Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday of the Forefathers

Colossians 3:4-11 / Luke 14:16-24

Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.

There has been of late on the blogosphere a recent revival of the question of the population of Hell. While the question about the number of those in Hell, at least in general, whether it will be great or small, more or less than the elect, is an ancient one, the latest back and forth seems to have been prompted by the publication this fall of professor of systematic theology Ralph Martin's Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization, as well as by the recent response to this work by the priest, blogger, and rector of Mundelein Seminary, Robert Barron. The dispute has its interest, it must be granted. Moreover, Martin might well be right, namely, that too great a confidence in the likely salvation of all, or at least most, may have dulled the more traditional evangelizing fervor of the Catholic Church. Likewise, Barron and others might be quite right that evangelical fervor does not require the fear of hellfire, and that, even if Martin were correct and Hell were heavily populated, the motives for bringing people to the faith ought to be animated far more by the positive love of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us than the negative aversion from what we dread.

Be that as it may, in the parable today we hear from Jesus, it is not the population of Hell, but rather the population of Heaven that is at stake. Even without those originally invited to the banquet, and even after the servants of the master have gone into the streets and lanes of the city and brought in the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind, the servants report to the master that still there is room. On hearing this, the master commands that they go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, but not that none might be excluded. Indeed, the master is quite clear that exclusion is real, a terrible consequence of seeking other goods rather than his bounty: For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper. However, the master's concern is not the logic of exclusion, nor even the logic of inclusion, if by that logic we are concerned with some feature of those included to account for their presence at the banquet. No, the master's central objective is the good of the banquet itself, that his house may be filled.

We can, all too readily, forget that the main point of everything, of all that is, and has been, and will be, is that God might be glorified in his works. This is not a case of divine megalomania. When we desire other people and other things to glorify us, we do so at their expense, by seeing these other things as having meaning only in ourselves. With God, things are different. To serve God, to glorify him, to praise and thank him through all that we are is, at one and the same time, to live out what is most fulfilling of ourselves and to exist to glorify God. In these end, these are convertible, one with the other; even if the glory of God should have priority, as it must, it never comes first at the expense of who we are. It is only our rebellion, our seeking out goods independent of him, as though there could be any such thing, that we undo ourselves, that we transform ourselves from the recipient of God's love and bounty to the object of his wrath, and so, by our turning away, transform ourselves into the very thing we meant to avoid. That is, in turning from God to other goods as a means of self-assertion, we find, in our exclusion from the banquet, that we have become precisely what we fear, namely, that we manifest God's glory not because of, but in spite of what we desire.

This, surely, is why we want to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. There is no doubt that God will be glorified in his works. It can be no other way. There need be no doubt of the efficacy of our salvation in Jesus Christ. He has been at work from our first forefathers, Adam and Eve, and worked throughout all of history, including all those, from Adam through the Virgin, who were born before his most gracious coming. That God will be praised in his works, indeed has been praised beyond anything the world might give on its own, is more than amply shown in the forefathers. Yet, even now, even in the age of grace, God continues to glorify himself, he continues to send us out as his servants and messengers, going to the least likely places because in his house there is still room, and it is his will that his house be full.

Rather than debate the population of Hell, might we not be better suited to making ourselves more equipped to invite others to the banquet? Might we not rather seek to live out the new life we have in Jesus Christ with such joy and delight that others whom we meet will not hesitate to respond heartily and happily when they receive the invitation to dine with us?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Our Lady of Guadalupe/Wednesday of 29th Week after Pentecost

2 Timothy 4:9-22 / Mark 8:30-34

At the close of Paul's second letter to Timothy, we read what might well strike us as odd in a work inspired by the Holy Spirit and destined, by that inspiration is not directly by Paul, to instruct the whole of the Church of God, both in Paul's day and for the years to come until Jesus returns in glory. What is odd is how very specific and personal the letter becomes. Paul lists by name those who have abandoned him — Demas, Crescens, and Titus — those he wants with him — Luke, Timothy himself, and Mark who is to bring them both — those he sent elsewhere — in this case, Tychicus — as well as those who opposed him — Alexander the coppersmith. We hear lovely but altogether practical details, such as Paul's request for the cloak he left in Troas with Carpus, as well as his books and parchments. We also hear a litany of names at the close of the letter, the women and men he greets — Prisca, Aquila, the household of Onesiphorus — and even of poor Trophimus' being sick. Yet, in the midst of these very personal relations, relations which, on their face, seem to have nothing to do with the Church as a whole, or really with anyone but Paul and his immediate circle, Paul reminds us of the presence in all he has done and is doing of Jesus Christ: But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear.

