was sterile and dead. It is the making whole of what seemed forever broken or lost. It is the transformation of what had been dark and perilous in our lives into a safe and secure pathway to make the journey of our life to God, at the end of which we will be crowned with everlasting joy.

In our Advent waiting, as we learn to be more and more aware of how we have become lifeless or lost our way, we cannot afford to be unmoved by forgiveness. Through the Church, Jesus offers us the sacrament of Reconciliation, so that those whom the Lord has ransomed can enter the heavenly Zion singing with gladness and joy. In the joyful vision of Isaiah, will we return to the forgiveness offered freely and abundantly in Jesus Christ, and to the astonishment of the whole world, pick the the stretchers of our sins and failings, and go home to God?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Second Sunday of Advent

Romans 15:4-13 / Matthew 11:2-10

Wherefore receive one another, as Christ also hath received you unto the honor of God.

As the days grow shorter and the nights become a little colder, as we now see in full bloom the decorations that adorn our streets and the windows of stores, as our preparation begins in earnest for celebrating the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are likely to find ourselves either asking, or being asked, to receive someone for the holidays. The request might very well be happily received: the chance to make new friends or exercise the virtue of hospitality in a way few other seasons allow. The request may also be resented. We might find the thought of strangers sharing our homes on Christmas to be more an imposition than anything else, and if we are the invited party, we may well discover our joy is tempered by anxieties that our presence is more a burden than a gift. Of course, most of the time we find a way both to receive and to be received for the holidays. With some regrettable exceptions, we find a way in the warmth of Christmas to look past the faults and quirks of our guests, to let go of fears that we are interrupting the holidays of our hosts, and to receive one another gladly.

What do we do, however, outside of that special season of gift and of light. How readily do we, in this busier time that we fill with so many appointments, too many tasks to finish before Christmas Eve, find it easy to listen to our brother's troubles yet one more time, visit our ailing parents whose aches and pains make every visit another cause for stress and grief, see the woman begging outside the Church as something other than a nuisance? The truth of the matter is that these persons, deprived of the mesmerizing glow of tinsel and starlight, are not easy to receive, and the even grimmer truth is that we are no easier to embrace. In fact, it is when we need most to be taken in by love that we are least loveable. It is in our brokenness, our rebellion, our injured pride and jealousy, uncontrolled in our appetites, demanding special consideration while refusing to grant clemency for the slightest fault — this is when we above all times need to receive one other, to take in and be taken in by Love unconquerable.

These are the very selves whom Christ received in his most merciful coming, and received not grudgingly, with clenched jaw and forced smile, but willingly and happily unto the honor of God. While we must not give up our hope of being better, of finding our expectation this Advent to have had a healing and strengthening effect on our feeble and ailing souls, while indeed this must be the aim of Advent itself, to be ready and willing to greet the coming of Jesus Christ with joy and gladness, we must admit that no Advent discipline or hope will be enough to make us fit watchmen to greet the King. Nothing on our part will make his coming again in glory any more rightly proportioned to the kinds of lives we have led. Then, when he comes, as before, when he was born in Bethlehem, we will be the recipients of his hospitality, not he ours. It is he who will receive us, not we him.

Yet, if we can never be fitting sentinels keeping watch for Christ, we can do so for one another. We can, especially in Advent, but throughout our lives, strive again and again to receive one another, as Christ hath received us unto the honor of God. We can make time for the spiteful and the gossip, we can embrace the man whose politics we find odious and the woman whose vision of the Church we take to be at best regrettable, at worst a positive scandal. All of these we can strive to receive, in our lives, in our congregations, and in our daily prayer. It is in this pattern of receiving the loveless and, so it might easily seem, unlovable that Advent can transform us, day by day, into the very pattern of his first coming, into the very love of Jesus Christ.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Monday of the First Week of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5 / Matthew 8:5-11

Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.

These words of the centurion in the Gospel we make our own at every Mass before we receive Communion. In fact, those of us in the English-speaking world will be able to do so even more manifestly in our new translation of the Mass, placing these very words on our lips. So, it is clear that the Church intends all the faithful to identify with this virtuous pagan whose faith excelled those of the chosen people in Israel.

