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Clothed with Humility- Reflection for Evening Prayer of August 31, 2011

31 Aug

Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Wednesday of the Twenty-second Week in Ordinary Time
Liturgy of the Hours: Wednesday, Week III
Reading for Evening Prayer: 1 Peter 5:5b-7

During a recent family reunion, I came across two icons of Christ, ruler of all– in Greek, Χριστος Παντοκράτωρ (Christos Pantokrator)– that belonged to two different relatives of mine. Since taking a course in New Testament Greek last year, I have become even more fascinated by icons, especially this one, Christos Pantokrator, than I had been previously.

What does the Christos Pantokrator icon have to do with the reading from 1 Peter from tonight’s Evening Prayer, though, and what does it have to do with our lives as religious, as Basilians, as priests or, in my case, as one in formation for ordained priesthood?

In the very first verse of the reading from tonight’s Vespers, the author of 1 Peter exhorts us: “Clothe yourselves with humility.”[1] When we look at the icon of Christos Pantokrator, and indeed of many icons of our Lord, he is clothed on the inside with a red garment, symbol of divinity. Overlaying the red, though, is an outer blue garment: Christ’s divinity has been clothed in our humanity. Therefore, by his Incarnation, Jesus Christ assumed our frail nature, of course without losing any of his divine nature. This is a valuable lesson in the virtue of humility. Not only does God show “kindness”[2] toward the humble, but God also shows us concretely the way of humility by becoming one like us, just as the ruler of all once created us in his image and likeness.[3]

Humility, I think, is one of the most difficult virtues for most people to practice. Perhaps this is because of the greatness of our human nature. One of my favourite Psalms, Psalm 8, praises God thus for the creation of human beings: “You have made them little less than a god.”[4] I know all too well by experience that this nearness to divine essence with which we have been created so easily leads to misplaced ambition and hubris. I am the last person who should be leading a reflection about humility!

When Jesus’ own Apostles let their pride get in the way of acceptance of the Cross– of giving everything they were in hope of the Kingdom of God– Jesus reminded them of their place in bringing about that Kingdom. Examples abound of Jesus reminding the Twelve– and us– of the humility with which he himself lived. The most striking instance of this to me is when he placed a child among his followers, who had been quarrelling over who among them was the greatest.[5]

As I was leaving the Vancouver airport to come home to Toronto just days ago, my two-year-old niece provided me with a reminder of humility clothed in godlike dignity. As I held her and said, “Bye, Molly, I love you,” she laid a big, sloppy kiss on my cheek that brought tears to my eyes. If Molly were to be represented in an icon, she would be wearing a blue inner garment draped in red which, of course, is how our humble Queen and Mother, Mary, is often depicted.

Out of the mouth of this babe, to paraphrase Psalm 8 again, came a defence “to silence the enemy”[6] that is pride, which deludes us into thinking that we do not need God.

Lastly, humility does not mean that we ought not to have dreams, cares, and ambitions. Such dreams, cares, and ambitions are normal and should be encouraged, as long as they draw us closer, especially as Basilian religious, to the dignity given to all of us by God. 1 Peter says, “Cast all your cares on [God], because he cares for you.”[7] After all, our God is a God who has clothed us “mere mortals”[8] in his image. As the Psalmist says, we are thus “crowned with glory and honour.”[9]

“O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth!”[10]

This reflection was originally given during Evening Prayer (Vespers) of August 31, 2011, during a retreat of the Basilian Fathers’ Scholasticate in which I am currently living.


[1] 1 Peter 5:5

[2] Ibid.

[3] Genesis 1:27

[4] Psalm 8:6

[5] Mark 9:33-37, Luke 9:46-48

[6] Psalm 8:3

[7] 1 Peter 5:7

[8] Psalm 8:5

[9] v 6

[10] vv 2, 10

The Prophetic Body of Christ- Reflection for Mass of August 9, 2009

9 Aug

Sunday, August 9, 2009
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:2-9; Ephesians 4:30- 5:2; John 6:41-51 

Prophecy is a difficult, even dangerous, undertaking. Elijah knew this well. He contended with the unprecedented depravity of King Ahab who, as Scripture recounts, had done “evil in the sight of the Lord more than any of his predecessors.” (1) Just when Ahab would have been hard-pressed to do any worse, he married Jezebel, who proceeded to murder all the prophets of the Lord and to impose the worship of foreign idols upon Israel. Elijah was the only one of the Lord’s prophets to escape Jezebel’s rampage. He was left to end a crippling famine and to turn Israel back toward its God by slaying Jezebel’s idolatrous army of false prophets. Jezebel responded with renewed wrath, forcing Elijah to flee for his life into the wilderness. (2)

Neither the length of the journey, nor the heat, nor fatigue threatened Elijah’s resolve to prophesy; Elijah felt like a failure. He had brought a drought to an end and shown Israel’s God to be greater than the imported pagan deities. Yet, there he was, a fugitive under a flimsy broom tree in the desert. His end would be no more glorious than that of his ancestors. Therefore Elijah did not pray to God for the strength to continue. Instead, in his hopelessness he wished to die. (3)

Perhaps many of us can relate to such despair, even as deep as that of Elijah. We might feel underappreciated for our work. We’re too old, too young, too sad, or too sick. We complain bitterly. We struggle spiritually, and little consolation comes from prayer or from going to Mass. We feel like we’ve failed. But even total failure is redeemed by our God. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus delivers an astounding promise: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (4) This bread is not perishable, as Jesus explains, like the manna that was provided from Heaven in Moses’ time. The Israelites ate that manna, “and they died.” (5) Jesus is the everlasting, “living bread that comes down from Heaven.” (6) But, as Jesus’ allusion to His flesh indicates, eternal life can only come through the Cross.

Christ crucified is the ultimate symbol of complete failure, but only by the Cross are we drawn forever to the Father with the Risen Jesus. St. John’s use of the verb “to draw” (7), in the context of the Father drawing us to Jesus, is remarkable, but its significance is easily missed. The next occurrence of this verb in Greek in John’s Gospel is when Jesus predicts His death: “When I am lifted up… I will draw everyone to Myself.” (8) The third appearance of this verb is less obvious in English because of differing translation; on the sea of Tiberias after the Resurrection, when Jesus tells the seven disciples to cast their net over the right side of the boat after a long night fishing without a catch, there are so many fish that the disciples are barely able “to pull” the net to shore. (9) But, as the net is pulled to shore but does not tear under the strain, so we, redeemed from sinful failure by a loving and merciful God, are drawn to Our Father by Christ who died and is risen for us.

The three instances of this verb, “to draw” or “to pull”, in the Gospel of John emphasize three related themes: the Passion, the Resurrection, and prophecy. The last of these stands out more in conjunction with today’s first reading centered on Elijah, who stands for the prophets. Last week’s first reading featured Moses, symbolic of the law. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and of the prophets. His Bread of Life Discourse- Chapter six of John- from which we read for four weeks in a row this month, superimposes a fourth theme upon the previous three: that of the Eucharist. When we receive the Eucharist, we profess our belief in the Body and Blood of Christ crucified and risen by whom we are saved. Therefore, we become prophets of Christ’s death and Resurrection because we bear the “bread for the life of the world” (10), the flesh of Christ, within our own flesh. By our reception of the fullness of God made human, we are “all… taught by God” in the intimacy of our hearts and are thus drawn to the Father (11), as Jesus highlights by His references to the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah in today’s Gospel.

The universal call to be bearers and prophets of Christ to the world was made particularly clear to me two years ago, when I participated in a delegation to the Holy See Mission to the United Nations in New York. During the week we visited a different church in Manhattan for Mass each day. One of the daily Masses was at the home parish of the UN, the Church of the Holy Family. There, I was captivated by the beauty of the tabernacle. It was inscribed in Latin with the words from the prologue to John’s Gospel: Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis – The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (12) Indeed the Incarnate Word dwells among us and within us. We acknowledge this mystery every time we respond to the reception of the host at Communion: “Amen.”