We might likewise wonder at the Church proposing to us as a motive for thanksgiving the apparitions of Mary, as the Church does today for her appearance before Juan Diego in Guadalupe. Without doubting the truth of the apparition and the impact it made on his life, why, we may well ask, should the discourse in Nahuatl between a simple man in colonial Mexico and the Blessed Mother mean anything for the rest of us? Even if we grant that, for the peoples of Mexico, this gracious appearing serves to draw them and their story into the great narrative of God's redemption through Jesus Christ, why should this matter to those of us who are not Mexican, or at least those who do not live in the Americas?

What we learn both from the close of Paul's second letter to Timothy and from the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe is that the encounter with Jesus Christ is always particular. The Gospel, of course, if everlasting, but this does not make it timeless, if by "timeless" we mean addressed to all people indiscriminately in ways so general that nothing of the daily details of the world show through. Rather, the Gospel ought to be said to be deeply and irrevocably timely. It is the timeliness of the Gospel, that it was proclaimed out of and to the very particular hopes of God's people Israel, that it come to the Gentiles through the very particular acts and relationships of such as Paul, and that it continues to come to us, not impersonally or generically, but always as having been received by someone somewhere, always bearing the stamp of where it has been.

Jesus Christ does not mean to bypass the world, and each of us dwelling upon it, so that he might be known. Quite the contrary, the individual peculiarities of each of us is rather the whole point, that God might bring to eternal life not a generic and universalized humanity, but Paul and Luke, Prisca and Aquila, Juan Diego, you, and me. It is in that hope, a hope that the particular and quotidian details of our life do not fall outside of God's care, but that they are at the heart of his redeeming work in the sending of the Son and of his Holy Spirit that we can walk in hope, the hope of that glorious coming we recall as having happened in Bethlehem, we look forward in his glorious return, and we proclaim without reserve in the individual and irrepeatable wonder of each of our lives in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

28th Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 6: 10-17 / Luke 17:12-19

And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.

In the film version of The Wizard of Oz, near the end of the story, Dorothy believes that she has been stranded forever in the wonderful, but nonetheless alien, land of Oz. The wizard has taken off in his hot-air balloon, and as he is no real wizard, but only a huckster, he can no more will his balloon to return to her than she can fly up to the balloon. It is at this moment that Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, arrives on the scene and reveals something quite startling to Dorothy:

Dorothy: Oh, will you help me? Can you help me?
Glinda: You don't need to be helped any longer. You've always had the power to go back to Kansas.
Dorothy: I have?
Scarecrow: Then why didn't you tell her before?
Glinda: She wouldn't have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.
Scarecrow: What have you learned, Dorothy?
Dorothy: Well, I—I think that it, that it wasn't enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em — and it's that — if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?
Glinda: That's all it is!
Scarecrow: But that's so easy! I should've thought of it for you -
Tin Man: I should have felt it in my heart -
Glinda: No, she had to find it out for herself. Now those magic slippers will take you home in two seconds!

It's not that Glinda here promotes some sort of Pelagian nonsense, as though Dorothy is able achieve her heart's desire by her own effort. After all, it is the magic of the ruby slippers that makes this mode of travel possible in the first place. Rather, what Glinda, who gifted these slippers to Dorothy near the beginning of the film, has known all along is that, apart from an effective knowledge of the power that she has, a power which depends heavily on rightly understanding her situation as well as her heart, then no gift, however precious and potentially life-transforming, can do her any lasting good.