Yet, in what way are we to take these centurion's words? It might seem, on the face of it, that we are to make ourselves more keenly aware of our moral failings, of the ways that we have cooled to the very fire of charity which is signified and effected by the Sacrament. Certainly, in light of St Paul's admonitions in the first letter to the Corinthians or receiving the Body worthily, this is sage and sound advice.

All the same, in context, sinfulness does not seem to be the principal concern. Rather, what the centurion attends to is the question of authority. The centurion, that is, says he is not worthy precisely because he knows one word from the Lord Jesus will be sufficient. Say only the word, and my servant shall be healed. As in the prophecy of Isaiah, the centurion is willing to go to the mountain of God to be taught and judged because he recognizes that there is a truth there to which he will happily submit, a truth that exceeds even his best efforts to do right by his servant. In fact, this latter truth makes clear to us that the centurion's acceptance of the authority of Christ is not about passive submission. Rather, he can recognize the authority of the God of Israel not merely because he is subject to others, but precisely because he knows what it means to have others subject to him. More specifically, it is his experience of exercising his authority on behalf of those who are subordinate to him, seeing to their needs and concerns, that the centurion is led to his confession of faith, professing the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Advent calls us all to profess our unworthiness as the centurion did, that is, through recognizing more clearly the authority of Jesus Christ. Yet, it also asks us, as does every Mass, to recognize that authority not by mere submission, but just as much in our use of our own power and authority, however limited it may seem, on behalf of those who are placed in our lives and under our care. When Jesus returns, whose Advent we celebrate and await this season, may we too hear him say of us as he said of the centurion, In no one ... have I found such faith. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Sunday of Advent

Romans 13:11-14 / Luke 21:25-33

When we find ourselves in times of distress, how do we feel when we see someone, especially someone we care about and who, we believe, cares about us, going about confident and undisturbed? Perhaps we find strength in such a witness. That is, we might be comforted to know that, whatever ills we are experiencing, at least those whom we love do not suffer them as well.

Even so, we might just as likely find ourselves both angered and hurt at their confidence, at our friends' not being downcast. Why, we complain, do they look up and lift up their heads? How can they be confident and unafraid when I am so troubled? Is it that they are unaware of my suffering, which would be a fault of theirs, for surely those who love me should be attentive to my distress as well as my joy? Or, is it that, even knowing my distress, they are unmoved, uncaring, revealing their love for me to be false?

Such protests are, of course, unfair, but they are nonetheless not unexpected. The truth that we can see more readily when things are going well is that we do not and should not desire our own sorrow and trouble to have a veto over joy. That those we love and who love us should care about our troubles is, to be sure, beyond dispute. Even so, to care deeply and still to have confidence in a deeper happiness, indeed to be able to care deeply precisely because of that unshakeable confidence, is precisely the best and proper way to respond to the pains and suffering of others.

So, it should come as no surprise that the Church in her collective observance of Advent, in her looking to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ not with fear or anxiety, but with joyful hope, finds herself critiqued both in her members who have not this confidence and in those who do. Those Christians disturbed by the events of the world — by the signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves: men withering away for fear and expectation of what shall come upon the whole world — become for the world of unbelief a justification to doubt the warrant for Christian hope. Yet, at the same time, those Christians who live in confidence and joy, awaiting the Son of man coming in a cloud with great power and majesty, joyful even in the midst of the troubles of the world because their redemption is at hand, are accused by these same critics of the Good News for being callous, being untroubled by real suffering, offering Bronze Age opiates to avoid the pains of the twenty-first century.

In all of this, we need not be disturbed or dismayed. We know that, in light of the Gospel, we need not, indeed cannot, deny the reality of the troubles of the world, for the one who will come in glory and power to judge the world still bears the scars of his Cross. At the same time, we know that those wounds are marks of love and not shame, of the triumph of mercy not the continuance or permanence of malice. We know better than others that death, pain, and troubles, while altogether real, cannot and will not have the final say, neither in our individual lives, nor for the whole of creation. Heaven and earth, Jesus reminds us, shall pass away: but My words shall not pass away.

