Monday, October 28, 2013

Ss Simon and Jude, Apostles

Ephesians 2:19-22 / Luke 6:12-16

We often experience a conflict between what seems to be best for the individual and what is best for the group. All too often, maximizing personal good comes at the expense of the common good, whether by the hoarding or consumption of time and resources, the disruption of common efforts, being absent from those projects that, apart from the contribution of all, fail to produce fruits for any. Even so, the contrary position, that of prioritizing the good of the whole or the many over the good of the few or the one, has been and continues to be, on both small-scale and national levels, the source of grave injustice, trampling on the lives of persons, preventing their flourishing, all the while justifying this action in reference to the common good.

It is striking, then, that the Scriptures use both the collective vision of the good and the individual and personal one as images to understand our vocation in Jesus Christ. In Ephesians, Paul reminds us that we in Christ are one among many, fellow citizens of the holy ones, being built into a temple. This temple, however, is not for us, not for our private benefit, but for God and his glory, a place sacred in the Lord which is built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. Our vocation, as presented in Ephesians, is, in other words, not principally for us at all.

In the Gospel, on the other hand, we hear the list of the Apostles called out not generically, but rather each by name. More than that, the evangelist takes great care to distinguish the specific individuality of each, showing genuine concern that those Apostles with the same name not be allowed to disappear or be effaced by the confusion. So, when he speaks a second time of Simon, who might easily be confused with that Simon who was called Peter, he tells us that this is a different man, Simon who is called a Zealot. Similarly, when it comes to Jude or Judas, lest we think that there was only Iscariot, who became a traitor, Luke makes sure to note that the first-mentioned Judas is the son of James.

What are we to see in all of this? On the one hand, the first image we hear ought to change our perspective of God's activity in our lives. He does not act simply for our sake, for fulfilling our needs and desires alone or promoting and assisting our personal projects. His work in our lives is precisely with the eye to fitting each of our lives with those of others, of making stones for building, shaped to come together not as a mere heap or pile, but as a true building, a temple, crafted to fit together as a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, the Gospel reminds us that our life in Christ, our life in the Church, does not erase what is most personal to us. It does not come at the expense of what is dearest to who we are, but rather elevates and fulfills us.

This is why we need not fear being drawn into the mystery of the Church, the household of God, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets. To live in the Church is to fulfill what is most worthy of God not in spite of, but because at the very same time it fulfills what we most desire as individuals, as persons precious in the eyes of our Lord, the capstone, our Savior Jesus Christ.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18 / 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 / Luke 18:9-14

In the middle of the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare, we see, together with Hamlet the prince, Claudius the king, Hamlet's uncle, kneeling in prayer. Claudius is guilty of having murdered his brother, the king (also named Hamlet), father of the prince, and he has now become not only the king of Denmark, but also the husband of Gertrude, the wife of the slain king and mother of the prince. Like the publican in the Gospel, at this moment, struck by a recognition of his grave sins, the king does not seek to conceal his sins before God: O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven; it hath the primal eldest curse upon't, a brother's murder! Just as the publican himself realized, so also King Claudius does not trust, as does the Pharisee, in his own merits, but rather he trusts only, or at least his words say so, in the grace of God: What if this cursed hand were thicker than itself with brother's blood, is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy but to confront the visage of offence? And what's in prayer but this twofold force, to be forestalled ere we come to fall, or pardon'd being down? By all appearances, this accursed king, sorrowful and penitent, imploring and beseeching the mercy of God, looks in every way like the publican who, as the Lord Jesus assures us, went home justified.

In contrast, we have the example of St. Paul in his second letter to Timothy. While the publican and Claudius say nothing of their own merits, the theme of merit seems to be central to the Apostle, even as it was for the Pharisee. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day. And later: The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. For Paul, there is no doubt at all of his justification. For him, as for the Pharisee, or at least his words seem to say so, it is just to proclaim his own merits and to connect them, in one way or another, to his justification and his entrance into the eternal kingdom of God.

The problem here is clear. In the parable, the Pharisee, who trusts in his own merits and proclaims them before all, is not justified, while the publican is. Claudius the king, in contrast, the one who implores the mercy of God by confessing his own sins, does not find justification, while St. Paul, who declares with confidence his merits and his salvation in Christ, is the one who goes to the home of the Father justified. Where does this contradiction arise? Why do we not find something sinful in Paul's words, as we did in those of the Pharisee, and why do not we consider the fratricidal king to be justified by his prayer, given that the Lord teaches us in the book of Sirach: The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens?

The solution, I believe, comes from the fact that the difference between the Pharisee and the publican is not to be found in their moral quality — seeing that, all things being equal, only someone confused or morally corrupt would prefer the life of the publican over that of the Pharisee — and neither is it to be found in the kind of conversation they have with God, that is, whether of self-accusation and petition or of thanksgiving and confidence. Rather, the difference is to be found in humility in its proper and full sense. Humility is not some sort of low self-esteem. It is not a refusal to acknowledge and declare the gifts which we have received from God. Rather, the humility that Jesus presents us in the Gospel is nothing other than truth: a truth that is just as ready to take account of the graces received from God as it is to accuse itself of sinfulness. Humility grounds itself not in a self-abasement that is, in truth, a humiliation, a degrading contrary to the dignity of a person created by God and recreated in the life-giving death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, it is founded on Truth itself, which is to say, on the living and holy God, the one who confronts us with our limits, with our incapacity in the face of his infinite power, but above all the God who, being eternal Truth and the source of every truth, confronts us with his goodness and mercy, which in its abundance reduces to nothing both our declaration of our own virtue as if it came not from him but from ourselves and our prayers for mercy when we are not ready to find in God, and in him alone, our only source of life, rather than in those things and earthly privileges we have obtained by our sins.

This indeed is what Claudius the king realized: But, O, what form of prayer can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murther'? That cannot be; since I am still possess'd of those effects for which I did the murther --- my crown, mine own ambition, and my queen. May one be pardon'd and retain th'offence? Or, as he concludes: My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go. In contrast to this, but rooted in the same intuition, St. Paul says in the same letter to Timothy: He — that is, God — saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began. And again: Guard this rich trust with the help of the holy Spirit that dwells within us.

Where do we choose to stand? Do we find ourselves with the Pharisee, trusting in our own merits and our own capacities — as professors or students, as administrators or businessmen, as mothers or virgins, as farmers, laborers, politicians, or pundits — or with Claudius, repenting before God without giving up the fruits of our sins, of our private or collective compromises with our personal, common, or consecrated lives? Or, on the other hand, do we stand with the publican, confessing our sins, without pretending to have a virtue that we do not, or with St. Paul, declaring with confidence our salvation, not because of our merits, but because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the help of the Holy Spirit? Are we ready to trust in Jesus Christ, and in him alone, and in that humble confidence, pierce the clouds, rescued from the lion's mouth, enter through him into the kingdom that lasts forever?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

A story is told among the Buddhists of Kisa Gotami, a woman who lost her only son. Deeply afflicted with grief, she approached the Buddha, begging him for a cure. He told the sorrowful mother that he could restore her son to life if she could bring him a handful of mustard seeds from a household that had never lost son or daughter, father or husband. Making her way about the village, although she found all willing to help her, she also found not a single household that was free from the death of a loved one, and indeed where the grief did not still afflict them. Seeing how universal grief was, how common the suffering coming from death is to all men, she returned to the Buddha to follow his teaching, finding in him alone a way to relieve her suffering.