In the Gospel today, we hear of Jesus' healing of the ten lepers. What sets this story in many ways apart from other miracles of Jesus is that the healing of the ten occurs entirely apart from any explicit eliciting of faith. That is, the ten ask for mercy, and Jesus sends them to the priests, whose task it was according to the Law to declare a man clean or unclean. Even so, all of them, we are told, are cleansed by Christ's power along the way and, we may well imagine, the nine who continued on their way were to rejoice when the priest gave them a clean bill of health.

Yet, only to the one who returned, the one who saw that he was healed, does Jesus say, Your faith has made you well. All of them, in other words, have been made well in one sense; all of them have received the gift of physical deliverance from leprosy. However, only this solitary man, indeed only this foreigner in an alien place, a Samaritan, can in fact be declared by Jesus to have been made well. He alone, of the ten, has learned what must be learned by the gift he has received, and only he can profit from that knowing, being taken back to the place he most desires — not Samaria, but to the bosom of Abraham, to be in the presence of God through the help of the Savior, Jesus Christ.

We have, all of us who have received the grace of baptism in Jesus Christ and been brought to a new and everlasting life in the Holy Spirit have received a far greater gift than a pair of magic slippers. We who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and called out of darkness into light, have professed a faith far richer, far deeper than the faith proclaimed by the Samaritan who was healed from his leprosy. Yet, do we we know it? Do we know of this gift we have received? Has it made, and does it make a difference?

This time of preparation for Christmas, this solemn fast of awaiting that the Church imposes on her faithful, does for us in profound ways what Glinda did for Dorothy in simple ways. If we are honest, we will confess that, even though the gift is ours, we really do not yet understand it. Our heart is not yet settled on Jesus Christ, and we do not see his gracious coming, in times past, today into our hearts, and on the Last Day, as we ought, namely, as the fulfilling of our heart's desire. This year, let us make our waiting for his Advent be a way to discover once again what Jesus Christ has done for us and continues to do for us. Let us stop on our way going about our daily tasks, and seeing what has been done for us, proclaim aloud to all who would hear that Jesus Christ is Lord, that he has made us whole, and we have no greater joy than to fall down before him and give thanks.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Conception of the Theotokos by St Anna

Galatians 4:22-31 / Luke 8:16-21

For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him.

Do we delight in the prosperity of others? Are we pained to discover that someone else possesses a gift or a talent that we would very much like to have, but do not? When we find out that whatever we most value about ourselves is likewise in someone else, and that they have it more perfectly than we do, is this for us a cause for joy, or is it a motive for malice?

When we consider the special gifts with which the Mother of God was endowed, from the very moment of her conception, it might be understandable, perhaps even pardonable, if the our gifts, the little that we seem to have, has been taken away, and that to the great deal she had from the start, a great deal more has been given. Where we might delight in a kind of innocence, the Virgin Mother of the Lord enjoys an innocence that stretches back to the moment she was first conceived in her mother Anna's womb. Where we might find a generous streak in ourselves, the Virgin displayed herself radically open to the grace of God and his invitation to bear the eternal Word in her womb. Where we may rejoice in the suffering we have received because of our love for Jesus Christ, she knew the keenness of a sword unlike any other that pierced her heart at the foot of the Cross. Where we may have a firm and certain hope in our resurrection to glory through the promises of the Risen Savior, she enjoys even now the fulness of her whole self, body and soul, united and glorified, in the presence of the all-holy Trinity.

It is certainly to be accepted that no other creature that was, is, or ever shall be, apart from the humanity of Jesus Christ, has occupied, occupies, or will ever occupy as glorious a place in God's Kingdom than the Theotokos, the Godbearer, the Mother of the Word Incarnate. Yet, that we cannot equal her in glory, in splendor, in majesty, nor for that matter in hearing the word of God and doing it, the gifts poured upon the Virgin ought not to be for us a cause either for despair or for tepidness in our faith. While it is always wrong to be grieved by the gifts of another, as this ought rightly to be a motive for our joy and thanksgiving, we can rightly be grieved that, upon reflection, we discover that we do not share in those gifts, that we are not as alive in the grace of Jesus Christ as we might be.

