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.