To be a prophet of Christ is not easy. We are faced with times of despair. We are tempted to grumble and to want to give up. But St. Paul, whose letter to the Ephesians challenges us to “be imitators of God,” (13) offers us consolation also. We are “beloved children” (14) whom God has forgiven and calls to be like Him- “kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another.” (15) This is how we are to prophesy as Christians- by supporting and loving one another as one Church, as God loves us. (16)

St. Augustine offers another insight into our goal of prophetic discipleship in Christ. In two separate sermons focused on the Eucharist, he wrote: “If you receive worthily, you are what you have received” (17)… “To that which you are, you answer: ‘Amen’; and by answering, you subscribe to it. For you hear: ‘The Body of Christ!’ and you answer: ‘Amen!’ Be a member of Christ’s Body, so that your ‘Amen’ may be the truth.” (18)

When we receive the Body of Christ, that is what we become, so our “Amen” is both recognition of the Lord who comes to live among us, as well as a special greeting. Let us then, when we receive the Communion host, greet one another as fellow disciples and prophets of the Lord made flesh for our salvation. We are the Church- “the Body of Christ.” “Amen.”

WRS

Sacred Heart of Jesus- Reflection for Mass of June 19, 2009

19 Jun

Friday, June 19, 2009

Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

World Day of Prayer for Priests

Readings: Hosea 11:1-4, 8-9; Responsorial Canticle from Isaiah 12:2-6; Ephesians 3:8-12, 14-19; John 19:31-37

Each time we gather for Mass, we celebrate the love of God that is the particular focus of today’s Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Our Father sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to save us for no other reason than that “God so loved the world.” (1) Then, out of the reciprocal love between Father and Son came the gift of the Holy Spirit as our everlasting consoler and guide. (2)

The mystery of God’s love would be overwhelming to us were it not a grace granted by the Lord. St. Paul acknowledges in his letter to the Ephesians that this divine favour had been given to him; he is not intrinsically worthy of it. (3) Frequently we can manage no more than awe for the loving presence of God by which we were created and by which we are redeemed. Made speechless, we can only revere and adore, but we are just as often expected to do no more.

Today’s first reading from Hosea begins with the phrase, “Hear the word of the Lord, O people.” (4) Much emphasis in the Hebrew Scriptures is placed on hearing the word of God. For example, the book of Deuteronomy reads: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (5) Hearing, as suggested in both Hosea and Deuteronomy, extends beyond mere sensory perception; to hear is to listen actively to God’s call to love Him and our neighbour as we have been loved by our Lord and as a father loves his child: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” (6)

God yearns for such closeness with humankind, but the call of God recurrently has the opposite effect than that desired. In the context of the prophecy of Hosea, the more God beckons to us, the more we stubbornly turn from him. (7) However, God will not abandon us to the power of sin. God is prepared to suffer with us and for us. His “warm and tender”  compassion (8) led the Son of God to freely accept a humiliating death for us on the Cross, so that even while we are sinners and we “look upon the One whom [we] have pierced” (9) we are able to celebrate the gift of our salvation.

Both to hear the word of God and to look upon the pierced side of our crucified Saviour are movements of the heart more than of the ears or of the eyes. An attentive love that dwells in our hearts must be foremost in our relationship with God and with each other. The heart can and should be understood as a physical part of each of us- the hidden yet vital organ that circulates the full human blood supply three times per minute and whose hundred thousand beats a day are taken for granted (10)- as well as the centre of love. This dual significance of the heart is appropriate because Jesus Christ, the divine source of all love- the heart and foundation of the Church- became a physical human being like us.

In his encyclical Haurietis Aquas, on Devotion to the Sacred Heart,  Pope Pius XII asserted that, as the humanity of  Jesus is bonded  intimately with His divinity, so three forms of the same love abide in the heart of Christ.  (11) The first is divine spiritual love, between the persons of the Trinity. The second is divine-human love, God’s love for us by which  Jesus took and transforms our human nature, and the third is tangible human-to-human love, expressed in our relationship with one another. (12)

Haurietis Aquas bids us by its title to “draw waters” from the heart of Our Lord (13), the heart that for us was pierced by the soldier’s lance as Jesus hung on the Cross. From that Sacred Heart blood and water spilled forth. St. John Chrysostom wrote in his Catecheses that the blood symbolizes the Holy Eucharist, and the water our Baptism: “From these two Sacraments the Church is born.” (14)

Devotion to the Sacred Heart has acquired several historical dimensions from the contributions of the likes of Sts. Bonaventure, Gertrude, Margaret Mary Alacoque, and, more recently, from Pope Leo XIII, who consecrated the world to the Sacred Heart in 1899, Sts. Thérèse of Lisieux, Mary Faustina Kowalska, and Pio of Pietrelcina, and Popes Pius XII and John Paul II.  (15) Its exact origins are difficult to ascertain, though in the Early Church the Sacred Heart first became equated with the whole Christ, so it has been argued that in this sense the Sacred Heart may be worshipped as we are actually worshipping Christ Himself. (16)

The Sacred Heart is also linked to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the object of tomorrow’s memorial, by the Mother of God’s assent to the conception of Our Lord in her womb. This fact was  impressed upon  me a few weeks ago as I entered Rosary Chapel at Assumption Church and saw a prayer group called the “Alliance of the Two Hearts of Jesus and Mary” being promoted. While indeed the hearts of Jesus and Mary are allied, so I suggest that our hearts- our Church and our Basilian community-  are also to be united with the Sacred Heart of Christ. As the image of the Sacred Heart is affixed in many homes dedicated to it, so let us welcome Christ into our inmost being.

The Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman’s episcopal motto was Cor ad cor loquitur– Heart speaks to heart. (17) May we then enter into the contemplation of the love of Christ, whose “breadth and length and height and depth… [surpass] all knowledge” but with which we are called to “be filled.” (18) The soldier pierced the Lord’s side,” said St. John Chrysostom. “He breached the wall of the sacred  Temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own.” (19) Let us pray that we may also make this treasure of Christ’s love our own, that it may flow generously from the sacred temples that are our hearts, and that we may joyfully and lovingly radiate it to all those whom we encounter on our way. Amen.

WRS

Prayer and Reconciliation- Reflection for Mass of March 6, 2009

7 Mar

Friday, March 6, 2009

Friday of the First Week of Lent

World Day of Prayer

Readings: Ezekiel 18:21-28, Psalm 130: 1-6, Gospel of Matthew 5:20-26

The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel once wrote that “to love someone is to say, ‘you at least will not die.’” (1) Those words encompass much of the meaning of Lent, a season during which we celebrate the absolute mercy of God. On Ash Wednesday, we were enjoined to repent from our sin and to believe in the Gospel. Lent is truly, then, a celebration filled with faith and hope in that good news of God’s love for us.

Scripture tells us that God, who breathed life into our earthly and earthbound bodies, “so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him…might have eternal life.” (2) By means of rhetorical questions, the prophet Ezekiel communicates a similar message to that of John the Evangelist: God is not pleased with “the death of the wicked,” (3) nor does He keep a tally of our sins in an effort to condemn us, but instead God goes to great lengths to persuade us to turn freely toward Him and away from evil. Our Father sent us Jesus, His Son who, after His baptism in the Jordan, spent forty Spirit-filled days fasting in the wilderness. Jesus encountered and rebuffed the deception of grandeur offered by Satan- of power that is impossible in the absence of a relationship with God.

Christ so loved us that He went on to live as one of us, to teach us, to pray for us, and to die and to rise for us. During Lent, we journey with Jesus in the desert from His baptism to His death. Our lives naturally follow the same path as the life of Christ, with the same Divine call to welcome the mystery and promise of the Resurrection. A God who calls us together to accept such a wondrous gift is not limited by any human notion of justice. Therefore, Ezekiel reminds a people still in exile that it is not the Lord’s way but the way of the house of Israel that is not fair. (4) God is more than just fair to His people; He waits for us to repent and to respond in kind to His loving mercy. Both Ezekiel, in today’s first reading, and Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, emphasize that it is never too late to break from the course that leads to our ruin.