This is what the Immaculate Conception of the Theotokos ought to be for us. It should be an image both of our gratitude for what God has done to and for his Blessed Mother, and it should be a gentle goad for our own spiritual lives. It should stir us to ever more radical availability to the life of the Gospel, ever more prompt and generous returns for the good that God has given to us already. It is in this tireless and happily willing response to the grace of Jesus Christ already within us that will prove on the Last Day to be the measure more that will be bestowed on what we have. If we have little, if the Immaculate Conception of the Theotokos reminds us how little we have, let us then make good the time before us. Let us strive to return to the Lord a measure of love that we have received, and in that trying, find ourselves graced beyond our deepest longings.

Friday, December 7, 2012

St Ambrose of Milan

2 Timothy 1:1-2, 8-18 / Luke 21:37-22:8

Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.

It is not always easy to hold fast to the words we have heard from the pulpit, from our catechists, from our own reading of the Scriptures. It is not simply that we live in a secular age, one more overtly welcoming of public critiques of the Christian faith, although that surely has something to do with it. Nor can it be that the Scriptures themselves are not available. With our modern technology, it can be fair to say that Holy Writ has never before been as accessible to the faithful and unbeliever alike.

No, in the end the challenge posed to us by the Scriptures is making sense of it all. To be sure, sometimes the opacity of the Scriptures is rather exaggerated, and this exaggeration has undue force, especially over those who have not acquainted themselves directly with the Bible. Indeed, any plain reading of the Bible will, for the most part, provide a fairly coherent account of God's plan of salvation, how he has dealt with the human race and his people Israel, and how in these latter days he sent his Son into the world, and through his Son has given us a share in his eternal life through the power of the Spirit. This is not nothing, and all of this can be had by any curious reader.

All the same, there are some passages in Scripture which strike even the reasonably educated reader as obscure, or even perverse. It can be hard to see what others have to do with anything. Why, we may wonder, would God's inspired text include precise details, for every generation to the end of time, for the construction of the Tabernacle, when the time of Tabernacle passed centuries ago, many centuries already before the coming of Christ? Why, on the one hand, present direct narratives or easy-to-understand proverbs on the one hand, and then obscure details of ancient Israelite life, difficult prophecies, and even more difficult apocalyptic visions?

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Ambrose of Milan, and, among the many great gifts which he provided the Latin-speaking Christians of the Empire, and through him all of Roman Christianity, perhaps the most enduring has been his bringing to the West of the riches in the Greek world for the interpretation of Scripture. The Scriptures, after all, although addressed to the whole people of faith for all time, are not, and are not meant to be, read as any other set of texts. They are not merely the best attempts of ancient peoples to record and put into words their experience of the Lord God. They are, without failing to be texts written by men, more fundamentally written by the Holy Spirit, and so as divine texts, we ought not to expect that they will speak to us with the same rules and limits of any other text we encounter.

What Ambrose taught the West, and what we have to learn from him, is that God did not simply give us a set of holy texts and leave us on our own. He left us a means of reading them, and a Church to watch over and guide that reading, so that, from age to age and from the rising of the sun to its setting, the truth God meant to communicate to the world might be faithfully passed on his the Scriptures.

As we approach the celebration of the Lord's birth, of the nativity of Jesus Christ, we would do well to come to know him better, to know him through those texts that not only speak about him, but through which he speaks to us. Let us pray that, by the intercession of St. Ambrose, we might find in Holy Writ not puzzles to confound and confuse, but a sure and certain witness to the saving will of our God, a God who has freed us from sin and death in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

St Nicholas the Wonderworker

Hebrews 13:17-21 / Luke 6:17-23

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled.

Many miracles are associated with St Nicholas, so many, in fact, that he is given the title thaumaturgos, "wonderworker". Among the many stories told of Nicholas, quite a few, perhaps even most, attend to the holiness of the saint precisely as expressed in his fierce concern for and defense of the poor. In one story, Nicholas restored to life, and bodily integrity, three boys (or, in some versions, three clerks) who had been slaughtered and pickled (or baked as meat pies) by an unscrupulous butcher (or innkeeper). The villain of the story, we are led to understand, while no less wicked for the fact, was brought to this terrible act because of the severity of the famine which, in making meat unavailable, threatened his own livelihood, threatened to number him among the many who were poor and hungry.