The Gospel also presents us with a woman who lost her only son, a woman stricken with grief. Unlike the Indian sage, however, Jesus actually brought the dead son to life. While both sage and Savior responded to the woman's grief, in the former case, the woman was led to see the folly of sorrow, while in the latter case, the very cause of the woman's grief was taken away, death conquered by Life himself.

Yet, despite this clear and important difference, there is a remarkable similarity in these two stories. In both cases, it is not to the son that pity is shown, but to the woman who is suffering grief. Said differently, we are not told that Jesus, on seeing the dead youth, was moved with pity for him, but rather that, on seeing the widow, he had pity for her. Surely, there is something a bit odd about this. That is, we would surely regard death as a greater calamity than sorrow, however onerous the burden of grief may be. Sorrow may be lived through, may abate in time; death, considered in itself, is final. Yet, the Gospel is clear. Jesus' pity is directed toward the widow, not her son.

There is much wisdom to learn here, but surely one of the lessons is that we are not as good at measuring suffering as we might take ourselves to be. The problem, both for the Buddha and for the Lord Jesus Christ, is the woman's grief. The Buddha answers this with natural wisdom about the universality of human death. Jesus answers it as the Lord of life itself, but the lifegiving is at least as much directed to the woman as to her son. What this suggests is that our diagnosis of our own pains, our own confidence about what it is that most ails us and those we love, and thus what we imagine ought to be God's foremost concern, is less than reliable. We cannot, of course, simply set our reason aside, act as though we have no way to tell what kinds of ills are bad, and which kinds are worse. Even so, we should not be so quick to fall into despair when God seems to not want to take away from us the ills we believe most impede our joy.

Unlike the placid wisdom of the Buddha, the love of Jesus Christ is, we need have not doubt, directed to attend to the evils that assail us, and in his heart, Jesus can surely be moved with pity. Are we prepared to receive the mercy he chooses to give, rather than demand he respond on our terms? Are we willing to learn, from the mercy he does send us, what it was that truly had been oppressing us, and give thanks?

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Acts 2:1-11 / 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13 / John 14:15-16, 23b-26

When we speak of the coming of the Spirit, whether we refer to his historic coming on that first Pentecost of the Church after the Lord had ascended into heaven, or whether we mean the coming of the Spirit into the lives of the faithful, we are quite naturally inclined to speak of the effects of the Spirit on those upon whom he has descended. They, we imagine, are the ones transformed by his coming. To be sure, we are altogether justified in thinking this way. After all, at the first Pentecost, when the Spirit descended on the disciples and they began to speak in different tongues, we are assured that they did so as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. When Jesus promised to send his Spirit, he likewise assured his disciples that the Spirit would teach them everything and remind them of all that he had told them. St Paul, similarly, assured the faithful of Corinth that life in the Spirit is characterized precisely by the presence of spiritual gifts, not the same to each, but that nonetheless to each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.

Even so, we find one quite surprising feature of the story of the first Pentecost. When the disciples, now filled with the Holy Spirit, preach Jesus Christ to those devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem, we are not told that the disciples were given the power to speak in several languages and so proclaimed one homily several times, each time in another language. That, of course, would be remarkable enough, and would remind all of the power of the Spirit to give gifts that transform those he has brought to life in Jesus Christ. Yet, the story tells us something quite different: At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. In other words, at Pentecost, it was not that the disciples were empowered such that each now had new abilities they did not have before and which simply empowered them alone, but rather that, enabled by the charisms of the Spirit, their gifts were transformative both of the disciples themselves and of those to whom they spoke.

It is helpful to remember that, unlike the age of Moses or of the prophets of old, when the Spirit came upon this or that person to effect mighty works and glorify the name of God in Israel and among the nations, the coming of the Spirit in the age of grace is altogether different. It is prodigal and universal, sweeping the world with his Lordly and Life-giving grace. The Spirit, not as sent to one individual but poured out in his fulness on all peoples in a definitive way, comes to draw all people into the life of Christ, both those who possess a special charism and those to whom that charism is applied. Just as his descent on the disciples enabled their power of speech, so also, by that transformed speech, opened the power of the listeners to hear, and in hearing, opened for them the way to life eternal, to a sharing in the eternal life of the blessed Trinity.

This is why we, the many parts of the one body of Christ, are called to be open both to one another in that body and to present ourselves with frank and open witness to those not yet drawn into the Church. While the Spirit could have given each of us a gift for his own good, and his own good alone, in the unimaginable depth of his love has distributed gifts such that each of our gifts finds its perfection not in ourselves alone, but in us only to the extent that through it the Spirit draws others into new life. Likewise, it is only when we patiently, lovingly receive the Spirit's gifts from others' charisms that we will come to know the glorious wonders that the Spirit has in store for us.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Seventh Sunday of Easter (C)

Acts 7:55-60 / Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20 / John 17:20-26

How is the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven not, at least in some respect, a disaster for the Church, rather than a glorious mystery? We hear today of the witness to the faith given by St Stephen, a witness filled with the Holy Spirit. Yet, at least by any normal metric, we would conclude that the outcome was not so glorious: But they cried out with a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. Now, in his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ was certainly no stranger to opposition of this sort, of those hearing his message and seeking to kill him, even then and there to throw him off a cliff. Jesus, however, always passed through the midst of them unharmed. Even when the time for his Passion arrived, and Jesus humbly submitted to his own betrayal, false judgment, torture, and death, he made sure that not one of his disciples, save the son of perdition, would be lost. For all the pains that he endured, his disciples were spared.

So, we might be forgiven in thinking that something has gone wrong here, that the providential care which had watched over Jesus and his disciples while he was on the earth has been withdrawn to heaven, where Jesus is, seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. However, this would be a mistake, a failure to see what the martyrdom of Stephen is supposed to remind us of the saving mystery of the Lord's Ascension into heaven.

As we are reminded, what both motivated and empowered Stephen to be such a bold witness was not simply being filled with the Holy Spirit, although that would surely have been enough, as it had been for the prophets of old. Rather, we are told that Stephen, thus Spirit-filled, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. That is, Stephen's fearless witness is not merely a result of having met and learned from Jesus in his earthly ministry, nor even from having encountered the risen Lord. As would be the case for St Paul after Stephen's death, the protomartyr Stephen was able to witness to the truth, and be so conformed to his Lord that he could not only forgive his murderers but also had so overcome death that he is more properly said to have fallen asleep, not in spite of the absence of Christ's earthly presence, but, paradoxically, because of it.

Said differently, Jesus Christ is not less, but radically more present to us in his ascended glory than he ever was in his earthly ministry. It is not by the Incarnation alone, nor by the Passion, nor even by that victory over sin, death, and Hell we recall in the Resurrections that Jesus brings us to the Father. It is through drawing up whole and entire everything he has assumed from us, his whole, complete, victorious human nature into the presence of the Father, and receiving in that nature from the Father the name above every other name, the name reserved to divinity alone — Lord, I AM — that we, in him, are brought to that completion of life with God that is the purpose of the whole Christian mystery. While on earth, the divine humanity of Jesus Christ was, in his self-emptying, only available to those who came to see him those who touched him or even the hem of his garment, those who in his presence confessed their faith and found not only their own needs, but those of the ones they loved, responded to and fulfilled. Now, in the presence of the Father, that same divine humanity is, through the power of the Spirit and by means of the mysteries of the Christian faith, directly available to each and every person. It is in and by the power not only of the Risen Lord, but the Ascended Lord, that we can, here and now, be so fully conformed to his death that we can share, as Stephen did, even now in his victory over death and sin, and know not death, but sleep and life eternal.

