But woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! good were it for that man if he had never been born.
We begin our Holy Week with an act of betrayal. Judas Iscariot has betrayed Jesus
Christ out of resentment and bitterness for Jesus’ refusal to be the earthly liberator that Israel has longed for. At least, this is the view of the Church’s Tradition. Judas had thought that the Christ was set to liberate Israel finally from all foreign occupation. Judas was an earthly minded man for whom the affairs of this world mattered much more than the affairs of God and His plan for Man’s salvation. Tonight we contemplate betrayal.
In fairness to the Jews, who had spent well-nigh 600 years awaiting the fulfillment of promises to them, one might be more than a little sympathetic. Foreign domination had characterized the history of the Jews. But Judas, along with no small number of his race then and now, had not understood the true nature of the promises made to Israel. The Jews had become intoxicated with their own thralldom and slavery. It is a temptation to those in every age. Human bondage and the absence of liberty are bound to make any people forever conscious of their own suffering. Yet, Judas and his friends ignored the finer points of what God had promised to His people. In tonight’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah is full of rage.
And I looked, and there was none, to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold: therefore mine own arm brought salvation unto me; and my fury it upheld me. I trampled the nations in my anger; in my wrath I made them drunk and poured their blood on the ground. (Isaiah lxiii. 5,6)
The wrath of God fills the heart of the prophet. He hears God intending to make atonement for the bondage that Israel endured. Isaiah hears the Word of the Lord who prophesies that blood must be poured out to rectify Israel with God. But he imagines a spiritual state that far exceeds Israel’s need for any earthly Redeemer. His mind is on God and what God alone can do for His people. Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting. (Idem, 16) The prophet does not know what kind of Redemption the Lord will bring, but his focus in on God, His power and love and that Wisdom that alone can bring Israel to spiritual peace. Far be it for the prophet to focus on earthly things. He in consumed with the spiritual intention and plan of God for His people.
Judas and his kind are always overly consumed with earthly responses to earthly problems. To prefer the earthly to the spiritual is to engage in utter idolatry. God’s first mission to His people will always be spiritual. The nature of the promises themselves is hidden to the prophets. Sufficient it is for Isaiah to be focused on His Lord and the Lord’s nature. To be thus consumed will be the intention of God the Father for His people in His Son. Judas has missed the meaning of the Father’s message as articulated in the life of His Son, Jesus Christ.
We too are far too immersed in the affairs of this life on earth. Christ has better things in store for us. Judas, and so many of us, betray the Word of God with that anger and bitterness that reveal what kind of false gods truly move us mostly. Material happiness and worldly comfort seem all the rage and passion. Jesus responds to Judas and us this night with another kind of promise. Far removed from any kind of earthly hope, Jesus intends to fill His followers with what matters most. Tonight, Jesus redirects our attention to those things above and not the things of the earth.
Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God. (Idem, 22-25)
In response to Judas’ betrayal, Christ bids His Apostles and us to wonder about something as simple as a meal. The promises of God are revealed then and now as something strikingly simple and seemingly earthly. But He speaks of some fragments of bread and a sip of wine as somehow linked spiritually to His Body and His Blood. In some mysterious way He prophesies both His leaving us and His coming to us again. The earthly is not abandoned but will become something remarkably new. Through the elements of necessity -bread, and the cause of mirth and all joy -wine, Christ promises to come to His people and to be with them forever. His Body will be offered to them. His blood will be outpoured for them. And more than this, both will be present to them whensoever they repeat the words of this simple ceremony. And He seals this manual act with the promise that He will not eat and drink with them until He drinks it new in the Kingdom of God. (Idem) This earthly action will be an instrument and means of His ongoing presence with them until they reach His Kingdom. Spiritually, Man will commune with God over a meal that will become a Heavenly feast.
To the ancient Jews, what He said must have sounded like gibberish. But to those who believed then and have faith now, this is the seal of God’s promise to His people. There will be no need for any earthly deliverance from tyrannical rulers. In what follows, He will promise His people that they must trust that this is the way that matters most. What matter most is to repent and believe. What matters most is the Forgiveness of Sins that Jesus Is.
The day following, He will offer His Body on the Tree of Calvary and will pour out His blood for the sins to the whole world. The key to grasping the promises is in trusting God’s promise to be our God and we His people as earth is swallowed up in Heaven’s feast. In partaking of His Body, He will indwell His people with His suffering and death. His suffering and death will remain with them as they blend theirs with His in absolute obedience to the Father. In drinking His Blood, they all shall be quickened and resurrected into new life and virtue. What more can man need for the fulfillment of all his hopes in God’s promises? To eat His Body and to drink His blood fulfill God’s promises to His people. In eating His Body and drinking His Blood, men are invited to participate in the meaning of the Forgiveness of Sins and the Resurrection into the New Life. All is well with Jesus. Nothing more is needed. Jesus’ presence with us depends upon nothing less than His promise. This is. Our task this night is to trust and obey. Our calling this night is to follow Jesus to His Cross so that the bread and wine might be ever so simply linked to His broken Body and poured out Blood on Good Friday.
When Pilate was set down upon the judgment-seat, his wife sent
Unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man:
For I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of
(St. Matthew 27. 19)
Holy Week has been set aside from the time of the early Church to ponder our Lord’s suffering in silence. If we approach this time with a determined silence and stillness, we will, no doubt, find that it will interrupt and confound the usual course of human reason and its expectations, as it tears and wrenches the human heart from the fulfillment of its usual expectations. Then, if we sustain the stillness, and with a quiet mind ponder the unfolding drama of Holy Week, the blanket of Divine Otherness might begin to make sense of what seems to be wholly wrong, unjust, and even unthinkable.
Following Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem He had told his Apostles: All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. (St. Matthew 26.31) This Word that was made flesh would be rejected on a number of different levels. Men always find excuses for refusing to allow the Word to be made flesh in human life. In the interests of political expedience, Pilate will convince himself, perhaps, that he has rid the world of a temporary religious nuisance. The Jews’ self-righteous indignation will be justified…or so they think. Jesus’ Disciples will abandon Him out of confused fear and cowardice. Peter will deny Him and repent, and Judas Iscariot will betray Him and hang himself.
In the lections for today, we already begin to see and hear the truth that will emerge through the trial, arrest, and condemnation of Jesus Christ. Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judaea, is confronted with that earthly chaos and confusion that the Pax Romana must never abide, especially on what should be just another peaceful Friday afternoon in an insignificant outpost of the Roman Empire. He seems a reasonable and just enough man, who is neither drawn to nor impressed by the strange religion of the Jewish Aristocracy, which has interrupted his afternoon rest. He is commissioned with enforcing the Pax Romana –the peace of Octavian Augustus, that has brought unimaginable law and order in the now civilized the world. So he will do his best to treat the problem of this Jesus of Nazareth expeditiously with a kind of Stoical calm that the Romans had mastered with fine precision. In the interest of Roman Law, he will rebuke the Jews for their envy, commanding them to judge Christ themselves, or send him to Herod….but to no avail. (St. Matthew xxvii. 14) Then another kind of stillness, silence, and peace will emerge from this strange man, Jesus Christ, whom he must interrogate. Pilate marvel[s] greatly. (Ibid, 14) His wife has the spiritual sense to warn him to have nothing do with that just man (St. Matthew xxvii. 19), not realizing that she will be the prophetess of a new world order. And, in a sense he will try to do just that. But the crowd will demand that Barabbas be released and Jesus be crucified. Pilate’s conscience is nevertheless stirred, for he finds no evil or crime in the defendant. Why, what evil hath he done? (Ibid, 23) Let Him be crucified, the crowd demands. In response to the passionate envy that threatens further chaos and anarchy, we shall read that, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it. (Ibid, 24) The Jews will confess: His blood be on us, and on our children. (Ibid, 25) And they too will prophesy a judgment of themselves that has never since been eradicated.
Many people, including Christians down through the ages, have never had enough time for Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God’s love in the flesh. As T. S. Eliot reminds us, Christ speaks to them and us:
O my people, what have I done unto thee.
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the daytime and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
(Ash Wednesday: Eliot, v.)
But for those who can become contemplatively still and quiet by God’s Grace, the sound and sight of God’s Word of Love will emerge through the suffering and death of Christ, His own Son. From the still and silent center –the heart of the Son of God, who will be suffering and dying not only to the world, the flesh, and the devil enfleshed in others, but also to Himself, the Word will be seen and heard. It will be perceived and received, slowly, even hesitatingly, by those who have chosen to believe and to follow. Even now, as the world and its words assault and kill the Word of God in human flesh, the Word of God endures, to be spoken from the center and through the stillness of His unchanged and unmoved heart. This is the heart whose mind made all things and now intends to redeem them. For this Word made flesh –this Jesus Christ– always sees and hears the Father, and then reveals, communicates, and articulates the Father’s will to the world. He will not cease to do so, and especially through His suffering and death when He will be most challenged not to love the Father’s will and bring it to life in the world. He came from God and He will return to God. But not before He willingly offers Himself to God and man by laying down all claims and rights to Himself.
This morning, with St. Paul, we remember that though He was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2. 6-8) Jesus Christ empties Himself of His humanity, in order that pure powerlessness might be placed back in the hands of God, the maker and molder of all new human life. He will not desperately grab for, grasp, or clutch on to His Divinity in the hour of His human impotence. Rather He prefers to obey, fear, and follow God with all the humanity that remains in Him. He will become the Man who once again is the servant of God because God’s will and Word alone suffice to secure Man’s unbreakable union with Him. He will be one with the Word of the Father that He sees and hears. This is the Word that has spoken and continues to speak to Him, and through Him to us. And the Word that speaks is the eternal Desire of God for His people. This is the Word of Love that conquers hate, the Word of Good that conquers evil, and the Word of Truth that conquers ignorance.
This week, I pray, that each of us shall make time to travel with Jesus up to His Cross. We can travel with the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John looking and listening, to the Word made flesh, though we might be very confused and bewildered. This Word of God in Christ will be mostly silent. Pilate marveled, and so will we. In this Word who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously (1 Peter 2. 22, 23), we will begin to see the Word of God’s Love in the flesh. This is a Love that first touches and moves the still and silent hearts of those who remain faithful to it. This is the Love that was first seen and heard in miracles and parables, and now from the Cross persists in revealing itself to others in succinct statements of forgiveness and hope as He brings our old man, Adam, to death in Himself on the Cross. Ultimately and perfectly, this will be the Love that dies in order that all men might live. Christ takes on the burden of our sin and death, which we cannot bear. He bears it gladly and courageously, and even in the midst of unimaginable pain -not just the pain of the body, but the pain of the soul and the spirit also which nevertheless are true to God as the forgiveness of our sins and the seedbed of new and Resurrected Life.
On this Palm Sunday we sing Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. And yet it seems that as soon as the jubilant song of praise and celebration fades, new malevolent cries for Christ’s execution grow and swell. Crucify Him. Crucify Him. Let him be crucified. Where will we be this week? Will we follow the Word of God’s Love in the heart of Jesus into suffering and death? Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53. 4,5)
This week, let us listen to the silent Word of God’s Love alive in the heart of the dying Saviour. Let us listen as the Word of Love makes innocent suffering and death the occasion for His persistent pursuit of our salvation. Let us listen to the Word of Love that calls us into death. Let us be determined to die in the embrace of Love which offers Himself to God and to us in that simultaneous knot of fire that purges away all cruelty, malice, malevolence, ill will, envy, and pride. Let us be determined to leave our old selves and the familiar haunts behind that the new Man in all of us may be made alive. And let us remember, in stillness and silence, as contemplating the suffering and dying Beloved the words of Archbishop Trench:
Twelve legions girded with angelic sword
Were at his beck, the scorned and buffeted:
He healed another's scratch; his own side bled,
Side, feet, and hands, with cruel piercings gored.
Oh wonderful the wonders left undone!
And scarce less wonderful than those he wrought;
Oh self-restraint, passing human thought,
To have all power, and be as having none;
Oh self-denying love, which felt alone
For needs of others, never for its own.
But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.
(Gal. iv. 26)
At the very beginning of Lent Jesus said to his disciples, Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (St. Luke xviii. 31) We began our journey at Christ's command. Long journeys are hard work, and this Lenten journey is no exception. For nearly seven weeks Christians are invited to walk with Jesus towards Jerusalem. Walking to Jerusalem is what our lives are all about. We walk with Jesus to see how He conquers the temptations of Satan and triumphs over sin for us. We walk with Jesus to discover that, like the woman of Canaan, we are more like dogs than men, aliens and exiles to God’s promises, and yet still wholly craving the crumbs that fall from His table. So, we learn to long humbly for that mercy that persists in obtaining Jesus' mercy and healing. As dogs, we learn also that we are, more often than not, dumb and mute, incapable of comprehending and articulating God’s Word and will in our lives until His inward Grace opens our spiritual senses to His desire.
Our Lenten pilgrimage with Jesus up to Jerusalem, (St. Matthew xx. 18) will not be easy. We learn much about ourselves on this journey, and so we become spiritually exhausted. We grow haggard, hungry, and perhaps even dejected and discouraged. Lenten fasting and abstinence do that to a person. At times, we become distracted and even lose our way. The pull and tug of certain temptations may well have been overcome, but seven other demons worse than ourselves threaten to consume us. (St. Matthew xii. 45) Satan realizes that he is losing our spirits, and so he attacks our bodies with renewed vigor through the elements of this world. (Galatians iv. 3) We have the best of intentions and yet feel ourselves the children of the proverbial Hagar, the bond woman –giving birth to the earthly bastard offspring of vice. We do want to become free men, children of promise, and followers of Jesus, who go up to Jerusalem which is above… and is free. (Galatians iv. 26) And yet it seems the more we try the further back we fall.
Today Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church, provide us with what we need. Today is Dominica Refectionis –Refreshment Sunday or Mothering Sunday: the day on which Mother Church asks us to sit down and rest awhile, to find some spiritual refreshment so that our pursuit of Jesus Christ will not be in vain. Today, we are asked to stop, to breathe, and to contemplate the transcendent and spiritual Jerusalem of Heaven which awaits our arrival. So, we read that Jesus went up into a mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. (St. John vi. 3) Jesus bids us come with Him to the mountain of His holiness so that He might give us a foretaste of our heavenly future. He knows that we are in danger of spiritual languor and listlessness. He intends to provide us with that spiritual food which will give us dogged and dauntless determination to press on.…Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. (St. John vi. 10) St. John Chrysostom tells us:
That Jesus calls us up to rest at intervals from the tumults and confusion of common life. For solitude is good for the study of wisdom. And often doth He go up alone into a mountain, and spend the night there, and pray, to teach us that the man who will come most near to God must be free from all disturbance and must seek times and places clear of confusion. (St.J.C.: Sermon…)
So, we must sit down, listen, and trust. And yet in Lent, worn out as we are, we wonder, Whence shall we buy bread that [we all] may eat? (St. John vi. 5). Our minds are bent on earthly things. Jesus asks this question this morning to prove Philip, for he Himself knew what he would do. (St. John vi. 6) He intends to enlarge and deepen Philip's faith so that he might find hope in heavenly and not earthly nourishment. Philip has seen the finger of God at work in the miracles that Jesus has performed. Will he believe that Jesus can provide food that no man can afford and that can satisfy far more than the physical hunger of a paltry five thousand? What measure of faith does Philip have? Is he a child of Hagar born after the flesh or a child of promise? (Gal. iv. 23) Philip answers as one in bondage to the elements of this world. He responds that even two-hundred penny worth is not enough for this crowd. (St. John vi. 7) Philip is thinking in earthly terms and thus calculates the monetary cost of feeding the hungry thousands. Too many people, too little money, he conjectures. Thus, Jesus intends to reveal the smallness and poverty of Philip’s faith. His faith should be in Christ’s power to fulfill all of his needs. He should have remembered that the same Jesus who made water into wine at the Wedding in Cana of Galilee would surely be able to feed the hungry multitude. His faith should have seen too that if Christ has asked whence shall we buy bread that He intended to remind Philip that God alone provides our every need and want.
Philip’s faith is small and weak because of what he does not have. Andrew’s faith is small and weak because of what they do have. There is a young lad who hath five barley loaves and two fishes, but what are they among so many? (St. John vi. 9) As Philip’s faith was overcome by too much, Andrew’s was constrained by too little. To offer so little to so many could only stand to mock and offend them, Andrew thought. Philip said we have too many to feed. Andrew said we have too little with which to feed.
True faith can often be destroyed because we conclude that we never have enough or we complain about having too little. Jesus tells us to sit down, listen, and trust. He asks us to remember that we are going up to Jerusalem, that we are dogs eating from the crumbs that fall from His table (St. Matt. xv. 27), and that we must not only hear the Word of God but keep it. (St. Luke xi. 28) Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. (St. John vi. 10) The disciples obey the Master, though as yet they have nothing to set before the guests. Nature serves her Master and so affords Him and His guests a plush, green carpet of comfortable grass. And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would. (Ibid, 11) Before we make use of God’s gifts to us, we must give thanks. What He gives to us is more than sufficient to satisfy our hunger. Jesus asks us to join in His thanksgiving to the Father as we are fed on our journey up to Jerusalem. Five loaves and two fishes will feed five thousand. For us, tiny morsels and crumbs of bread along with a small sip of wine will become supernaturally potent with Christ’s loving presence. Andrew’s poverty becomes Philip’s plenty. Something small becomes something great.
The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field. (St. Matthew xiii. 31) Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. (St. Matthew xiii. 31,32) Jesus says, gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost. (St. John vi. 12) Faith is spread through small fragments remaining from Christ’s feast –twelve baskets full to continue to refresh twelve Apostles and the multitudes whom they will convert. Those who think that Jesus Christ comes to satisfy only earthly hunger are in bondage to the elements of this world. (Gal. iv. 3) They are the children of Hagar. They are like Christians who are worried about what might happen to their bodies while ignoring the state of their souls. Their faith rests in earthly things and does not enlarge to embrace Christ’s true desire for man. To them nothing remains of Christ’s desire to feed the faith of their souls.
But faith’s sustenance is food for men wayfaring. As St. Hilary suggests, The substance [of the five barley loaves and two fishes] progressively increases. (The Passing of the Law: St. Hilary of Poitiers) And as Archbishop Trench says, So we have here a visible symbol of that love which exhausts not itself by loving, but after all its outgoings upon others, multiplies in an ongoing multiplying which is always found in true giving.... (Par’s. p. 213) Christ’s real intention is not feeding hungry bodies. He will feed hungry bodies to be sure. But He will do more. The seed of faith and hope open to the indwelling of Christ’s all-powerful spiritual love. His love intends always to fortify and strengthen that faith that must follow Him up to Jerusalem which is above, and is free. (Gal. iv. 26)
Therefore, the Apostles gathered the fragments together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten. (St. John vi. 13) St. Augustine tells us that the fragments that remained were the parts that the people could not yet eat. (Tr. xxiv. 6) What remains over and above is the spiritual substance of a faith that is growing. Jesus says, if you follow me, you will desire to eat of these fragments that remain. In the fragments that remain are hidden gifts of mystic meaning. In the fragments are the Divine potential for those who will hunger and thirst after righteousness. (St. Matthew v. 6) Jesus always provides more and better food to those who follow Him in faith. Faith sees that the more than the multitude can eat is Spirit and is Truth. Within fragments and crumbs of earthly food, lie hidden the spiritual nourishment of God’s Grace that will be food for men wayfaring. There is more to be seen, grasped, and ingested of this Giver and His gifts, but not until the eyes of faith are opened and the believer’s heart is softened. Let us then gather up the fragments that nothing be lost. (St. John vi. 12) We will need them. Behold we go up to Jerusalem; mere earthly fare will never sustain a faith that seeks to behold and plumb the depths of that love that never stops giving…even in Death.
Before Abraham was, I AM.
(St. John viii. 58)
The threat of God’s nearness and proximity are quite enough to unnerve, unhinge, and unsettle men in all ages. There is something in human nature that fears God’s presence and His Word. Most men treat the existence of God carelessly, incautiously, indifferently, or casually. The majority of men in our own time are very earthly minded. Even post-modern “Christians” don’t seem the least bit interested in the intellectual and spiritual pursuit of God and appear rather smugly and self-righteously self-contented. Evidently, they’ve got enough or had enough and don’t need more. Or, they arrogantly assert half a shilling’s bit of knowledge to shield them against their own inner fear of what and who God really might be. If such men go on to describe the philosophy or theology that moves them, what emerges usually amounts to little more than a spiritualization of religious feeling that convinces them that neither they or this life is really all that bad after all. Of course, such a philosophy of life collapses into the self and refuses to pursue what might be God’s excellence and the sacrifice that it will, no doubt, entail. The comforts of this life are too much to abandon in the journey after God.
Of course, as we learn in Passion Tide, Jesus Christ confronts all manner of resistance to His mission to us precisely because of this human hardness of heart that cannot abide God’s Word and Will. Which of you convicts me of sin? He says to us today. And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God, hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God. (St. John viii. 46) To be fair to contemporary man, who has stopped caring about Jesus Christ because he is drowned and drenched in the pagan culture which envelops him, it is no small wonder that Jesus Christ and His message are not only alien but antagonistic. Contemporary man seems so free and yet fears freedom. Test out your local I’m spiritual but not religious neighbors, and you shall find that what they fear most is the existence of God! They are enslaved to what is familiar and controllable. They fear all challenges and confrontations to their pretended freedoms. They fear Christ because of what He might demand or what it might cost to follow Him. They don’t like the idea that there might be a right opposed to their wrong, a good opposed to their evil, and an Absolute Good that to their relative comfort. Who and what they fear above all is Jesus Christ, the One who alone comes to earth to reconcile us with what God has intended for us from the beginning of time.