Hunger and famine are also key to the story which tells of the ship filled with grain destined for the emperor in Constantinople. While docked at the port of St Nicholas' city, the holy man demanded that grain be taken from the ship to feed his people who were oppressed by a terrible famine. The captain and his sailors were understandably resistant; the emperor, after all, would require a full accounting for the grain, which had been measured and weighed upon departure, and so, while not unsympathetic to the people's plight, intended to give nothing of their store. When they acquiesced to the pleadings of Nicholas, they then left for Constantinople, only to discover that what had been taken for Nicholas' flock, enough to feed them for two years, had been miraculously restored to the ship as well.

The most famous story of St Nicholas involves no miracle at all, but is likewise bound up with the desperate decisions we make in the face of hunger and want. A father, desperately poor and unable to provide dowries for his three daughters, is tempted to turn them out to the streets, to make a sale of their virtue and innocence for the sake of another day's worth of food. The young bishop, hearing of their plight, secretly deposited gold coins in their home, in some versions into stockings which had been hung up to dry, and so saved the daughters from the terrible fate of sexual slavery and the father the moral corruption of having delivered them over to it.

When Jesus tells us that the poor and hungry are blessed, that theirs is the kingdom and that they will be filled, I do not expect him to mean that the kinds of miraculous, or at least providential, interventions of the kind made by St Nicholas are to be the lot of every believer. To be sure, we can and should rightly turn to God to aid us in our plight, and we should be rightly grateful when he comes to our aid, as Nicholas was sent to the sailors whose ship was tosser about at sea. However, what Jesus reminds us is that we must all of us turn away from the temptation to respond to need and want only from our own resources. While we must, of course, give our best to meet our own needs and the needs of those most in want, especially those closest to us, Jesus' beatitudes in Luke's Gospel, and likewise also the woes which follow, serve as a warning. They warn us of the horrible consequences, to others, but to ourselves even more, or the terrible consequences we must inevitably make, most often at the expense of the weakest in our midst, when we think that our own resources, alone or collectively, are all he have to meet the needs of the world.

Jesus Christ alone answers our need. Jesus Christ alone is the source of blessing, of happiness, of healing power, of kingdom and being filled, of laughter and rejoicing and leaping for joy. It is only by giving of ourselves from the inexhaustible riches that flow from the power of Jesus Christ, only by opening our own hearts to the extravagant generosity of the Word made Flesh, whose first coming we celebrate, whose truth Nicholas so fiercely defended, and whose return we await with deepest longing — only then can meet the needs of our own poverty, and the poverty of the world.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

St Sabbas the Sanctified

Galatians 5:22-6:2 / Matthew 11:27-30

And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

On the face of it, Paul's claim to the Galatians that those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passion and desires seems to be ill put. Surely, we think, Paul meant to say that those who are in Christ's should or ought to crucify the flesh. After all, the whole history of Christian asceticism seems to be founded on the very notion that a true commitment to Christ requires a death to self and the desires and distractions of the flesh and the world. It is only to the extent that our souls do not find themselves moved by our otherwise vehement desires that, in this vale of tears, we can find real and true joys in the spiritual gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit. Is this not, after all, what inspired such heroically ascetical holy men like St Sabbas to abandon his life in the world at a tender age and commit, not simply to a common life, but the eremetical one, living out a life of holiness in a cave, with only himself, his Lord and God, and what remained within him of his worldly self to overcome, to keep him company? Is this not the deep truth that stirs us to want, each according to our own gifts, to follow Sabbas' path?