Stir up Thy power, we beseech Thee, O Lord, and come: that from the threatening dangers of our sins we may deserve to be rescued by Thy protection, and to be saved by Thy deliverance.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday of the 34th Week (I)

Daniel 7:15-27 / Luke 21:34-36

However different our vision, however keen our eyes, things are generally most readily seen neither close up or at a distance, but rather in the middle ground. Hold something right up near the eye and it will either all be a blur or be so partial a view that we have no clue as to what it is we are looking at. Put something out at a distance and, even for a keen eye, it loses much of its specificity. In other words, when the focus is too close or too distant, we simply cannot say what it is that we are seeing. Sight is most comfortable at the middle distance.

We can see that our spiritual sight is not so unlike that. Unaided, the prophet Daniel was not simply perplexed by his vision of the future, but rather he found his spirit anguished within its covering of flesh, and he was terrified by the visions of his mind. What was to come was seen by him as terrible beasts with iron teeth and claws of bronze, as horns, one of which spoke in arrogance. It was only when one of those present ... made known to him the meaning of the things that Daniel could receive his vision of things far off as a message of hope and not a source of terror.

In the Gospel, we are warned against just the opposite tendency. Here, the Lord Jesus Christ reminds us of the dangers of carousing and drunkenness, and the anxieties of daily life. Whether pleasures or worries, these things share in common the fact of being immediate, of being experienced directly by us here and now. Yet, the Lord warns us that indulging in them will make our hearts become drowsy. Our vision will, like the eyes of a sleepy man, become blurry, and we will not notice the coming of the Day which will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. It is only in being vigilant, which is to say keeping our gaze beyond what is immediately around us, but looking up to see what it coming, that we will be able to stand before the Son of Man with fearful joy rather than loathing and terror.

How, then, to we find the right distance? How to we know where to focus? How do we escape the terror that comes from the unintelligible future on the one hand and the terror that will strike us from having been to caught up in the insistent present on the other hand?

The answer, which we knew all along, is to see through the eyes of the Scriptures as read in prayer from the heart of the Church. It is Jesus Christ who, like those with Daniel, is present to us, and it is his voice alone that can transform the terrifying visions of what is to come into Good News and a message of hope. Likewise it is Jesus Christ who, being more present to us than our own bodily pleasures, more pressing on us than our daily cares, who along can liberate us from the tyranny of the present and face the future coming without alarm. What our eyes cannot see for being too close or too far away, we nonetheless can see with clarity by keeping our focus on the middle ground who is the Lord Jesus, our Lord and God, who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Last Sunday of the Year

Colossians 1:9-14 / Matthew 24:13-25

There is, and has been for a few years, something of a mania for zombies, and with them fictional scenarios of the end of the world as we know it, in popular culture. Indeed, so supersaturated are we with these tales of the walking dead, implacable in their hunger for human flesh, vulnerable individually but beyond any human solution in their innumerable hordes, that we might easily fail to see that such stories are not, at their heart, about zombies at all. Whenever we consider what it would be like to endure, and indeed to survive, a great tribulation, such as hath not been found from the beginning of the world until now of which the best we can say of those who face them is woe to them, for unless those days had been shortened, no flesh should be saved, we are not really interested in whatever caused the tribulation — nuclear war, asteroids, global pandemic, zombie infections. No, what makes these stories compelling is a fundamental question: In the face of global and humanly irreversible disaster, when no offer of hope, no solution new or old deriving from our ingenuity can possibly save us, how shall we live? When kindness, charity, mercy, and solidarity leave us just as exposed, just as dead as self-serving egoism, cruelty, and crass individualism, when there is no visible difference between the fate of those who follow Jesus Christ and those who have refused the Good News, in short when miracles and wonders come just as readily from false Christs and false prophets insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect, what ought we to do.

Of course, this question is no less relevant, no less pressing in what we naively take to be the ordinary, daily life we face. Moreover, the very fact that we are not unavoidably confronted with the question of our fidelity makes the seeming safety of our ordinary lives dangerous in its own way. After all, we are offered every day signs and wonders accomplished by those who do not accept the truth of Jesus Christ. We see fantastic accomplishments in technology, in the healing arts, in social organization and efficiency, all of which seem at least as able, if not more so, to address the human ills which we profess in faith to be ultimately only curable by the Lord Jesus Christ, however much we remain obligated to do the best we can to eliminate them by our own efforts. So, then, what ought the faithful to do?