This is why the Lord's Ascension is not for us a disaster, nor the inauguration of a suspended time between the joy of his earthly presence and the joy of his return. Instead, now is the time of glorious joy, knowing that Jesus Christ our Savior, in the fulness of this glorified humanity and his divinity, is present to us in such fulness as only to be surpassed at the end of days, when all things are brought to completion, and the elect will delight in a new heaven and a new earth. Until that day, however, we need not wait to know Jesus, not in a remote way, but directly, for there is nothing closer to us, not ever our own selves, than God, and whoever is in God's presence. Jesus Christ is not gone from us, but with us, and in that hope, we can wait with confidence when the bright morning star which has dawned in our hearts, dawns at last for the whole world to see.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sixth Sunday of Easter (C)

Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 / Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23 / John 14:23-29

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.

A modern reader might not find anything remarkable about the claim that the new Jerusalem which John saw in a vision coming down out of heaven from God should not have a temple in it. After all, the Jerusalem that we know, and indeed for nearly two thousand years, has not had a temple. More than that, we might be inclined to think that what this means, that is, for the new Jerusalem not to have a temple, is reducible to the end for formal cult in the world renewed by God. That is, we might think that what this vision serves to show is that worship as we now know it is a passing thing, the cult of sacrifices and oblations established of old is not a permanent feature of God's plan for us.

However, the absence of the temple must mean more than this. Minimally, it must mean more because the sacrifices and observances connects to the temple have already passed away, even here and now. There would be no need for a new Jerusalem to descend from the clouds for us to see that to be so. Rather, we ought to recall that the temple was the very sign and locus of God's presence with his people. To have Jerusalem without a temple is, on the face of it, to have worship without God, which is to say to have neither worship nor God. In other words, we are meant to be struck by what must either be an irreparable tragedy or an impossible paradox to hear of the holy city without the dwelling place of God.

This is when we can once again hear the promise of hope offered in John's vision. God is not promising to do something merely negative. He is not taking away something good in removing the temple any more than he is in rendering useless the sun and the moon. It is not as though men and women in the new Jerusalem will no longer worship God and delight in his manifest presence any more than they will see without light. Instead, what God promises is that he will be more, not less present, in the new Jerusalem, even as the light of his glory and the glory of the Lamb will not merely replace that of the sun and moon, but will, if such could be imagined, eclipse it, that might see with even more clarity than on a cloudless day by the noonday sun.

What God has in store for us, already promised in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not a world with less or mere replacements of what we have now. What God holds out to us, what sustains us in times of trial and difficulty, what we taste in partial ways in the joys we know here and now, is a world so fully open and available to himself that everywhere is the temple, everywhere is made a fit dwelling place, everywhere is drenched in the glorious radiance and clarity that is the very being of God himself.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fifth Sunday of Easter (C)

Acts 14:21b-27 / Revelation 21:1-5a / John 13:31-33a, 34-35

This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

On the face of it, there is something odd about this otherwise innocuous, even inspiring saying of Jesus. It is odd because we might quite reasonably presume that what marks Christians off especially, how others will know that we are Christ's disciples, is not from the love we have for one another, but rather the love we have for others. Indeed, one would surely be excused for thinking that it is not love for anyone else in particular, but precisely love for one's enemies that marks off the followers of Jesus Christ in a distinctive way. Often enough it is the failure of Christians to love their enemies that is held as the surest critique of the possibility of following Christ, or at least of the sincerity of those who claim to do so.

We plausibly think this way, of course, because it echoes what Christ himself taught: You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?

Now, we might think to save Jesus' words above by thinking that the "one another" to which he referred was simply "everybody," so that "if you have love one another" would be meant to include precisely not merely love for those who already love you, but love for enemies as well. That is, we might be tempted to make these words of Jesus say simply what he said already in the Sermon on the Mount. However, we cannot do so if we remain faithful to the Scriptures. Why? Because the words above are part of Jesus' Farewell Discourse, his last time to pass on his teaching to his disciples before his Passion and Death. Throughout this long sermon and prayer, Jesus is quite clear that the "you" to whom he refers is not a generic "you". He does not intend to speak a general word to men and women of good will, as such. Rather, he distinguishes between "you", that is, the disciples, and through them all those who will come to believe, and the "world" that will reject both him and them. So, when Jesus says that we will be known as his disciples when we love one another, he means quite clearly when we love our fellow disciples of Christ.

How, then, do we make sense of this? Has Jesus changed his mind from the Mount to the Upper Room?

I think the more helpful way to hear these words is to reconsider what Jesus intends to do through his earthly ministry, through his Incarnation, his teaching, his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. What we recall first is that the purpose of Jesus' coming is not to outline a program of moral improvement or a plan of action. Admittedly, moral transformation should and must follow upon becoming a true disciples of Christ, and this discipleship does indeed call us to new and generous acts in light of what God has done for us. Even so, the Gospel is not fundamentally a moral program. Instead, what God seeks to do in the whole mystery of the Incarnation and all that follows is to manifest his glory by gathering a people together, a people peculiarly his own, drawn not only from the chosen people of Israel, but of every race, from every people. He means for this people to be united, not merely morally, but in the deepest sense, to become the very Body of the Son, and so to be utterly transformed, to be one with him and with one another as the Father and the Son are one.

This is why Christian unity is the very sign of the Gospel. Absent that unity, the very goal of God's work in Christ is put into doubt, and the world will wonder what all the fuss has been about. We are of course to love our enemies, and such love must flow from being made one in Christ. Even so, to do good for the other and to be alienated or in conflict with the Church, with not only one's like-minded Christians, but with those persons entrusted to govern and teach, to minister and to serve, is to fail at the very work that Jesus intends to accomplish in us.

Ours is not to propose to the world a new morality, but to manifest, as much as can be in the world, the unity which is the very being of the Triune God.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem: Flowery Sunday

Philippians 4:4-9 / John 12:1-18

In place of palm or olive branches, the faithful of the Slavic world bear in their hands branches of the pussy willow to recall the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. Of course, we might easily expect that climate had a great deal to do with the development of this custom. Palms and olive trees are harder to come by in Kiev than they are in Rome or Constantinople. However, it seems that the pussy willow among the pre-Christian Slavs was a sign of life and energy, a ward against the evils of disease and storms, the promoter of health and well-being, and herald of the coming of spring against the long, hard difficulties of winter.

To signal the pussy willow, then, for this day that recalls not only Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but in doing so anticipates his painful and terrible death upon the Cross, reveals a deeper understanding of the meaning of the Lord's entry. We might be tempted to see this Sunday only in terms of the next. That is, while we ordinarily recall on Sunday Christ's resurrection from the dead and his ushering into the world of the new and eternal life of God himself, we might see this Sunday as just a way to get the story started. Today, we may think, we recall his entry, Thursday the Last Supper, Friday the Crucifixion, Saturday the quiet of the Tomb and the Harrowing of Hell, and Sunday his glorious Rising to eternal life. While joyous in its own right, Flowery Sunday seems to be the odd man out.