Yet, I do not think we can attribute to Paul a failure of mood and tense in his letter to the Galatians. Paul said, and meant, and we too should say and mean, that in Christ we have crucified the flesh. Why? Because our being brought to Christ is not, at root, a moral project. It is not the result of our ethical programs of self-perfection and constant improvement. To be sure, the reality of the life in Christ does have moral implications: If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. All the same, what Paul wants to remind the Galatians is that the goodness they experience in Jesus Christ, the new moral status and moral powers they have acquired through their baptism, are first, foremost, and always gifts. The new life we enjoy is Christ is the fruit of the Spirit, which is to say the full flourishing of the generous love and life-giving Spirit who has come, in grace and freedom, to dwell within us. Of course, like all gifts, the gift of grace can be ignored or undervalued. All the same, the reality we have come to know in Christ is a reality already given to us, and the victory over our passions and wicked desires has already been won for us by Christ on the Cross. By being joined to him in the Spirit, that victory becomes ours.

This is why Paul's message to the Galatians is such good news. The days of preparation for Christmas kept both in the Christian East (St Phillip's Fast) and West (Advent) are all too often broken in intention and in practice. We can, especially in the face either of a secularized world or, in what amounts to the same, a commodified and commercialized one, too easily abandon, even in these first days, our early and exuberant commitment that this year, we would make our Christmas preparation as spiritually fruitful as possible. We would manifest far more love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, self-control than in years past. Yet, too easily and far too soon, our plans reveal how difficult this can be.

Nonetheless, as Paul reminds us, these are gifts, not accomplishments, fruits of the Spirit, not of our ethical programs. Our path into a deeper life in the Gospel is found, finally, not in heroic acts of asceticism, however much these may flow from a life of grace, but from an ever deeper commitment in love to our Lord and God Jesus Christ and friendship with the Holy Spirit. It is in knowing and loving God, and in knowing and loving him, both knowing and desiring to live according to his promptings, that we will find ourselves once again made whole as we celebrate the glorious coming in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Eternal Father.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Great Martyr Barbara

1 Timothy 5:11-21 / Luke 21:12-19

You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost.

In the Arab Christian world, the feast of St. Barbara, Eid il-Burbara, looks, to all appearances, like Halloween in North America. Children and adults dress in masks and costumes, the children going house to house for treats, the adults watching horror films, and even the carving of jack-o'-lanterns. As odd as this celebration may seem, associating the great martyr of the early Church with witches, goblins, ghosts, and ghouls, there is at least some element in the rather rich legend of Barbara to motivate this spooky and fanciful masquerade. In her legend, Barbara, fleeing from her father, who sought to have her put to death because of her Christian faith, made use, along with her retinue, of a series of disguises. Always changing the disguises, her father and other pursuers could not make out who she was, and even when they did, they could not guarantee the next day that she would look the same.

Yet, as in so many stories of the early martyrs, these many escapes, rooted both in her divinely-graced cleverness as well as direct miraculous intervention, eventually come to naught. Barbara is captured and exposed to day after day of terrible torment. Even if her wounds are healed every day and the darkness of her cell bathed in heavenly light, even if the torches meant to burn her come to be extinguished inexplicably when brought near her flesh, Barbara eventually meets her doom. Not just any doom, but beheading by a sword wielded by her own father.

Why, we may well wonder, does God play this pattern out in the lives of those he loves? Why hold out one wonderful escape after another, why cloak us from the machinations of the wicked with impenetrable disguises, why blunt the sharpness of our foes' weapons, why cool the heat of their terrible torches, if only to withdraw his protecting hand and submit us, in the end, to terrible and painful death?

In preparing his own disciples to face just this quandary, Jesus is quite clear: It will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony.

Everything we do, every occasion in our lives, everything enjoyed and everything suffered, each defeat as much as each victory, is meant to be another occasion, another opportunity to proclaim Jesus Christ, and him Crucified. We have no other goods, no other goals, however splendid and noble, that will satisfy the cravings of our hearts, apart from the joy of knowing Jesus Christ, of being made to be like him, and so enjoy with him the love of the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit. So also, there is no evil whatever so great that it can overcome the joy of knowing Jesus Christ as we are known by him, to see him as he is.