In addition, Jesus challenges us to act in God-like justice and not only in legalistic fairness toward our neighbour. As with God forgiveness is boundless, our reconciliation with each other is never too late if we are to gain Heaven. Jesus contends that it can be achieved even at the last minute- “on the way to court.” (5) If, on the contrary, we spout insults and put-downs, or persist in harbouring deep anger and resentment, we gradually destroy life, thus Jesus warns that we are in breach of the commandment not to kill and will be liable to human and to Divine judgement, and ultimately to Gehenna, the “hell of fire.” (6)

Deror Avi, Valley of Hinnom, October 19, 2007.

Deror Avi, Valley of Hinnom, October 19, 2007.

Jesus speaks of Gehenna, the Jewish equivalent to hell, in reference to the Valley of Hinnom, situated outside the southwest gate of Jerusalem, also called the Dung Gate. Gehenna conjured up mental pictures of horrors that actually took place in the Valley of Hinnom- it was Jerusalem’s garbage dump in Jesus’ time. Unclean animals and waste were burned there, and lepers scavenged the refuse. Gehenna had been the site of pagan human sacrifice and the final resting place of the bodies of executed criminals. (7) Not surprisingly, Gehenna evoked fear when Jesus mentioned it. The Valley of Hinnom brought two images to my mind: the bus route past the piles of garbage burning along the freeways in Cali and frequent walks through Windsor’s Malden Park, affectionately known as “the dump.” Just as the Valley of Hinnom today is no longer the vile rubbish heap it once was, as some efforts were being taken to clean up Cali while I was there, and as Windsor’s former landfill has become a pleasant place for a walk, so God wills to bring us to reconciliation- to transform our sinful waste into something beautiful and life-giving.

View from Malden Park, Windsor, ON

View from Malden Park, Windsor, ON

Reconciliation- the restoration and building of relationship with God and with humankind- requires us to pray for one another. Today we mark the World Day of Prayer, observed by several Christian traditions on the first Friday in March, (8) to bring to mind our need to pray for an end to divisions between baptized followers of Jesus. The section on prayer in our Catechism opens with a striking definition of prayer from St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

In her autobiography, St. Thérèse wrote: “…Prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” (9)

“Prayer is a surge of the heart…” When we pray, we recall with tremendous gratitude that, as we enter the Lord’s house to celebrate the Eucharist, God has already resolved to forgive us our sin.

“It is a simple look toward heaven…” We then acknowledge the Father’s presence and, to begin the Communion Rite, we appeal to “Our Father, who art in Heaven”, whose Kingdom we petition “to come”, and whose “will” we pray “will be done, on earth as in Heaven.”

At the climax of the Mass, we receive Jesus as a community of believers, the Body of Christ, and respond with our “cry of recognition and of love,” “Amen!”

Our prayer, our Communion, our Lent, our Mass, in a spirit of reconciliation, are greater than any infirmity or spiritual darkness. Thus we come, “embracing both trial and joy.”

We come together to celebrate before a God who is greater than sin, division, and even death itself. Our God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel to the repentant soul, “He shall surely live…” (10) So we ought to pray this for one another, that we all might come to everlasting life. For “to love someone is to say, ‘you at least will not die.’”

WRS

Basilian Anniversary and Feast of the Presentation of Mary- Reflection for Mass of November 21, 2008

21 Nov

Vincent Duret, Joseph Lapierre, Augustin Payan, François Polly, Pierre Tourvieille, Julien Tracol, André Fayolle, Henri Martinesche, Jean-François Pagès, Jean-Antoine Vallon…

One hundred eighty-six years ago today, these ten men gathered in Annonay, France, to elect Jean Lapierre as the first Superior General of the Association of Priests of St. Basil. We celebrate the anniversary of our foundation as a religious community on this day, and we also commemorate the Presentation of Mary, Mother of God and Patroness of our Order.

No Biblical record exists of the Presentation of Mary, but the Book of Leviticus and the Gospel of Luke contain details about Jewish rituals surrounding the presentation of a newborn child to the religious leaders. This was an occasion of great joy, of peace, and of hope. When Jesus was presented by Mary and Joseph in the Jerusalem temple, the Divine Child gave lasting hope to the aged widow and prophetess Anna and to Simeon, whose beautiful Nunc Dimittis hymn has become a part of the Church’s tradition during Night Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours: “Lord, now you have let your servant go in peace.” (Lk.  2:29) One can imagine a similar sentiment expressed at the Presentation of Our Lady by her parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim. Little did Anne and Joachim know that their daughter would be God’s ideal instrument to bring Jesus Christ, humankind’s saving hope, into the world.

Yet this is precisely what each of us is called to do as Christians, as religious, and as Basilians. Christ dwells in each one of us; it is up to us to bear witness to His presence within us and therefore to present Him to the world. We are the temple within which the Child is shown, much to the hope and wonderment of others.

I can think of many instances when I have derived hope from Basilians and from the people we encounter. One experience stands out, though: that of my first Sunday Mass after my arrival in Cali, Colombia, last January. I attended this Mass with Fr. Wally Platt, CSB. It was held outdoors on a hot day in a very poor part of Cali in the hills overlooking the city. That Mass included the final professions of a small group of Franciscans. Unfortunately, I knew very little Spanish, having just arrived in Colombia, but a children’s choir opened with a resounding hymn to faith and hope: “La fe y la esperanza.” This is the only part of the song that I understood, but it was all I needed. The  small children had little to give- they had come from such poverty- except for their voices and their smiles. But faith and hope are their own language.

Jesus impels us to speak and to act in that language. For most of us, that can be a great challenge. Similarly, the angel in Revelation tells John in his vision to eat a scroll that will be sweet as honey in his mouth but will be bitter in his stomach after he has swallowed it. (cf. Rv. 8:9) Prophets withstood persecution while they proclaimed the sweet message that God planned to send His people a Messiah. The message itself was often received with bitterness. Not long after Jesus had entered Jerusalem, He was in the temple angrily overturning the tables of those selling worldly objects there. This was not a message the people who were desecrating the temple wanted to hear, but those who sought to kill Jesus could not find a reason to do so. Jesus was acting as a messenger, as a prophet, and as a witness to hope, therefore St. Luke wrote that the people who listened to Jesus teach were “spellbound by what they heard.” (Lk. 19:48)

We must carry on as Christian messengers of faith and hope. Our testimony begins with fidelity to prayer: Are we making our interior temple, thus the whole Church as the Body of Christ, a house of prayer, or do we make of ourselves “a den of robbers?” The message of hope that our Basilian forerunners enkindled at our foundation starts in each of us and radiates outward into the world. As St. Anne and St. Joachim presented their daughter Mary to the world- so much bright but unknown promise to behold- so we as Christians, as religious, and as Basilians are to present ourselves as carriers of a prophecy: Faith and hope, la foi et l’espérance, la fe y la esperanza. Amen.

On the Feast of your Presentation, Mary, Mother of God, pray for us. St. Basil, pray for us. All our deceased Basilian brothers who await us in Heaven, pray for us.