Yet, in the flowering branch of the pussy willow, we are reminded that Christ's power to bring to life, while definitively and in a radically new way made manifest on Easter, was nonetheless already present in his Incarnation. This is why our Gospel today recalls repeatedly the presence of Lazarus with Jesus in his final days. Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead, we are reminded, and again, Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. In fact, the evangelist tells us that Lazarus, who had been dead but was called to life from the tomb by the Lord Jesus, was as much of a draw to the light of faith as Christ himself: and they came not for Jesus' sake only, but that they might see Lazarus also, whom he had raised from the dead. So powerful was the witness of Lazarus that he, too, became to object of the murderous designs of the same people who meant to see Jesus put to death — But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death — and yet, in spite of this, or indeed perhaps because of it, Lazarus and his new life brought people to new life in Christ: Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus. Indeed, after the Resurrection, it would be the witnesses of Lazarus' rising to new life that would constitute some of the first to bear witness to the Lord Jesus: The people therefore that was with him when he called Lazarus out of his grave, and raised him from the dead, bare record.

We, too, might find our life something of a Flowery Sunday. We might be inclined to see both moments of rejoicing and moments of darkness, but nonetheless eclipsed by the glories of time past and the hope of the glories to come. We might, that is, see is as a mere preparation, an important time to be sure, but not the day we have been longing for.

This, however, would be a mistake. Looking to the flowering of the pussy willow, and to the witness of Lazarus, we are reminded that the life-giving power of the Good News of Jesus Christ is active here and now. Here and now, right in our own time, the world is being transformed, indeed conformed, in the life of every Christian called to new life in the Lord, to the glory that will one day be revealed in full. Yet, even if not now revealed, it is no less here, even as Lazarus was no less brought to new life in Christ, and others through him to the new life of faith, even though Christ had not yet ascended his Cross, descended into Hell, or risen from the Tomb. Today is a day of rejoicing, a day of the flowering of joy, on which we can look to those signs, already present among us, indeed already present in our own lives, that Jesus Christ is with us, that he has chosen to dine with us as he did long ago in Bethany, and that in his presence, and by the witness of those brought to life in him, we may truly rejoice in the Lord always.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fifth Sunday of Great Lent: St Mary of Egypt

Hebrews 9:11-14 / Mark 10:32-45

Mary of Egypt, it is said, ran away from home at the age of twelve to live a dissolute life in the city of Alexandria.  Although she is said to have prostituted herself to earn a living, as often as not she would engage in sexual activity freely, earning her keep through begging and spinning flax. So committed was she to sexual pleasure that, after years of living this way, she went to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage, not in fact to venerate the Cross as the other pilgrims, but out of a perverse desire to draw the pilgrims into her own lust, luring them away from their holy desire to have union not with God, but with her. It is only when a divine force prevented her from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that Mary, filled with remorse, repented, and came to commit herself to a life of severe asceticism.

Many of us, even if we do not live at the extremes of Mary either in lust or in asceticism, nonetheless follow her earlier, wicked example. If we do not abandon ourselves to sin materially as she did, like her we imagine that we have the resources to make a life entirely of and by ourselves. We survive by our own meager efforts, and in the remaining time we have during the day, we indulge whatever pleasures strike our fancy. In the face of the preaching of the Gospel, especially when it challenges how we have chosen to live, we would prefer to draw our fellow Christians into complicity with our wickedness, or at least seek out the hidden faults of our clergy, and so hope in this hypocritical way to blunt and dull any critique they might launch against our sins.

In contrast to the self-sufficiency so craved by Mary and by ourselves, we are confronted with Jesus Christ: But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. In the face of our insistence that we live or die by our own work, or that we contribute something so that we can claim to have be the principal authors of our life, the saving work of Jesus reminds us that the whole of our redemption is not our work, not our project, but rather his. It is not our hands that made the tabernacle, but his, not the blood of anything or anyone else which was shed, but his own.

Yet, rather than belittle us, this work of Christ's, while it undoes our delusions of self-sufficiency, also serves to liberates us. It liberates us from the fear that our resources are not enough. It liberates us from the worry that what have have contributed is so crooked, so contrary to love, that whatever God might do for us, we must always, even in eternity, live a diminished life. Rather, the Good News of Jesus Christ is that the redemption was worked by God Incarnate, and by him alone, and therefore its worth, its glory, is undiminished by our sins and waywardness. We can, we must receive it from him, but in receiving it, it comes to us already glorious, already splendid, already heart-breakingly beautiful.

This beauty, this splendor, this glory is who we have become in the work of Jesus Christ. With Mary of Egypt, can we not bend the knee in penitence, and so enter into the wonders of the kingdom prepared for us by the Father?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Habemus papam!

Oremus pro Pontifice nostro Francisco. Dominus conservet eum, et vivificet eum, et beatum faciat eum in terra, et non tradat eum in animam inimicorum.

V. Fiat manus tua super virum dexteræ tuæ.
R. Et super filium hominis quem confirmasti tibi.

Oremus. Deus, omnium fidelium pastor et rector, famulum tuum Franciscum, quem pastorm Ecclesiæ tuæ præesse voluisti, propitius respice: da ei, quæsumus, verbo et exemplo, quibus præest, proficere: ut ad vitam, una cum grege sibi credito, perveniat sempiternam. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fourth Sunday of Great Lent: St. John Climacus

Hebrews 6:12-20 / Mark 9:17-31

Today, the Church shows special honor to St John Climacus, that is, John of the Ladder, so called because, while very little is known of his life, he wrote one of the most influential works on the spiritual, and particularly the ascetical life, the Κλίμαξ or Ladder of Divine Ascent. Drawing on the image of Jacob's Ladder, John proposes a vision of the soul's coming to God, first by means of those virtues necessary for the ascetical life, then by specific advice on combatting vice and promoting virtue, and finally those highest virtues which lead to a full life in Jesus Christ: prayer, stillness, dispassion, and finally, love. Like all ascetical theology, John's vision is in one sense optimistic. He is convinced, and aims to convince us, that, at least with God's help, we have it in our power, or at very least our choosing, to make this ascent and come to God. At the same time, this carrot of the ladder's top is at the same time the stick of a troubled conscience. Knowing that the way is open to ascend, and that failure to do so can be traced ultimately to choosing not to do so, there is little room here for weakness. If you do not succeed, try again, pray again, seek more help, but get to it! The Gospel, on this view, is not for the faint of heart!

We see something of this echoed in the Gospel. When, having descended the mountain after his Transfiguration, and being confronted with a crowd gathered in dispute over a child possessed and tormented by a deaf and mute spirit, and indeed one whom even the prayers of Jesus' own disciples had failed to cast out, Jesus is manifestly wearied with disappointment: O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? We see something of this same weariness in his otherwise encouraging reply to the boy's father — If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth — and later in his private conversation with his disciples: And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, Why could we not cast him out? And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting. How different, in other words, all would have been had they had faith. How different had the disciples been more fervent in their asceticism, more single-mindedly intent on be open to the will and mind of God through more intense ascetical practice through prayer and fasting.

Yet, there is in this Gospel more than the hard words of a spiritual personal trainer, shouting at his client to push harder. After all, into the midst of what the crowd of disciples, scribes, and onlookers could not, or at least, did not resolve on their own, Jesus enters mercifully.  When the father finds himself too focused on the disciples' failure to exorcise the spirit, Jesus mercifully turns his attention away from their failure to where it belongs, on the well-being of his son: And he asked his father, How long is it ago since this came unto him? And he said, Of a child. Even his words about the power of faith, eliciting as they do the father's heartbreaking admission of his own deficiencies — And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief —do not produce from Jesus berating or criticism, but only mercy. In the face of such need, in the face of the dehumanizing torment of the wicked spirit, Jesus acts. In the end, that things might have been otherwise had the disciples, the scribes, or the father himself acted differently, is not, nor can it be, the final word. The final word in Jesus Christ, who enters into the fray with mercy, driving out wickedness, and restoring the beloved child to newness of life.