St Paul, altogether aware of the faithfulness of the Church in Colossae, having no doubts as to their fidelity in a world on the one hand ignorant of, on the other refusing to acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ, nonetheless would not cease to pray for them. What was his prayer? That they be not simply aware of salvation in Jesus Christ but filled with knowledge, wisdom and understanding; that they not simply have turned their lives to God in a fundamental way, but that in all things and in every good work they might please God; that they not simply be able to endure troubles, but that they be strengthened with all might according to the power of His glory, in all patience and long suffering with joy. In short, Paul sees that to have been made partakers of the lot of the saints in light through baptism and be made sons of God the Father, Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in Whom we have redemption through His blood, the remission of sins, is not the end, but the beginning of the Christian life. It is in the reception of a new life in Christ that we can finally, truly, start to live, to enjoy a life that passes through the most heart-breaking of tragedies and, without denying them, nonetheless is marked, or ought to be, by irrepressible joy.

This is what we Christian faithful ought to find ourselves doing. Whether faced with the most horrifying end-of-the-world scenario concocted by Hollywood or the daily challenges of holding fast to the Good News of Jesus Christ, our task remains the same. It is to live a life of thanksgiving, sealed with the radiant gladness, the abundant and glorious happiness that is the inner life of the Blessed Trinity. We, the baptized, already have a share in that gladness, that happiness, that deathless and eternal joy in the blood of Jesus Christ. May we cease not to pray for ourselves, and one another, to grow more and more, day by day, into the heart of the joy of God.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

St Albert the Great, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Sirach 6:18-21, 33-37 / Matthew 25:14-23

Many of us know how hard it can be to learn a new language. After the initial novelty has worn off, learning a language can become a daily chore with no meaningful signs of daily improvement. We can, in our fear and frustration, be tempted not to speak to any native speaker, worried of the mistakes we will make. We may find ourselves avoiding the company of those whose language we are trying to learn, for fear that we will be asked to say something and find ourselves speechless.

Yet, when we stop thinking about ourselves and turn our attention instead to the daily discipline of study, when we seek out rather than avoid the company of others, when we take interest not in our own language acquisition but rather in other people and what they have to say — then, without our even noticing, our language skill improves, and in time, we may find ourselves to be fluent.

As it is with languages, so it is with acquiring wisdom. We might at first be tempted to hide and bury the small portion of wisdom we have been given by God. However, it is not in focusing on what we think the inadequacy of our share that we come to be wise. Rather, it is in seeking out ways to be fruitful, in taking real interest in the godly discourse of those we know to be wise, in being more willing to learn from others than in asserting what we think we know better, and most of all in the daily discipline of silence and devotion that, without noticing it, we find we have over time become wise. We discover that we have become fluent in the language of God that he speaks in the glorious diversity of the creation and in the more glorious splendor of revelation.

This is what St Albert the Great has to teach us. He is not a model of precocious youthful piety as were some saints, not of a passionate conversion from the world, nor even a splendid martyrdom. Albert's was a life of daily study, daily discipline, and daily prayer. His was a willingness to learn all he could from anyone and everything, taking passionate interest in the loftiest stars and in the lowliest toads and worms, in rocks, trees, and animals. He learned as happily from pagan philosophers, distant Christian mystics, and even from his own students. Above it all, Albert tells us that he learned more from prayer and devotion than from study.

Brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, this is the path to wisdom, a path found not in spectacular drama, but in a mind eager and ready to learn, in eyes and ears open to receive, and in a heart made quiet by the discipline of silence and prayer. Do this, and the Lord himself assures us that he will enlighten your mind, and the wisdom you desire he will grant.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

On Lying

My brother in profession, Paul Byrd, O.P., who blogs over at Dominican Cooperator Brother, has raised the vexed question about the ethics of lying, especially in liminal situations in which the lives of others are at stake. Rather than clog up his comment box, I decided to put my thoughts here.

