Thursday, February 28, 2013
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
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
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."