WRS

Man of Clay

20 Apr

The Gospel Reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent this year was the story of the man born blind, from the Gospel of John. (John 9:1-41) As is often the case in the Gospels, Jesus is said to have been simply “passing by” (John 9:1) a place when he encounters a person in need, in this case the blind man near the Pool of Siloam.* This account is fascinating because of its many themes, for example light and darkness and the contrast between them, discipleship, sacrifice, conversion, and salvation. The passage also recalls God’s intimacy with humanity in Creation and in the human condition of exile and of earthiness, of which God became a part by the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

 

From the moment He began to assemble the world, God has never worked for His own benefit but for that of His creation, which He pre-eminently and lovingly initiated and now sustains. References to creation are central to the Gospel of John, therefore in St. John’s opening verses God is defined as the source of all that exists:

 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came to be through Him…” (John 1:1-3)

 

Here, John uses the Greek word ‘logos’ to describe God. According to St. John, our God is the ‘logos’ sought by the Greek philosophers as well as by Christians. God is the ultimate purpose or goal of everything. However, in co-opting the Greek concept of logos into Christianity, St. John presents God as the being transcendent over all, which leads to the short-sighted interpretation by some of a God who set the universe in motion, then retreated into the distance. But this remote God of deism is the ancient Greek logos, not the Christian God best and most concisely defined, if one may define God in human words, by St. Matthew as “Emmanuel- God is with us.” (Matthew 2:23)

 

The human mind is incapable of comprehending the closeness signified by the name “Emmanuel”. While St. Matthew focuses immediately on the emanence of God, St. John progresses more slowly toward the same characterization of God. Near the end of his Gospel, John also portrays God as intimate with humankind, especially when Jesus asks St. Peter three times, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-19) At this point, Peter still does not understand that the Lord is asking more of him than to love as one would love just any friend; Jesus commands Peter-and us- to love unconditionally, as He loves us. After all, John writes earlier in his Gospel that Jesus chose us first (cf. John 15:16), and the same disciple re-iterates in his first letter that “we love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

 

Thus, St. John’s Gospel, which begins with the depiction of God as the all-powerful transcendent Creator and concludes with several mentions or implications of Jesus having chosen us, as imperfect as we are, to share in His intimate love, reads more like the story of a deliberate journey.

 

Christ’s journey according to John is therefore our journey also. From the time God created humankind, we have been in a continual interaction with Him, and along the way we have been in a perpetual struggle to understand our God who transcends us infinitely yet is in close contact with us. St. John’s prologue captures this paradox inherent in the human-God relationship: The image of the transcendent Creator-God in the Johannine Gospel’s opening verses gives way to the image of a God we can know and recognize because we are able to see Him physically as Jesus Christ. St. John writes:

 

“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we saw His glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

 

 

 

Indeed, in the Lord Jesus we have seen the very source of all glory, of all grace, and of all truth, but often of our own free will we remain blind to His message and to our ultimate goal of union with God toward which we are all called. Thus, St. John precedes his affirmation of the Incarnation with this verse: “He came to what was His own, but His own people did not accept Him.” (John 1:11)

 

Since we have not accepted Christ fully, we have neither properly comprehended nor acted according to “the law given through Moses” (John 1:17) of which Jesus, who by precedence is greater than the old law, is both the fulfillment and the mediator. Therefore, John’s prologue concludes with the passage: “While the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed Him.” (John 1:17-18 )

 

God is first revealed to the human senses through the work of Creation. The Divine Author of the universe is said in Genesis to have recognized the goodness of each element and being in the world, and how everything fit together according to His perfect life-giving plan. In fact, the declaration that “God saw how good it was” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) appears six times in the first chapter of Genesis.

 

Not only did God see the greatness of His own works, but He chose to create a being- humankind- that would be uniquely capable of sharing in the wonder at what the Lord had made and of rejoicing in it. (cf. Psalm 118:25) God gave us the responsibility to nurture His creative gift of life- to be pro-creative, as it were. Then He gave us another gift at least as great: that of free will. Therefore, humankind was designed in the image and likeness of God Himself. No other creature has the same privilege. God “looked at everything He had made, and He found it very good”, (Genesis 1:26) especially because it was revealed to and appreciated by human beings.

 

Genesis’ second chapter tells the story of Creation slightly differently than the first, but the message of the primacy of God’s creative goodness remains. Chapter Two of Genesis describes the initial state of the earth as a land without shrubs or grass- only soil. (cf. Genesis 2:5) According to the story, there was also a stream below the ground- an unseen but nevertheless present source of life that was “welling out of the earth and was watering all the surface of the ground.” (Genesis 2:6) From the beginning, the soil was being prepared to give forth life, and it did so according to God’s command:

 

“The LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)

 

Fundamentally, then, without God we are nothing but clay. God alone gives life to that clay by breathing His Spirit into it, but we are free to close ourselves to God’s breath of life and therefore to attempt a futile way of pride in the absence of the Lord. A soul that has within it the seduction of sin has no room for the Spirit. Satan, who is presented in Genesis as “the most cunning of the animals that the LORD God had made” (Genesis 3:1), and as “the demon lurking at the door” (Genesis 4:7), knows this, and therefore blinds us to the reality that sin signifies death (cf. Romans 6:23, Genesis 2:17), not only of the flesh but especially of the soul.

 

However, sin and death hold no power over God, whose immediate response to human disobedience was to promise a Redeemer. The consequences of sin are dire, as God reminds Adam in the Genesis account: “For you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.” But the Eternal Judge’s sentence is preceded by an even sterner rebuke of the force behind all evil, in which Satan’s final destruction is foretold: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

 

Revelation refers to this final victory of God over the devil in nearly the same terms as in Genesis. The Apocalypse also includes the image of a war between a serpent or dragon and the woman and her offspring, described as “those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus.” (Revelation 12:17) The final battle begins in Heaven, from where Satan is expelled by “Michael and his angels.” (Revelation 12:10-7**) God’s ultimate victory is presented here as if it has already occurred:

 

“Now have salvation and power come,

and the power of our God

and the authority of His Anointed.

For the accuser of our brothers is cast out,

who accuses them before our God day and night.

They conquered him by the blood of the Lamb

And by the word of their testimony;

love for life did not deter them from death.

Therefore, rejoice, you heavens,

and you who dwell in them.

But woe to you, earth and sea,

for the Devil has come down to you in great fury,

for he knows he has but a short time.” (Revelation 12:10-12)

 

We are indeed witnessing God’s defeat of the prince of darkness in the present, yet we are, paradoxically, still waiting for it. God is with us, yet He is so distant from a world crippled by disregard for human life. We await Christ’s return to a world where human beings are not safe from having God’s gift of life forced away- a world that denies the right of children to be born, that allows persons to be killed for their faith or because they are too old or sick to be worth caring for, and that permits armed conflict to decide temporary ownership of land and of resources at the permanent cost of so many military and civilian lives alike. Less glaringly but perhaps as critically, authorities in several developing countries pay lip service to the need for proper education of their children, while they line their own pockets with the spoils of economic growth.

 

In the last century, there have been more martyrs than in the previous nineteen centuries of the Church’s history combined.*** With human complicity, Satan is thus making good use of his short time to raise havoc. However, there must be hope, and there is hope, as long as we recognize that the goal of the human journey is to unite our earthly existence with strength and with the peace of the Holy Spirit.

 

Jesus has promised to send us the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), and God is with us “always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) God is present now, about and within us, and Christ will come again as one like us, but in the fullness of that which is human and earthly and of that which is divine and one with the Spirit in the way humankind was meant by the Father to be.

 

In the meantime, we lament our separation from the Spirit, as in the words of Job: “Oh, remember that you fashioned me from clay? Will you then bring me down to dust again?”… “If He were to take His Spirit to Himself, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to the dust.” (Job 10:9, 34:14-15)

 

God responds to our cries as He did to those of Job, as in the lyrics of the Lenten hymn that inspired this article: “¿Como le cantaré, Señor? ¿Como le cantaré?…Hombre de barro soy. (How do I sing to thee, O Lord?…A man of clay am I.”), reminding us that “[we] are all works of His hands.” (Job 34:19) When we wonder how in this earthly exile we are to sing praises to a faraway God, the God within us gives us the words of the Psalmist to sing:

 

By the rivers of Babylon

we sat mourning and weeping

when we remembered Zion.

On the poplars of that land

we hung up our harps.

There our captors asked us for the words of a song;

 

Our tormentors, for a joyful song:

“Sing for us a song of Zion!”

But how could we sing a song of the LORD

in a foreign land?

 

If I forget you, Jerusalem,

may my right hand wither.

May my tongue stick to my palate

if I do not remember you,

if I do not exult Jerusalem

beyond all delights. (Psalm 137:1-6)

 

Another psalm speaks especially poignantly of God’s relationship with humankind:

 

Out of the mouths of babes and infants

You have drawn a defense against your foes,

to silence the enemy and avenger.

 

When I see your heavens, the work of your hands,

the moon and stars that you set in place-

What are humans that you are mindful of them,

mere mortals that you care for them?