Paul raised a rather classic question in ethics, both in general and in the history of moral theology itself. I will say from the outset that I believe his resolution (viz. that it is at least on some occasions morally acceptable, perhaps even necessary or praiseworthy to lie) to be mistaken.

To begin with, we want to admit that the overwhelming tradition of moral inquiry in this matter has held lying to be, in and of itself and not merely circumstantially, an evil, one precisely forbidden by the eighth commandment. To help see why this is so, we can look to St Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas, truthfulness (veritas) is a virtue by which one is disposed to tell the truth, i.e. to speak and act in ways that are consistent with one's inner thoughts, to be "one in mind and heart" not merely with others but with oneself. While this is the principal object of the virtue of truthfulness, it also includes the inclination readily and easily to speak the truth at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner.

For Thomas, the vice opposed to truthfulness is lying, by which one represents externally (by speech or action) what is contrary to what one knows or thinks within. All of the kinds of lying (e.g. simulation, hypocrisy, iactantia [exaggeration of one's merits], ironia [untrue minimizing of one's merits]) share this feature. What is important to note here is that, for Thomas, there is not a "right to the truth" which makes lying to be bad. Simply speaking, others do not have a right that we disclose to them what is true, nor even that we be truthful. Furthermore, lying is not bad principally because of the intention to deceive. For Thomas, even if one had no reasonable expectation he would be believed, he could still be guilty of lying through a seriously intended misrepresentation of his mind/thoughts through contrary external speech/acts. It is the deformation of the one who lies that is at stake, and with that deformation, the whole project of both personal and interpersonal flourishing that is at stake here.

It is worth noting that the definition of the Catechism published in 1992, i.e. "To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth," was revised in the official edition of 1997 to remove the final phrase, viz. "someone who has the right to know the truth" precisely because of the problematic idea of the "right to the truth." The intention to deceive remains there, and a Thomist could readily accept that generally one lies in order to deceive, but this seems more a near universal circumstance, rather than getting at the essence of lying. Overall, the revision also helps ward off ultimately unhelpful approaches to the "difficult cases" often presented by, e.g. distinguishing, say, lies from "false speech" on the basis of the presence or absence, respectively, of either the intent to deceive or else of the recipient's relative "right" to the truth.

So, how have the hard cases been classically resolved? Thomas' solution, ultimately derived from Augustine, and developed later as the theory of "mental reservation", held that one could, legitimately, speak or act in such a way that, while not misrepresenting what was in one's own mind, nonetheless was possible, even likely, to mislead or misdirect the undesired, even wickedly motivated, inquiry (e.g. the Nazi looking for Jews in one's basement). While some versions of mental reservation have been rejected as hopelessly lax (i.e. saying what is clearly a material falsehood while adding a "corrective" phrase in one's head), the general theory understands that one can justifiably speak in a potentially equivocal but nonetheless truthful way. Moreover, one need not always say anything at all, nor is one generally obliged to tell the whole truth. ("I do not know if he is in," for example, is an acceptable response even when you just saw the person 20, or even 5 minutes ago. The fact is, you *don't* know that he is in. That the listener might conclude you have not seen him in some time is not your moral responsibility to correct. The circumstances when one is giving evidence in court, of course, alter one's moral obligations in the latter regard.)

While some may find this theory a bit too fine-grained, it is not actually a way to allow for lying. Indeed, it is quite the opposite of the proposal that one can morally lie. As tempting as such proposal seems, it tries to get at some ultimately passing good (even if one of great value) through the dissolution of one's own integrity. Even when done in small ways, this erosion of one's own authenticity is destructive of one's own self and, through that, of one's capacity to be personally related to others. This is the good truthfulness protects, and it is the good every lie, even "in a good cause", wounds or destroys.