They are like the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel who find that Jesus Christ questions their religion and the Law that they worship. Because they are so unacquainted with the Divine Goodness, they can only react to what they consider to be evil. Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil? (St. John viii. 48) What is alien, strange, and contradicts our ways fills us with fear. We become convinced that there must be something wrong with One who challenges and calls all of our lives into question. And when He does, wouldn’t we rather think that the problem is more with Him than us? This is why we convince ourselves that we need not heed with too much seriousness who Jesus says He is and what He asks of us. If He merely irritates or annoys us, we excuse ourselves from following Him on the grounds that who He says He is and what He asks are just too much. If He succeeds in enraging us, we proceed to silence and kill Him. Our negligence, fear, and ignorance kill the Word of God as Man.
Of course, technically speaking, we are right. Who He says He is and what He asks seem just too much! If who He says He is was within the scope of human creativity, we would have invented it long ago and saved ourselves. So, the real question is this. Do we believe that He is who He says He is, and will we give Him what He asks of us? Jesus claims that God is His Father…[He] has come from God…that [he came] not of [Himself], [but was] sent. (St. John viii. 42)The Pharisees are enraged because they can’t imagine that Jesus could ever be who He says He is, and so condemn Him as demon-possessed. Their rage jumps at Him out of envy and resentment. Jesus is trespassing upon their sacred ground. Jesus answers, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me. And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth. (St. John 8. 49-50) Jesus comes to honor all men with God the Father’s desire for their salvation. The Pharisees honor themselves and seek glory from men. Those who are sinking and going to decay boast most of how other men hold them in the highest esteem. Christ knows that their arrogance stands only to make them and all others only worse. The clergy in every age are mostly corrupt. What He offers, He has received from the Father, and honors it as what alone can touch human hearts and transform them with eternal glory. He is sent by the Father on a Divine Mission: My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me and to finish His work. (St. John iv. 34) The glory that Christ will offer is something that will come near and touch the world in a radically new way.
Jesus claims that if a man keeps [His] saying, he shall never see death. (Ibid) What He promises to faith exceeds our wildest imagination. We are righteously indignant because we know that we must die. Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, if a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death. Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself? (St. John viii. 52-53) The Pharisees mean: You are a man, Jesus of Nazareth, and when you die, your words will die with you. Abraham and the prophets are all dead. And their words have died with them. Indeed their words are as dead as they. So, we cannot believe that your words are any different.
This is the response of all men who conclude that earthly death is the end of it all. Christ speaks once again. If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that He is your God: yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you; but I know him, and keep his saying. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. (St. John 8. 54-58) Christ the Word teaches us that human life is made by God to become an opportunity to hope for joy beyond misery and life beyond death. What He tells us is that God spoke His Word to Abraham to give him the hope of salvation. Jesus is the fulfillment of Abraham’s hope. He speaks to the Pharisees to reveal to them that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life that will overcome our death with new and joyful life. The Father’s saying is the promise of salvation to His people. Jesus keeps this saying. This means that He cleaves to the power of love that will save all men. Jesus is the same unchanging Word of God, the saying that moved Abraham to hope in salvation. This is the same unchanging Word of God that inspires Jesus to save all of us. Jesus says, Before Abraham was, I AM. I am the Word, that was heard of old, is with you now, and will be with you forever if you believe and follow me. I am my Father’s ‘saying’ of love for you. Will you follow me? If our faith is dead like that of the ancient Pharisees, our irritation will become the rage that kills Jesus and longs to drag Him into our spiritual death. Then took they up stones to cast at him…. (St. John viii. 59)
Jesus, God’s Word as flesh is sent to do His Father’s will. God’s Word is His will, His will is His Love, and His Love is the utterance and expression of God’s deepest desire and delight for all men’s salvation. His Love is that passion that longs to come near to us on this Passion Sunday. This passion is that Love that does not count the cost. His Love is as broad as the universe and as deep as the human heart. His Love incessantly, persistently, and relentlessly desires to make us His own. His Love is His Passion that longs to touch and transform us. This is the Passion that came near to Abraham, touched him, and transformed all his fears into one unchanging hope. This is the Passion that resonated, reverberated, and resounded in the spirits of those ancient souls who heard God’s Word and were athirst for God, yea, even for the living God…. (Ps. xlii. 2) This is the Passion of God in Jesus, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, to purge our conscience from dead works so that we might begin to serve the living God. (Hebrews ix. 11)
On this Passion Sunday, Jesus Christ persists and perseveres in Passion to keep the Father’s saying. Our English word passion comes from the Latin word patior and it means to suffer, endure, or even to be hurt or wounded. Today, we learn that Christ’s Passion will suffer and endure to win our salvation. He calls us forward to suffer and endure the love that is alive in His heart. If we are humble enough, He will come near to us. If we open our hearts, His approach will overturn all our fears. If we remain with Him, His Passion will wound us. If we follow Him up to His Cross, we shall be bruised by His loving death. In that death, we shall believe that we shall not die but live with Him forever. So, with Henry Vaughn, let us gaze with awe upon the Love that dies to smite and wound us into a Death that cannot help but lead to new and glorious life.
Ah, my dear Lord! What couldst thou spy
In this impure, rebellious clay,
That made thee thus resolve to die
For those that kill thee every day?
O what strange wonders could thee move
To slight thy precious blood and breath!
Sure it was Love, my Lord: for Love
Is only stronger far than death.
(Henry Vaughn, ‘Incarnation and Passion’
Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it.
St. Luke xi.
It is rather reassuring to know that the cynicism that characterizes the post-modern and post-Christian world is not new. If we have been attentive this morning, we will have found no small dose of it in the Pharisees who are murmuring against Jesus. Jesus had cast a demon out of a dumb (or mute) man, and the man spake. (St. Luke xi. 14) He had no sooner done this, than they who witnessed the immediate and extraordinary transformation claimed that Jesus had cast out the devil through Beelzebub the chief of the devils. (Idem, 16) In the ancient world, men believed that when any man had a physical handicap he was demonically possessed, and so when he was cured, men concluded that a devil had been cast out. In our own age, demonic possession and demons seem to be out of favor-mostly because postmodern psychiatry that has transcended good and evil believes that truth is relative. Postmodern man believes that truth is not objective, but subjective. So, in the end, if there is no difference between right and wrong, good and evil, then there really can be no talk of God and the chief of the Devils, Lucifer.
The theory that truth is relative is the bastard child of cynicism, and cynicism is the misbegotten child of Stoicism. The Stoic believes that reality is what it is, and that man must be responsible for himself in the pursuit of the Universal Good. None of the tension, struggle, and warfare involved in the conflict of other men must interrupt the Stoic’s philosophical journey. Cynicism emerges out of it because the Cynic sees the Stoic and most other men as selfish. Thus, the Cynic remedies the error by seeking to come to be one with Nature through the self. The Cynic is intent upon a subjective possession of truth for himself. The next step into relativism is not so difficult since man seems to become the measure of all things, of what is good, when, why, and how. The Cynic takes his stand defiantly only against traditional religion and philosophy but also against the state, with its laws and customs. Truth, to a great extent, can be found only subjectively. And so long before they ever get around to meeting God in Himself, they have fashioned another god in their own image -one who might even aid and abet the willful rejection of civilization and the sacrifices it entails for any common good. I am sore displeased with the heathen that are at ease (Zech. i. 15), the Lord tells Zechariah in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. And the problem is that most people use God or gods to promote and ensure their own spiritual comfort. They justify their ways of life, think themselves good enough. They think that their faith or knowledge is good for them, and if they are confronted with the truth that their lives are just as relativistic as their neighbors, they will probably say that you are possessed by an unclean spirit. This temptation is as old as ancient Cynicism.
But we, as Christians, can choose to make one of three responses to that temptation to think that truth is relative or that we are the best judges of what is good or evil and right or wrong. Like the ancient conservative Pharisees, who are much like the Cynics, we can refuse to allow the truth to challenge our carefully formulated and jealously guarded religious prerogatives. The Pharisees think that they have God in full, and that their role is to minister the God they have to others. Thus, when they encounter Jesus, they perceive that an interloper and intruder is poaching upon their territory and supplanting their authority. They say that Jesus casts out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils. (St. Luke xi. 15) In other words, they are moved first through pride and arrogance of their position and station as religious leaders. Truth is relative for them, since it depends upon their philosophy. If we identify with them, we begin and end with ourselves, and thus defiantly refuse to identify with the dumb and deaf man in today’s Gospel, or with the need that we all have for the healing and transformation of our lives by God.
Second, we can identify with those for whom the miracle which Jesus performed today was not enough, and so cry out for another. And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven. (St. Luke xi. 16) With this group, we can choose to become selfishly intent upon the constant consolation that ongoing miracles bring. So, like the Cynics, we require more spectacular miracles -perhaps like those whose faith fails when the external and visible signs of religion do not perfectly meet our childish appetites. Our religion is then natural or rooted in Nature’s soothing touch upon our emotions and feelings. If spiritual life with Jesus does not always involve Transfiguration Moments, or natural and bodily catharsis, as what is always beautiful, true, and good, then we tend to lose faith, hope, and love. This posture is as selfish as the Pharisees, but here the selfishness is less a matter of power and control, and more an instance of the refusal to admit and accept that suffering and pain are part and parcel of the process of sanctification. Truth is relative to this group also, for its validity and authenticity depend upon an ongoing repetition of ongoing highs, appetitive and emotional surges of temporary happiness and thrills. Signs and wonders are demanded constantly in order to prove and authenticate God’s real presence.
Or, third, we can become like the dumb and deaf man in today’s Gospel. Jesus clearly believes that the model for our humanity is found in this man, but only as a starting point on the road that opens to healing and salvation. Like the Syro-Phoenician woman in last week’s Gospel, the man whom Jesus heals in today’s is one who is truly in need not only of a one-off transfiguration moment of healing, but of that process of redemption that lasts as long as a lifetime. Far from thinking that truth is a personal prerogative or feeling-based, here we find a spiritual disposition of helplessness that reaches out to a healing that tries and tests all spirits and ideas that confront and challenge the human predicament.
So, with this third kind of person, we learn from Jesus that the Devil believes that truth is relative. Every kingdom divided against itself, he says, is brought to desolation. And a house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? (St. Luke xi. 17, 18) Satan does not unite but divides a man from truth, from truth’s healing of the self, and of truth’s healing of all others. Satan has one end to divide men from God, within himself, and from others. The Devil believes that relativism is the truth. Satan loves relativism’s delusion of self-sufficiency.
Jesus has been accused of healing a man whose life is separated from the civilized world. He cannot speak, and so is prevented from being connected with any kind of order -spiritual or secular. The man cannot speak and is thus alienated from the world of language and words. The devil delights in this, and if he had healed this man, he would have brought about what he hates -he would have connected this man to a deeper form of healing and goodness through language. Jesus insists that the Devil did not heal this man, for then he would have been at odds with himself.
Jesus says this morning that if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. (St. Luke xi. 20) True healing then comes to a man who knows and admits his own powerlessness and then opens to what alone will carry and unite him to his fellow men and God through the language of salvation. When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace: But when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils. (St. Luke xi. 21, 22) Pharisees, Relativists, and Miracle-Seekers all stubbornly and dogmatically clutch on to a knowledge that they think will save them. But when some unforeseen pain of body or soul, misfortune, loss or tragedy assaults them, they fall apart and into chaos, divided, as the Devil would have it. The armour wherein they trusted- self-assured knowledge, good works, and even the miracles are taken away. Jesus suggests that this is a good thing. Perhaps the mute man is a model of our condition. Jesus desires to cast out the devils from the human soul. He allows pain and misfortune to visit a man in order that our illusions, fantasies, and lies in which we have trusted may be revealed as impotent. Our relative happiness must be deprived of all force and meaning. When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. (St. Luke xi. 24-26) Delusional despair can lead right back to the pursuit of relative and impermanent gods if we do not consider the condition of the mute man.
This morning the Word of God, Jesus Christ, puts His finger on our problem, and desires to cast away our demons. Our demons are any person, place, or thing that resists the Lord’s absolute power to heal us. They can be cast off, but they might return until one stronger than the strong man not only delivers us from them, but overcomes them with His virtue and goodness. Blessed is the womb that bare thee and the paps which thou hast sucked (St. Luke xi. 27) cries a woman who witnesses today’s miracle. Jesus responds, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it. (St. Luke xi. 28) The true miracle we must seek today is that, with St. Paul, we realize that we were sometimes darkness, but now…are light in the Lord. (Eph. V. 8) True healing comes to us from God, who begins to heal us and participate in it. Truth is not relative but Absolute. So, with the dumb mute of today’s Gospel, let us be determined to hear the Word of God and keep it because we can speak the truth that has set us free and walk as children of the light (Idem) so that all other men may realize that the Kingdom of God has come upon us. (Ibid, 20)
He is no unkind physician who opens the swelling, who cuts,
who cauterizes the corrupted part. He gives pain, it is true, but
he only gives pain, that he might bring the patient on to health. He
gives pain, but if he did not, he would do no good.
(St. Augustine: Sermon xxvii)
Last week we examined the temptations that Jesus withstood for us to draw us deeper into His love for God our Heavenly Father. And I pray that we came away with a real sense of His desire to serve God alone and to fulfill His will for us. This week we shall come to see and grasp the nature of sin and our powerlessness over it; and, because of this, I pray that we shall come to learn that all sin whether subtle or direct threatens to control us. Lastly, I pray that we shall find deliverance from sin through persistent and humble submission to the Lord’s judgment of our condition and His provision of cure. I pray also that we might be willing to submit ourselves to Jesus’ potent and stinging medicine so that we might be healed fully.
This morning, we read in the Gospel that Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.(St. Matthew 15. 21) He comes to the borders of the pagan Gentile world. Jesus never went into non-Jewish territory. Rather, He visits the periphery and hopes to draw Gentiles into the land of Promise and Salvation. Jesus’ motives should fascinate us. Jesus intends that all men should be saved. He must offer salvation to God’s chosen people first. Yet, isn’t it interesting that more often than not He finds Himself drawn to the borders of heathen nations. Today, He had just finished a discourse to His own people about how sin originates in man’s heart and soul. He said, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. (St. Matthew xv. 8) What Jesus experienced from his own people was the outward shell of meticulous religious observance of the Law but hearts that were not devoted to the Spirit of the Law.
So, the Spirit draws Jesus to the borders of Canaan. He will find the need for what He brings into the world from foreigners, aliens, and outcasts. A Syro-Phoenician woman, a Greek inhabitant of Canaan will approach Jesus. From a distance, she had learned that the Jews had brought those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatics to Jesus for healing. (St. Matthew 4. 24) She had heard that Jesus’ cures were instantaneous. His cure was efficacious, and she was determined to have it also. Jesus was coming, and she wasted no time. We read that she cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. (St. Matthew 15. 22) She comes from afar not for herself but for her daughter who is further away. She bears the burden of her daughter’s illness in her heart. Her daughter’s misery is her misery. She will learn that Jesus’ misery is our misery. She cries out for His mercy, but we read that He answered her not a word. (Ibid, 23) Jesus is silent. St. John Chrysostom writes: The Word has no word; the fountain is sealed; the physician withholds His remedies. (Homily LII: Vol X, NPNF:I)
Jesus, however, will elicit more from her to teach us about true faith –the faith that storms the gates of Heaven until Jesus responds.
We learn that the Apostles cannot see what Jesus is doing. While they have been with Him for some time and have witnessed what He can do, they prefer to hoard Him selfishly, so that seeing, they see, and do not perceive. (St. Mark 4. 12) Like many Christians, they settle for the observing more of what Jesus can do than what all men need. Send her away, for she crieth after us. (St. Matthew 15, 23) The woman is ruining their spiritual friendship with Jesus. They want only to be rid of this pestiferous annoyance. Theirs is that heartless granting of a request, whereof most of us are conscious; when it is granted out of no love to the suppliant, but to leave undisturbed his selfish ease from whom at length it is exhorted. (Trench: Gospel) They are selfishly annoyed. Jesus is not. He will engage the woman, for He knows that in her heart there is a faith that persists in finding the cure that God alone can give.
Jesus is teasing the woman. His first response to the woman is I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (St. Matthew 15. 24) In St. Mark’s Gospel, He says, Let the children first be filled. (St. Mark 7. 27) In both, He means that His mission is first to the Jews because they should be the Children of Promise. Jesus, the Great Physician begins to open this heathen woman’s spiritual swelling. The Apostles are silent. She is neither daunted, disheartened, nor disturbed. She needs more from Jesus than the Apostles, for now. As audacious and brazen as it would have seemed to these Jews, she moves closer to Jesus. The more acute the disease, more urgent is the need for the physician’s immediate attention. Then came she and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me. (St. Matthew 15.25) She will insist that Jesus is her Lord and she will submit to His rule. From His heart, Jesus is already healing her. As Calvin writes, We see then that the design of Christ’s silence was not to extinguish the woman’s faith, but rather to whet her zeal and inflame her ardor. (Calvin’s Comm’s. xvii) Jesus is amazed. She is courageous, determined, and true to herself.
Jesus is first silent and then discouraging. Now, He rubs salt into her wound. Jesus says: It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. (St. Matthew 15. 26) He calls her a dog! He takes the ancient Jews’ prejudice of the Gentiles and hurls it at her. Yet, if we look more closely, Jesus is trying to tease out of this woman not only faith but humility. Is he mocking this woman or the Jews? He knows that this woman, no matter what her race or cultural origin, might actually possess a faith that will put His faithful Jewish followers to shame.
This Gentile outcast is on a journey after and for Jesus. She is going up to Jerusalem with Him in heart and mind. She needs Him completely. She hangs upon every His every word and refuses to let Him out of her grip. She will follow Him come what may. She believes Jesus is God’s own Son. She responds with, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. (St. Matthew 15. 27) She needs Jesus’ severe mercy and hard love. She may be a dog and not a lost sheep. But she knows herself to be dog who needs the Master’s attention. Jesus can become hers. I am a stray dog who, when found, will sit at my master’s feet. A dog belongs to its master. I sit at his feet but will not be cast out -under but not forsaken. I belong to thee, O Lord. So she says, Let me be a dog. If you are the master, I shall eat of the crumbs that fall from the table that you have prepared for your chosen people. The crumbs shall be more than sufficient for my daughter’s healing. As St. Augustine says, It is but a moderate and a small blessing I desire; I do not press to the table, I only seek for the crumbs. (Serm. xxvii, vol. vi. NPNF) My daughter is sick, and if I am a dog, let me at least eat the crumbs and morsels of mercy that fall from your table. I believe that ‘thou hast the words of eternal life.’ (St. John 6. 68) Lord, evermore give [me] this bread. (St. John 6. 34)
With her words, this woman storms the gates of Heaven and conquers its Lord. Jesus says, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (St. Matthew 15. 28) Jesus cauterizes her wound, and her faith ensures that her daughter is healed. In the end, it is her faith that secures the healing she seeks. Faith in Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God and the Power of God, is what always obtains Jesus’ healing for our sin-sick souls. This woman’s faith did not demand that Jesus come down in person to heal her daughter. This woman’s faith knew that the Word could easily retrace the distance she traveled to find her daughter. In faith, she believed that Jesus need speak the word only and [her daughter] would be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) St. Mark writes that when the woman was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed. (St. Mark 7. 30)
With our opening St. Augustine reminds us that [Christ] the Good Physician gives pain, it is true, but He only gives pain, that He might bring the patient on to health. He
gives pain, but if He did not, H would do no good. (Idem) So, we must be willing to endure the pain of hearing the hard truth we learn about ourselves from Jesus. He comes to diagnose our condition and provide the cure. He intends to empty us of any pride that our faith might persist in finding His loving cure. Matthew Henry warns us that there is nothing got by contradicting any word of Christ, though it bear ever so hard upon us. But this poor woman, since she cannot object against it, resolves to make the best of it. ‘Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs…. (Comm. Matt. xv.)
With the example of the Syrophoenician’s faith and humility let us confess that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. (Collect, Lent II) Let us beg deliverance from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul. (Idem) With her, let us abandon the lust of concupiscence in Gentiles who know not God. (1 Thes. i. 3) Jesus longs to find a faith that will not cease until it finds His cure. Let us all admit that we are dogs. He calls us out as dogs because God call us not to uncleanness, but unto holiness. (Idem) Jesus is always overcome by the faith of dogs who fulfilled with His crumbs can conquer demons and heal human hearts. Jesus may resist us at times, but only to tease out that faith that will have Him, and Him alone as Master.
For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities;
but was in all points tempted like as we are, yetwithout sin.
(Hebrews iv. 15)
Monsignor Ronald Knox reminds us that the whole story of the Temptation is misconceived if we do not recognize that it was an attempt made by Satan to find out whether our Lord was the Son of God or not. (The Epistles and Gospels, p. 89) Perhaps this is our question too. To be sure Satan tempts Jesus, but we tempt Jesus also. We want to know if He is the Son of God. We want evidence and proof that provide certain facts; we want confirmation. And today on the First Sunday of Lent we are given good evidence that He is, at least, moving towards revealing this truth to us. After all, proofs aren’t bad things; and in this case, we can thank Satan for confronting Jesus and providing Him with the opportunity to reveal to us how He overcomes temptation.