 

Yet you have made them little less than a god, (cf. also Hebrews 2:9

crowned them with glory and honour.

You have given them rule over the works of your hands,

put all things at their feet:

All sheep and oxen,

even the beasts of the field,

the birds of the air, the fish of the sea,

and whatever swims the paths of the seas.

 

O LORD, our Lord,

how awesome is your name throughout all the earth. (Psalm 8:3-10)

 

One must stand in awe of God who allows us to hold a great treasure- His very self- in “earthen vessels.” (2 Corinthians 4:7) Extraordinarily, God uses the very ordinary clay that He created us from in the first place in order to heal us. In this way, Jesus’ curing of the blind man, neither because of the man’s sin nor that of his parents but for God’s glory to be shown, (cf. John 9:3) is a metaphor for God’s merciful healing power manifested toward us. Our duty is to respond to the Lord’s grace with ever-increasing love, even though we, who are still on the journey from having been created and having fallen to being redeemed and then fully united with God, cannot understand the paradox of our own existence.

 

St. Peter knew how fragile he was, and how easy it is to stumble on the way to Heaven, yet our first Pope made an inspiring confession of faith, lived and died in the Christian way that he comprehended only faintly, and is now in Heaven as a faithful servant of Jesus Christ. A Basilian priest here in Cali frequently recites a prayer just before Communion that is attributed to St. Peter and that summarizes our journey as people of clay yet people in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. Though we often fail to recognize His presence, Christ journeys with us as He accompanied St. Peter: Through our Lenten recognition that we are but clay, through our celebration of Christ’s Resurrection that is also promised to those who follow Him, and toward Pentecost, when we are given the Holy Spirit and commissioned to go out and to live and to preach the Gospel. Thus, we pray with the divinely-appointed Rock among the Apostles:

 

I believe, Lord, and I confess that you are truly the Christ,

Son of the Living God,

who came into the world to save sinners,

of whom I am the first.

 

Receive me today, O Son of God, as a participant in your mystical Supper,

for I shall not reveal the mystery to your enemies,

nor shall I give you a kiss as did Judas,

but like the thief I confess to you [and I pray]:

 

Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your Kingdom.

Remember me, O Teacher, when you come into your Kingdom.

Remember me, O Holy One, when you come into your Kingdom.

 

Creo, Señor, y confieso que tu eres realmente el Cristo,

Hijo de Dios vivo,

que viniste al mundo para salvar a los pecadores,

de los cuales yo soy el primero.

 

De tu mística cena, o Hijo de Dios,

recíbeme hoy como participante,

pues no revelaré el misterio a tus enemigos,

ni te daré un beso como Judas,

sino como el malhechor te confieso:

 

Recuérdame, o Señor, cuando vengas a tu Reino.

Recuérdame, o Maestro, cuando vengas a tu Reino.

Recuérdame, o Santísimo, cuando vengas a tu Reino.

Amen.

WRS

 

Seers and Knowers

4 Feb

Nearly a month has passed since my arrival in Cali to serve in the Basilian house and in the parish, Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (Our Lady of the Assumption), and to teach French in the high school of the same name. The students have been back in school for almost three weeks, and the house has returned to a more regular and busy schedule also. I arrived in Cali with very little knowledge of Spanish, so my struggle to learn a new language, but also a great joy in applying myself to this undertaking, have been expected. In addition to being immersed in Spanish, I am also receiving daily tutoring in the language, so my vocabulary has been improving rapidly already. 

The devotion and vibrancy with which our faith is expressed in Colombia has been especially encouraging. The Congregation of St. Basil is well-established and respected here, and many in the parish have identified me as a Basilian Associate before I have even had the opportunity to explain in tentative Spanish, “Soy un candidato canadiense de los Padres Basilianos. (I’m a candidate of the Basilian Fathers from Canada)…”, though in this first stage of formation we wear neither the wooden cross nor the white shirt that Basilian seminarians and priests wear in Colombia. 

In my previous article, I wrote about the prophetic role played by St. John the Baptist in St. Luke’s Gospel. While imprisoned for having spoken out against the illicit marriage of the tetrarch Herod Antipas to Herodias, the wife of Antipas’ brother Philip (cf. Luke 3:19-20), John acts as a prophet, although not by the classical image of one who foresees and preaches about what is to come. St. John fits this definition, too, but he is more importantly a model for those who are persecuted for righteousness, as well as for the humble, for the poor, and for the otherwise disadvantaged. (cf. Luke 6:20-26) 

Many Colombians fit into those categories represented by St. John the Baptist. Colombia’s average annual per capita income is about $2180 U.S. (cf. Gran Enciclopedia Espasa, vol.5, 2848 ) Poverty is abundant, and violence is a persistent threat, yet in only a short time here, I have encountered, especially among the poorer people, a joy that comes with an attraction to Christ and a desire to share fraternal love through everyday actions. This manner of living Christian life is prophetic in its own right. The poor tend to be better messengers of Christ’s message that draws us together toward God, the source of all love and of all mercy. (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:14, 1 John 4:7-10) 

My summary of the life of Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux on this blog was meant to be, in part, my personal testimony to the love of God that works timelessly through the intercession of Ste. Thérèse and all the saints to empower us to do the Lord’s will. Like St. John the Baptist, but in modern times, Ste. Thérèse was and is a great prophet of love and messenger of the will of God, and is therefore rightly a Doctor of the Church. Her example of poverty, of humility, of chastity, of discipline, of obedience, and of contemplation is worth emulating, especially since she lived so recently. However, one easily becomes inattentive to the power of Ste. Thérèse’s message because it is written so simply. She wished this simplicity for herself repeatedly; “Little Thérèse” somewhat reluctantly wrote her autobiography on the orders of her sister, Pauline, then-Prioress of the Lisieux Carmel. 

This great saint, co-patron of France, of missionaries, and of the sick and dying, and patroness of florists, recognized prophetic love and working solely to please God as her entire vocation. The opening manuscript of “The Story of a Soul”, and indeed the entire “mystery of (her) vocation”, began in prayer. Kneeling before a figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Ste. Thérèse asked for Our Lady’s intercession so that she might do only according to God’s wishes in writing about her life. Thérèse then recalled the words from the Gospel of St. Mark, “(Jesus) went up the mountain and summoned those whom He wanted, and they came to Him”, and from St. Paul’s  letter to the Romans: “For He says to Moses: ‘I shall show mercy to whom I will, (and) I will take pity on whom I will.’” (Mark 3:13, Romans 9:15-16). 

Ste. Thérèse conveys two related messages here: God’s mercy is at the root of all of our vocations, and God calls us all, whether strong or weak, rich or poor, to different vocations- some great and some obscure- as Ste. Thérèse’s metaphor of the flowers in God’s garden beautifully illustrates on the second page of her autobiography. Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus wondered, as often do we, why God shows extraordinary patience toward some who commit terrible sins but are then converted dramatically and then become great saints, such as Sts. Paul and Augustine. On the other hand, some “are given such favours that they become unable to tarnish the immaculate brilliance of their baptismal robes…” (Ms. A, 2vo) Ste. Thérèse resolves this problem of perceived inequality of divine grace among people by recognizing that God created the entire garden and all its flowers. Not all people can be the tall roses and the pure white lilies; the souls symbolized by the little violets and daisies please God just as much, and Our Lord showers the small flowers with sunlight just the same as the tall ones, as if each one were “the only flower on earth.” (Ms. A, 3ro

Whatever our vocation, our duty and our joy is to please God. Patient and persistent prayer enable us to better recognize our divinely-given and divinely-inspired vocations. Furthermore, attention to our inner spiritual nature allows us to see Christ in other people, especially in the poor and in those who otherwise have few worldly merits. 

Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux reminds us again: “The love of our Lord is revealed as well in the simplest soul that resists His grace in nothing as in the most sublime soul. In fact, love properly understood, means self-abasement…” (Ms. A, 3ro) The examples of Ste. Thérèse and of other saints reveal to us the Way of Love that Christ commands us to follow. (cf. Mark 12:28-34, Matthew 22:34-40) The poor and the suffering are so frequently the brightest beacons of God’s love, and God calls those who serve among the poor to emulate the simple depth of their faith. Thus, Jesus blesses “the poor in spirit.” (Matthew 5:3) 

God, who made himself small in coming to us as a human being, is too often alone in recognizing the value of those who possess little of this world. Nonetheless, He asks us to love as He loves- to treat each flower in His garden as if each were alone on earth. In loving all of God’s creation, we are made rich. This is explained metaphorically in the opening pages of Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux’s autobiography. In the same discourse, Ste. Thérèse contemplated the lives of saints whom God “caressed from the cradle to the grave” (Ms. A, 2vo), and also characterized herself as one in the process of ‘seeing’ God- “Le voyant…” (Ms. A, 2vo) By extension, we are all called upon to be ‘seers’ of God- to be ‘les voyants’. Two years later, on her last manuscript page that she wrote before being moved to the infirmary of the Lisieux Carmel in July, 1897, Thérèse described the Greek mathematician Archimedes as “un savant”- a knower- who, although he was knowledgeable, lacked God whose love is the ultimate knowledge. (Ms. A, 36) 

God is the full union between the seer and the knower. Having been created in God’s image and likeness (cf. Genesis 1:27), we are challenged to represent and to bear witness to this union between seeing and knowing. Primarily, then, our vocation is to love. (cf. Ms. B, 3vo) St. Paul provides us with a Biblical example of this same point in his letter to the Corinthians: 

“At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially, then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13) 

At one time a persecutor of the Church, St. Paul underwent a dramatic and miraculous conversion. At least at first glance, Paul’s conversion seems sudden. Chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles begins with Saul on the road to Damascus in search of followers of Jesus that he would bind in chains and then take back to the authorities in Jerusalem. (cf. Acts 9:3) Instead, Saul was blinded by a celestial light and then brought to Damascus by those traveling with him. In Damascus, an initially reluctant Ananias, on God’s insistence, laid his hands on Saul, who was then able to see again. (cf. Acts 9:10-18 ) The story seems simple, though Paul later wrote that his only boast was in his weakness and that the Lord’s grace was sufficient for him to persevere: 

“I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell (within) me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10) 

In the very next verse, St. Paul again reminds those who view him as a ‘super-apostle’ that he is such precisely because of his nothingness. (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:11-12) When Saul was blinded on the road to Damascus, God saw for him. When Saul the Pharisee knew no other way than the letter of the law, God knew “a still more excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:31) In the same manner as Christ teaches us, He taught St. Paul what he would need to sacrifice in the Lord’s name. (cf. Acts 9:16) Thus, neither our conversion nor that of St. Paul is sudden; the road to love, to witness, and to self-sacrifice is lifelong, though Christ promised to accompany us forever. (cf. Matthew 28:20) When we do not see, Christ sees for us, and when we do not know, Christ knows all. 

In the great mystery of our faith, the Eucharist, Christ comes to us truly and fully. We pray during the Mass that we might be in union with the Lamb of God who gives Himself to us to remit our sins: 

“Through Him, with Him, and in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever. Amen.” 

This prayer is our petition that as God sees and knows, we might also come to be seers and knowers. In becoming nothing as our Lord is everything, we come to union with Him (cf. John 3:30). In doing simple works lovingly, we come to see and to know God who is Love. (cf. 1 John 4:8 ) 

Every Christian ought to pray that we never tire in our witness to God’s love, first in our example and then in our words. Our prayer must be as persistent as are our struggles, from learning a new language to recognizing Christ in those who are of another culture or those who are poor or sick. It was a deathly ill Thérèse of Lisieux who spoke of tireless dedication to her vocation- of the reason why God created us and of how we exist to do His will- on July 17, 1897, just two months before she died: 

“I sense that I will enter into rest…But I sense above all that my mission is yet to begin; my mission to make God loved as I love Him, to give my ‘little way’ to souls. If the Good God grants my desires, my Heaven will come to earth until the end of the world. Yes, I will spend my Heaven doing good on earth. This is not impossible, because even in the midst of the beatific vision, the angels keep watch over us. 

I do not yet wish to have myself a feast of joy; I do not wish to rest while there are still souls to save. But when the angel says: ‘Time is no more!’ (Revelation 10:6), then I will rest. I will be able to rejoice, because the number of the elect will be complete and all will have entered fully into that joy and into that rest. My heart is thrilled by the thought…” (Last Conversations, “Le Carnet Jaune”, 17.7) 

With all her remaining energy, Ste. Thérèse spoke of the love that saves- the love that, as St. Paul reminds us, “never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:8 ). This is “the love of Christ that impels us”, so that in turn we might “encourage (others) while it is still ‘today’”, in St. Paul’s words, even as we are encouraged also. (2 Corinthians 5:14, Hebrews 3:13)  Our mission, then, is especially to lead those who are small and those who are poor by making ourselves small and poor in spirit. St. Paul captures the urgency of our calling: “While it is still ‘today’”, yet there are saints in every age, and it is never too late to recognize our summons from God, as St. Augustine did in his prayer from his Confessions, Book 10:  

“Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Late have I loved Thee. And behold, Thou wert within, and I abroad, and there I searched for Thee; deformed I, plunging amid those fair thorns which Thou hadst made. Thou wert with me, but I was not with Thee. Things held me far from Thee, which, unless they were in Thee, were not at all. Thou calledst and shoutest and burstest my deafness. Thou flashest, shonest, and scatteredst my blindness. Thou breathedst odors, and I drew in breath and pant for Thee. I tasted and hunger and thirst. Thou touchest me, and I burned for Thy peace…” 

Late have we, the people of Israel (in the Hebrew sense of the word, meaning ‘struggling with God’), loved the Lord who has given us everything and asks us for so little. Let us pray, in the words of St. Paul to the Romans (9:1, 4-5), that we might bear witness to Christ and thus to love, our reason for being: 

“I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie, my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness…They are the Israelites, theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Messiah. God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen.” 

WRS 

Aquí estoy, Señor, para cumplir tu voluntad.

Here I am, Lord. I come to do your will. 

-Hebrews 10:9

The Triduum (Were You There?)

7 Apr

A well-known African-American hymn opens with the verse:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh!
Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

These words are quite appropriate, I believe, as we enter into the Triduum, the three days during which we celebrate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The word “Triduum” is Latin for “three days”. These three days are the most holy time of the Church year. This weekend, therefore, we ask ourselves if we were present as the Lord gave Himself up for us on the Cross. Are we present in order to partake in the gift of the Resurrection also?

Good Friday’s Gospel reading begins with Jesus leaving with his disciples to go across the Kidron valley into a garden. (cf. John 18:1) Jesus’ enemies approach, traveling along the same valley. It is likely given the topography- one could see a wide expanse of the valley below from Gethsemane- that Jesus saw those coming to arrest Him, led by the apostle-turned-traitor, Judas Iscariot. Nonetheless, He would have known His fate, even without physically seeing it unfold, because He is God. He knows our deepest intentions and thoughts: “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me… For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:4-5, 13)

The Son of God knows all that is within us, good and evil. He knows that we fear sharing in His Cross. We would prefer to run away, to deny repeatedly that we know Him, to fall asleep in the garden, or to betray Him outright. Jesus knows that some of us are unclean. (cf. John 13:10) Yet He washes our feet, bowing down to serve us like a slave. (cf. John 13:5, Philippians 2:5-11) We still don’t comprehend the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. We, like Peter, initially refuse to have our feet washed, only to ask afterward that the Lord wash our hands and head also. (cf. John 13:9) Jesus assures us: “Later you will understand.” (John 13:7)

We will understand that the mission of Christ is one of forgiveness and of healing. We will understand that His suffering and death are a necessary part of our salvation. We long to celebrate the Resurrection, but we are warned not to reject our own daily crosses, without which we have no share in God’s glory:

“Jesus has many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few cross-bearers. Many desire His consolation, but few His tribulation. Many will sit down with Him at table, but few will share His fast. All desire to rejoice with Him, but few will suffer for Him. Many will follow Him to the breaking of the bread, but few will drink the bitter cup of His Passion. Many revere His miracles, but few follow the shame of His cross.” (The Imitation of Christ, II, 11)

Kingdom and Cross, consolation and tribulation, feast and fast, joy and suffering, Passover and Passion all go together. This is the Catholic- complete- life. This is the life of living in the world and of living for that which transcends the world. Living it entails humbly praying to God that we do not become too excited in joyful times, but remain focused on the even greater joy of Heaven. In times where God has seemingly abandoned us, when consolation is distant and faith is arid, prayer is equally critical.