As to Paul's other claims: (a) The case of lying is distinct from justifiable homicide for the reasons seen above. The claim that some people are authorized to kill (or justified to do so) is not rooted in the claim that right intention makes something otherwise evil nonetheless justified. (b) The cases from Scripture have a long, rich, detailed exegetical heritage. The *simplest* thing to note here is that nothing in the Scriptures requires (in fact much of the narrative disallows) the presumption that the acts of the patriarchs and matriarchs, of the kings and prophets, are all praiseworthy. That good that flows from their misdeeds comes from God's providence, not from the virtue of their deceptions (if, that is, these were not cases of mental reservation).  (c) One *cannot* justify the deliberate choice of evil on the basis that the sin is not mortal. Knowingly doing what is evil is knowingly to turn away from the love of God, and in doing so from love of neighbor and of self as well. This is why it is obligatory to avoid any sin at any cost. The world is not made in any way better by the lessening of divine charity within us, much less its being extinguished in our hearts. It is *never* furthering God's Kingdom to draw away from God. (d) See the CCC for what the Church universal holds, and which I note above [bearing in mind to use the revised version of 1997], as well as the Thomistic approach, which represents the longer-standing and majority approach to the question.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Feast of All Saints

Revelation 7:2-12 / Matthew 5:1-12

How many saints do you imagine you have met in your life? How many of the people you have spoken to daily — in school, at work, friends and family, rivals and adversaries — do you suspect are even now numbered among God's elect, signed with the sign of the living God ... in their foreheads? Who among those you barely notice — the cashier, the tollbooth attendant, fellow passengers on the bus or subway — who among those anonymous throngs we pass by without any notice will be find themselves standing before the throne and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hand?

We just might, after all, have good reason to be optimistic that the number is quite large. While many, both those with exotic ways of reading Revelation and unbelievers alike, recall the hundred and forty-four thousand who are numbered there, they tend to forget that this is not an account of the full number of God's elect, but rather those who were signed out of every tribe of the children of Israel during the Last Days. In fact, mere verse away, Revelation denied to us any merely countable sum, but instead presents to us a vision of a great multitude which no man could number, of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, joined together in collective worship and common confession: Salvation to our God Who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb, keeping company with the angels, the elders, and the four living creatures.

If we attend to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount, we might more readily see how wide is the scope of holiness, of blessedness. Who are the blessed? The poor in spirit, the meek, they that mourn, they that hunger and thirst after justice, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, they that suffer persecution for justice' sake, and, much to our surprise, even us, when people revile us, and persecute us, and speak all that is evil against us, untruly, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Can we read the newsfeed online, can we watch the television, peruse the newspaper, or for that matter even be minimally attentive to the street on which we live and not conclude that blessedness must be scattered far and wide? Is there not plenty of poverty, in spirit as much as in money? Are there not many who mourn or seek daily for justice which never seems to come? For all our cynicism, have we not known from those we have wronged real and unmerited mercy, or found from the object of our darker desires not an echo but rather the bracing and cleansing company of one truly clean of heart? Are there not more than we can remember who have brought peace where we could find none, as well as those who are ill treated merely for doing what is right? And, even if we are not attentive to it and it remains a story largely untold in the media of the West, can we be unmoved by the numbers of those daily persecuted for receiving the grace and name of Jesus Christ?

Yet, perhaps we rebel. Perhaps we see such multitudes and wonder whether we have made grace too cheap, have ignored the dire warnings of the Lord Jesus that the road to death is broad, and many those who walk by it, the gate to truth and life narrow, and few are they who find it. Even so, is not much of our anxiety not so much theological as existential? Does it not stem from two worries, namely that we know all too well the weakness, darkness, and rebellion that lives in even the best servants of Jesus Christ, and that we know even better our own? Is not our resistance to cheap grace a way to keep our feet to the fire, to disallow and easy resting spot for our own pilgrimage, our own conversio morum? Might we not be worried at the credibility of the Gospel, even of our own faith, if men and women such as these, such as ourselves, might actually be the means by which God proclaims his infallible truth and pours out his grace for the healing of the nations?

The is, and always has been, the mystery of the Church, the mystery of Christ's Body, from the incorporation of Adam and Eve, through the people of Israel, to the Church today. It has never been otherwise. The body of the elect always has been, and always will be, composed of sinners being made righteous through capital grace, the grace we receive a united to Christ our Head. We have undoubtedly met countless saints, and may indeed be well acquainted with the one we see every day in the mirror. These men and women with their sins, failures, and weaknesses, are the very stones with which God builds his holy Temple.