This is why the life of the Gospel, the life of a martyr, a witness for Jesus Christ, is as compatible with carnival and masquerade as it is with cruel torment. What the joyous and fanciful celebration of Barbara in the Arab world reminds us is that these people, these brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, who have suffered so much for so long for their faith in this ancient cradle of the Church, know better than we that the victory is already ours. Like Barbara, they know that real suffering, real betrayal by one's blood brothers and sisters, is no reason not to play a game of hide-and-go-seek, not a time to make one's accusers a source of fun before submitting to their cruelties. They know this because they know Jesus Christ, and they know that to give testimony of his saving grace and merciful coming in the flesh for our redemption, is always and ever a reason for joy, a share even here and now in the unassailable joy of Jesus Christ, the joy of the life of God himself.

Monday, December 3, 2012

St. Zephaniah, Prophet

1 Timothy 5:1-10 / Luke 20:27-44

But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Paul's words to Timothy are stark and chilling. We might well expect, of course, that one who does not provide for his own has failed in significant ways to live an upright live. Indeed, we may even suppose that there might be so significant a failure to provide for one's own, to abandon one's parents in their old age or one's children in their infancy and youth, that such an abandonment would constitute a final and irrevocable turning away from the Lord. That such a moral failure is possible we do well to consider, especially those who prey upon the young and the elderly placed under their care.

However, it may well seem odd to suggest that such a fault constitutes a denial of the faith. A denial of basic moral uprightness, to be sure, but why a denial of the faith? The question ought to be pressing enough for any Christian, but surely all the more in the Year of Faith which the Holy Father has dedicated to our growing ever deeper into this foundation of our lives in Jesus Christ.

It may do well to recall here, as St. Paul does for Timothy, that there is a kind of order to our life of charity, a ranked set of responsibilities to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. That we owe respect to all of our elders as to our own parents, Paul explains, is a given, as we owe kindness to those younger than ourselves as to our own brothers and sisters. Yet, even in the life of charity there are priorities, and we owe a special concern not to those who have their own relatives to care for them, but to our own flesh and blood and to those who have no kin to see to their needs in their old age.

Jesus likewise, in his confrontation with the Sadducees, reminds them that the requirement in the Law for brothers to attend to their deceased brother's widow is not directed to the next life, but to this one. It says nothing about the world to come, where those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage. Rather, this requirement of the Law looks to the needs, here and now, of women left without anyone to care for them, without husband or children to see to their support, and calls precisely upon their deceased husband's kin, those who are closest to her in this life, to see to their needs.

Zephaniah, too, in taking part in Josiah's reform of Judah and the calling of the people of God to right worship and fidelity to the Law, while noting that God's terrible judgment will come upon all people, reserves his prophetic warning for Jerusalem and Judah. It is not that the other peoples of the world have not sinned. Rather, it is that Zephaniah, as a prophet of Judah, as a special obligation to warn his own people away from false belief and the luxurious lifestyle that followed upon it.

What is true in each of these cases is that our kin, whether blood relatives, relations by marriage, or fellow citizens, are not related to us by some random or accidental event. Even if we did not choose to be so related to them, even if we came about to be connected through the choices of another, they have been placed in our lives for our sake by the Lord himself. Said simply, our families were made for us, and we for them. We were introduced into their lives so that God's love for them might not be communicated only by the general and universal good of the world, but even more so through the personal presence of those with whom we have much in common: by ties of blood, by ties of family, by ties of a common way of life and a shared, common good.

To deny those who are close to us their due, then, is to deny the creative and provident care of God himself. This is why failing to care for those entrusted to us is an assault not merely on human dignity, but on the faith. For a Christian, who claims to trust in God's Providence through Jesus Christ to abandon those whom the same Lord has given them as the proper objects of his love, is to make a mockery of the faith he claims to profess. May we, who continue our path to rejoice again in the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to celebrate his becoming kin to us by taking upon himself our human nature, show our true gratitude in the patient and generous concerns of those whom God has made part of our family.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

27th Sunday after Pentecost

[I will be using the Byzantine lectionary for a while — perhaps even for the whole year — on this blog.]