We begin with our Gospel lesson for today, remembering that we have accepted Jesus’ invitation to go up to Jerusalem. Presumably, then, we are going up not merely to be recognized as devout pilgrims, but to find out for ourselves just who this Jesus of Nazareth is. We read that Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. (St. Matthew iv. 1,2) St. Matthew records that this happened just after Jesus was baptized by St. John Baptist in the River Jordan,
when the heavens were opened…and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (St. Matthew iii. 16,17)
Jesus had been doubly blessed by the Father and the Holy Ghost. He had fasted for forty days in order to prayerfully embrace this blessing. But as the Son of God made flesh, He was hungry. Jesus is famished and there is nothing in the desert but stones. So, Satan says to Him, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. (St. Matthew iv. 3) Jesus knows that God sent Him not to destroy human nature but to redeem it. The temptation is fleshly and involves lust and gluttony. Jesus is the Son of God in the flesh is famished. He cannot put His earthly hunger before His spiritual mission. Monsignor Knox reminds us that Jesus remembers Moses and flat stones in the wilderness waiting to receive the new law…for that, men’s souls are hungering. (R. Knox: Sermon, ‘The Temptations of Christ) They reveal to man his duty to God as His Maker and Redeemer. Because the Son of Man is first the Son of God, He will hunger and thirst for [God’s] righteousness. (St. Matthew v. 6) The Son of God was made man so that man might become a son of God once again. Jesus will teach, Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, that….all [other]….things may be added unto you. (St. Matthew vi. 33) Jesus remembers who He is truly and that He has meat to eat that Satan does not know of. His meat is to do the will of Him that sent…. Him. (St. John iv. 32,34) In a world without God, there is only food and drink, sex, and material pleasure. But Jesus knows that Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (St. Matthew iv. 4) St. Paul, in today’s Epistle, reminds us that only with patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, and in fastings (2 Cor. vi. 4) in the flesh, can we share in the sufferings of the Son of God for our salvation.
Jesus’ physical hunger is overcome by His spiritual longing to eat and digest the bread of God’s will. Satan will not be deterred. He will tempt Jesus with pride, envy, and wrath. Fasting in the body often brings anger in the soul. This soon brings envy of God’s pure and simple blessedness. Then comes the pride that tempts the Son of God to leave the body altogether and to fast-track salvation by proving His almighty power. He has denied the good of the body, Satan thinks, so let Jesus dispense with his body entirely, cleaving as he does to this ‘Word’ of God. He trusts in God, then let Him deliver Him now, if he will have Him: for he said, I am the Son of God. (St. Matthew xxvii. 43)Then the devil taketh Him up into the holy city, and setteth Him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto Him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou thy foot against a stone. (St. Matthew iv. 5,6) Satan tempts Jesus to prove that He is the Son of God by calling angels to save Him from sure and certain death. Jesus has put the good of His soul over that of His body. If you cannot perform a miracle with regard to the body’s hunger, prove your unbreakable unity with God through the mind or the soul, Satan suggests. Cast yourself down; surely God will not let one perish who places the good of his soul above that of his body. Jesus, however, knows that this is no way for the Son of God to redeem and save all men. Man’s soul is in a body. God doesn’t intend for the Son of God to save us by performing dazzling magic and miracles on Himself to provoke our faith in Him. The Son of God must save us by perfecting faith and reason. That He is the Son of God will require much more than a selfish, rash, and defiant cry to God to save Him after he has irrationally subjected Himself to danger. Jesus knows that as the Son of God He must use His soul in His body to save us selflessly and innocently.
Jesus is the Son of God by that inner determination to cleave to His Father’s will and to reveal His way. Jesus the Son of God came down from Heaven to redeem the whole of human nature. The Son of God can feed the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes later and will perform miracles on others soon enough. Fulton Sheen reminds us that the Son of God had no need to become a Communist Commissar who provides only bread…. He says too that the Son of God would not prove Himself by avoiding His Cross by commanding faith in miraculous powers that would provoke God to contradict reason…and to exempt the Son of God from obedience to natural laws which were the laws of God. (F. Sheen: The Life of Christ, p. 67) Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. (St. Matthew iv. 7)
We come to the final temptation. Satan thinks that only one temptation remains. Surely if He is the Son of God as flesh, He can still be tempted by greed and sloth. Jesus has come to save all men, but He wonders if He is held captive and enslaved to His Father’s will as the Son of God? His last temptation, full of the sloth that these temptations have brought, is to covet with greed His Father’s power and to make off with it for His own selfish glory. He is tempted to think that the Son of God is no Son but His own god. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (St. Matthew iv. 8,9) Satan tempts Jesus to despair of His Father’s Kingdom and to rule over His own kingdom. Perhaps His power to resist the first two temptations gives Him the freedom to embrace the third. Jesus has forsaken everything for God and His kingdom and has been rendered utterly powerless. His sense of impending weakness is weighing so heavily upon Him that He is tempted to give it all up –to do evil that good may come of it. (Idem, Knox, p. 65) Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. (St. Matthew iv. 10) The Son of God is God’s only perfect Son. The Son of God is nothing if He does not come from the Father to embrace what His will requires to lead all men to His Kingdom. The Father rules the whole of creation, and He gives meaning to all creation through His Son. As the Father’s Word, the Son of God must create more than an earthly kingdom that satisfies men’s earthly happiness. Then the devil leaveth Him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto Him.(St. Matthew iv. 11)
The Sons of Man are born to become Sons of God. What the Son of God reveals to us is that if we are to become Sons of God, we must go to the Cross with Jesus to die. The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (St. Matthew xx. 28) At the end of our Gospel lesson for today, we read that, Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (St. Matthew iv. 11) Luther tells us that the angels came down from Heaven to feed Him. This is the proper order and nature of God’s provision. The Son of God is hungering and thirsting for the Father’s righteousness. God the Father rules Christ’s spirit, nourishes His soul, and now cares for His body. It follows that the Son of God has come to serve and redeem us all. The Son of God will go on to win our salvation on the Cross of Calvary. There Satan will attack Him one last time.
In Lent, Jesus the Son of God calls us to His Cross. With Fulton Sheen, the Son of God says:
All I now want of this earth is a place large enough to erect a Cross; there I shall let you unfurl me before the crossroads of your world. I shall let you nail me in the name of the cities of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, but I will rise from the dead, and you will discover that you, who seemed to conquer, have been crushed, as I march with victory on the wings of the morning. (Idem)
And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
(St. Luke viii. 9)
We said last week that the Gesima Season is all about discovering the self-discipline that will help us to keep a more holy Lent. Part of that discovery involves a real effort at persevering in our pursuit of understanding what Jesus Christ teaches us. Last week we began our pursuit with Jesus’ Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. A parable presents us with a surface illustration or story that begs us to delve deeper into a spiritual and heavenly meaning. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parable always depicts a human habit, experience, or labor with which most men can identify. It is different from a fable in that it does not involves talkative donkeys or philosophical cats who aim to teach us some moral lesson about earthly life. It is unlike a myth since myth never ends up disentangling truth from the story. The myth is believed more as a sign of the union of the supernatural and natural rather than as the way from the one to the other. A parable, then, takes man seriously in his spiritual pursuit from nature to the divine. It considers the spiritual purpose that lies hidden in earthly intentions and ends. In the case of the parables told by Jesus, He never uses illustrations that contradict the natural and human orders but offers them as earthly depictions of spiritual aspirations and ends. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)
But notice something else. The parables of the New Testament are always about earthly cares and considerations that are always capable of being perfected spiritually. Jesus uses parables not only because He wants to make men think and know but because He wants them to choose and decide for the sake of His Kingdom. Pope Benedict XVI says that Jesus can speak openly about the Kingdom of God to others or all sorts of people. But to those who will follow Him and become His disciples, He speaks in parables, precisely to encourage their decision, their conversion of the heart…. St John Chrysostom says that ‘Jesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would covert, he would heal them” (Idem, cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). Parables are used by Jesus to convert men’s hearts, to encourage them to become His disciples, and to give them a picture of what the process of spiritual transformation is all about. Parables stir wonder, questing, seeking, and knocking. The man who seeks out their meaning is the one who desires to know and find happiness in the discovery of a truth that, at first, remains hidden to him. In the parables, each of us is given the opportunity to follow Jesus and to discover God’s Hidden Meaning…which most men couldn’t be bothered about.
Think about how so very hard this is –I mean to decide to follow Jesus and to discover the meaning of His Parables! Last week we prayed for the temperance and perseverance that runs after God’s justice. This week, we are reminded that this self-discipline is no easy business. St. Paul, this morning, takes up the point as he addresses a community of new Christians in Corinth who are being swayed by false prophets to believe that no moral effort or self-discipline is needed at all. They were telling the Corinthians that this Paul was blowing the process of conversion all out of proportion. True Christianity, they insisted, involves really nothing more than a kind of new-age mysticism that promises an otherwise painless existence. True Christianity, they said, shouldn’t involve anything like what St. Paul was teaching but should be an easier, softer, and gentler endeavor that shouldn’t command any moral effort or suffering at all.
But St. Paul was incensed. St. Paul had digested the Parables of Jesus. For Paul, the life of Jesus Christ was a Parable intended to lead men to the long and hard study that should trigger imitation! Far from wishing to justify himself, St. Paul even desired to use his life as a kind of parable that might lead other men onto the road of conversion and redemption. Remember, the parable uses real human experience to carry the seeker’s mind into spiritual wisdom. St. Paul uses his own life as a parable to teach his flock what Christian conversion entails. He shows us that true discipleship requires the same effort that goes into understanding any good parable. He asks, Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck…in perils of robbers, in perils of waters, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen…in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…(2 Cor. 23-27) He tells them that conversion and discipleship involve running the race with temperance in all things to obtain an incorruptible crown. In other words, true conversion and discipleship will involve the training and discipline for running a spiritual race. This will demand suffering and toil. He tells them that this suffering might demand not only rejection from the outside world and its pleasures but even spiritual warfare and torture that threaten the presence of Christ within. Who is weak, and I am not weak (Cor. xi. 29), he asks? This business of becoming a Christian and staying the course are as real as the parable that his own life reveals. In other words, it hurts. Yet, he concludes, that the end justifies the means. If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) The parable of Paul’s experience teaches us that in humility, in weakness and suffering, Christ comes to the soul and reveals God’s hidden Word.
St. Paul’s life and witness comprise a parable for us all. But what had happened to his Corinthian converts so that they were so easily swayed by their new teachers and prophets? I think that we can find all or part of the answer in this morning’s Gospel Parable of the Sower. Jesus tells us that A sower went out to sow his seed. At first, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. (St. Luke viii. 5) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had heard God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls was like the wayside, trodden down by the ongoing traffic and business of this world, and so they could not hear the Word. They might have been in this state because they have exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they have become hard as the pavement, till they have laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root…(Parables, Trench, p.60) Such men are always prey to the Devil and his friends since they live in a world full of so many words that they cannot distinguish God’s Word from all others.
Next, …some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. (Ibid, 6) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had hearts like gravely rock. For such people, the heard-Word of God with excitement and joy for a short time; it sounds so promising. They prematurely anticipate its benefits without counting the cost of growing it in the soul. They fall away because they cannot work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) Salvation, they discover, is a parable of real life, full of pain and suffering, doubt and confusion, hard labor and effort. Like the sun scorching the blade that has no depth in the earth, these men’s hearts [are] failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth….(St. Luke xxi. 26)
Next, And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (Ibid, 7) Perhaps some of the Corinthians honestly received God’s Word but choke and kill it with cares and concerns of this life that end up being more important to them. Here the heard-Word is growing for a season but only alongside inner anxiety and fear that kill the growth of the Word within. They are crushed, as the Gospel says, by the cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) As Archbishop Trench remarks, the old man is not dead in them; it may seem dead for a while…but unless mortified in earnest, will presently revive in all its strength anew. (Ibid, p. 65) These thorns and briars may take the form of earthly happiness found or lost. In either case, they have neither been killed nor banished from the soil of the soul, and so the Word cannot grow. One or all of these kinds of hearing might explain what happened to St. Paul’s young flock and what can happen to us.
Finally, today’s Parable concludes with, And other [seed] fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. (Ibid, 8) The Parables are always about real life. In real life, seed can grow up effectually only in deep, dark soil that has been weeded and fertilized. So, in the soul, the seed of God’s Word can grow in our hearts only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort. Like Paul, we must expect both punishment from without and suffering from within if the heard-Word is to grow in our souls. Each and every one of us is subject to the temptations that threaten the hearing and growth of God’s Word in this morning’s Parable. With St. Paul we must proclaim, If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30)
It is precisely in the admission that we are weak that Christ responds to us with the love that alone can grow His Word. God has made the soul; God speaks His Word into it to save us. If we begin to hear God’s Word, to clear and cultivate the soil of our souls with sorrow and repentance, to tend the seed with carefulness and devotion, and not superficially and carelessly, by God’s grace we shall bring forth fruit with patience. (St. Luke viii. 15) Then you and I shall become a parable, where we, who hold the Word in earthen vessels can reveal His will and way to the world. And we can ask with Milton:
…What if earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?
(Paradise Lost: v, 574-576)
Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
We have just completed our journey from Advent through to Epiphany-tide. As Canon Crouse reminds us, the season we have observed has been a time of expectation, coming, and manifestation. In it, we saw that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we observed the Only Begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. Now we turn to the period spanning between Septuagesima Sunday and Ascension Day. Septuagesima Sunday is the beginning of our short Gesima season; Gesima means days. Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima refer to 70, 60, and 50 days before Easter. On these three Sundays, we prepare for Lent. Our seasons and the appointed readings come to us from patterns established in the Ancient Church. So, with the men of old in the ancient Western Latin Church, we must use our season for self-discipline. Again, with Father Crouse, today’s lesson in self-discipline will include the virtues of temperance, justice, and hope.
The first two virtues that we study today are of the Four Cardinal Virtues. The Cardinal Virtues come to us from the Latin word cardo, which means hinge. These then are the hinge virtues without which we cannot hope to obtain any kind of goodness. Goodness here is that holiness and righteousness which we can find using our reason and free will. The Cardinal Virtues were first formulated by the great Greek philosopher Plato in his Dialogues, were later refined by Aristotle, and were then part and parcel of the Graeco-Roman world’s pursuit of goodness and virtue. The early Church Fathers designated them as Cardinal Virtues and acknowledged with their pagan predecessors that through reason’s study of the universe, human nature could come to know and then will a limited form of God’s goodness. The Fathers taught that they were not especially dependent upon Revelation or Scripture. Instead, they formed a kind of goodness that man can find prior to his need for the Divine Grace and Intervention that lead to salvation. So, you can imagine the Cardinal Virtues are laying a kind of groundwork for the acquisition of goodness in this world. The goodness that they establish conditions the body and soul for an understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. The Cardinal Virtues, in a Christian context, provide us with a character of soul and body that will better situate us to pursue the Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and charity in the Holy Season of Lent.
Our first virtue is discussed today by St. Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter IX. In it, he likens our pursuit of Heaven to the spiritual and bodily preparation made by ancient Greek runners who competed in the Isthmian Games. Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? (1 Cor. 9. 24) Using an earthly paradigm illustrated by comparison to what the Cardinal Virtues can achieve, St. Paul inspires us to run so that we might win a prize. Of course, his illustration relates to a competition where only one man can win and receive the laurel wreath, the crown of triumph and victory in pagan life. St. Paul wants to assure us that as Christians we all can run to obtain the prize. In fact, we cannot receive it unless we run. And we cannot run without hope. So, with hope we must run to reach the finish line of salvation! So run, that ye may obtain (Ibid, 25), St. Paul insists. Yet, our running must be conditioned. …Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things: now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. (Ibid, 26) As it turns out, our running in hope must be tempered and moderated towards our end. Our end is not the corruptible crown of the laurel wreath that commands the admiration, wonder, praise, and veneration of earthly athletic enthusiasts. That end is corruptible and passing. Our end is incorruptible and lasting. And if this is the case, then our moderation and temperance must be of such a sort that best conditions our hearts and souls for the eternal prize of Heaven’s gift in the offer of salvation. The Apostle wants us to remember that we are aiming for a prize of inestimable worth and value. The temperance and moderation that we embrace must be applied to our souls as well as our bodies. The runners at the Isthmian Games kept to a strict diet and discipline. Also, they refrained from any activity that would corrupt the body and disrupt their focus. How much more then should Christians keep to a strict diet and discipline as they condition their bodies to serve their souls to hope for the prize of God’s Kingdom? The Greek runners were fighting for an earthly prize but Christians for an eternal reward. Thus, the Apostle warns us against that incautious and immoderate indulgence of the world that is always at enmity with God and more likely than not to distract us from running the race.
I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away. (Ibid, 26, 27)
Runners’ arms beat the air as they push their legs onward to an uncertain victory where one wins and the others lose. Christians, with certainty through hope, run all together, tempering their bodies through self-discipline, hoping to gain one reward. Paul calls us to imitate his example as we run with him.
Moderation and temperance condition our body to serve our soul’s end. For Christians, the end is one reward for all. We are invited into a common labor. The ancient pagans were in combat with one another. We cannot afford such a luxury. We must run altogether. But their virtues can be used in the service of our Gospel prize. By helping one another to moderate and temper our earthly passions and appetites, we can all appreciate more fully the crown that awaits us. Our crown is the reward or gift of God the Giver. We do not deserve, earn, or merit it. We have been invited to run or to labour in the Vineyard of the Lord, as today’s Gospel would have it. For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.(St. Matthew xx. 1) The offer to work in the Vineyard of the Lord is God’s gift. The work is offered at different times of the day or different times of life to men who will come in the morning, noontide, or evening of their lives. Those who come first to work are promised a penny. They have been awakened by the Lord in the morning of their lives and so come early to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. Others are roused or stirred later in the day of their lives. They have been idle, negligent, slothful, careless, or ignorant. Nevertheless, they are given a chance to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They are told that they will receive what is right in payment for their labour. Others are found at the sixth and ninth hours of their lives. Some are even found in the twilight of their lives, at the eleventh hour or the end of the day. They too are welcomed to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They too will receive what is right as a reward. These men are even rebuked for their sloth. Why stand ye here all the day idle? (Ibid, 6) Yet, the householder’s desire for their service is greater than his bewilderment at their delay in accepting the offer to run to the work that leads to an incorruptible crown.
In today’s Gospel Parable, at the end of the day, all are paid. The last to come are paid first and the first to come are paid last. The moderation and temperance that have conditioned the running and working of the Johnny-come-lately men are of equal value and worth to the first in the heart of the householder. Every man receives a penny. Every man receives the same reward. All run. Some come early and some come late. All are called to work for one end.
But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. (Ibid, 10-12)
Christians are called to run and work not that one may receive the prize but that all may run together to receive the gift of one and the same prize, an incorruptible crown. The householder responds:
Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Ibid, 13-16)
Moderation and temperance prepare us for the virtue of justice. Strictly speaking, as fallen and sinful men, we deserve nothing but just punishment for our sins. That is earthly justice. God’s justice, however, is always tempered by His mercy. He takes our Cardinal Virtues and rewards them with the hope of what we never could have imagined. He offers us an incorruptible crown as the reward of being invited into the hope of running and a work that leads back to Himself. God tells us that if we accept His invitation to run and to work, we shall be rewarded with a crown whose worth and value far exceed anything that is right or just for men. And, as John Henry Newman says:
We cannot be wrong here. Whatever is right, whatever is wrong, in this perplexing world, we
must be right in doing justly, in loving mercy, in walking humbly with our God; in denying
our wills, in ruling our tongues, in softening and sweetening our tempers, in mortifying our
lusts, in learning patience, meekness, purity, forgiveness of injuries, and continuance in well
Nay lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
(St. Mattew xiii. 29)
We have said that our Epiphany-tide is a Season of Light. And the Light that we have been trying to follow in faith, see and understand, embrace and cherish, is Christ’s Light. And so we have been learning that this Light comes to us to make new life and love in our hearts and souls. But there is a danger associated with this Light. We must remember that there is a difference between flashing, blazing, or sparkling light on the one hand, and enduring, persevering, and growing Light on the other. The first light is experienced as fleeting, occasional, and at best temporary. It is found, generally, with the kind of person whose spiritual life is characterized by part-time highs, cheap thrills, and instant gratification. The second Light, being Christ’s Light, is far more demanding, since it desires and longs to overcome, overtake, rule, and guide the whole of a man’s life. It is found in the kind of person, who intends that his conversion should be the first moment on a long journey into healing and transformation, redemption and sanctification, with the reward of salvation.
Now the problem for most of us is that we are always wanting Christ the Light to manifest and reveal Himself to us in the manner of the first light. We want signs and wonders, we want glamour and glitz, we want our walk of faith to be full of transfiguration moments. We expect that because we are faithful church-going Christians, our journey should not be marked by struggles, difficulties, temptations, and distractions. We expect that our common life together in the church should be perfect and that our soul’s journey into God should be the same.
But our Lord knows otherwise and never intends that we should be mistaken about the nature and character of our journey into His Light. This is the reason for the parable which he offers for our meditation this morning. Let us listen to what He says. The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field…(St. Matthew xiii. 24) In this parable we are told that the kingdom of heaven is identified with a man, whom we should recognize as Christ the Son of Man, the Life and Light of God the Father, whose kingdom is about hard work and business. And yet no sooner has He been laboring than we read that while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way – which we ought to see as provocations and temptations. But when the blade [of wheat] was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. (Ibid, 25, 26) What is interesting is that God, through His Son, works hard and sows only good seed, but that a devious and mischievous enemy, the Devil, comes in the night – while men sleep, and attacks the planting with blight and parasites. St. John Chrysostom tells us that the Devil did not sow before this, because he had nothing to destroy, but when all had been fulfilled that he might defeat the diligence of the Husbandman [the Son of Man]. (Catena Aurea) God’s creation begins as a good work. He gives His Grace to sustain His people the Jews in hope and then sends His Son to perfect the work. But the devil has always tried to corrupt God’s human creation and with renewed vigour he attacks Christians. The enemy intends to quash all conscientious and earnest men who intend to journey into Christ the Light. The devil’s ways are so devious that until the Christian begins to spring up as a blade of righteousness, it takes time for the Christian to recognize that the garden he is cultivating is full of tares. Prior to his growth into holiness, through Christ the Light, the Christian sees only other men who look very much like himself. The tares are men who have surrendered to the devious corruption of the Devil. For, as Christ says in another place, ye shall know them by their fruits. (St. Matthew vii. 16)
So we read in the parable that the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? From whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. (Idem, 27, 28) What the Christian realizes, as Calvin remarks, is that wicked men are not created by the devil, but, having been created by God, are corrupted by the devil and thrown into the Lord’s field, in order to corrupt the pure seed. (CC: volume xvii) The Devil desires to prevent Christ the Light from growing the good seed, and so he plants tares in the Lord’s field or the church. And the Christian’s response to this malicious attack seems logical enough; he wants to pull up the tares and burn them so that his spiritual experience is free of temptation, struggle, and distraction. Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up (Ibid, 28), the servants ask?