None of this is to say that the asceticism we practice is of no use. After all, Jesus himself assures us that it is. We need always to be striving forward, striving better to imitate and be conformed to Jesus Christ. To be still, not to advance, is in the end to fall back, to descend the very ladder we meant to climb. There is, as John Climacus knew, no moment in this life when we have "made it", when he have done enough. There is always more to be done, more for which we can strive, seeking finally ever more and more love of God and love of neighbor, bestowing our mercy on those who ascend with us, even as Jesus bestows his mercy on us.

It is not without reason, then, that when the Byzantine calendar remembers John Climacus on his own feast apart from this Sunday, it does so together with a figure known only as the "uncondemning monk". According to the record of his life, this monk, known to be something of a failure in asceticism — lazy, undisciplined, everything an ascetic should spend his live striving to overcome — nonetheless approached his death with serenity and joy. Asked why by his fellow monks, he answered, 'I have just seen the angels and they showed me a page with all my many sins. I said to them: "The Lord said: 'Judge not, that ye be not judged.' I have never judged anyone and I hope in the mercy of God, that He will not judge me." And the angels tore up the sheet of paper.' Hearing this, the monks wondered at it and learned from it.

For Great Lent to do its work in our lives, it must remain both a goad, prompting and directing us to ever deeper detachment from those things that impede our love of God and neighbor and, at the very same time, a soothing balm reassuring us even in our weakness, even in our unbelief. To be ascetical, to embrace the discipline of Lent, is in fact the very same thing as to strive to love; we cannot say we seek to love as Jesus loves and, at the same time, do nothing to curb our wayward desires. Yet, in the end, as at the foot of Tabor, so also wherever we find ourselves, the final word is not now, nor ever will be, our own success at the ascetical life. The final word is always, has ever been from before the dawn of time, and ever shall be when the last of the stars has gone dim, none other than the eternal Word of God, the Mercy which has taken on our weak and fragile nature and loves us in our weakness and failure, the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Third Sunday of Great Lent: Veneration of the Holy Cross

Hebrews 4:14-5:6 / Mark 8:34-9:1

Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

On the face of it, there seems something childish and immature in these words of Jesus. We are all too aware of how, as children, and perhaps even as adults, we have reduced our exchanges with others to a tit for tat, a quid pro quo. Admittedly, when we have been rejected by others or dealt with by them in less than civil ways, our immediate reaction is to strike back, or at least to withdraw, taking our care and concern with us. This is what Jesus Christ seems to do here on a more cosmic scale, returning on the Last Day his own reaction of shame and rejection on those who had been ashamed of and rejected him in this world. Yet, we count as a more mature response to initial rejection a willingness to understand, to take the higher ground. We might thus like to think or hope that Love, God himself, would be equally as broad-minded regarding our smallness of heart here and now.

However, this might not be the best or most useful comparison. Imagine, by contrast, someone who keeps returning, seeking love and reconciliation, to someone who has been abusive and remains steadfastly unwilling to change. Can the abused person be able to love the abuser? Certainly, but that love is not going to be expressed by a constant return to be exposed to abuse. Indeed, so long as the other remains unrepentant, it is not just his abuse, but he himself, who remains worthy of disdain, worthy of rejection. We can will what is good for him, but what that means is we can will that he be transformed, but this means that what and who he is now must die. Even when that death is a painful one, to wish anything else would be to fail to love. If he will not die, then he wills to remain not merely estranged, but indeed an enemy of love, and to the extent he remains in that state, we ought properly to be ashamed of him.

This is at the heart of Jesus' teaching about the necessary connection between being his follower and taking up the cross. Jesus knows, far better than we do, how very much we remain, and even freely and wilfully so, his enemies, unrepentant and unwilling to die to those things that stand irrevocably opposed to life and love. He loves us enough that he does not merely counsel us to suffer and die on our own crosses, he demands that we do so. For him to do anything else, for him to fail to demand the cross of us, would mean for him to have abandoned us in our sins, indeed, to have been finally ashamed of us. Instead, even more than demanding the cross, he ascends it first of all, even before we do. He knows that we must die, but in the abundance of his mercy Jesus transforms even the act of a sinner dying to and because of his rebellion into an act of conformity with divine love. What might have been a reason for shame, to suffer and die because of our willful rejection of love, has become, by the awesome and terrible mystery of Calvary, the very means of our glory. We are, then, not merely glorious as a result of what the Cross of Jesus Christ has done for us, we are made glorious in our own crucifixions, our own dying to our sinful selves so as to follow him who alone is worthy of all of our love.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Apostolica Sedes Vacans

We have never been here before. Not really. There are precedents of a sort for the the pope's stepping down from his office, but never like this. In that sense, everything that we do will be new, untried, one might even say precedent-setting, were it not that we cannot tell if such a thing as this will ever happen again.

Of course, in the most crucial sense, none of this matters. To be sure, what we do makes a difference in the life of the Church. We cannot, like Quietists, imagine that because God is provident and governs his Church and all creation, that what comes about does not come about, in part, because of the kinds of decisions we make and the kinds of things we do, indeed the kinds of people we choose and succeed in becoming. Even so, as the now emeritus Bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI, said to us only yesterday in St Peter's Square for his final public audience, "the boat of the Church is not mine, is not ours, but is his and he will not let it sink." The Church is now, as it was throughout the pontificate of Benedict XVI, as it has been since its foundation in Jesus Christ, not only in his earthly ministry, but even from before the dawn of time, under the watchful care of our Savior. It is he who has always governed us, by his Spirit that we have always been taught, and towards life with the eternal Father that we have always been led. This is true now, has ever been true, and will always be true.

Whatever God has in store for Benedict, whatever he has in store for his Church, we can face it with serene hope and full confidence. It is with this assurance that we can shed a tear if we will for Benedict's departure from a public life in the Church and in the world. It is not that we are left without a shepherd; our Shepherd is the same as ever. No, it is rather that our dear brother is passing away from our company, and in ordinary, earthly ways, will be beyond our reach. If we would draw near to him, and he to us, then we will do so in a way that is best both for him as for us, the way on which we began when we were brought to new life in Baptism, indeed when in God's hidden counsels we were written in the Book of Life. If we would be close to Benedict, then let us draw ever closer to Jesus Christ, and pray that Benedict do the same. It is now, as it ever was, in Jesus, and in Jesus alone, that we are closest to one another.

Laudetur Jesus Christus!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Second Sunday of Great Lent: Sunday of St Gregory Palamas

Hebrews 1:10-2:3 / Mark 2:1-12

In a fourteenth century, a controversy arose around the ancient meditative practice known as hesychasm. According to the hesychasts, by the power of God's grace, and through a rightly ordered course of meditative prayer, one could come to experience directly the divine energies. That is, while admitting that the divine essence in its infinite depth forever escapes the power of a creature, even through grace, to fully comprehend, the hesychasts insisted that it was not some created effect of God which they perceived, but God's own energies, which is to say, God himself.