Ephesians 6:10-17 / Luke 18:18-27

If I in Thy likeness, O Lord, may awake, / And shine a pure image of Thee,
Then I shall be satisfied when I can break / These fetters of flesh and be free;
I know this stained tablet must first be washed white, / To let Thy bright features be drawn.
I know I must suffer the darkness of night / To welcome the coming of dawn.

Then I shall be satisfied, when I can cast / The shadows of nature all by,
When this cold, dreary world from my vision is pass'd / To let this soul open her eye;
I gladly shall feel the blest morn drawing near, / When time's dreary fancy shall fade,
If then in Thy likeness I may but appear, / and rise with Thy beauty arrayed.

To see Thee in glory, O Lord, as Thou art, / From this mortal and perishing clay
The spirit immortal in peace would depart, / And joyous mount up her bright way.
When on Thine own image in me Thou hast smiled, / Within Thy blest mansions, and when
The arms of my Father encircle his child, / Oh, I shall be satisfied then.

If some of the sentiments in George Clair Wells' hymn might require some bit of theological refinement, not the least the implicit suggestion that salvation consists principally in being delivered from the body, the overall vision it promotes is surely a wholesome one. This life, as we experience it, is in the end unsatisfying. For all of the beauties of nature as God's creation, it is nonetheless marked by shadows. Our flesh, however marvelous the work of God's hands, is nonetheless mortal and perishing, and from its conflict with the better intentions of our minds and hearts, our soul would surely and in peace depart from it. Even the most splendid things here and now, God's creations though they be, are in the end and inevitably passing, time's dreary fancies which cannot but fade.

More than that, the crown of our nature, and the crown of God's visible creations, that is, the human person made in the image and likeness of God, does not, and indeed cannot, here and now, successfully image God, does not permit God's bright features to be drawn upon it. In part, of course, this is due to sin, and it is our failure to restore as we can, through the power of God's grace, through the saving power of Jesus Christ in the sacraments to wash our tablets white, that accounts in large part our inability to appear in God's likeness.

Even so, sin is not the whole of it. The fact is, we were never meant only for this cold, dreary world marred as it has been by sin, nor even for the world untouched by the darkness of night before the primordial calamity that drove man from the Garden. We we ever meant to share in God's inner life, to let the soul open her eye and look upon the splendor of God, to see him as he is, and so to be irrevocably and gloriously transformed. It is to share the likeness of the Son, that the arms of the Father might encircle us as they encircle the eternal Word by the bond that is the Holy Spirit — this is the joy for which we were made from the beginning, and it is in this joy, and this joy alone, that we shall be satisfied.

When the ruler comes to Jesus in the Gospel to ask what must be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus knows his heart all to well. It is not that the ruler has been wicked. When he insists that he has kept the commandments from his youth, Jesus does not correct him, and so we, too, have no reason to doubt the truth of what he says. If his tablet must first be washed white, it is not that it has been stained by some sin of disobedience against God's holy Law. However, the ruler suspects that he may have something left to do, here and now, on this earth, such that, having done it, he can finally be satisfied, at rest, confident that he will inherit eternal life.

What Jesus knows, what the ruler finds it so hard to hear that he goes away sad, what we find it so difficult to hear, is that there is always something more. In this life, there is always one thing we still lack. It is not, to be sure, simply that many of us still own things, or even many things as the ruler did. Rather, what we lack, is the sequela Christi, the following of Christ. Yet, are we who have been baptized not followers of Christ? Have we not been following him our whole lives? Perhaps we have, but there is the catch. We are, each one of us, called to follow Jesus Christ for the whole of our lives, and nothing, not even the following of Christ, will satisfy us. Indeed, it was never meant to do so.

The deeper truth to which Jesus called the ruler, the deeper truth to which he calls each one of us, is that, here and now, we must be satisfied with not being satisfied. We must not expect any act, any virtue, any pattern or state in life, any insight of the intellect or stirring of the heart, or anything else for that matter to quiet our insistent question — What more must I do to inherit eternal life? The answer to this question is always and ever the same: Come, follow Me. That following of Christ is, as it must be, ceaseless until the day we are brought through the power of the Holy Spirit and the grace of Jesus Christ to the presence of the Father. Then, and only then, will we be satisfied.