But the Lord’s answer is direct and deliberate: Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. (Ibid, 29, 30) Here we find a rebuke of that Christian zeal and passion to root out all evil with force and suppression. Before God’s judgment day, it is always wrong for Christians to use violent means for the suppression of error (R.C.T. Notes on the Parables), as Archbishop Trench remarks. The Lord means to warn Christians against forced conversion of the evil to the good. For one thing, we do not know who are the wheat and who are the tares. Again, the wheat and tares look very much the same before each grows up and bears fruit. God [alone] knows the secrets of the heart. (Ps. xliv. 21) Christians must not uproot the tares before the time of harvest since the tares will be burnt and the wheat will be saved. A man who is a tare today might become wheat or fruitful seed tomorrow.
Come to think of it, contrariwise, shouldn’t we all beware of the danger of becoming tares ourselves? Isn’t the real point of the parable that we all are liable and susceptible to the temptations and enticements of the Devil? To be sure there are men who become tares rather easily and quickly since they have never experienced the true nature of Christ the Light. But if the tares bother or distract us, so that we judge and condemn them, hasn’t the Devil made us into tares and not wheat? This happens when we don’t heed St. Paul’s advice this morning to put on, as the elect of God…bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering, forbearing one another and forgiving one another….(Col. iii. 12) Haven’t the tares become false gods to us because we are so obsessed with other people’s sins that we have forgotten the need to confess our own in the Light of Christ’s forgiveness? Then the Devil shall have so corrupted us that we truly become tares ourselves.
This is where I think the parable reveals its true force in our lives. The Lord allows the Devil to tempt and distract us. The point is that we must not be overwhelmed by the temptations of sin whether they confront us in other men’s lives or in our own. To be sure, we are called to resist the continual presence of temptations, their determination to sever and break our complete reliance and dependence upon God. But this is just where they can be turned round for our good, and we can beat the Devil at his own game. Far from being the occasion of our unfaithfulness to God, they can yield in us a more vigilant determination to please God in all our lives. Temptations are not sins, and they need not make us into tares. In a positive way, they can reveal and disclose to us, through Christ the Light, our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We even learn that the tares, while attractive and alluring, are false gods that can become the wheat of God or the good seed only through his power and constant care. To be made good, we must depend all the more upon Christ the Light to grow us up and into the fruit that he intends us to become. And more than this, but just as important and instrumental to our becoming that fruit is the need to pray for the conversion of all tares into the good seed or faithful sons and daughters of God. If the tares have helped us to become good seed, why shouldn’t we help them into the same state?
Today, my friends, let us be determined to become the good seed sown by the Son of man. To do so, let us thank God for the temptations, struggles, and difficulties that the tares of this world bring to us. When we become aware of tares, let us look within our own souls and see if we don’t often indulge the same sin or follow the same temptation. Let us thank God for the temptations of the tares, which in their own way, remind and recall us to our deeper dependence upon Christ the Light. Rather than their being flashing, blazing, or sparkling lights that lead us into superficial spirituality, and thus sin and sorrow, let them generate in us that deeper need for the Light of Christ that alone grows us as good seed into perfection. And, let us never be content that those tares should remain tares. And again, with the Apostle, Above all, let us put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness (Col. iii. 14) as we more earnestly pray that the tares become wheat because Christ the Light desires that all men should become His good seed. If our relation to the tares is one of longsuffering intercessory prayer that they be turned from the Devil, the Light of Christ shall shine forth out of us and into the lives of the tares, whose conversion is no less intended by God. For, Christ the Light longs to shine into all men’s lives, drawing us and them closer and closer to the day, as Archbishop Trench remarks [when] the dark hindering element [of the tares will be] removed [from the lives of the faithful]…[and] the element of Light, which was before struggling with and obstructed by it, shall come forth in its full brightness. That shall be the day ‘of the manifestation of the sons of God’; they ‘shall shine forth as the sun’, when the clouds are rolled away, they shall evidently appear, and be acknowledged by all, as ‘the children of Light’….
Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.
Be not wise in your own conceits. (Romans xii. 16)
Thus far in the season of Epiphany, we have been invited to see and perceive the manifestation and revelation of Divine wisdom, love, and power in the life of Jesus Christ. We have followed the Star that realigns and adjusts human vision to the origin of all truth and meaning in human life. We have seen His star in the east, and art come to worship Him…(St. Matthew ii. 2) We have learned that out of the centrifugal point of eternity’s re-appropriation of time in the life of the young Jesus, Divine Wisdom informs and arrests the attention of the One who will save all men. Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business…(St. Luke ii. 49) We have gleaned also that this life is the redemption that makes new and potent spiritual wine that longs to be poured into the hearts and souls of them that seek God. But thou hast kept the best wine until now. (St. John ii. 10) Love, wisdom, and power reveal themselves to us in Epiphany as marks of the Saviour’s intention to do even greater things than these. (St. John xiv. 12) And the greater things than these will involve not only what God does in Jesus Christ then and there, but what Jesus will do in us here and now. Epiphany’s patterns extend into the present to ensure our pilgrimage to the Kingdom of God.
The image of the transformation that Epiphany brings to us is pictured this morning in Jesus’ encounter with a Roman Centurion. A centurion was a professional officer in the Roman Legion who commanded roughly one hundred men. He, like the soldiers under his rule, would have been a celibate –Roman soldiers were not permitted to marry until active duty was completed. So, perhaps for the Roman Centurion in this morning’s Gospel, his military battalion was his family for a season, comprised of soldiers who were the subjects of his constant care. And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto Him a centurion, beseeching Him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. (St. Matthew viii. 5) Capernaum is the home of Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew the tax collector. In addition, it was the home of a Roman garrison, and thus of our Centurion. Oddly enough the pagan Centurion supplicates Jesus and addresses Him as Lord. Jesus responds and says, I will come and heal him. (St. Matthew viii. 7) But the Centurion protests, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) No doubt, he had heard of Jesus’ power from others, has witnessed His miracles, and is taking his proper position under a commander of another kind.
In any case, the presence of Divine wisdom, love, and power in Jesus Christ had arrested the Centurion. He sensed that he was in the presence of a holy being. So holy was this being that the Centurion thought himself unworthy to merit Jesus’ visitation to his earthly abode. So holy was this being that the Centurion felt that Christ might be soiled and sullied through contact with him or his family. Yet in his confession, through the keen perception of his own nature in the presence of the all-holy, the Centurion’s humility is what proves to be instrumental in the healing of his servant and himself. Only a humility, like that found in the Centurion, can elicit from Christ the transformation of God’s Grace. Conscious of his own moral and spiritual corruption, disabused of his own self-importance, conscious of the faulty towers made by men, the Centurion’s soul becomes the space that lives on faith, anticipates with hope, and rests in the love that he does not yet possess. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. (St. Matthew viii. 9) This man has experience with authority and obedience. In the earthly domain of Caesar, he has the power to command and exact obedience. He speaks the word and it is done. Notice, also, tht he says, I am a man under authority. I too must obey, I too must enact the wishes of my superiors, and I too must follow. I am subject and accountable to one much greater than myself, and yet this ruler of mine is nothing in comparison with thee, O Lord! Thus, he knows that he must secure help from one far greater than any earthly ruler. His perception of the all-holiness emanating and manifesting itself from the being of Jesus commands him to seek out and follow Him in faith and hope. He knows that the power of God in Jesus is alone sufficient to heal his servant. With his own feeble desire, he reaches out to secure the merciful power of Christ. With a sincere and simple longing for the healing of his servant, he seeks out Jesus. He seeks out Jesus in faith. He is moved by what he longs to secure on behalf of his servant whom he loves as neighbor to himself.
The faith that Jesus finds in this Centurion’s soul is what He came down from heaven to redeem and perfect. St. Augustine reminds us, this faith is of such a nature that it says, if then I a man under authority have the power of commanding, what power must Thou have, whom all powers serve? The Centurion knows all about earthly power. He knows that it is limited, fickle, unreliable, and usually self-serving. The power he perceives in Jesus seems naturally inclined to spread healing, goodness, and truth. It seems also to come from a source that is impeded by no boundaries and knows no bounds. The Centurion surmises too that it must come from God since it acts in a way that is free of all prejudice and seeks not His own. Speak (or send) the Word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) The Centurion believes that the Word of God in Jesus is capable of remaining in place and yet travelling great distances to heal all manner of sicknesses. God spake the word and they were made; he commanded, and it stood fast. (Psalm xxxiii. 9) The Centurion Roman believes that the redeeming Word of God in Jesus is the Power that made the world.
When Jesus heard this Centurion’s confession of faith, He marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. (St. Matthew viii. 10, 11) What He finds is a faith that does not need for Jesus to be present physically to heal his servant. The Centurion earnestly seeks out only the assurance that Jesus will send God’s healing Word. What Jesus finds is the prayer that every man must make if he believes truly that Christ will bear our sorrows and our cares and supply all our manifold needs and help us to put our whole trust and confidence in Him. (Prayer for Sick: BCP Canada 1962)
This is the message of our Epiphany-tide. But it comes also with a real warning. Jesus says that the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (St. Matthew viii. 12) What He means is that Christians -like the religious Jews whom Jesus rebukes, who think that tradition and ritual alone will save them are mistaken. Many religious people think that mere church attendance and ritual observance will carry them to God’s Kingdom. Other religious people think being Anglican or being a member of some other denomination will save them. Jesus says, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. (St. Matthew vii. 7) Salvation is not awarded to those who show up and go through the motions. Nor is salvation just for other people. Salvation comes to those who believe truly that they are in dire need of God’s power and cure. Jesus Christ does not wish to be adored as a concept, idea, or notion. Jesus Christ does not come only to remembered later as one of the world’s great, dead heroes. Jesus Christ intends to be embraced and held in the human heart, in which He can work all manner of healing and salvation.
Our Centurion had a vision of God in Jesus, and with humility, he longed for Christ’s love to heal his servant. From the ground of his own humble self-emptying, he reached out with every fiber of his being to procure the healing power of God in Jesus Christ. We must ask ourselves: Do we need this healing power in our lives? Are we sinners in need of salvation? We hear so much sighing, moaning, and groaning in our world. What, exactly, is the problem? We fear earthly illness? What about our souls? How are they? Sick, by all accounts. Our souls should be aching because of the sin needs to be worked out so that the righteous healing power of Jesus Christ can be worked in. This is what the vision of God’s shining forth, his showing forth, is meant to accomplish in Epiphany-tide. Be not wise in your own conceits, but… condescend to men of low estate. (Romans xii. 16) St. Paul means that we should, with the Centurion, bow down, realistically acknowledge our lowliness, and identify with the mean condition of our fallen humanity. He means that, with the Centurion, we should seek out the benefits of Christ’s healing not only for ourselves but for others also.
Today we must ask ourselves, Do we see ourselves truly in the Epiphany illumination that reveals our own deepest need for Christ the Light? Are we pouring out our complaint to Christ? The prayer of faith is the prevailing supplication that must consume our lives. Speak and send thy Word and my servant shall be healed. Speak and send thy Word and I shall be healed. If we are true Christians, we must pray for ongoing healing. The good prayer that we make for others will heal them in God’s time. The good prayer will heal us too because our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus and His righteousness. Then with the Centurion, we shall feel the operative energy of our loving Saviour, who says, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant, [and his own soul], were healed in the selfsame hour. (St. Matthew viii. 13)
They have no wine…(St. John ii. 3)
Epiphany means manifestation or shining forth. And the Epiphany season has been set apart in the Church as a time for Christians to consider the meaning and will of God the Father as revealed in the human life of Jesus Christ His only-begotten Son. In this season we contemplate the Divinity of Christ ministering to us through His humanity as we encounter it on the pages of Holy Scripture. On this Second Sunday in Epiphany, in particular, we find God’s power over nature revealed through Jesus. But we find this power only after He has revealed to us the priority of Divine Wisdom in the face of the limitations of human reason. For while God comes into the world to save us, He also takes our nature upon Him so that He can realign our hearts with His rule and governance in human life. Jesus will teach us that the same God whose Wisdom rules and governs all of creation, desires to claim our allegiance also. He will begin to reveal this truth to us through the exchange He has with His Mother in today’s Gospel.
When we think of wisdom, we think of human wisdom or what used to be called prudence. In the Gospels, no better example of that prudence exists than in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Blessed Virgin was, you will remember, astounded, and perhaps even alarmed when the Angel Gabriel visited her prior to the conception of God’s Son in her womb. How can this be, she wondered prudently? Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce through her own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts might be revealed. (St. Luke ii. 35) The Blessed Virgin pondered these things in her heart because she was often confused and flummoxed. Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing, (St. Luke ii. 48) she exclaims this morning. Through prudence she struggled to understand her son. Wist ye not, He responded, that I must be about my Father’s business? (St. Luke ii. 49) And they understood not the saying which He spake unto them. (Ibid, 50) Humility and prudence urged her to silence. But, again, Mary kept all of these things and pondered them in her heart. (Ibid, 51)
To be fair to the Blessed Virgin, human wisdom or prudence is essential to acting with virtue. It is the perfected ability to make the right decisions. (The Four Cardinal Virtues: Pieper, p. 6) Yet human wisdom can also be elevated onto a higher plane when God opens the human mind to a heavenly end. We find this in this morning’s Gospel, where we read that on the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there with both Jesus and His disciples. (St. John ii, 1) At the outset, we should rejoice to learn that Jesus blesses the institution of Holy Matrimony. The Holy Union of male and female is Divinely ordained, and Christ will reveal how the wisdom in it points to a heavenly end.
Cana means zeal, and Galilee means passage. On this third day, then, Jesus will embrace Holy Matrimony with zeal and transform it as a rite of passage to the Father’s Kingdom. Thomas Aquinas tells us that, this marriage was celebrated in the zeal of a passage, to suggest that those persons are most worthy of union with Christ who, burning with the zeal of a conscientious devotion, pass over from the state of guilt to the grace of the Church. (STA, Comm. on St. John) The married couple is celebrating that zeal of passage, devoting themselves the one to the other so that the two shall be one flesh. (Gen. ii. 24) Marriage reveals a conscientious devotion that purifies affection and orders human love. And Jesus Christ, God’s Word, Wisdom, and Plan made flesh rejoices to bless and perfect the devotion of those who will follow Him conscientiously to God’s Kingdom.
But being the good Jewish mother that she is, the Blessed Virgin becomes consumed with the earthly elements that should contribute to the perfection of the marriage celebration. So, she tugs at Jesus’ tunic and exclaims, they have no wine. (St. John ii. 3) Jesus seems irritated. O, woman what is that to me and thee? (St. John ii, 4) A better translation would be: Woman what does your concern have to do with me? (Orthodox Study Bible transl.) Or what do you expect me to do about it? For, He adds, mine hour is not yet come. (Ibid, 4) Jesus, as last week’s Gospel reminded us, must be about [His] Father’s business. (St. Luke ii, 49). He means no disrespect to His earthly mother, but she does not grasp the true meaning of His Heavenly mission. Her motherly prudence and concern arise from a fear that the perfect wedding is about to come to an abrupt halt. She does not yet grasp how Holy Matrimony is an outward and visible sign of that conscientious devotion that moves from guilt to blessedness through God’s Grace.
But Jesus’ Wisdom is not of this world. His concern is for a kind of wine that will overflow perfectly at a kind of wedding she cannot yet imagine. What does your concern have to do with me? Mine hour is not yet come. (Ibid, 4) Have you forgotten what kind of marriage you have with my Heavenly Father’s Spirit that brought about my earthly Birth? Mary is silenced and probably shamed by the rebuke of the Wisdom of God in her Son. Acquiescing to His Wisdom, she instructs the hired servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. (Ibid, 5) Whatever or whoever her Son is, He is to be heeded. Her fear of earthly embarrassment for the bride’s parents collapses in the presence of Heaven’s plan. She remembers that her Son Jesus should be called the Son of the Highest…and of his kingdom there should be no end. (St. Luke i. 32-33) She remembers that earthly good must be perfected by God’s Grace as she learns to trust and obey her Heaven-sent Son.
But what is Heaven’s Plan that Jesus brings to earth? Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. (St. Matthew vi. 33) We know what happens next. There were set there six water pots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. (St. John ii, 6,7) Jesus will use not wine-skins but pots meant to hold water for ritual cleansing and purification. Add water to the vessels for purification Jesus says.
So the holy water becomes a basis for a miracle that manifests a number of things. First, we see that Jesus' Heavenly Mission has begun. Next, we learn that the Wisdom that Jesus reveals is not of this world and that His Mother’s worldly prudence must subject itself to the priority of the Divine Mission. Jesus takes the old waters of purification and then fortifies them with Heavenly Potency. The wine that the wedding guests will drink reveals what God intends to do for man. This is what Thomas Aquinas means when he writes that Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.
The hired hands obey first Mary and then Jesus and bear the wine to the governor of the feast. (Ibid, 8) When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. (St. Luke ii, 9,10) According to ancient tradition, the governor of the feast would first taste all wine that was intended to be served. But see how the governor’s mind in drawn into wonder and bewilderment. Why was this wine not served at the beginning, he wonders? The governor marveled not at the miracle -since he was unaware of it, but at the fact that somehow the best wine was saved until the end.
This morning the Blessed Virgin Mary exclaims, they have no wine. Indeed. They have no wine. We have no wine. Both she and we realize that there is no wine until Christ, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, the Ruler of all Creation makes new wine. Wine maketh glad the heart of man. Today’s miracle is a foreshadowing of the new wine that He will pour forth from the vine of the His Body on the Cross of Calvary. Christ’s hour is not yet come. (Idem) With the Blessed Virgin we must wait for the Bridegroom to pour out His life for His Bride. His Bride is the Church. We cannot be filled with the new wine of His Blood until He has given Himself to us in Perfect Love and Sacrifice from the Tree of New Life. The new wine is the libation of His Blood through which we shall be born again in marital union with Him. In consummation with Him, as one flesh, we shall become bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh, one flesh with Him, as His Bride.
Will Christ make our water into wine? Will we listen to Him? Will we do whatsoever he saith? Will our minds be turned from earthly wine and the merriment it brings to the new wine that he saves and serves last? John Calvin reminds us that when the Blessed Virgin says, ‘Whatsoever He saith, do it’, we are taught….that if we desire any thing from Christ, we will not obtain our wishes, unless we depend on Him alone, look to him, and, in short, do whatever he commands. What we should desire first is to seek out and find the new wine of salvation that Jesus the Bridegroom will give to us if we faithfully wait until His hour is come (Idem). His hour has come. Christ has died, Christ is Risen, and Christ will come again. Christ gives us His new life in the Bread of His Body and the Wine of His Blood. As Pope Benedict XVI has said:
In the Eucharist, a communion takes place that corresponds to the union of man and woman in marriage. Just as they become ‘one flesh,’ so in Communion, we all become ‘one spirit,’ one person, with Christ. The spousal mystery, announced in the Old Testament, of the intimate union of God and man takes place in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, precisely through his Passion and in a very real way (see Eph 5:29-32; I Cor 6:17; Gal 3:28).”
With the servants at the feast, we should depend upon Christ who saves the best wine ‘til last.
In this child something great lay hidden, of which these
Wise Men, the first fruits of the Gentiles, had learned, not
from earthly rumors, but from heavenly revelation. Hence
they say, we have seen His Star in the East. They announce,
yet they ask; they believe, and yet they seek to know and
to find: as though prefiguring those who walk by faith, yet
still desire to see.(R.D. Crouse)
Today we celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany means manifestation or shining forth and in this season we contemplate the various ways in which the love, wisdom, and power of God the Father, flow to us through the life of Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son made flesh. In the Eastern Church, Epiphany is more important than the Nativity, for on this day God welcomes the Gentiles along with the Jews onto the road of salvation. God's intention to save all men is fully expressed when the Magi or Wise Men from the East journey to find the infant Jesus at Bethlehem. What is remarkable is that Gentiles see a paranormal star in the heavens, they ponder, they ask, and they believe that they must follow this star to know and understand what God intends to reveal to them. It is astounding then that these sages or wise men, who come from cultures that knew nothing of Israel’s God and His promises, should be drawn by his power to Bethlehem. It made sense that Jewish shepherds should come to the manger. It is far more unusual that the non-Jewish scholars of science and wisdom should find this mighty thing that had come to pass.
But, again, remember that these Magi were sages or wise men. They studied nature and the stars. They sought, through scientific expertise and skill to understand the creation and preservation of the earth in relation to the heavens. In other words, they probably had a deep sense that the heavens had much to do with the operations of this planet, or that something higher and more powerful guided and governed the course of the created universe. So, they looked up and beyond themselves to find the mover or movers, the higher reason and truth that might make sense of created life on earth. In addition, if tradition is right in claiming that they came from Persia, they would have been irritated and bothered with the arbitrary and irrational will to power and tyranny that ruled the kingdoms they inhabited. They were those seekers and searchers that forever explore until they have found the truth and meaning that liberate the soul.