Thus, Jesus prays for us on the Cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Our Lord forgives us, insignificant sinners that we are, and He calls to His glory. In the same spirit of forgiveness, He accepts the penitent thief who says in faith, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42), with the reply of forgiveness, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) At Our Lord’s word, the wretched robber became a saint.

In the same way, our wretchedness is transformed into reconciliation with God and into salvation. Were you there when they crucified (Our) Lord? How did we participate in acts of betrayal and of cowardice? Nonetheless, we are forgiven as was the thief. By the Lord’s death and Resurrection, we boldly hope for life everlasting.

Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Oh!
Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?

Less than a week ago, we were commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday, the hymn could be heard: “The King of Glory comes; the nation rejoices!” In such little time, the mood has changed drastically. Now we cannot rejoice as our gaze is fixed upon the crucified Christ. But He who is fastened to the tree is still the same King of Glory. Palm Sunday and Good Friday are not two disconnected historical events. The opening sentence of Good Friday’s first reading attest to that. We read: “See, my servant shall prosper, he shall be lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights.” (Isaiah 52:13) The reading then closes with another affirmation of the suffering Servant’s glory:

“Hence I will grant whole hordes for his tribute,
he shall divide the spoil with the mighty,
for surrendering himself to death
and letting himself be taken for a sinner,
while he was bearing the faults of many
and praying all the time for sinners.”
(Isaiah 53:12)

The Gospel of John also speaks of Jesus being “lifted up” into glory. (John 8:28 ) The Cross surely doesn’t appear glorious, but we must pass through its darkness to see the light of the Resurrection. Jesus gives us an example by which we are to follow Him. (cf. John 13:15) We, too, are to surrender ourselves. We, too, are to make ourselves small before God and accept our suffering as Christ did. We, too, must be prepared to patiently bear others’ faults, to pray for sinners, and to forgive. Then we shall be healed as Christ healed the ear of the high priest’s slave, Malchus, even in the midst of His own great trial. (cf. Luke 22:51) We will then rise again as Christ did.

In the meantime, we are given the responsibility to care for and to love one another. Jesus gives His mother into the hands of the Apostle John, saying: “Here is your mother.” (John 19:27) Likewise, He gives wives into the hands of their husbands and children over to their parents so that they may be cherished. Jesus gives John into our hands as into the hands of Mary: “Woman, here is your son.” (John 19:26) We are asked to accept this difficult but essential task as Mary did.

Mary the Mother of God, her sister Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, and John the Apostle were the only people close to Jesus who witnessed His death according to John’s Gospel. We, like John and the three women, are often called simply to “be there”. A true witness to Christ doesn’t hide in sorrowful times. But the Lord forgives us and loves us anyway when we disown Him, since He is aware of our weaknesses, having lived among us. We might ask, then, as Pontius Pilate did, “What is truth?” (John 18:38 ) Jesus reminds us that He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6) John and the women knew that the Way to Heaven went through the Cross. Jesus turns the tragedy of death into glory. He asks us, like John and the women, to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, and to follow Him. (cf. Mark 8:34)

Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
Oh!
Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?

“It is finished.” (John 19:30) Christ has died. The horrible end has been reached. A Roman soldier comes, and, noticing that Jesus is already dead, doesn’t break His legs but pierces His side. Scripture tells us that “at once blood and water came out”. (John 19:34) The blood of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, offered up as a sacrifice to atone for our sins, and the water of the Sacrament of Baptism, by which we die to sin and are reborn in Jesus Christ, are intermingled. In St. John Chrysostom’s Catecheses, he wrote: “As God…took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church.” St. John Chrysostom also noted: “Now the water was a symbol of Baptism and the blood, of the Holy Eucharist. The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own. So also with the lamb: (the Victim was sacrificed) and I have been saved by (Him).”

Joseph of Arimathea was a secret follower of Jesus, St. John’s Gospel says, “because of his fear of the Jews”. (John 19:38 ) Joseph overcame his fear, joining Nicodemus to carry Jesus’ body along with burial spices from the Cross to a tomb. In that tomb, Our Lord would be hidden for three days. In commemoration of the period between Christ’s death and Resurrection, the Blessed Sacrament is removed from the Tabernacle and the light marking it is extinguished until Easter. Jesus had warned us that He would be taken from us. The Lord said, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” (John 12:35-36)

Our Master had suffered His agony in a garden. Now the Light of the World was hidden in a tomb that was also in a garden (cf. John 19:41). But this is not the end. We know the joy that awaits us now that we have witnessed the Cross. The women who had stood in faith at the foot of the Cross went to the tomb and, seeing it empty, returned to tell the disciples. However, Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb and wept. Jesus asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (John 20:15) In Luke’s Gospel, a similarly perplexing question is asked of those present: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:5)

There is confusion even amid the joy of the Resurrection. Those who first bore witness to the Risen Christ “did not understand the scripture, that He must rise from the dead.” (John 20:9) Neither do we fully understand the mystery of the Resurrection or Christ’s promise to His followers of a share in it. We approach such an occasion as we did the Lord’s Passion- with fear and trembling, but in awe. Nevertheless, we are present at the Passion and at the Resurrection, waiting in joy and in hope. God will soon reveal to us what we don’t yet understand. For now, we remember Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross. We stand watching. We believe, as in the Nicene Creed, in “the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

Lord, by your Cross and Resurrection, You have set us free. You are the Saviour of the world.

WRS

Lent

2 Mar

Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.With these words, first spoken by God to Adam, the priest marks the foreheads of the faithful with the Sign of the Cross in ashes on Ash Wednesday as a sign of penitence and of the transience of our earthly lives. This verse, derived from Genesis 3:19, is older and less common than the one often used contemporarily. We also hear: “Repent and believe in the good news”, taken from Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. (cf. Mark 1:15)

Both of these pronouncements convey the same message, though the former arguably seems more hopeful than the latter. The message in both cases is that we are susceptible to sin. With sin comes death, but through Jesus Christ there is redemption from our iniquity. Thus, though our earthly life is finite, we are promised eternal life if we follow Our Lord. The first step in following Him is to recognize our need to repent; otherwise one cannot renounce evil ways.

During the Lenten season, some may be overwhelmed by an awareness of sin and death. Traditionally, many will sacrifice something pleasurable during Lent. We are asked to make a special effort to abstain from eating meat on Fridays or to give more to the poor. It is recommended that we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before the celebration of Easter. Also, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, when we are concretely reminded of our fallen human nature by the placement of the ashen Sign of the Cross on our foreheads.

These examples of Lenten activities are all meant to do us good. The observance of Lent ought to strengthen us in our Christian faith, not only during Lent’s six-and-a-half weeks, but throughout the rest of the year as well. However, if our Lenten actions become only empty gestures, without the reinforcement of our faith’s purpose, that is, to live in and by the love of Christ, then we have accomplished nothing. (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-2)

I was asked a question related to this by a friend shortly after Lent began about the practice of giving up meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays. On what was meant as a day of abstinence, my friend, who was eating a meat sandwich, came into the room where I was. She looked up at me with a slight look of guilt on her face as she realized that she was eating meat on a day when that was discouraged. She asked me whether she was doing something wrong, since she hadn’t intended to eat meat but had merely forgotten that it was a day of abstinence. I jokingly replied that, since her action didn’t fulfill all the requirements for a mortal sin (that it is of a grave matter, that one knows that the action is wrong, and that one has full consent of the will) because full consent of the will is debatable when people simply forget, her absent-minded consumption of the meat sandwich was at worst a venial sin, if it were sinful at all.