In contrast was the view of Barlaam of Calabria. An admirable theologian in his own right, Barlaam worried that the view of the hesychasts was overreaching. In this life, he insisted, God could not be directly perceived; such a privilege belongs to the elect in heaven alone. While he did not deny that there could be a real impact of grace upon those devoutly contemplating the Incarnate Lord, he rejecting the notion that any method of meditation, however ancient, could put is in direct contact with God's very being, no matter how subtle a distinction one drew between God's energies and his essence. God, he noted, is altogether simple; one either directly perceives his essence (in the beatific vision), or some created effect.

In many ways, the scribes who witnessed the healing of the paralytic in Capernaum faced the same dilemma. That God forgives sins, they had no doubt. However, what could it mean for this man Jesus, right here and now, in the flesh, directly and without spectacular mediation, to claim to forgive sins? God might, they imagined, draw close to Israel in the giving of the Law, but that closeness came in a dramatic and fearful way, amidst cloud and fire, by the hands of ministering spirits, once long ago to Moses alone, who himself could not bear to see God's face and live. Yet we can see Jesus. We can touch him and bear the sight of his face, walking away unscathed. It is unthinkable, so they must have said among themselves, that the holy God should be accessible to us in this way.

Yet, this is just what we confirm at the heart of the Gospel, not that Good News of salvation came to us as announced from afar, but that the Lord himself, taking upon himself our human nature, delivered to us the glad tidings of salvation from sin and death, and the tyranny of the Evil One. It was by the mouth of none other but God's that the paralytic was both forgiven his sins and commanded effective to stand up and walk. At the same time, it was by means of a mouth no less human than mine or yours, a voice as physical and concrete, as here and now, as anything else of this world.

This was the heart of St Gregory Palamas' defense of the holy hesychasts. He reminded Barlaam that the very doctrine of the Incarnation, affirmed again and again in the New Testament and in the ecumenical councils of the Church, in her sacraments and in her icons, insists that, however much a seeming paradox and a mystery, God, without ceasing to be forever and absolutely beyond all our knowing and escaping infinitely our grasp, yet draws near to us, by drawing us near to him, so that we experience in Jesus Christ not a divine effect, not merely some created good, but the very presence of the living God.

This is also why in this Lent we are called back to the faith which has been delivered to us by the Lord Jesus Christ through the preaching of the apostles and their successors. The life-giving teaching and mysteries of Jesus Christ, which bring to us the very voice and power of God himself, are really and truly communicated to us here and now through means altogether earthly. We do truly, by the mystery of Baptism and power of the Holy Spirit, become transformed and even now can know not simply about God, but can know and experience God himself. This is the astounding Good News of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, and by this Gospel, we can rejoice that to know God is not something reserved for a time to come, but it is in very truth a present gift.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

First Sunday of Great Lent: Sunday of Orthodoxy

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-12:2 / John 1:43-51

We do not always see ourselves correctly. Some of us take an overly benign view of ourselves, overlooking our own faults, even when they are plain to see, even unavoidable. At its worst, this kind of avoidance and denial can be life-threatening, leading us to fail to repair what might be made whole in us, in body, mind, or spirit, to our own ruin. Others of us take too malign a view of ourselves, seeing faults where there are none, refusing to receive the confirmation of others, or even our own senses, to see the good we actually possess. At its worst, this failure of vision can also be life-threatening, leading us to torture and abuse our very selves in a vain effort to compel our originally healthy selves to conform to an ideal self, which ideal, if actually pursued, would lead to our own destruction.

As we begin Great Lent, the sustained fast of forty days to prepare ourselves for the celebration of the Lord's Resurrection, the Church places before our eyes the icons of Christ, his Mother, and the company of the saints, and in so doing, aims to restore that vision which will lead us to new life in Jesus Christ. For those who have dulled their sight, thinking there is little of themselves needing improvement, icons serve as both a rebuke and a goal. They put before our very senses a true sight, a vision of what humanity made alive in the grace of Jesus Christ actually looks like, and so shatter the false sense of security that tells us we are doing well as we are. They do not, of course, require us to deny the good we rightly perceive in ourselves, any more than the patriarchs of old recounted in the epistle to the Hebrews needed to deny the mighty deeds they accomplished, and the impressive sacrifices they endured, through their heroic faith. All the same, as the letter reminds us, these patriarchs did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. For us, too, the icons of the Lord and of his saints stand as a constant reminder of this "something better," the reality of new and eternal life in Jesus Christ by the power of his Spirit, that life which we received in our baptism, and back to which our Lent is meant to lead us.

At the same time, while a goal and a presentation of our ideal selves, icons likewise oppose our unhealthy self-criticism. Where we may well despair that we can never be whole, never be made right, and beautiful, and holy, the icons of the saints remind us that here and now, in this world, Christ's grace is real and active, and the beauty of holiness not only can be ours, but is ours even now. The very physicality of icons, the wood and paint, presented to our physical senses, reminds us that the salvation won for us by the Cross of Christ is not an ethereal salvation, divorced from the physical world in which we live our daily lives. On the contrary, icons recall that God worked out our restoration in the flesh, and it is in the flesh and blood of his saints, whose images we contemplate in icons, that his salvation is worked out and communicated from generation to generation. We, the Church, are those greater things which Jesus promised to Nathanael, the greater things he would see. We are that beautiful work, to be made even more perfect by God's grace to be sure, but even now holy and splendid in his sight, because having been conformed to the beauty of the eternal Son of God, made alive by the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit.

This is why we proclaim today and rejoice in the Holy Icons. We rejoice because they free our vision, free us to see both what we are not yet but can be, as well as what God has already made of us in the riches of his glory. Icons are for us both goad and reward, prompt and reflection, a vision of a goal and a mirror into which we see our true selves.

O Christ our God, begging forgiveness of our sins, we venerate Your Pure Image, O Good One. Of your own will you deigned to ascend upon the Cross in the flesh and deliver those You created from the bondage of the enemy. Wherefore, thankfully, we cry out, "When You came to save the world, Your filled all things with joy, O Our Savior."

Sunday, February 3, 2013

R.I.P. Thomas R. Holtz

Early this morning, my father, Thomas R. Holtz, died. Please pray for the repose of his soul and entrust him to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday of the Prodigal Son

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 / Luke 15:11-32

One of the puzzles that vexed Medieval theologians was how it was that the fallen angels actually fell. While the philosophical and theological issues are complex, in brief the worry was grounded in the knowledge that angels, not having bodies, and knowing what they know through direct intuition without the possibility of error, could not have their evil choices explained either by being drawn to another real, but unreasonable and disproportionate, good through the senses or through being mistaken in fact, and nonetheless making a decision to act out of that ignorance. These latter explanations, after all, seem to cover much, if not all, of human evil. We turn to sin, that is, in pursuit of some kind of perceived good, even if not a moral good. What makes us sin, it seems, is that the good we seek actually violates the bounds of reason, and so violates what marks us out specifically as human. We miss the mark in a fundamental way, for example, when we choose sexual pleasure for the sake of the sexual pleasure alone, and not in light of the kind of relationship, viz. marriage, in which such pleasure fulfills what it means to be human. Similarly, we sin because we do not know enough about something, perhaps the motivations of another for an action of his that harms us, and so we lash out, accuse, seek vengeance, acting as though we were in justice opposing a malicious wrong, even though in fact we do not know this to be the case.