So, we might well imagine, on one night, as they gazed into the permanent and unchanging heavens, that something shifted. One star began to outshine all others; one ball of celestial fire began to sing of a Word that had not been heard. The sight bewildered the eyes; the sound rang in the ears of these Eastern sages. What they saw and heard was nothing less than God’s own Word: follow me. It was probably strange, and they might have had their doubts, but this star arrested them and called them from their usual haunts. They began to make their journey; it would not be easy- as the heavens had shifted, so had their perspective. They were not longer at home with their accumulated wisdom. This star moved them to laden their camels and summon attendants, and to gather provisions for a long journey where faith believed but knew not why or how. Tonight, they might have said, we travel to see what this star means and on what new reality it shines. Tonight we seek to discover the nature of this star that sings out to us, ‘come follow me. Until now, the stars had been silent; but this one star called them forth. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. (ps. xix. 1)
Thus, these Magi or Wise men began their long journey after the Star that blazoned in the skies. T. S. Eliot describes the nature of this journey they made in his poem The Journey of the Magi:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
They saw a star, they asked, they believed, and they followed. They were called out of comfort onto a long, hard, cold, and cruel journey. Nature and society would not be accommodating. The hardened, frozen hearts of most men would oppose them. The journey to find the Infant Babe of Bethlehem would never be easy. It would be a journey through the land of sin, with the voices singing in [their] ears, saying that this was all folly.
As Eliot imagines it, the Magi left behind one kind of obstinately oppositional hell found in the pagan Persia, only to come into another strange and confusing place. They emerged out of lands whose histories neither respected their spiritual questing nor cared much for deeper metaphysical meaning. They came into the promised land of God, into Israel. Probably, they had high hopes; but they experienced a different sensation and climate in this place. It was temperate and warmer. It was wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;/ With a running stream and water mill beating the darkness, / And three trees on the low sky… Here, new life was waiting to be born. The Streams of Living water began to beat against the darkness. Three trees on the horizon were growing up to be cut down and shaped into crosses. Men here were gambling, like men in their own land, preferring seamless robes to brilliant stars. Even here, in the Promised Land of the Jews, the Wise Men found only fragments of interest in the star that they followed. God’s priests and kings had forgotten their first love, their promised destiny, their intended course. The land of the Jews was not as they had expected. And so we continued, say Eliot's Wise Men, and arrived at evening, not a moment too soon/ Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
First, the Wise Men’s reason led them ignorantly to Jerusalem, but the star did not shine there on her king, Herod. Besides, he was too old and hardened to be born or even born again. There was no room in Jerusalem, the holy city, for the birth of the king the wise men sought. Its temple had no room for the birth of a Heavenly king; its priests were the puppets of power and pretention. The newborn king the Wise men sought could not have been born there. Instead, the Star insisted on leading them to a place that was satisfactory, more sufficiently suitable for the birth of God’s Son. They found what appeared to be an ordinary birth, of ordinary parents, in an ordinary place. And yet they believed and saw that this was the kind of king for whom their gifts were prepared. They offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gold offered to this king would be used to sustain the child, with Mary and Joseph, as they fled into exile and then returned to rear up God’s own Son in a carpenter’s shop. The frankincense pointed to the priesthood and holiness of this child who would become God’s priest and victim. The myrrh they brought was a funerary ointment to be held in reserve to embalm the king born to die for all men. The Star moved them to discover the king through sacred gifts of mystic meaning.
The Wise Men left, warned by an angel not to return to Herod, they withdrew to their country by another route. (St. Matthew ii. 12)
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different. This Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. (Idem)
The Wise Men were moved by the Star to see, believe, find, and know the birth of a new king. They witnessed a birth but offered their gifts for life, holiness, and death. In the simplicity of this new life, they found the holiness of God. With holiness, they foresaw sacrifice and death. They offered gifts to an infant king whose holy life would call all men to share in His death.
Nevertheless, as Eliot has them admit, they would do it again. We must always desire to follow the Light that leads to the Infant Child of Bethlehem. In Him, The Wise Men, full of truth, found a new kind of love. Ye are dead, St. Paul would say long after the Magi were dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3)
Eliot's poem, The Journey of the Magi is about the death and new life that must always characterize our relationship with Jesus Christ, or what is manifested and revealed in this season of Epiphany. His poem concludes like this:
We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Something remarkably spiritual had taken place with the Wise Men, and something equally remarkable is meant to take place in the lives of all who have the courage to follow the Star to Bethlehem and there to find God in Man made Manifest. We should be glad of another death. A new death. Death to sin. Death to darkness. His Death and our Death. His Life and our Life. We are being led by the bright beams of a star. The star brings us to Christ the Light. In the Burning Love of this Light, we must be changed, no longer the same, uncomfortably aware of the need for our spiritual death if we are to embrace this remarkable new life in Jesus Christ. Ye are the light of the world, he says to us, a city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (St. Matthew v. 13-16) Christ the Light enlightens us today, and so now let us continue the journey we have begun together, heading for a new home, starting here and now, fearing nothing but the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. Let us look forward into the Burning Love of that Light, Jesus Christ, God’s Epiphany, who alone can lead us home,
no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With alien people clutching their gods. (Idem)
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice.
On the Last Sunday in Advent, you and I are called to come to know the Word made flesh and to Rejoice. Our recognition of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh and our rejoicing are gifts coming to us from the heart of John the Baptist. Today John the Baptist prepares us for Christ’s coming into his Body, the Church, and especially for His first coming, which we remember on Christmas Day. We are called to discover the character which both knows Jesus Christ as the Word and Wisdom of God made flesh and to rejoice in Him.
But first, in today’s Gospel, John the Baptist teaches us to know ourselves and our need for Jesus Christ. The Jews sent Priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. John the Baptist never pretended to be Christ, and neither should we. He confesses that he is not even Elijah the prophet. Malachi had foretold that Elijah would come before the Second Coming of the Lord. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. (Mal. iv. 5) But the Angel Gabriel insists that it is John who shall go before [Jesus Christ] in the spirit and power of Elias (Lk. i. 17). Both are messengers and forerunners. Neither one of them is the Christ. John prepares for the first coming and Elijah for the second. But John shares with Elijah the vocation of the precursor and preparer. John Baptist says, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaiah. (St. John i. 23) John has come to prepare the Jewish people for the coming of the Lord. His preparation begins with a confession of who he is truly. He calls us too to know ourselves as those who need always make straight the way of the Lord. (Idem)
John comes and teaches us to know who we are. Repent ye, for the kingdom of God is at Hand. (Matt. iii. 2) John teaches us to repent because we are always sinners in need of the Saviour. With John, we are called to confess our sins. John, like Elijah, is a messenger of repentance. Because we are neither righteous nor virtuous, we must make repentance an habitual part of our spiritual lives. But his confession also reveals to us that repentance is only a beginning. Repentance prepares us for the salvation that Jesus Christ alone can bring into our lives. John tells us: I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not: he it is who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose. (St. John i. 26) From the depths of John’s heart we come to know that repentance empties us of all power and strength. John has a baptism with water for repentance, but Christ shall baptize…with the Holy Ghost. (St. Mark i. 8) John’s baptism will cleanse us; Christ’s baptism will sanctify and save us. The one removes sin and the other infuses righteousness.
With John the Baptist, you and I must move out of the world and into the soul. We are too much at home in this world. John comes to teach us that this is not our home. Christians ought to know that this world is a place of passage and pilgrimage, from wilderness and exile to the true homeland and City of our God. Like John the Baptist, like the Apostles, you and I must become courageous searchers and seekers, “who would not cease from exploration…until at… the end of all exploring they would arrive where…they… started from and know the place for the first time? (Eliot, Little Gidding) With them, we must earnestly prepare for the Lord’s coming? We live in a time when the human heart seems so far removed from any need to seek out and find God. We live in a world whose idolatry conceals the knowledge of God. John the Baptist, bearing the spirit of Elijah, calls us away from our idolatry. Anything which claims our time, attention, and money more than God is an idol. Anything that consumes, owns, and possesses us more than God is an idol. The idol could be a political platform, a romantic notion, or even an arrogant assertion of our own will to power. It could be a large house, an expensive car, an obsession with money and taxes, or an addiction to another person. None of these things must ever claim our hearts more than our love for God. If anyone of these things stands between us and God, we must know to get rid of them. Anything which does not reveal to the world our humble, unmerited, and undeserved receiving of God’s costly and precious mercy is an idol. Anything with which we cannot part is an idol. And that idol may stand in the way of another’s coming to Christ. Not only does our attachment to idols stand between us and God but it might very well turn others away from Him also! Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew vi 24)
John Baptist comes to join him in that spiritual journey that calls us to sever our ties to the false gods and idols of this world. He knows also that repentance and self-denial might be dangerous. We might become proud of our good work of repentance and self-emptying while failing then to undertake the more difficult labor of embracing God’s goodness into our souls. Bear fruits that befit repentance, he cries, for even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (St. Matthew iii. 8, 10) With John’s contemporaries, we might ask, What then shall we do? John the Baptist tells us not only to repent but to purge. He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise. (St. Luke iii 11) He tells us also not to desire more than is our fair share in the earthly city. Collect no more than is appointed you. (Ibid, 12) To the soldiers he says, Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages. Why? Because while John baptizes…with water for repentance, He who is coming after me is mightier than me, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Ibid, 14-16) This is serious business. It might even get confusing. Charles Williams remarks, Let the man who has two coats give one to the man who has none. But what if the man who has none, or for that matter the man who has three, wants to take one from the man who has two- what then? Grace of Heaven! My Sainted Aunt! Why, give him both. If a man has stolen the pearl bracelet, why, point out to him that he has missed the diamond necklace in the corner! Be content…
The outside world and our dependence upon it could land us in Hell. With John, let us know that we have been too attached to the things of this world. Let us repent. The old man must quit splicing hairs and counting the cost! The old man must see that the time has come to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (St. Luke vi 31) John wants us to know that the character of the soul must be prepared to know and welcome the coming mercy of God. We must know also that it is more than we either desire or deserve. God’s Mercy is coming to us and will be made flesh. The coming Christ invites us to know the pattern and movement of perfect love. John tells us to share everything and if we think that we have given too much, we must interrupt our self-congratulations and know that the most that we can give is nothing in comparison to what Christ comes to give us! The Virgin Mother of our Lord has a nice rebuke for us: The rich he hath sent empty away. (St. Luke i. 53) It is all consistent with John Baptist’s insistence that our souls should know Christ’s coming.
John also exhorts us to mourning. When we acknowledge our sins, we ought to mourn over what we have done to ourselves and others. We mourn our own lost opportunities to die to ourselves and prepare more seriously for Christ’s coming. We must pray for the gift of tears. Our physical tears begin to heal those who grieve. Our spiritual tears begin to cleanse us from sin, as St. J. Chrysostom says. Our repentance and mourning promise to play the greatest part in our coming to know God and rejoice in His coming. Our bodies will begin to heal and our souls will be altered for the better. The water that John pours over the heads of penitents symbolizes the tears that purify the soul that awaits the coming of Christ.
The tears that unceasing prayer offers…are resurrectional. (Philokalia) Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. (St. Matthew v 4) Rejoicing and Joy constitute our end. Our preparation for the coming of Christ heralded by St. John the Baptist intends to make us new and ripe for rejoicing in Christ’s Holy Incarnation. He longs for us to rejoice in Jesus Christ’s coming to the soul. John’s cry for confession, contrition, and compunction prepares us to run the race that empties us of ourselves and longs to be filled with the salvation that Christ’s birth brings. Only then will our souls receive Christ’s coming with rejoicing. If this power becomes operative in our lives, we shall instinctively perfect confidence and hope in God’s future glory. Today, Christ promises to infuse us with His presence to generate to deepen and perfect our belief and hope that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. So let us close by praying with St. Ignatius of Loyola:
Fill us, we pray, with Your light and life,
that we may show forth Your wondrous glory.
Grant that Your love may so fill our lives
that we may count nothing too small to do for You,
nothing too much to give,
and nothing too hard to bear.
Teach us, good Lord, to serve You as You deserve:
To give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do Your will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and
stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards,
that a man be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by my self; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord. (I Cor. IV. 1-4)
The Third Sunday in Advent from the time of the Ancient Church has been known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for Rejoice or Be Joyful. And on this Sunday, if you priest is, dare I say, rather Catholically-minded, he will be decked in rose-colored vestments, in contra-distinction to the deep purple of Advent’s other Sundays, when he sports the deep purple of fasting and abstinence. Thus, in another age, when Christians took Advent seriously, embraced the penitential nature of preparing for Christmas with fear and trembling, the Church chose this Sunday to relieve the Flock of Christ from the rigors of her spiritual discipline. On this Sunday, the Ancient Church exhorted the Flock to rejoice with exceeding great joy because Christ the Coming Light was near and close at hand, about to reveal Himself as the One whose Birth alone would bring the True Life that could overcome the Law of Sin and Death. Today, we are called to rejoice and hope in Christ the Coming Light over and against our suffering and sadness.
We began today’s sermon with words from St. Paul who is reminding the Church at Corinth that the ministers and stewards of the Gospel must lead by example. For St. Paul, the example or pattern is a character of soul that must be the norm for those who will lead Christ’s Flock as little-Christs. St. Paul knows only too well that his example must be one of servanthood -a servanthood that can serve Christ’s Flock because it is serviceable and accountable to Christ’s Judgment alone. The imperfect minister, presbyter, or priest of the Church must be judged habitually by Jesus Christ alone. Only then can he minister and pastor the Flock with any spiritual success. And the trial and error by which the minister is judged by Christ must not be swayed and distracted by the judgment of men, the Law of Man, or the customs and traditions of any age. St. Paul tells us:
Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God. (Ibid, 5)
Christ the Coming Light can alone reveal and disclose the intentions and motivations of all men’s hearts. St. Paul prays that his Flock will understand that he and all faithful ministers must be measured according to their first love, that true devotion to Jesus Christ, by which Christ the Coming Light has had his way with them. First, St. Paul prays that Christ the Coming Light will reveal to his flock that he is consumed with the Cross of Christ. He prays that his flock will begin to understand that the Omnipotent Power of the Crucified Christ has moved his heart and measured his ways so fully that this is his chief desire for them.
It has always and ever been the case that the Flock of Christ has tended to judge her ministers and priests by earthly standards, with worldly expectations, and for human ends. Time and again throughout the history of the Church, the Flock of Christ has been frustrated with the likes of St. Paul and his followers. What frustrates the Church’s members most is the supposed silent and prayerful inactivity of clerics who don’t jump to meet the demands of men who want instant gratification, simple solutions to complex problems, and Transfiguration miraculous moments that prove Christ’s power and presence. I remember the words of old Father Crouse, when as a green and sinful young man, I wanted him to jump into a problem and solve it, to call down thunder from Heaven, and to stop the designs of heretics who were attacking one of our friends with malice. He looked at me quietly, smacked his chops, and said, Don’t just do something, stand there. What he meant, of course, was Do as I do. Pray. Be Silent. Have faith. Take it to the Lord in prayer. Needless to say, my exasperation was quenched, I was ashamed, and I knew that like St. Paul, Father Crouse was exhorting me to spend time with Christ the Coming Light.
To be sure, none of this is easy. St. Paul himself, like all good priests, struggled throughout his life to surrender to the Lord. He knew that he was a sinner, sold under sin and forever tempted by its Law. He writes:
For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. (Romans vii. 14-20)
The tension always exists between the old man ruled by the Law of Sin and Death and the new man striving to be remolded and refashioned by Faith in God’s Grace. Christ the Coming Light is our hope and our deepest desire. But with St. Paul, we struggle to be made better and newer by God’s Grace on this side of Heaven.
Father Crouse, again, reminds us that The Christian soul is a faithful steward of the revealed mysteries. (Advent Meditations) What St. Paul, as a faithful steward, reveals to us in his own life is one who struggles against sin and with hope for Christ the Coming Light. What he rejoices in and draws joy from is Christ’s promise made to His followers and ministered to them by His stewards and priests. Canon Blunt remind us that
[Christ’s stewards] act by His authority, are endowed with His power, and do His work. As His ministers they have in past generations opened the eyes of the spiritually blind, healed spiritual infirmities by the ministration of their Master's grace, and made life-giving streams of Sacramental power to spring up in the wildernesses and deserts of the world. (J.H. Blunt: The Annotated Book of Common Prayer)
St. Paul is a steward of the mysteries of Christ the Coming Light. His chief role is to steward the Flock of Christ that through Word and Sacrament they might feel Christ’s liberating and saving power inwardly so that they might rejoice with exceeding great joy.
Again, none of this exceeding glad joy comes easily to God’s stewards and Saints. They all have felt, more than not, that Christ is not present but absent, not near but far removed from man’s earthly sufferings and fleshly expectations. The discomfort felt later by St. Paul, is experienced in today’s Gospel by another great steward, John the Baptist. Today, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus Art thou He that should come or do we look for another. (St. Matthew xi. 2) John is suffering in prison awaiting Herod’s sentence of execution. Perhaps he is confused or hopeful, but with confusion. St. Hilary writes:
[In John the Baptist] the Law became silent. For the Law had foretold Christ, and the forgiveness of sin, and had promised men the kingdom of heaven. John had continued and brought to a close this purpose of the Law. The Law was now silenced, imprisoned by the wickedness of men, and as it were held in bonds, lest Christ become known, because John has been fettered and imprisoned.
(St. Hilary: On the Gospel)
John the Baptist had preached repentance for the coming forgiveness of sins in Christ the Coming Light. John, the herald and forerunner of Christ, is now silenced and has reason to fear that his disciples might lose all hope because of his impending demise. John will experience neither earthly deliverance nor Transfiguration rapture. Jesus tells John’s disciples:
Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. (Ibid, 4-6)
Christ the Coming Light asks John the Baptist to rejoice and have hope in the miracles which point to the salvation that is coming. Like St. Paul, John will begin to believe that Christ will overcome the Law of Sin and Death. John has prepared all men for spiritual transformation. Christ asks John to hope in His Coming, in the light of the wonders that He performs…and to be set free by an understanding of ‘the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free.’ (Hilary, Idem).
John hopes and rejoices in Christ the Coming Light who will consecrate and crown his repentance and suffering into the service of freedom and lasting liberation. In his end, with St. Paul, John sees his suffering stewardship in relation to Christ the Coming Light.
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.
Today, you and I must soldier on believing in the faith of Christ the Coming Light. Christ is with us through our suffering, our sadness, our loneliness, and our pain. We must believe that Christ the Coming Light is the Forgiveness of Sins. We must never despair. Remember, in His own body on the Tree, we shall find fellowship with His sufferings. With John the Baptist we must repent, believe, hope, and hear Jesus saying Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. (St. Matthew xxvii. 20) Now, we must rejoice with exceeding great joy.
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple,
and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves,
and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer;
but ye have made it a den of thieves.
(St. Matthew xxi. 12, 13)
The traditional Anglican lectionary is one of the few collections of liturgical readings that goes back to the Ancient Church. As Father Crouse reminds us If you consider…the selection of…lessons for the Sundays in Advent, as they appear in [our] Book of Common Prayer, you will find that they are…those appointed in the Sarum Missal of the Medieval Church of England, and are in fact the same as those prescribed in the “Comes of St. Jerome”, which goes back to the Fifth Century. Our own Anglican Reformers decided to opt for the readings selected by the Ancient Fathers since they thought they were probably safer guides to our salvation journey than what might otherwise be selected.
Today’s readings are a case in point. We have read this morning about Jesus’ exultant and euphoric entry into Jerusalem. Of course, our overly simplistic and literal post-modern minds jump to Palm Sunday. Why on earth, you ask, did the Ancient Fathers choose this reading for Advent Sunday? Aren’t we supposed to be getting ready for Christmas? The answer is, Yes. But according to the logic of the Church Fathers, preparing for the coming of Christ means readying our souls penitently for His Birth. We ought to liken His Birth to a triumphant entry into our souls once again on Christmas Eve. St. Paul tells us this morning that The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. (Romans xiii. 12) Christmas is all about the coming Light, the Light which was the Life of men…the Light [which] shineth in the darkness, and the darkness [overcame] it not…the Light that ligtheth every man that cometh into the world. (St. John i. 4,5,9) So Advent, with the Ancient Latin Fathers, means casting off the works of darkness to make room in our souls for the birth of Christ the Light, and this involves readying the soul so that we may joyfully receive Him for our Redeemer.
Our Advent season encourages us to repent and empty ourselves of all darkness to welcome in Christ the Light. Yet, how hard this seems to so many. Today’s materialistic and worldly people do not seem to take Christ’s visitation seriously at all. People these days are moved and defined by earthly riches and mammon. Being so mollycoddled by creature-comforts, their spiritual senses are dulled, and their consciousness of God doesn’t seem to register at all. Casting away the works of darkness, through sorrow, penance, and contrition seems alien and absurd. Even the very notion of sin itself seems to have been banned the feeling-police to today’s barbarian world. The determination to exorcise and expel all darkness from the soul is punishable as a hate crime! And this because theyworship the creature rather than the Creator! (Rom. i. 25) Is it any wonder that the Incarnation of God’s own Son and our Saviour doesn’t seem to move men at all?
So be it. The ways of the world are wicked. As Christians, we must courageously face the darkness if we shall truly welcome the birth of Christ the Light on Christmas Eve. The contrast between darkness and light is essential to our salvation. First, what is this darkness? Is it not an accumulation and accretion, a cluster and conglomeration of vice and sin that stubbornly ignore or reject the Light of God’s Word? The darkness is the will that turns aside from God’s Wisdom, Power, and Love. Darkness is that effect of a hardened heart that defends the self against the influence and rule of the Light of God’s Word.
The darkness is so powerful that it drives us away from Advent’s exhortation to have us consider the Four Last Things. The Four Last Things are Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. How do they relate to darkness? Are we afraid of Death? Why else would folks mindlessly fear the darkness of earthly diseases and earthly cures? We Christians must focus on the Judgment. We believe that at death everyone will face God’s Word and Wisdom, Jesus Christ, who will judge each man’s life based upon His Redemptive Wisdom, Power, and Love. If we have repented and done good, we shall be saved. If we have not repented and die in our sins, we shall be damned. From Jesus’ mouth to our ears. Are we ready? Heaven and Hell are the two states of life that follow upon our Judgment. We go to the one or to the other. It is up to us. Perhaps it would be advisable to think about darkness and sin after all.