After the resultant laughter at my satire at the expense of those who are mercilessly pharisaical, I explained that it would be inappropriate for me to judge my friend as having supposedly sinned by eating meat when she ought not to have. Moreover, the friend in question is kind, faithful, and merciful, and gives much of herself while serving in various capacities in the church and university communities. In my opinion, she is a wonderful example of a Catholic who lives the Lenten message even beyond Lent. So what about a poorly-timed meat sandwich? The rule concerning the ingestion of meat is a means of enriching our faith by making us more aware of what we have and are thankful for. Many people in the world have little food, let alone a serving of meat, on most days. However, if one already tries earnestly to give of their riches and gifts in Christ’s name, and prayerfully gives thanks to God for these, then the odd serving of meat becomes irrelevant.

Instead of being a time of despair when we search for little faults with which to beat ourselves up, Lent is meant as a time of hopefulness. This theme is clear in a number of Scriptural passages that have been heard so far during this Lenten season. On Ash Wednesday, we heard the first example of this message of hope, from the Second Letter to the Corinthians:

“For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. As we work together in Him, we urge you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For He says: ‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’ See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 5:21-6:2)

Surely, Lent is also a time of repentance. We recognize the times when we have failed to be “ambassadors for Christ”. (2 Corinthians 5:20) But penance is always done with a spirit of hope. God sent us Our Saviour who leads us to Himself by baby steps every day. Inasmuch as we turn to the Lord “with (our) whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning”, (Joel 2:12) the Lord takes pity on His people and endeavours to save us. (cf. Joel 2:18 )

Our hopeful journey toward Heaven doesn’t need to be done in boastful pride. God alone calls us to sainthood and anoints us with His grace, without which all is hopeless. We only need to respond in our little way*, and God will aid our growth in righteousness. Jesus warns us in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father…But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” (Matthew 6:1, 6:18 )

God, who is our hope, nurtures our hope and creates greatness in us. Through Our Lord, we become “a nation great, strong, and numerous.” (Deuteronomy 26:5) Filled with the Holy Spirit, we can withstand temptation as Christ did. (cf. Luke 4:1-12) St. Paul assures us: “‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’…For one believes with the heart and is so justified, and one confesses with the mouth and is so saved. For Scripture says, ‘No one who believes in Him will be put to shame.’” (Romans 10:8, 10)

We hope and believe in Our Lord, even when sadness and death close in. I have had this thought since attending the prayer service for a wonderful high school teacher of mine who passed away prematurely during the last weekend before Lent. In the sadness surrounding his death, many expressed hope that God had taken this great man up to eternal life in Heaven. This eternal salvation is our hope. This is our Lenten mission: to be open to God’s grace and mercy. Thus I include the song “Lord of all Hopefulness”, sung at the prayer service, into this post. I think it accurately encapsulates the purpose of Lent:

 

 

 

 

Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy,
Whose trust, ever childlike, no cares could destroy,
Be there at our waking, and give us, we pray,
Your bliss in our hearts, Lord, at the break of the day.
Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith,
Whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe,
Be there at our labours, and give us, we pray,
Your strength in our hearts, Lord, at the noon of the day.

Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace,
Your hands swift to welcome, your arms to embrace,
Be there at our homing, and give us, we pray,
Your love in our hearts, Lord, at the eve of the day.

Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
Whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm,
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
Your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.

Lyrics: Jan Struther (1901-1953), Music: Traditional Irish (Slane)

Dear God, we ask that you be with us this Lent. May we repent, turn form sin, and believe in the good news. We are dust, and we shall return to dust. May you rain down your love upon us, so that we might be fertile soil for your message of faith, hope, and love for evermore. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.

WRS

 

 

 

* The reference to the “little way” is to that of Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, who exemplified this way to perfection throughout her life. I am currently reading her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul”. More on this in a future post I hope. Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, prie pour nous (pray for us)…

God Is in the Silence

10 Jan

“He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire the sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kings 19:11-12)

As I’m typing this, Edmonton is bracing for a blizzard with wind gusts to 40 miles per hour (60 km/h) along with over four inches (10 cm) of snow forecast for overnight and into tomorrow. Another windstorm passed over two nights ago, with winds of 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) that had police responding to the din of burglar alarms. Needless to say, sleep has been at a premium so far this week.

During that last sleepless night, I also found it difficult to silence my mind. A storm of thoughts swirled and crashed around in my head unproductively. The book I had just finished reading about prayer and relationship with the Lord, Ignacio Larrañaga’s “Sensing Your Hidden Presence: Toward Intimacy with God”, seemed to do me little good. “Please God”, I prayed at one point, “allow me to rest. I need to work in the morning.” But rest wasn’t to be had…

I managed to slog through Monday at work, with the help of excess amounts of coffee. The day crawled by slowly. My fatigued mind had nearly ground to a halt. Somehow, though, God was there toiling along with me.

Recently, a friend and I were discussing the movie “The Nativity Story”, which we had seen just before Christmas. I won’t provide too many details here, for those who have yet to see the film. However, the passage from 1 Kings that I quoted above was used often in the movie. In one scene, the children are being taught in school to memorize the passage. It reminded me of a kindergarten class, where the little pupils are so eager to learn but can’t seem to sit still for very long. In yet another scene, Mary is shown reciting the verse with the children, who are attentive toward her. This is just before Mary is told by the angel that she is pregnant. She is told not to fear, but that is of little consolation.

In our lives, we may recite, study, and memorize facts and details. Sometimes, though, knowledge that is hastily acquired during sleepless, caffeine-aided cramming sessions produce little benefit. We are left confused by the muddled mass of numbers, text, and figures.

Our encounter with God can be much the same as a last-minute all-nighter or a sleepless night during a windstorm. In a fitting conclusion to his book, Fr. Larrañaga juxtaposes two responses to our day-to-day struggle before the Lord: the response of discouragement and that of hope.

Fr. Larrañaga returns to a scene he portrays earlier in the book: that of a newborn child. The baby is freed from the mother’s womb and forced to take its first breath. It is on its own. Eventually, breathing, feeding, and moving become routine. Then other more complex challenges become pertinent. The child learns right from wrong and thus makes choices. One who is raised according to religious faith may in turn feel close to God, but more or less often may sense isolation and despair. Any attempts to live righteously and faithfully are met with procrastination. This is true for even the most saintly people. For example, St. Augustine would pray, “Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”. (Confessions III, Chapter VII). This tendency to delay prayer, penance, and conversion, even when God seems far away and faith is arid, leads to misery. Ignacio Larrañaga, alluding to St. Teresa of Avila’s “The Interior Castle”, says that persistent hopelessness leads to the death of the soul- our interior castle- where God dwells in us intimately if we patiently allow Him in. One who is without hope will declare, “What I do know with certainty is one thing: there is no hope for me. What I was until today and what I am now, I will be until the end. My grave will rise upon the ruins of my own castle.” (Larrañaga, p. 328 )

St. Augustine may have met this end had his mother, St. Monica, and his mentor, St. Ambrose, not applied a persistent effort in prayer and teaching. Instead, the Church remembers St. Augustine as one of its greatest minds. St. Augustine’s life shows us the value of the response of hope. With such bold and joyful anticipation, we rise above impending ruin and seek our vocation. We find and welcome God who is in and of the sheer silence. It is God that passes by and beckons without making a sound as we stand attentively, awaiting Him. His call is therefore difficult to discern, but we believe in this Presence and make Him present in ourselves, becoming one with Him.

We are reminded daily: “Walk. The Lord God will be light for your eyes, breath for your lungs, ointment for your wounds, goal for your path, reward for your effort. Come. Let us begin again.” (Larrañaga, p. 329)

Lord, let us begin again when we are tired and the light of our faith is dimming. After we are shaken to attentiveness by the earthquake and by the wind, and purified by the fire, may you find us in the silence. We await your call. Help us to listen for and to respond to it. Amen.

WRS