If angels, however, have no physical senses, and so no physical appetites, they cannot be led astray by the particular goods of the senses that exceed the bounds of reason. Likewise, if they cannot be mistaken in the light of their natural knowledge, then their actions are never in ignorance, never guilty of rash judgment. Or, so it would seem.

Yet, as St Paul reminds us, what marks out a rightly lived human life is not merely that the passions and desires of the body fall under the greater, richer, more perfecting rule of reason, but also that our reason must itself bend the knee before the wisdom of God. In Corinth, Paul faced those who proclaimed, by virtue of the liberty in Christ, that to them all things were lawful, and in light of that liberty, they acted in ways, especially through sexual license, that violated the truth of what it means to be a Christian, to be a Temple of the Holy Spirit and a member of the Body of which Christ is the Head. No doubt, these Corinthians felt rationally justified in their acts, and we see this in their self-defense: All things are lawful unto me. They are not, that is, merely responding to a momentary whim or lust. They have a plan, a vision, in light of a rational principle, and they are acting accordingly.

However, as important as our reason is in guiding us to what it right and good, it necessarily falls short in guiding us to our true and lasting happiness in a life with the Triune God. To live eternally with God is, for angels as much as for men, to seek and end that exceeds anything we could imagine. Indeed, it means to walk along a path that, for all that it generally accords with reason, will occasionally stretch the power of our reason to understand, as it would even for the exceedingly greater intellectual power of an angel. As much as our bodies, if they could speak directly to us, might find most of our decisions to their liking, but others — staying up all hours of the night to tend to an ailing parent, refraining from sexual intercourse in the absence of a spouse, enduring hardship for the sake of the Gospel — would seem, in the body's terms, incomprehensible without the insight of reason, so much of what it means to follow Christ, for men and for angels, entails receiving wisdom neither from our bodies, nor from our minds, but from our Head, Jesus Christ, and his Spirit who dwells within us.

That angels could, in the beginning, have fallen for failing to seek the one thing their intellect could not penetrate, which is to say the deep mystery of God, despite its vast power, we, whose reason in comparison is far dimmer, ought to take caution. We have been given, in the life of the Gospel and the indwelling of the Spirit of God, a sure and certain source of a wisdom that surpasses our powers but will guide us unfailingly to our end, if we but heed its promptings.

For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

2 Timothy 3:10-15 / Luke 18:10-14

We know quite well the parable of the publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee, rightly, but with disdain for his fellow man, recites before God his own righteousness, asserting how happy he is that he is not like the publican, whom he also rightly identifies as a sinner. The publican, by contrast, stands in the back, considering himself unworthy of God because he, again quite rightly, identifies himself as a sinner. He relies not on his merits, which he knows are not merely inadequate, but positively contrary to God's holiness, and instead calls merely upon the mercy of God. Jesus assures us that it is the publican, and not the Pharisee, who walks away justified.

On the face of it, we might think that key to this parable is a warning about judgment, that we ought not to identify some people as sinners and others as living an upright and godly life. However, this cannot be the case. After all, the publican is in fact a sinner, and the works of the Pharisee more than fulfill what is required by the Law. Were one to choose the manner of life one ought to want to live, only the morally corrupt or confused would willingly choose to live as the publican rather than as the Pharisee.

Moreover, St Paul himself speaks quite explicitly in his second letter to the Thessalonians about the difference between the wicked and those who live a life in accord with Christian teaching. He is quite clear; one is to avoid the former and be zealous in remaining among the latter. Indeed, as Paul warns, that while all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution, nonetheless out of them all the Lord will deliver them. By contrast, evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.

How shall we square the explicit marking off of the sinners and the godly in Paul's letter from what seems to be precisely the counsel not to see the world that way in Jesus' parable? Do we simply chalk this up to residual Pharisaism in Paul? Or, have we missed something crucial in our reading?

If we attend closely to the parable, we will see that what is absent in the Pharisee, but present in the publican, is the recognition that goodness and justification come as a gift from God, that to be righteous is a cause of thanksgiving to be sure, but with due recognition of its source. The Pharisee thanks God for his goodness and uprightness, but rather than either acknowledge that, apart from God's gift, he would be standing with the publican, or what's more rather than praying that the publican, too, might be justified and live according to the Law, the Pharisee remains self-oriented, self-justified. It is only the publican who recognizes that only God is truly just, truly righteous, and that it is his mercy, not his congratulation or approval, that we ought to seek.

Yet, this is also precisely what Paul wants us to see as well. In rehearsing the sufferings he has endured, Paul points not to his merits, but to Jesus Christ as the source of his deliverance: but out of them all the Lord delivered me. It is not simply that the godly suffer persecution, but the godly in Christ Jesus who do so. To continue to live in accord with Christian teaching he asserts is not a reason for boasting of ourselves. Rather, we are to attend to the origin of those teachings, knowing of whom we have learned them, and that we keep to them to become wise unto salvation we must credit not to ourselves, but through faith which is in Christ Jesus.

This is why we can and must distinguish between wickedness and godliness. Jesus Christ did not teach us so that we would remain muddled about what directs us to a life with God and what turns us away, but that we might share in the divine light by which God knows, that we might become wise. Yet, in being wise, in seeing things in light of God, to see as God sees, means precisely to see our fellow men and women, our brothers and sisters, as, just like us, the beneficiaries of God's mercy. It is only to the extent that we love those who are still trapped in darkness, that we truly will their good, even while at the same time living a way of life apart from theirs and so inviting persecution at their hands, that we can truly be said to have learned what it is that Jesus Christ came to teach.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Leavetaking of the Theophany

2 Timothy 2:20-26 / Luke 19:37-44

In the convent where I live, we are blessed with a wonderful array of trees in our cloister and in our garden. Now, in the midst of winter, we are graced with the many oranges and lemons which hang temptingly on the branches. Other fruit trees make themselves known in the fall, but my favorite are the cherry trees. While their blossoms are rivaled in fragrance perhaps by the orange blossoms, the beauty of our garden, blanketed in soft pink and white, to be followed by the bright red of the fresh cherries. In my springtime walks praying the rosary, I cannot help but pick a few cherries along the way, thinking of Our Lady in The Cherry-Tree Carol. Even though the garden had been thick with trees, and making one's way through all the more difficult in the spring, the branches heavy with leaves and fruit, I delighted in the shade, the colors, the smells, the tastes, and the blessed solitude of a walk under the trees.

I say had been thick with trees because recently, through some gardening project, the trees of the garden were quite radically pruned, including, much to my despair, many if not most of the cherry trees. What once was a see of trees and branches now gives way to the open ground, the tall trees cut back to far more modest heights, their branches far fewer. I can easily suppose that this is for some real good. That is, perhaps there were other plants, such as our herbs which we use in the kitchen, that had begun to suffer from the competitive thriving of the trees. Or, perhaps the trees themselves were grown beyond what would be good for them collectively, and so also individually. Perhaps.

All the same, it is hard for me not to feel the loss. Whatever the good, I can know with certainty that my garden walks will not be the same. I can know that the delightful canopy of leaves and blossoms will not be there come the spring to shade my walks, and there will hardly be any cherries to delight my rosary strolls, much less to repeat the cherry pies we baked last year. However much my reason may suggest that this is for the good, that the goods with which I had to part, even without being bad in themselves, could not remain as they were, my imagination and memory part with them only with reluctance.