Advent begins with Christ’s riding into Jerusalem. The crowds of old in this morning’s Gospel respond with Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. (Ibid, 9) Christ is coming to us. We sing Hosanna because the God of all glory and holiness has stooped down from His heavenly throne to enter our souls to give us one more chance to repent, one further extension of His Mercy so that we might cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light now in the time of this mortal life. (Collect, Advent Sunday) We are permitted to sing Hosanna but only if we joyfully welcome the One who comes to purge the temple of our souls and to cast away our works of darkness. The Christ who comes in Advent illuminates us to the darkness that defines our lives. He doesn’t come with cheap Grace to accommodate lukewarm religion. He knows [the] time, [and] that now it is high time to awake [us] out of sleep, for now is our salvation closer than when we first learned to believe. (Romans xiii 11: AV & Knox) Christ comes to cast away the works of darkness. (Idem)
Christ means business. Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. (Ibid, 12, 13) Materialistic and power-hungry men who take comfort in fleshly gods are in real trouble. If we want Jesus to cast away the works of darkness in our souls, we had better allow Him to purge our systems of the worship of all false gods, be they material or spiritual, who only and ever provide false security through deceit and unbelief! Christ is the Ultimate and Good Physician. He is kind, gentle, loving, and compassionate. But once He administers His anesthesia, He goes after the sickness with zeal and precision. He is determined to rid the temples of the Holy Ghost of all darkness.
On Advent Sunday, we must open our souls to the invasive, penetrating, and dynamic Light of Christ’s coming! St. Paul tells us this morning that our patient-prep for Christ’s spiritual surgery must involve love. If Christ is to enter our souls to purge, cleanse, and wash away our sins, we must not be resentful, angry, or bitter. We are sinners in need of a Savior. We must humbly and meekly acknowledge our limitations and weaknesses. We must shut our mouths and submit to His all-healing power with gratitude and love. Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. (Romans xiii 8) This means that we must stop comparing ourselves with others, stop judging others, start loving all others and thus focus ourselves on the business at hand. The night is far spent, and the night is at hand. (Idem) Christ the Light is coming to us in this the day of our salvation. Now it is high time to wake out of sleep. (Idem) For they that sleep, sleep in the night. And they that be drunken, are drunken in the night. (1 Thes. V. 7) Alas, for the Day. The day of the Lord is at hand. (Joel i. 15) All sinful things are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light. Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. (Ephesians v. 13,14)
My friends, today we are called to slow down and contemplate our darkness in relation to Christ the Light. Advent is all about waking up, seeing ourselves truly in Christ the Coming Light, and longing for the bright beams of His healing light to save us. We need to admit that this world’s false gods have led us into unhappy darkness removed from Christ the Light. In Advent, we must repent. What needs to be alive, zealous, and passionate in us is the willingness to pray more fervently for the purifying fire of Christ’s Light in our hearts. For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light. (Eph. v. 8) And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. (Ibid, 11) Then, we need enduring vigilance to be corrected humbly and with eagerness to rebuke the Devil and his enveloping darkness. If we persist in the sanctification, we shall cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of Light now in the time of this mortal life. (Idem) And with that earnest young Elizabethan poet, we shall pray:
Leave me, O Love, which reachest but to dust;
And thou, my mind, aspire to higher things;
Grow rich in that which never taketh rust;
Whatever fades but fading pleasure brings.
Draw in thy beams and humble all thy might
To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be;
Which breaks the clouds and opens forth the light,
That doth both shine and give us sight to see.
O take fast hold; let that light be thy guide
In this small course which birth draws out to death,
And think how evil becometh him to slide,
Who seeketh heav'n, and comes of heav'nly breath.
Then farewell, world; thy uttermost I see:
Eternal Love, maintain thy life in me.
Sir Philip Sidney
Wherby He shall be called, The Lord our Righteousness.
(Jeremiah xxiii. 6)
Last week you and I reflected upon a sick woman who pressed through the crowded, noisome business of this world, with persistent faith, to touch the hem of the garment (St. Matthew ix. 20) that Jesus wore, hoping that her effort would rid her of a persistent disease. That woman’s faith stirred her up to reach out to Jesus, the source of man’s salvation and deliverance. That woman was stirred up. Her faith should have inspired us to possess a zeal and passion for the cure that Jesus alone brings into the world, so that even today, on this The Sunday Next before Advent, we should be able to persist in praying for the effects of His cure. Stir up we beseech thee O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people. With her, if we have reached out to touch Jesus, our faith is ready to be stirred up into something spiritually stronger and greater. Advent is coming, a purple season, in which we repent and prepare for Christ’s coming to us again at Christmas time. Advent will call us to look within, that the Lord may stir up fuller self-honesty and then confession, contrition, and compunction for our sins. Repentance will then enable us to know our need for the Birth of Jesus Christ in the world once again.
But before we are stirred up, we must refresh our memories with a few practical details about the condition of our spiritual lives. We must remember that God has made us for Himself, and that the chief created vocation and calling of human nature is the good of the soul and its realignment with the Mind and Heart of the Maker. Yet man’s obedience to God’s purpose is not instinctual or natural. Our instincts and natures are handicapped by sin. So, our relationship with God must be rational and volitional. Man is made to be stirred up in mind and heart, to discover, know, love, and obey God. We are created to discover His necessary and omnipresent rule of the universe so that we might invite Him to dwell in us, that we might dwell in Him. (1 St. John iv. 13) We are created to know ourselves in God and then God in ourselves and all others. As the Bishops of the Church of England said in 1922: God’s revelation is a self-communication of the personal God to the persons whom he has made, and it can only be received through a personal apprehension and response. But men are capable of that apprehension and response only as God bestows on them, by creation and by the operation of Grace, the spiritual illumination by which to see…(DCE, p.43) Man is made to apprehend God through the mind and respond to Him from the heart. Yet, none of this is effectual without God’s Grace. Or, putting it another way, man is a capacity for God –homo est Dei capax. (CSDCC) Man’s nature is suited to know God and to love Him. Man is made in the Image and Likeness of God and so is capable of learning to know as God knows. To perfect his capacity to be like God, he must take what he knows and will it into habits of virtuous and godly living. But he can do this only if the devices and desires of [his] own heart are stirred up and moved by the Grace of God so that the Image of God is made more and more into a true Likeness.
Thus, on this Stir-up Sunday, we are called to be stirred up. But we need to be careful not to confuse this with non-Christian forms of being stirred-up. In the past year we have been stirred upby earthly demons who have given us new false gods to worship. The devices and desires of our own hearts have been distracted by some kind of earthly illness. The powers that be have cast a pall of doom and gloom over our world. Nations that have long since denied God have found their nihilistic hedonism crowned with the idiotic and the absurd. Evidently, humanity is in far worse shape spiritually than we ever imagined. Mankind has been all stirred up. When they learn that they have been sick with and dying of the same things that have always killed them, under a new code-name, perhaps then they will feel stupid enough and sufficiently fed up to be stirred up once again for what matters most in human life -redemption and salvation. So, let’s be clear, despite earthly sickness and suffering that emerge from completely predictable, malicious sources in a sinister world, we are not called to be stirred up by the hungering and hankering after false gods who will only ever land us in Hell with their possession of our affections. Rather, we are called to be stirred up to become the capax Dei, the capacity for God, as God fulfills what the world cannot. Being controlled by the Global Elites who foment hysteria to make money and control us all will lead us to Hell. Being moved and defined by the God of the Universe might just land us Home in Heaven, where those made in the image and likeness of God are meant to be.
Jeremiah the Prophet, who knew all about false gods and what they do to sinful men, can help to stir us up today. He lived some six hundred years before the birth of Christ, in a nation whose spirit had given way to unbelief, treachery, and despair. As a result of internal spiritual decay and disintegration, the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzars conquered Israel and Judah from the east with little resistance. Spiritual corruption within Israel had spawned a moral vacuum with an idolatry that was ripe and ready for foreign conquest and its insidious designs. Israel abandoned all faith and hope in God and thus opened herself to foreign conquest.
And yet, in the midst of it all, Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah was moved and shaken, stirred upby the ever-present Word of God. The Lord stirred him up to consider the origin of his spiritual vocation. Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations. (Jer. i. 5) God stirred up Jeremiah to remember that He was the God of Israel, the Creator and Redeemer of the world. God stirred upJeremiah to remind the Chosen People that each of them was made to become the capax Dei, a capacity for God, whose future could have meaning only in so far as he remembered and obeyed God, hoped in His coming promises, and hanged yet upon His every Word.
BEHOLD, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. (Jer. 23.5)
Jeremiah was stirred up to recall his people to the promises of God. Jeremiah would stir up the Jews to remember that God would raise up a righteous branch from His Chosen People and her most honored King. He would prophesy the coming of a Jewish King who would bring judgment and justice to the earth. This King would judge them with His mercy and crown them with His righteousness. This King would enable man to once again become the capax dei –the capacity for God.
In the coming Advent, we ought to work on discovering who we were made to be. Like the people in today’s Gospel, we ought to discover that we can never be made right with God until we feed from His Kingly Hand. When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? (St. John vi. 5) Jesus looks out with the faith of man for God and the hope of God’s provision for man. He knows that as God’s Word made flesh, He alone can satisfy man’s inmost hunger. Human nature is capax Dei. Earthly sustenance can never perfect man’s potential for God. Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little. (St. John vi. 7)
To be stirred up to hunger for what is more than the earth can give, we must seek out Heaven’s King and submit to His rule and sway with all our lives. William Law says this.
True Christianity is nothing but the continual dependence upon God through Christ for all life, light, and virtue; and the false religion of Satan is to seek that goodness from any other source.
(William Law, The Power of the Spirit)
For the heart to be stirred up, the conscience must be startled into deepest confession that without God, His Christ, and the Indwelling of our Lord the Holy Ghost, we are doomed to Hellfire and Damnation. We must, with Jeremiah the Prophet, remember that we derive from God, depend upon God for all our hope, and must desire to please God with all our lives. We can do this only by submitting to the King who has come to us from God and out of David’s loins. With Jeremiah, we must see that the barren and desolate wasteland of creation must be joined to God’s Word so that out of its poverty a King might be born for us. Only Jesus Christ, God’s chosen heir, the Image and Likeness of God the Father, born of a woman by the Holy Ghost can be that King who will save us. And so, we must long to be stirred up by the strange birth of an unusual King who comes from a desolate and poor place to make us rich in new and remarkable ways.
Begin from first, where He encradled was,
In simple cratch, wrapped in a wad of hay,
Between the toyleful Ox and humble Ass,
And in what rags, and in what base array,
The glory of our Heavenly riches lay,
When Him the simple shepherds came to see,
Whom greatest princes sought on lowest knee.
(An Hymn of Heavenly Love: Edmund Spenser)
When we are stirred up with spiritual appetite for what God alone can give, we shall discover that Heaven’s King comes to us as David’s Son in an humble and simple way. The Babe of Bethlehem, wrapped in a wad of hay, is the same King whose bounty metes out loaves and fishes that multiply over and again with Heaven’s repast until the capax Dei, the capacity for God, is perfected in the Image and Likeness of God. And all this, because our spiritual hunger has been stirred up with a passionate desire for Heaven’s King through spiritual poverty that yields plenty.
Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.
St. John iv. 48
Have you ever noticed how many people live their lives in search of miraculous signs and wonders? What I mean is that most men are looking for some evidence of a supernatural interruption in their lives to confirm God’s existence, or to solve some overwhelming plague, sickness, or disappointment. Most men –including no small number of Christians, await the one miracle that they think will confirm their belief or overcome their sorrows. And yet how strange it is that no sooner are the miracles performed than their recipients will fall back into the usual course of life, forgetting about it all until the next divine irruption is needed! The novelty of miracles wears off almost as quickly as a new pair of shoes –no sooner have we purchased them than, in some mysterious way, they rapidly lose their value. And it shouldn’t surprise us since miracles and new shoes tend to fall under a common category of what satisfies the senses and earthly existence. Miracle-seeking in itself would seems to be flawed from the get-go. We are searching for the wrong thing.
We find this in today’s Gospel. Jesus has just finished rebuking men for being miracle-seekers in the first place. The text reads that Jesus came again into Cana of Galilee, where he made water wine. And there was a certain nobleman whose son was sick at Capernaum… [who]went unto him, and besought him that he would come down and heal his son, who was at the point of death. (St. John iv. 46, 47) Jesus had just come out of a teaching session with pagan Samaritans, who had been much more interested in what he said than in proving to them what he could do by way of miracles or wonders. But now back in Jewish Galilee, He is confronted once again by a miracle-seeker. Jesus has returned to His own land in which He had made water wine and where the general population seems more taken up with ephemeral signs and wonders than with the Word which He longs to speak to them also. So, Jesus is approached by a nobleman who entreats the Lord to come down to heal his son. Jesus rebukes the nobleman, saying Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe. (Ibid, 48) The nobleman exclaims, Sir come down, ere my child die. (Ibid, 49) He believes that unless Jesus comes down in the flesh, his son has no hope of living. Like the Galilean Jews, his hope hangs on perpetuating earthly life. And, because he is not spiritually minded, he believes that Jesus must come down literally if his son is to be healed. He has no deeper sense of the transcendent and invisible power that can heal a man either from a distance or in a deeper, inward, and spiritual way. The end he seeks and the means to it are wholly caught up in earthly life.
In short, the man is rebuked for thinking first and foremost of his son’s physical and earthly healing. Signs and wonders are paranormal events sought out by those weak in faith for the relief of temporary problems! The nobleman cannot imagine saying speak and send the Word only and my servant shall be healed (St. Matthew viii.8), as the Centurion does in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Absent also from this man’s heart is the belief that Christ can raise the dead: Come down before my son dies (Ibid, 49). Because he is so moved and defined by the earthly good, he takes no thought for his son’s spiritual future! If he knew who Christ was and what He was bringing into the world, he would have asked Jesus to come down to heal his son spiritually, so that he might die a good death in anticipation of a better reward in the future. Nevertheless, having rebuked the man, Jesus will not leave him there without any hope.
Jesus will take the man in that state that he finds him and makes him better. He knows that in the future, wherever and whenever this story would be told, there will be ample opportunity for to find spiritual truth in it. To earthly problems, Jesus always brings spiritual remedies. Jesus takes this man’s earthly desire and transforms it to his spiritual advantage. The nobleman is not bereft of good intentions or even virtue. He believes that Jesus alone has the power to heal and he persists in obtaining it for his son. His persistence reveals the inward yearning for a truth that he does not yet possess. If his son is anything like him, they are both in need of the true spiritual life that only Jesus can give. So Jesus says to him, Go thy way, thy son liveth. (St. John iv. 50) What he means is this: Trust the Word that I give to you. Embrace it in your heart, believe it in your soul, and follow it to its end and conclusion. Do not merely hear my Word. Pursue it, find it, and see what new life it brings. Discover its power. To his credit, the nobleman does not hesitate with doubt or question Jesus further. And the man began his journey home, putting his trust in the words Jesus had spoken to him. (Ibid, 50)
What is truly miraculous is not so apparent in our casual reading of the text. Notice how the nobleman is trusting in the Word that Jesus speaks. Archbishop Trench reminds us that His confidence in Christ’s word was so great that he proceeded leisurely homewards. It was not till the next day that he approached his house, though the distance between the two cities was not so great that the journey need have occupied many hours; but ‘he that believeth shall not make haste.’ (Trench, Miracles, p. 93). The man was rebuked. Something in his soul has begun to stir in his ponderous and thoughtful Jesus’ Word begins to establish confidence in the nobleman. Something has happened to our miracle-seeker who was desperately in search for a physical and earthly sign or wonder alone. Christ’s Word has arrested him. When Jesus speaks, he hears, obeys, and trusts. The spoken Word has conquered and subdued his unbelief, his fear, and his doubt. This hearer’s belief rests in the spoken Word. The real miracle is the birth of the nobleman’s faith in the Word that is already changing his spiritual character and disposition. The nobleman forgets that he needed Jesus to come down. Jesus the Word is already with him. What has comes down to him is Christ the Word, first into his heart and then into the healing of his son. For a man to be healed truly, Christ must come down and into his soul. Then all other things will fall into place. As St. John Chrysostom says, The nobleman’s narrow and poor faith is being enlarged and deepened (Trench, Mir’s. 93) as he hastens home slowly under the protection of Christ’s Word.
So, as the nobleman returned home, his servants met him saying, thy son liveth. Then inquired he of them the hour that he began to amend. And they said, yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him. (St. John iv. 51, 52) The nobleman’s question confirms his belief that the healing of his son had been instantaneous. The son did not begin to amend, but rather the fever left him completely the day before when Jesus had said Thy son liveth. Jesus’ Word brings about two miracles. That Word will cure his son immediately from a distance. That same Word becomes dearer to the man than his son’s life. Its strength and might subdue and conquer his fearful soul. That selfsame Word will travel two distances, healing the flesh of the son in an instant, and converting the soul of the father in the steady progress of a longer journey.
St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that we should prepare our souls through prayer and come to God through our desires. For this is what the [nobleman] did. (Comm. Joh. iv) Prayer is the first movement of the self towards God. Desire is the expression of our passion that seeks out the healing that Christ alone can bring. Of course, our prayer should desire that we and others might be spiritually well in relation to God. Rather than focusing on earthly miracles, we ought to pray for the spiritual and heavenly purification of our affections. Again, with St. Thomas, as the nobleman desired the healing of his son, so we should desire to be healed from our sins. ‘Heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee.’ (Ps. xl. 5) (Ibid) Next, like the nobleman we ought always be desperately persistent, since without Christ’s Grace, we cannot help ourselves. The nobleman’s son was close to physical death; we, like his father, are near to spiritual death. St. Thomas says, When a person is tempted, he is beginning to become sick; and as the temptation grows stronger and takes the upper hand, inclining him to consent, he is near death. But when he has consented, he is at the point of death and beginning to die… The Psalmist (33:22) says: “The death of sinners is the worst,” because it begins here and continues into the future without end. (Idem) So we must pray to Jesus, Sir, come down, before I die in my sins. We must pray always, and not lose heart. (Idem)
Of course while we must run in haste to find healing from the Lord, with today’s nobleman we must embrace patience as our trust and obedience in Jesus matures. That we desperately need His healing power is one thing. That it takes time is another. Jesus says to the nobleman and us, Go away. Go away, thy son liveth. (Idem) Go away, the soul liveth. Go away, that thou might learn to obey, trust, and believe. Go away, and move slowly and silently as the assurance of my Word takes root in thy heart downward and bears fruit upward. Thy soul has just now begun to live. Thou wilt need my Word, thy sole companion, to enable thee to fight ‘against the wiles of the devil… to wrestle [not] against flesh and blood, but against principalities… powers… the rulers of darkness in this world… against wickedness in high places. (Ibid, 11,12) The Word which I speak to thee will enable thee to be ‘be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might[…and…to] put on the whole armour of God’. (Eph. vi. 10,11) What really threatens us is that evil that would bring about our spiritual death. But if we obey, trust, and believe, if we pray always with… all supplication in the Spirit, slowly but surely we shall be carried home [where because] we believe, [our] whole house will believe also. (Ibid, 53)
See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools,
But are wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
This morning you and I continue our spiritual journey through the season of Trinity. Our theme today involves both seeing and walking, two activities which better situate us in the center of reality which is the heart of God. We long to be centered in God the Holy Trinity because we were made in His Image and Likeness. Long ago, St. Macarius said this about our created nature and potential.
For great is the dignity of humanity. See how great are the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon. But the Lord was not pleased to find his rest in them but in humanity alone. Man, therefore, is of greater value than all the other creatures, and perhaps, I will not hesitate to say, not only the visible creatures, but also those invisible, namely, “the ministering spirits. (Heb. 1.14) For it was not of the angel Michael or Gabriel the Archangels, that God said, “Let us make man according to our image and likeness” (Gen. 1.26) but he said it concerning the spiritual makeup of the human. I mean the immortal soul.
St. Macarius proclaims that we belong to God in a special way with a unique destiny. God desires to live in us in a way unlike his relation to all other creatures. True life for man is all about discovering how to perfect God’s Image and Likeness in us by His Grace. In other words, true life is about understanding God’s way in the soul and living it out through the body. What an incredible challenge. We have bodies and souls and both are meant to come together as we serve God and perfect His Image and Likeness in us. We have the opportunity to know the Good through our souls and to apply what we know to our bodies. We are a coming together of angels and animals. We are the crown of God’s creation. So, we are given the chance to know and to will the Good in action.
But our task in seeking to know and to do relies completely on God’s Revelation of Himself to us. We are not really talking here about behavioral science or situational ethics, or what we can come up with as a scheme for the happy life. Rather we are seeking to open our souls to Divine wisdom and to pray for the love and power to translate it all into the good and happy life. As Brother Lawrence says, God alone can reveal Himself to us; we toil and exercise our mind in reason and in science, forgetting that therein we can only see a copy, whilst we neglect the Incomparable Original. In the depths of our soul, God reveals Himself, if only we would wake up and realize it.”(p95)
In this morning’s Epistle St. Paul exhorts the Ephesians and us to walk circumspectly. (Ephesians v. 15) Circumspection comes to us from the Latin word circumspecere. It means literally to look around. St. Paul is urging his Greek audience and us to use our souls to look around and survey the terrain before we walk about. You say, well that seems logical enough. Otherwise we trip and break a hip. Of course, St. Paul is speaking figuratively. He uses the word walk, and he means it in a spiritual manner. In walking Paul means our spiritual moving or better yet our thinking. This is the soul’s job. The soul needs to discover God’s Wisdom and Will before it can apply it to human life. What we must discover from God’s wisdom is that we are fallen and in need of Saviour and Redeemer. St. Paul says that we are here to redeem the time (Ephesians v. 15), and redemption means recovery, deliverance, or payback. Christians believe that they are in a process of discovering how they are recovered, delivered and paid back to God. Christians discover that they cannot redeem themselves. For this we rely upon the Saving Life, Death, and Resurrection of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, our souls discover that our real nature has been recovered, carried back, and paid back to God. We can participate in this, St. Paul says, if we stop acting like fools. Foolish men do not discover what Christ has done for us. They are swift to speak and slow to hear. (St. James i. 19) They are immersed in the world around them, playing the part of fools. Consumed with the world, they never discover what God has done for us already in Jesus Christ. They never find that true Wisdom that is made flesh in Jesus Christ.