This is the mystery we proclaim today, and this is at the heart of all Christian hope and the cause for our rejoicing. O how glorious is the kingdom in which all the Saints rejoice with Christ, and, clothed in white robes, follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.

Monday, October 31, 2011

All Hallows' Eve

Revelation 5:6-12 / Luke 6:17-23

Do you like your Halloween silly or terrifying?

Judging from the range of expressions of the holiday across the United States and in those other countries that have come to celebrate it as well, we can only safely conclude that the response is mixed. For some, the ghoulies, ghosties, long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night are quite clearly marked out for fun and mockery. The reanimated corpses scare about as readily as Herman Munster, the vampires as successfully as Count Chocula, and apparently we like it that way. It is though this crowd wants to insist that the panoply of evil which parades from door to door or from bar to bar is best mocked, made light of, occupying a safe realm somewhere between Saturday morning cartoons on the one hand, low comedy and burlesque on the other.

For others, however, it is the fright, the terror, that ought to be front and center. On this view, if there is any fun to the night, it can only be had by there being at least some capacity to suspend one's awareness that this is all safe and in good fun. If we cannot, for a moment, worry that the horrid man with the axe who chases us out of the haunted house or through the field of corn, then why go through the charade? If the trick-or-treaters do not have at least a little anxiety that, maybe just this time, the horrid witch who answers the door will not give them candy but rather boil them in her cauldron for dinner, then something important is lost in the whole experience. As with a horror movie rated only PG-13, admitting anyone above the age of 13 years, the audience would know what cannot be shown, what level of horror cannot even be hinted at, and so is ultimately left, apart from a startle or two, altogether unsatisfied.

What this latter group knows, perhaps directly, possibly only unconsciously, is that the evils which we face on Halloween are, each in their own way, all too painfully real. We live, after all, where there are long to be healed of their diseases, where good men and women are troubled with unclean spirits. Even, indeed numerically especially, among the company of God's Church, we see those who are poor, that hunger now, that weep now, the victims daily of hatred, being separated, reproached, their very names cast out as evil, all for the sake of the Gospel. To pretend that the victory of Christ over the powers of Death, Hell, and Sin means a world or a Church untroubled, free from the ghastly and deadly tricks of the legions of the night is to fail to see at all.

All the same, while people young and old keep this day, and with good reason, with goblins and terrors, defanged or red in tooth and claw, the Church does not clothe herself with tales of terror and demonic oppression. Rather, she recalls that at Jesus' hand, those who were diseased were healed, those troubled with unlean spirits were cured. She recalls his assurance that the poor's is, and not merely will be, the kingdom of God, that those who hunger and weep now are nonetheless blessed. All of this we know because, no less now than then, virtue went out from him, and healed all. If the Church casts its eyes on creatures, it is not moldering revenants from the tomb, not specters and wraiths assaulting the living in envy of their life, but the four living creatures, and in the midst of the ancients, a Lamb standing as it were slain, having seven horns and seven eyes: which are the seven Spirits of God, sent forth into all the earth. The sounds she hears are not creaking doors, cackling hags, and the flapping of bats' wings, nor the odors those of apple, pumpkin, and a freshly-dug grave, but harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.

It is not that the Church forgets on the Eve the reality of sin and evil and its continuing presence in our lives. Rather what she affirms with full confidence, for she has it from Jesus Christ himself, is that Death, Hell, and Sin, not only are not the final word come the Last Day when the trumpet sounds, but that they are not even the final word now. What the Gospel gives us as Good News is that, even now, even in the midst of the monstrous and the horrible, Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain, is with us as Victor and King, and that from his power and virtue, we have not enough life to make it through, but the very font of Life itself.

However we keep this night, in prayerful vigil, or in vigil under the blanket in a darkened room watching scary movies, or in fact dreading the awful and real terrors of our lives, we know that Jesus Christ is Lord here and now, that we are his, and that no wound, no injury, no injustice, not even the mightiest and most terrifying works of the Devil himself can overcome the Love we know in the Lamb.

Thou art worthy, O Lord, to take the book, and to open the seals thereof; because thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God, in thy blood, out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation. and hast made us to our God a kingdom and priests, and we shall reign on the earth. ... The Lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power, and divinity, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and benediction!