When Paul urges us to become worthy vessels of honor, to flee youthful lusts and avoid ignorant and foolish disputes, even to avoid quarreling altogether, we might too glibly assent that such a course is to be taken for granted. But is it? Is our moral transformation in light of the Gospel we have received, the new life and faith given to us in our Baptism, so clearly a good for us, here and now, that the kind of good we have known up until now, in our life apart from Christ, is manifestly unfit, unworthy to be held on to?

This is why Jesus warns the Pharisees at his entrance into Jerusalem that they did not know the time of his visitation. Our lives, even when filled with much that is good in itself, can easily become overgrown, needing much pruning to make way for the goods God intends for us to enjoy. The point is not that we have evil in our lives we need to reject, although that is most likely the case. It is also that goods, real and true goods, we have allowed so to capture our imagination and delight that, unless they be cut back, unless they be pruned, we will never know the glories God wills to impart to us.

As we take leave of the Theophany, and with it the Christmas season, will be be prepared for a little pruning? Have we listened to the comfortable and joyous proclamations of the Nativity and Theophany of the Lord such that we can, without regret, let the pruning begin, and so open the way for his glorious entrance into our lives, and so begin to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works he has done, and continues to do to bring us to share in his eternal and unending life?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Afterfeast of the Theophany

Ephesians 4:7-13 / Matthew 4:12-17

Now that the celebrations of the mystery of Christmas are coming to a close, when the few who have held on to their lights and tinsel, their creches and their cards, are conceding that Christmastide has indeed come to and end, what do we expect to see? The promises of Christmas are high. I mean here, of course, not the hopes and dreams of Christmas presents or perfect Christmas moments with the family by the tree or in front of a roaring fire. What I mean are the spiritual promises, the hope for a world transformed, a world not nearly as dark, not nearly as cold, not nearly as divided as it had been before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned. It might be quite easy to become disappointed, jaded even, by the ordinariness we know we will face when the new week begins.

Yet, in many ways, this is precisely what Jesus had prepared for us in his own ministry. When John was arrested, and Jesus came to Galilee, it might well have seemed the appropriate time for a clear sign of something new. One might well have expected that, with the friend of the Bridegroom gone, and the arrival of the Bridegroom himself, fresh from his cleansing in the river Jordan and in the desert, things would change, and change notably, radically, unmistakably. Instead, we hear from Jesus what we had heard all along from the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The same is true of the Church. In the face of so much disappointment in our fellow Christians, and especially in those appointed to lead us, although we must admit in ourselves as well, we might have hoped that the celebration of Christ shining his light in the darkness would have led to something new, something different. Instead, Peter reminds us that what we can expect, what we must expect here and now, are those same ministries the Church has always had, the same hierarchy willed by grace into the Church by Jesus Christ himself: And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.

The ordinary, the run of the mill, with its losses and disappointments included, is not meant to be a sign of the absence of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, Jesus' most merciful coming in Bethlehem, and his wondrous manifestation to the nations, while meant to transform the world utterly and decisively, was also to do so in and through the world as it is. It was not to save another world, a different world, that Christ came. Jesus came among us so that this world, the world we live in here and now, with all of its joys and trials, its boredom and terrors, it victories and its defeats, could come to share in his everlasting glory. Indeed, in and through the ministry of the Church, this is what he is doing even now. However, much we may fear that nothing has changed, our life in the Church, and precisely our being open to the ministry of those appointed by Christ for our edification, is precisely the occasion for that radical transformation for which we have been longing. It is nowhere else but here in the Church, no other time but the ordinary time of our lives, that will be the locus, the time and place, for the newness of life to dawn upon us, that day when we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Holy Theophany of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7 / Matthew 3:13-17

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men...

There is an art, and a special kind of luck, in the opening of gifts. Open the best ones first, and what remains, however good, however well-intentioned, will necessarily either pale in comparison, and so disappoint the one who receives, or eclipse the gift of greater worth, and so disappoint the one who gives. Wait too long to disclose the gift long awaited, even if the recipient did not even know how much he wanted it, and the desire to open the gift at all may well wither and wane. Both surfeit and dearth, both too early an anticipation and too delayed a revelation can all spoil what out properly to be the joy of giver and receiver alike.

So, what is there to be said of the gift of the grace of God that brings salvation? To be sure, God was willing to delay his merciful coming for quite some time, at least many thousands of years, depending on when one imagines the appearance on the earth of man, properly so called. Yet, even then that grace of God, the Word of God himself, Son of the eternal Father, came among us in the flesh, God, like a good giver, did not spoil the surprise all at once. Piece by piece and step by step, the glorious mystery was allowed to unfold, each opening seemingly the best and most hoped for, only to be undone by a gift of love altogether unanticipated in its heart-achingly profound depths. From the Annunciation we were led to the Nativity, and thence to the happy witness of the angels and shepherds, of ox and ass. Yet, this was not enough. To the heights and heaven and to the elect nation of Israel was added the witness of the riches of the nations, the kings from the East, the Magi, seeking a foreign king promised by the prophets of a God not their own, who nonetheless they recognized as Lord over all.

Were the Christmas mystery to end here, all might be well. We might, that is, think all had been done that need be done, that all peoples, Jew and Gentile alike, had been made privy to the merciful appearing of the grace of God that brings salvation. But for God, the expert giver of gifts, this was not enough. To each appearing, he has gladly added another. Even as the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ in the cave to Mary and Joseph was extended to the shepherds, and to them the witness of the Magi, so later was added not merely the voice of the hosts of heaven, but rather the voice of the Father himself at the Baptism of the Lord in the river Jordan: This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

Indeed, we know that God was not content to end there, which may well have been the final moment, the clear declaration of the peace the Father had declared between heaven and earth, between Jew and Gentile, and so called each and all that he might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. Beyond the banks of the Jordan we can witness Jesus' first public miracle in the transformation of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, and beyond there to his ministry of healing and exorcism in Galilee, or his wondrous Transfiguration on Tabor, to he triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his terrible but no less glorious Passion, his Resurrection and Ascension, the sending of the Spirit, the fearless preaching of the Apostles and no less fearless witness of the martyrs, and the global witness to Jesus Christ even to the present day.

Which of these can we say is the best gift, the definitive appearing for which every preceding gift was a prelude, and to which every gift to follow was a witness? Was it all about the fidelity to the promise made once to Adam and Eve of the son who would crush the serpent's head, the promise made to Abraham in his gift of faith, the giving of the Law amid cloud and fire on Sinai, the dwelling in the Temple in Jerusalem, the promise made to the exiles upon their return to the Land? Can we place the definitive moment in the cave at Bethlehem, the banks of the Jordan, the village of Cana, the Mount of Olives, Golgotha, the Tomb, or the Upper Room? Or, might we not rather say that, in Jesus Christ, who is at once the consummate Giver and Gift, every gift, every manifestation, every epiphany and theophany, is the center? Who would be able to say that his later knowledge of the mystery of the Passion was not prepared for by a childhood delight at the babe in the manger? At the same time, can we really say, after a lifetime of turning in the sins of our adulthood to the image of the Crucified, that we are not turned in a newer and deeper way to the Cave of Bethlehem, as though the Cross were meant to send us back to that moment of his first gracious appearing in the flesh?

On this day Thou hast appeared unto the whole world, and Thy light, O Sovereign Lord, is signed on us who sing Thy praise and chant with knowledge: Thou hast now come, Thou hast appeared, O Thou Light unappproachable.