St. Paul tells us that we are not meant to behave like fools but as wise men. Wise men know that the world around us is full of temptation and danger due to our will to power and greed. But wise men see something else. Wise men quietly look into the world around them. What they see first is what is not their own. It is God’s world. Wise men see that God has created a beautiful canvas for man’s use and enjoyment, and not for his abuse and destruction. Man can be wise and he can become circumspect. He sees what is not his. He sees a beauty, an order, a rationally coherent cosmos that far surpass his weak and halting rationality. Man looks out and is overwhelmed by the power, wisdom, and love that must be at work in that vast universe that his mind begins to perceive. He sees beautiful forms and substances that carry and convey his reason and desire back to their Maker. Beneath and behind the creation, he discovers the Creator. The works of God are overwhelmingly beautiful enough. But what of the worker? As Hans Von Balthasar says, when we reach him, we find glory. And the glory of the Lord… is the super-eminently luminous beauty of divinity beyond all experience and all descriptions, all categories, a beauty before which all earthly splendors, marvelous as they are, pale into insignificance.
But, again, for man to be wise, he must have more than an appreciative relation to the universe and God. Man is called to be wise in another way. He is called with St. Paul to redeem the time. He is called to know that God’s Son has redeemed the world and desires still to deliver man from his innate tendency towards sin and alienation, from that foolishness that characterizes the life of so many. Man is called to search out the will of God in the life and mission of Jesus Christ and to imitate it. He is invited to participate in that perfect virtue that will transform his life. He finds this first when he realizes that a loving God has made him. Man is being loved. And then, that the same slove longs to redeem and save him.
St. Paul tells us that more is needed. He says that we are called to be filled with the Spirit. He means the Holy Spirit. If we are not filled with the Spirit, we cannot receive the wisdom and holiness that will ensure our redemption for salvation in God’s Kingdom. And yet, what is the nature of this filling? Paul Claudel describes it this way:
It is the Holy Spirit- ardent, luminous, and quickening by turns- who fills man
and makes him aware of himself, of his filial position, of his weakness, of his discontent his state of sin, of his dangers, of his duty, and also of his unworthiness
and inadequacy of everything around him. Through man the world inhales God,
and through him God inhales the world….and continually renews his knowledge of it.
The wisdom of God is made present to us when we are filled with the Holy Spirit. We come to know ourselves as the children of our Heavenly Father. We come to confess our weaknesses and grow to be unsatisfied with our sins. We learn of the dangers of sin and of our duties to God. We come to experience our own unworthiness in the presence of God from our inability to live up to what God has called us to become. We come to understand our need for Christ, our need for His perfect sacrificial offering of Himself on the Tree of Calvary and our need for His ongoing presence in our hearts. The Holy Spirit enables us to inhale God as Jesus Christ did. We then become the Sons of God. And then the Holy Spirit enables us to be inhaled by God. God surrounds us and takes us into his presence if only we pray that he may begin to inform us.
We come to know through the Holy Spirit. Then the Holy Spirit enables us to speak and act in the drama of sanctified human life. We are gifted to speak to each other in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs. We begin to make melody to God in our hearts. (Ephesians v. 19) In so doing we sing the song of the Son’s love for the Father through the Spirit. For the Lord we know is now alive through His Spirit in our hearts and in our souls. Our song binds us to God in rapturous praise and then will reveal to others the music that stirs our hearts for the joy and happiness of Heaven.
This morning, let us remember that we are called not only to see and grasp the need for God. This morning let us know that we must express that knowledge in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Let us not, with the people in this today’s Old Testament lesson, deal treacherously with one another, dividing, sewing discord, uprooting, and maligning, shooting privately at them that are true of heart, (ps. xi. 2) as the Psalmist says. Let us rather, with the same Psalmist, remember that the righteous Lord loveth righteousness; his countenance will behold the thing that is just. (ps. xi. 8) Let us know that Heaven has made us to be lit up as torches, as the Father breathes the Spirit of His Son into us, that we may reveal the truth. For as Shakespeare writes, in Measure for Measure:
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ‘twere all alike
As if we had them not.
We are made to be set on fire by the knowledge and love of God. We are made then to sing a new song about the Divine Wisdom that is alive in our hearts. Today let us sing, sing unto the Lord, praise His name, bask in His beauty, and reveal to the world the truth that we serve, as wise men and not fools. Amen.
What is easier to say ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee’ or ‘Arise take up thy bed and walk’?
(St. Matthew ix. 4)
Simon Tugwell reminds us that the one and only comment on prayer that Christ gave to His Church is that if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven. (Matt. vi. 14…in Prayer: Living with God, p. 80) So, a sure sign that we have not received the forgiveness of sins from Jesus Christ is our failure to forgive others. When we do not forgive others, we can rest assured that the forgiveness of sins does not rule and govern us from the throne of our hearts. We take it for granted that Our Heavenly Father will forgive us repeatedly, will wink at our sins, and disregard what we consider to be minor foibles. We treat forgiveness of sins like some kind of entitlement benefit that we deserve for being card-carrying Christians. But this reveals that we do not treat sin, confession, forgiveness, or Christ’s command to Go and sin no more with much seriousness. Rather than seeing ourselves as those who are always most in need of forgiveness and so must work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. ii. 12), we are filled with pride over whatever goodness we think we possess, and we are threatened by the goodness of those who, rightly, and even charitably, do not find our spiritual levity and superficiality either attractive or enticing.
So, let us ask ourselves If what stops us from receiving and extending the forgiveness of sins is our own pride? Are we too arrogant to confess our vices and to realize that the forgiveness of sins alone leads to new life? Has an immature addiction to fear and anxiety quashed all hope for potential inner healing and transformation? Do we fear the opinion of others if we claim and confess utter powerlessness over the sin in our lives? Perhaps we have built a hard and fast wall around our past interior trauma to shield ourselves from ourselves? Perhaps, we spend our days trying to show the world that we are sane, sound, and successful. But the truth of the matter is that inwardly and spiritually we are broken, wounded, suffering, and sinful. Pride commands us to put on a good face, and so we move on appearing to be one thing while in all reality we are quite another. Pride tells us that we can hold it all together, fend for ourselves, do perfectly well without anyone’s help. Yet, when we encounter goodness in others that we do not possess, our pride begins to quiver and shake, our security teeters, our self-reliance wavers, and we envy that goodness we are afraid to pursue. Pride turns into envy. Dorothy Sayers, in her commentary on her translation of Dante’s Purgatorio, says this:
The sin of envy always contains…an element of fear. The proud man is self-sufficient, rejecting with contempt the notion that anybody can be his equal or superior. The envious man is afraid of losing something by the admission of superiority in others, and therefore looks with grudging hatred upon other men’s gifts and good fortune, taking every opportunity to run them down or deprive them of their happiness. (D.C.: Purg. p. 170)
The envious man is afraid that the superiority of other men’s gifts might threaten and devalue his own. So, his thoughts, words, and even works aim to destroy his privileged neighbor and deprive him of any goodness. Falsely thinking that the goodness he lacks can never be found, he is determined that no other man should ever find it either.
Of course, pride that turns into envy kills the forgiveness of our sins and our forgiveness of others. This is a temptation for us all. Accepting the preeminent place of God’s forgiveness is no easy thing, especially because our world defines truth and error, right and wrong, and good and evil by changing and shifting standards of feeling and emotion. Most of us, when left to our own devices and desires, measure out forgiveness in so far as it promotes and protects our underdeveloped and fragile egos. Sometimes we think that we have forgiven others, and we feel proud of ourselves, not realizing that from the position of our supposed moral superiority we disdain them, and we rejoice that their weakness depends upon our generosity. At other times we find forgiveness costs too much, and so we withhold it, all the while envying him whose life seems to move along quite effortlessly without it. We feel sorrow and anger at such prosperity and success. If our unforgiveness has hurt another, we rejoice in our power to begrudge another man his share in goodness, and so we rejoice over his sadness and hurt. He deserves it, so we think. But in all three cases, pride and envy combine to hurt ourselves and others because we have never truly discovered the beautiful Divine Love found in the forgiveness of sins.
We see both the danger of these sins and the alternative virtue in this morning’s Gospel lesson. And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.(St. Matthew ix. 2) Jesus not only brings the forgiveness of sins to fallen humanity, but is determined to offer it as God’s response to that faith that humbly longs for true healing. Forgiveness is always the primary business of Christ’s mission to men. It is God’s first response of love to His faithful people. He comes first to heal the sickness of the soul and then, only perhaps, the ailments of the body. As Archbishop Trench remarks, ‘Son, be of good cheer’, are words addressed to one evidently burdened with a more intolerable weight than that of his bodily infirmities. Some utterance on his part of a penitent and contrite heart called out these gracious words which follow, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee.’ (Miracles, p. 157) The man does not ask for the healing of his body, but his soul cries out for the relief of an even greater inner burden. He is not proud but humble, and so does not envy Jesus His Goodness but seeks it out with a passion that words cannot utter. Thus, Jesus declares, Thy sins be forgiven thee. (Idem)
The Scribes are wholly unnerved. And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth. (Ibid, 3) If a mere mortal had claimed such authority, he might be rightly condemned of usurping and stealing that power that belongs to God alone. What they did not see was that God was in Jesus reconciling, the world to Himself. (2 Cor. v. 19) Yet, we sense something more at work in the hearts of the Scribes. Were they bothered most because Jesus claimed the power of God? Or were their priestly prerogatives regarding ritual atonement for sin being threatened by a power they did not possess? Jesus knew that they were moved by pride and envy. So, He says, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith He to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. And he arose, and departed to his house. (Ibid, 4-7) Jesus declares that it is easier to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee, than to say, Take up thy bed and walk. But because the Scribes have never known the true effect of the forgiveness of sins that Christ brings, He proceeds to heal the man’s body to show that His spiritual cure comes with a fuller restoration and healing. Take up thy bed and go unto thine house. (Ibid, 7)
Today we learn that the healing medicine that Christ brings to us is twofold. First, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins….(1 St. John i. 9) Repentance is needed since our sinful flesh is always too ready to side with the cruel enemy of our souls. The things of this world press hard upon us, either to terrify us out of our duty, or humour us into our ruin. (Jenks, 221) Thus, the Great Physician instructs us to canvass our hearts to find those thoughts and desires that run contrary to God’s will for us. We must not walk, in the vanity of [our] mind[s], having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through…ignorance…because of the blindness of [our] hearts. (Eph. iv. 17, 18) The healing that Christ brings to us is a response to the confession of our sins. We prepare for this on Sundays with our Collect for Purity: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy Holy Name. (Collect for Purity) We confess our sins in the light of Christ’s presence, as our minds are illuminated by His wisdom and our hearts softened into sorrow and contrition by His love. So, regular confession is the first step towards Christ’s forgiveness of our sins. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins…. (1 John. i. 9)
Second, when we practice penance habitually, Christ will then cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 St. John i. 9) In this process we learn that as often as we repent, the Lord forgives. For the merciful goodness of the LORD endureth for ever and ever upon them that fear Him. (Ps. ciii. 17) What should overawe and stupefy us as we are renewed in the spirit of [our]mind[s], as we put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness (Eph. iv. 23, 24), is that God’s forgiveness is nothing short of a superabundant excess of His love and mercy for us. We shall realize that, as Simon Tugwell writes, We cannot let the truth of God’s being penetrate our own sin, so that we may be forgiven, if at the same time we are trying to exclude one essential aspect of that truth [in failing to forgive any other man]. (Ibid, 91) God’s forgiveness of our sins in Jesus Christ is the miracle of Love that desires continuously to conquer all sin. If the forgiveness we receive takes root downward to bear fruit upward, through us it will be showered indiscriminately on all others. For only then will it have become the Love of our lives. What is easier to say “Thy sins be forgiven thee” or “Arise take up thy bed and walk? (St. Matthew ix. 4) And if indeed we do arise, we shall be lifted by that forgiveness that frees all men of their debts to us and liberates them to share with us God’s unending mercy.
Ye cannot serve God and Mammon (St. Matthew vi: 24)
Our Gospel lesson appointed for today comes to us from the Sermon on the Mount. And like all the lections of Trinity Tide, it helps us to understand our sanctification and habituation to virtue. Today’s lesson is hard to study because it involves our relationship with two necessities of life, food and clothing. And our anxiety over these essentials are not made any easier by Our Lord’s abrupt dismissal of our worry about procuring them. He appears far more concerned with the spiritual food and raiment that will nourish and clothe our souls. He warns us: You cannot serve God and mammon. (St. Matthew vi. 24) Simply put: You cannot serve God if you are also serving mammon. And He condemns the idolatry of mammon because He insists that God will provide us with all our earthly needs.
Perhaps we can better understand all of this if we recall the main reason for Jesus Christ’s Incarnation. He has come down from Heaven to establish what we need truly for our eternal salvation. Thus, He has come down from Heaven to overcome our slavery to sin and a world full of false gods. Fallen man is a spiritual schizophrenic. The frailty of man without [God] cannot but fall, we read in today’s Collect. Indeed, the problem is that we are frail and fallen and thus we are torn between God and Mammon. Christ comes first and foremost to feed and clothe us with God’s holiness and righteousness so that we might be saved. What He longs to procure for us is the means that ensure our redemption and return to God the Father. As Romano Guardini puts it, From the abundance otherwise reserved for Heaven, Jesus brings Divine reality to earth. He is the stream of living water from the eternal source of the Father’s love to a thirsting world. From ‘above’ he establishes the new existence that is impossible to establish from below, existence which, seen only from the natural and earthly level, must seem subversive and incoherent. (The Lord, p. 82) Christ comes down from Heaven to share the Eternal Treasure of God’s love with us. This is what we call Grace. That loving power is God’s response to a thirsting world. Like as the hart desireth the waters brooks, so longeth my soul after thee O God. My souls is athirst for God, yea even for the living God. (Psalm xlii. 1,2) To be nourished and transformed by God’s Grace and Divine Virtue, man must seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. (Col. iii. 1) For Christ, what we need is the Divine food and medicine. God has made us for Himself. We must hunger and thirst for His food and drink. From the Father alone flows that living water that not only sustains mere existence but promises to make life better spiritually through the soul’s discovery of its true nature and destiny. From the Father alone can we yearn for that spiritual fruit which subverts man’s otherwise earthly obsessions.
Now, of course, it is not as if man hasn’t longed for this salvation or some form of it throughout human history. The ancient pagan philosopher Aristotle taught his students that all men by nature desire to know (980 a21), and that man naturally seeks happiness. (1097b) We men are not mere animals. We also possess the desire to seek for happiness and knowledge. Man used to be rational and he used to use his senses to begin the journey after truth. Man used to study nature and the self to discover the truth and to find happiness. And, still, he was restless. Man seeks out a higher truth that yields permanent happiness. Man cannot be content with food and clothing. If true to himself, man insists on finding first principles and even God. Aristotle quotes Hesiod when he writes:
Far best is he who knows all things himself;
Good, he that hearkens when men counsel right;
But he who neither knows, nor lays to heart
Another's wisdom, is a useless wight. (1095 b10)
A useless wight is a fool who settles for very little. Today’s world is full of them. Some of them are Christians who have forgotten that they have brains. Another’s Wisdom is needed to satisfy man’s inward hunger and thirst for knowledge and happiness. Christians believe that God’s Wisdom must be made flesh in Jesus Christ as the only spiritual means capable of saving man from becoming a useless wight. God’s way in Jesus Christ is entirely practical. In Jesus Christ, we are called to see this world as no end in itself, but a created good that must be used only in so far as it advances our salvation. The things of this world are gifts that are the basics that enable us to move inward and upward in spiritual passion and longing back to the author and giver of all good things.
Jesus urges us on to seeking the Supreme Good of God by reminding us, in an Aristotelian way, that God is the Mover and Definer of all things. He is our generous Father who forever loves and cares for us. Consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Stop, he urges, if you are indeed consumed with this world. Look at nature, look at the flowers, the animals, and the fowl of the air. All of nature is held in my Father’s loving hand. Nature is providentially ordered by Him. He feeds it, sustains, colors, beatifies, informs, and defines it. Each unique nature is defined by my Father’s Wisdom and enlivened by His ceaseless loving care. None of these creatures is anxious about anything. The birds neither sow nor reap and my Father feeds them. The lilies neither toil nor spin, and Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed by my Father like one of these. (St. Matthew vi. 26-29) Jesus brings before us the created things of this world and shows that they hang entirely upon the Father’s Wisdom and Loving Care for their being and beauty. He shows us that God orders all of nature providentially. He reminds us that the birds of the air are anxious over nothing and are fed. Similarly, the lilies of the field emit utter beauty without the slightest effort or toil. God provides for them, and would do the same for us, if only we would have faith and trust in Him. See and believe, Christ urges us today. Faith in God begins with openness to what surrounds us. We are bidden to slow down, stop, and behold how God enlivens and quickens, orders and defines, and gives divine beauty to all of His creatures and the universe itself. See and believe that God is at work in His world. Christ tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all other things shall be added to you. (St. Matthew vi. 33) Faith in Christ means following Him, through nature and then beyond it, up and into the transcendent loving truth that enlivens and informs all things.
Why do we find this so difficult? We are too comfortable with mammon. Our souls have grown cold and been dulled by the worship of creaturely comforts and earthly joys? We have been rendered slothful because we have forgotten whence we come and whither we go? Are we possessed by Mammon? Mammon is a false God, and the service of Mammon is idolatry. And it is the essence of idolatry to trust the things of the world as though they were a final and ultimate significance. Idolatry is the worship of worldly things, and it is a subtle, but constant, ever-present danger to the spiritual lives of all of us. (Parochial Sermons: RC) If we wish to stop putting Mammon first in importance, and to quelch the anxiety that worries about earthly sustenance and riches, we must tend first to the good of our souls. We must see and understand that created things, Mammon, really can never make us happy in any lasting and significant way.
Today, Jesus tells us that we cannot serve God and Mammon. Is not life more than meat, and the body made for more than raiment? (St. Matthew vi. 25) Jesus knows that Mammon has gotten the better of us. We toil and spin so desperately over it that we have become negligent about what God’s Good Providence has in store for us. We toil and spin because we have become so at home in this world that we have forgotten that we were made for another. Mammon has made a mess out of us all.
This morning let admit that we sow, toil, reap, and spin anxiously over earthly gods and their fleeting promises. Nature herself silently urges us to imitate her absolute dependence upon God! The Goodness of God is so free and diffusive that its runs over and fills a world full of creatures which all hang upon Him. He duly feeds them and gives them as much as they crave. He enlivens and quickens even those who never call upon His name and worship His glory. God’s Goodness moves and defines us all. He makes the sun to shine upon the evil and the good.
But we cannot leave it here. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon. (Idem) O how great is thy goodness that thou hast laid up for them that fear thy name. For there is a loving kindness in God that is better than what faith can secure in this life. Redeeming Love wins for us the greatest treasure. We are made to become invulnerable to the pull of earthly riches. Our Lord has made us for Himself and knows that we are restless until we find Him. (St. Augustine, Confessions) We must find Him forever. We must be willing to lose everything. Losing everything will happen eventually whether we like it or not. For we brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out. (1 Tim. VI. 7) The Lord calls us to the poverty of being always ready to relinquish everything that is given to us, so that it can be given back to us enhanced and multiplied. (The Beatitudes…S. Tugwell, p. 23) Everything we ever possess is a gift. It was never ours to begin with. When we perish, it will become unreal. We need a gift that is spiritually enhanced and multiplies, better and greater, an indestructible treasure of inestimable value and worth. We have this gift in Jesus Christ, our Life and our Love. Redeeming Love purchases for us a treasure in Heaven that will never perish. Jesus [longs] to immunize us to all unreality…to the prevailing social and economic order, to the dangers that threaten property, limb, and life. He is stripping us for the coming struggle; concentrating our forces and teaching us how to become invulnerable. (Guardini, 182) Jesus intends to anchor our minds and hearts in the reality of God’s Kingdom. (Idem)
Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see: For I tell you,
that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.
(St. Luke 10. 23, 24)
Before Jesus proclaims the blessing that introduces today’s Gospel lesson, He had offered thanksgiving to His Father for beginning to generate a new kind of seeing and knowledge in the eyes of His Apostles, whose eyes were being opened, like newly-born babes, onto the new world of His mission and meaning. And yet no sooner had Jesus praised His Father for bringing new visual birth to His friends, than one man, a lawyer, stood up to assert his religious maturity and adulthood in the face of what he, no doubt, considered an exhortation to childishness or even spiritual infantilism. For those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear, Jesus will respond to the lawyer’s challenge with one of His own. As it turns out, the lawyer will unwittingly both reveal his own blindness and open the eyes of others to the predicament of their fallen condition and thus the vision for that new life which Christ alone can effect.
So, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted [Jesus], saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? (St. Luke 10. 25) The lawyer resents Jesus’ blessing of the Apostles’ new spiritual vision and hearing, which seems to challenge and contradict his own. What he sees and hears seems alien or foreign to his long established religious practice. So, Jesus asks, What is written in the Law? How readest thou? (St. Luke 10. 26) The lawyer answers, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. (Ibid, 27) Jesus answers, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. (Ibid, 28) Jesus is thinking: It is clear that you know the Law. So if you can do this, you shall find eternal life. That the lawyer cannot do or fulfill the Law naturally becomes clear immediately and this because he does not comprehend his own sinful limitations. Thus, the lawyer, willing to justify himself –or prove himself blameless, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour? (St. Luke 10. 29) Had he been able to keep or do the Law, he would not have needed to ask the question. The condescending superiority and pride in his question reveal that he does not intent to treat everyone as his neighbor. The lawyer may have known the Law, but he did not know who his neighbor was, and so was not able to love his neighbor as himself. St. Cyril suggests in asking, ‘Who is my neighbor’, he reveals to us that he is empty of love for his neighbor, since he does not consider anyone as his neighbor; and consequently he is also empty of the love of God. (C.A. Pent. xii)
This latter point will prove decisive as Jesus hammers home its implication in today’s Parable. Jesus continues: A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. (St. Luke 10. 30) Here Jesus pictures and narrates the story of everyman’s Fall, and how God, through Him, will respond to it. All men, because of sin, have freely chosen to journey down from the paradise of God’s Jerusalem and into the sinful world of earthly Jericho. As a result, they have fallen in with the devil and his angels, who have stripped them of the clothing of their original righteousness and wounded them with the sting of death, [which is] sin (1 Cor. xv. 56). Fallen man is wounded and abandoned but is left only half dead in relation to God. Throughout the course of man’s fallen history great men, enlightened and educated in the dictates of the Law –like today’s lawyer, have passed by but have found themselves incapable of helping him effectively. Jesus says, All others who came before me were thieves and robbers. (John x. 8)
So, Jesus continues. By chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. (St. Luke 10. 31, 32) The Priest and the Levite represent the law and the prophets (Origen, “What shall I do for Eternal Life?”) of all ages, who might very well have the wisdom to describe man’s indenture to the Law of Sin and even the hope that is to come in prophecy but cannot offer the present Grace to help in time of need. This is because they cannot identify with the man who is aware that he is fallen from God and wounded by sin. They do not see in the ditch another self like themselves in desperate need of God’s Grace.
Next, we read: But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. (St. Luke 10. 33, 34) The man who knows that he is fallen from Divine Grace in earthly life lies helpless in the ditch. Along comes a Samaritan- literally an alien and exile to the Law and Promises of Israel. Yet, Samaritan means one who observes the Law, and this Good Samaritan will turn out to be the only one who will fulfill the Law. For this Samaritan is one who is so full of compassion and mercy that he alone can impart the love that he receives from God to others. He is the love of God and the love of neighbor. Thus, he alone can heal fallen man. Only he can draw near to, touch, and remedy every man’s spiritual alienation from God. As Origen reminds us, Providence was keeping the half-dead man for One who was stronger than the Law and the Prophets. (Idem) Thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil, the Priest and Levite proclaimed. Nevertheless, Samaritan means guardian who comes down with a medicine bag full of spiritual remedies. He carries with him bandages, oil, and wine, for He expects to find not only this self-consciously fallen man, but all self-consciously fallen men who know and experience sin’s desperate hold and sway in their lives. And this Samaritan sets fallen man upon his own beast -His back and will carry him up to full and complete spiritual health as the love of his neighbor becomes the labor of His lifetime.
The Good Samaritan is, of course, Christ Jesus Himself, who alone bears and carries the burden and weight of all self-consciously sick sinners on to their healing redemption. He carries man to an inn and cares for him. The inn symbolizes that temporary hospital for sinners who are merely passing through this vale of tears to God’s Kingdom. Specifically it refers to the Church, whose innkeepers are first the Apostles and then their successors. Jesus the Good Samaritan spends a night in the inn, the forty days of His Resurrection, in which He cares for fallen man and then teaches the innkeepers- His Disciples, how to continue the work He has so lovingly begun. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. (St. Luke 10. 35) The Good Samaritan leaves the innkeepers with two pence, the price He pays for the salvation of their souls -His Body and Blood. These gifts He leaves with the Church as a means of ongoing spiritual convalescence. The price has been paid, the offering has been made, and because of what Jesus Christ, the Good Samaritan, has done, the salvation process has been well underway ever since. When the Good Samaritan returns, He will repay to the spiritual caregivers of the Church what He owes them –the salvation He has gifted to them as the mercy that keeps on giving. At the conclusion of the Parable, Jesus asks the lawyer and us, Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? (Ibid, 36) The lawyer answered He that showed mercy on him. (Ibid, 37) Jesus said, Go and do thou likewise. (Ibid, 38)
This morning we ponder the significance of the parable for our own lives. Who is my neighbor, we ask with the lawyer? We learn that our neighbor is not, first and foremost, the man in the ditch, but the Good Samaritan or Jesus Christ Himself. Our neighbor then is not then, first, the man upon whom we are called to show mercy. Rather our neighbor is the One who shows mercy upon us. For, truly, we are the man in the ditch in need of redemption and salvation. Until we realize this, we can never be filled with Christ’s loving compassion and care that will bring new birth in us and through us for all our neighbors. That is, until we realize that Christ Jesus is the Good Samaritan who comes to bind up our wounds, heal our bodies and souls, take us into the inn of the Church, where we are convalescing by the Grace of God through the movements and motions of His Holy Spirit, we shall never sufficiently receive with thanksgiving that Saving Love which is born to be shared. The Priests and Levites are not the only ones who pass by the real problem. We do also, whenever we forget that this inn is a hospital, and we are here because we are sick, and in need of the Good Samaritan’s loving cure. But if we accept the loving remedy that Jesus Christ, God’s Good Samaritan, brings to our fallen condition, we shall be nothing less than sore amazed as His incessant desire and all-powerful might to sanctify and save our souls. We shall be startled and stupefied with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Then, we shall not only see, hear, and obey God’s law of Love for ourselves, but we shall love our neighbors as ourselves because God’s love in our hearts cannot help but touch others. We shall receive from God, of whose only gift it cometh that [His] faithful people do unto [Him] true and laudable service. (Collect Trinity XIII) This service is to love God wholly and our neighbor as ourselves. So, with the Venerable Bede, Let us love the One who has healed our wounds as the Lord our God and let us love Him as our neighbor also. (PL 92, Luke)
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than
we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve…
(Collect Trinity XII)
The Collect for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity expresses a truth that is rarely remembered. The truth is that it is in God’s nature to listen and respond to man’s needs always, and that our natures are more often than not lazy or slothful in the supplication prayer for those needs. God hears in order to give, and what He gives is more than either we desire or deserve. The weakness of the will or desire is entirely on our side. In desiring Him more, we shall begin to receive the pure gift of His mercy, and begin to become acclimated to His superabundant desire for us.
The deaf and dumb man described in today's Gospel is an image of that spiritual condition that neither desires nor deserves what God longs to give. The man can neither hear nor speak. He lives under the conditions of fallen humanity. Just prior to the portion of the Gospel that we have read this morning, we meet a Syrophoenician woman who had no problem petitioning Jesus to heal her ill-bewitched and possessed (M.Henry) daughter, who had an unclean spirit (St. Mark vii. 25). Because she knew that she deserved nothing, she craved the morsels or fragments of that healing power emanating from Christ all the more. She honored the promises first made to the Jews but would claim also the Gentiles’ rightful share in them. She fell down and worshiped Him and cried, Lord help me. (Matt. xv. 25) Jesus provokes her. Let the children first be filled, for it is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it unto the dogs. (Ibid, 27) Jesus sees into her heart and fuels her faith, hope, and love. She said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. (Ibid, 28) Jesus responded, O Woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee, even as thou wilt. (Ibid, 29) Because she believed that even fragments of holiness coming from Jesus would be packed full of Divine Power, the devil left her tormented daughter. The Gentile woman is better than a privaleged child. She is a dog who yelps instinctively until God in Jesus feeds and heals both her and her daughter. Her faithful need leads her to know God in Man. Need brings the Syrophenician woman into God’s light, which is the knowledge of God. Knowledge compels faithful desire for all that God can give.
And now this morning we find that the privaleged Jewish Children of Promise have been rendered deaf and mute. The Jew cannot express his desire. His friends have to ask Jesus to heal him on his behalf. We read: And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him.(Ibid, 32) Jesus is back in the land of the faithless Pharisees, the land of his own Chosen People, with religious folk, and yet here we find a man who symbolizes the Jews’ deaf and dumb relation to God. What ensues is not a conversation at all. Jesus the Word had spoken to the Syrophoenician woman because she had articulated her powerlessness and then her belief in and desire for the Word of Promise. But here is silence because the man is deaf and mute and so a silent prayer is offered by Jesus to His Father. (Jesus always takes people where they are, and then leads them into healing and new life.) And so we read: And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. (Ibid, 33, 34) Pseudo-Chrysostom tells us that, Because of the sin of Adam, human nature had suffered much and had been wounded in its senses and in its members. But Christ coming into the world revealed to us, in Himself, the perfection of human nature; and for this reason he opened the ears with His fingers, and gave speech by the moisture of his tongue. (Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, iv. 2) The dog knew instinctively what she needed. Here, Man needs to be healed with a kind of tangible demonstration of identification. From the senses Jesus moves to the spirit. Having cured the man physically, Jesus can now lead the man to the spiritual good. Now the man can be taught what he should desire truly –the healing of his soul, which the Syro-Phoenician woman knew instintively. And so [Jesus] looks up to Heaven to teach us that is from there that the dumb must seek speech, the deaf hearing, and all who suffer healing. He [sighed or] groaned, not because he needed to seek with groaning anything from the Father…but that he might give us an example of groaning, when we must call upon the assistance of the heavenly mercy, in our own or our neighbours’ miseries (Ibid, 2) as the Venerable Bede teaches us. Jesus sighs or groans to show that we must with deepest inward longing pray the Lord to open those ears and unloose those tongues that so obstinately resist His desire and ignore His truth. Jesus sighs or groans because we must seek out His healing from the innermost core of our spiritual being so that He might give to us so [much] more than we either desire or deserve. (Collect) We read next that straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain.(St. Mark vii. 35) The letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life. Jesus gives us life. God is a Spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in truth. (St. John iv. 24)
And Jesus charged them that they should tell no man….(Ibid, 36, 37) Jesus’ ministry is not about about physical healing or the letter. The true healing that Jesus brings to mankind is the healing of the soul’s desire and the conversion of the inward man. The true healing is the birth of faith that prays for salvation. Faith believes and then understands and loves. And so the real miracle in this morning’s Gospel that Jesus intends is that birth of faith in the human soul that leads to knowledge and the healing love of God. This is why He charges both the recipient of the miracle and the eye-witnesses to tell no man. Because true healing is inward and invisible, slow and progressive, it calls for neither boasting nor bragging. The true miracle is the inward need that compels faith to long for one kind of healing and yet then discovers and desires one of far greater importance. And so in light of today’s miracle, Jesus intends that the desire He has ignited should quietly, humbly, reverently, and even slowly follow Him into the deeper truth that He will reveal. So Jesus teaches us not to expect in our spiritual lives the kind of instantaneous change that cured the deaf and dumb man. After all, there is much forgiveness to receive through the labors of habitual confession. Few men have radical and abrupt conversions. Rather, the miracle of conversion is a time-tried, habit-forming process that may take as long as a lifetime before it is perfected.
Our Collect for today reveals to us the kind of miracle we are after. In it we pray, Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. (Collect) Within our souls we are conscious of past sins; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, and the burden of them is intolerable. (General Confession: HC Service, BCP 1928) When we are given spiritual ears with which to hear the Truth, we begin to become conscious of the horror and shame of the past lives we have lived. Our consciences are afraid and seared, as they quiver and tremble before the presence of God. And so we realize, in the presence of God’s Word, Jesus Christ, that we need those good things which we are not worthy to ask. (Collect) We do not deserve to hear, and yet God speaks to us. We are ashamed to speak, and yet He slowly but surely unloosens our tongues. So, we can begin to pray, Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, today. We are made worthy through merits and mediation of Jesus Christ (Collect) alone.
The new miracle will take time to perfect. So we must, without any fanfare, bragging, or boasting, patiently seek out what we need, believe in Jesus, come to know His power and desire His healing Love. With St. Paul, we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body… [For] we hope for [what] we [do not yet]see…[and so] we with patience wait for it. (Romans viii. 23) If we patiently endure God’s compassion and mercy towards us, we shall discover His love and long to embrace the gift of His Grace –what we neither desire nor deserve. (Collect) Again, with St. Paul, we must confess that We are not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; [for] our sufficiency [comes] from God. (2 Cor. iii. 4) Our sufficiency is the result of God’s hard work in Jesus Christ, His desire transforming our need into faithful desire, His truth broadening and deepening our faith, and His love perfecting us. The journey will be long, and He never promised that it would be easy. But if we need Him, believe in Him, know Him, and desire Him, our ears will be opened and our mouths unstopped, our hearts will be softened and our lives will be changed. In closing, let us pray with that great old Swedish Lutheran Bishop Bo Giertz who expresses with simplicity and honesty that spiritual desire and the faith that we seek.
I want to open my heart and my entire self for thee like this, Lord Jesus. Only thou canst help me to do that. Say thy powerful ‘Ephphatha’ to my soul. Command my heart to open up even in its inmost hiding places to receive thee and thy glory. Command my tongue to be untied so that I may praise thee and speak kind words to others, words that carry warmth, and healing, and blessing with them. Command my complete essence to open up so that I can receive for nothing and give for nothing, richly and lavishly, as thou wouldest want me to do. (To Live with Christ, p.552)
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that
exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
(St. Luke xviii. 14)
Trinity tide invites us on to the road that leads to salvation, in the name and nature of the One alone whose offering and sacrifice redeem and reconcile us unto God the Father. No human being is denied this offer of redemption and reconciliation with God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things, visible and invisible. Either every human being can come to see and know the way that leads to eternal death and destruction or he can come to see and know the way that leads to eternal life and salvation. The road or way that a man takes is, of course, his spirit choice or always an expression of his free will. The spiritual path can be trodden only by them that open up to true prayer, where the desire for God generates the goodness that leads to His Kingdom.
And in this morning’s Gospel Parable, Our Lord teaches us of the kind of prayer that leads to death or that leads to life. Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a Publican. (St. Luke xviii. 10) The first man, the Pharisee, who went up was a member of the religious establishment of his day. From him, the Christian with common sense might expect to learn the right form of prayer. He was, after all, a religious expert in Jewish Law. The other man who went up to pray was a Publican - a Jew who was despised and hated by his own Jewish people for being a traitor because he collected taxes for the Roman Empire. From him we might expect to find only a wrong-headed and misdirected manner of prayer since his life was compromised and his loyalties were divided. But what we find is quite the opposite. For, the Pharisee’s religion ends up being narcissistically empty and unfruitful, while the Publican’s opens onto the Horizon of what fills for salvation.
We read: The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed thus.... (Ibid, 11; Archbishop Trench’s translation) Before we even encounter the substance of what the Pharisee has to say, we find him isolated, standing off by himself, safely removed from the common sort of men, perhaps intending that others should notice his piety and his earnest intention to steer clear of unclean worshipers (Parables, p. 381). The Pharisee is self-consciously determined to be noticed by others. He is a needy narcissist. Jesus describes how he prays. God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. (Ibid, 11) Speaking thus with himself,the Pharisee reminds God that he is wholly unlike most other men since he is most definitely not a notorious liver. God forbid that he has anything in common with such people – all other men, for then God might mistake him for a sinner! He is, evidently, spiritually pure and holy, and, clearly, very, very good in his own eyes. His prayer to God is a litany of his good works. As he lifts himself up trying to convince himself that he is good, in a kind of soaring flight of the alone with the alone, his demeaning and belittling of all others condemns them into the forgotten ditches of despair reserved for the wicked. He proclaims that he is so very, very good because all other men are so very, very bad! He even bolsters his credentials with his claim to sacrificial suffering. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. (Ibid, 12) He is at least as good as he is because he is not as bad as all other men are. So, it would seem, he needs to be no better. To be religious, as Cardinal Newman points out, was for him to keep peace towards others, to take his share in the burdens of the poor, to abstain from gross vice, and to set a good example. His alms and fasting were done not in penance, but because the Law demanded it; penance would have implied consciousness of sin; whereas it was only the Publicans and their sort, who had real sins in need of forgiveness. (10th Sunday after Pentecost, 1856) So he thanks God that he has managed to make himself so very, very good. In the end, he thanks God for himself, and crowns his pride and arrogance in gratitude for being spared the condition of this Publican (Ibid, 11), whom he sees standing off at a distance. The arrogance of our Pharisee reveals something more. He has nothing but disdain for the Publican who dares to pollute the place of prayer with his presence.
And yet, as we read what comes next, we cannot help but be stilled and humbled by what transpires before our very eyes. We read that a Publican, standing, afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Ibid, 13) Here we find a man rejected and despised by his own people, alienated and shunned by his own kith and kin for his compromised loyalty and divided fidelity…standing afar off. (Ibid) His inner honesty and self-conscious sinfulness prevent him from drawing near to the wall of prayer with any self-confidence. So, he stands at a distance, so painfully conscious of his own unworthiness and sin. His spiritual inventory has led him to discover his spiritual poverty. He finds that disturbing distance between the man he is and the man whom God intends him to become. He is poor in spirit and supplicates the mercy of the Almighty in fear and trembling. He is like Mephibosheth, the handicapped son of Jonathan, who responds to King David’s mercy with these words: What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am? (2 Sam. 8) He beats his breast, revealing most forcefully the intolerable spiritual warfare that he knows only God can overcome. He says, without pride and boasting, but diligently and persistently, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Ibid) This man knows who he is and what he has become. He knows, too, that the all-seeing God knows the secrets of [his] heart. (Ps. xliv. 21) So, he comes as close as he can to the table of God’s mercy, knowing that he [could] not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven (Ibid, 13), regarding them as unworthy of the celestial vision: because they had preferred to look upon earthly things, and seek for them (Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 358), as St. Theophylactus has said.
Away from the Pharisee’s self-righteousness, the Publican stands close to God. He does not walk by his own light but brings his darkness into God’s light. In God’s light, he sees himself clearly and truly, and he sees also what God’s mercy alone can do for him, the chief of all sinners. Unlike the Pharisee, he is not his own teacher, as Cardinal Newman writes, pacing round and round in the small circle of his own thoughts and judgments, careless to know what God says to him, fearless of being condemned by Him, standing approved in his own sight. (Ibid) Rather he has heard the words of the Lord, addressed to him about himself: Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46.10) He has seen himself in the light of God’s truth and mercy. He knows that he needs God, and that the Almighty alone can save him from spiritual poverty, giving to him that rich healing cure that will heal his soul. He knows himself. He sees the way. He seeks pardon for wrong done and power to do better. Thus, he beats his breast to drive out the darkness within to make room for the power of God’s liberating light.
The Publican and his prayer, which threaten the Pharisee’s spiritual impoverishment, comprise the best pattern for approaching God for forgiveness and redemption. The Publican does not delay his encounter with God until it is too late. Rather he provides us with a spiritual habit of life that we ought to embrace for salvation. With St. Paul he hears Jesus’ words: My Grace is sufficient for thee: my strength is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. xii. 9) He is one with all men, whether a returning prodigal, a faithful disciple, a despair-ridden addict, or a conscientious worker in Christ’s Vineyard. He can identify with all men, because, as Cardinal Newman reminds us, created natures, high and low, are all on a level and one in the sight and comparison of the Creator, and so all of them have one speech, and one only, whether it be the thief on the cross, Magdalen at the feast, of St. Paul before martyrdom. One and all have nothing but what comes from Him, and are as nothing before Him, who is all in all. (Ibid) The Publican’s prayer is the true prayer of all men. From his heart we find that because he has nothing, God can give him everything. He is truly poor in spirit. And, as Simon Tugwell reminds us, It is really only the poor in spirit who can, actually, have anything, because they are the ones who know how to receive gifts. For them, everything is a gift. (Tugwell: The Beatitudes)
Today, dear brethren, let us repeat the words of the Publican through self-examination and deepest confession. Let us remember that, with St. Paul, we are called as those born out of due time…and the least of the Apostles. (1 Cor. xv. 8,9) Let us claim and confess that we are not worthy to be counted as Apostles. Self-righteousness is really a sign of narcissistic insecurity and spiritual immaturity. Pharisees are inwardly weak and fearful of confessing who they truly are. They fear other men’s censure, derision, and rejection. The strong man is the honest man. The honest man is the courageous man. The courageous man is the man whom God seeks because he is after God’s own heart. (1 Samuel xiii. 14) This man is humble and yet gallant and heroic because in the midst of [his] ever so deplorable condition, the rule of the heavens has moved redemptively upon and through [him] by the grace of Christ. (Dallas Willard) This man is our Publican. He knows that the Almighty reproveth, nurtureth, and teacheth and bringeth again, as a Shepherd his flock. He hath mercy on them that receive discipline, and that diligently seek after His judgments. (Ecclus. xviii. 13, 14) And unlike any other, God in Jesus Christ can and will save us if we open our mouths with one voice and one accord, joining the Publican, who have the honesty and self-knowledge to plead and to pray, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Idem)
Concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.
(1 Corinthians xii. 1)
In the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity the subject matter is struggle. As always, in the Trinity season we are exhorted to so turn to God through Jesus Christ, that we might struggle to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, becoming visible and audible agents –revealers- of God’s presence in the world. And today we are reminded of a few key elements that rightly position our souls to the God who longs to wrestle with us and bring His gifts alive in our hearts and souls.
First, we learn exactly what we are not meant to be in relation to God. I would not have you ignorant…carried away by dumb idols (1 Cor. xii. 1,2) St. Paul tells the young Corinthian Church. Jesus witnesses the worship of dumb idols when He visits the Temple at Jerusalem and finds His own people wholly ignorant of the gifts that the Temple should have cultivated by way of preparation for His coming. Our Gospel lessons tells us this morning that Christ Jesus enters into the Holy City, whose Temple symbolized the Church that Christ would grow from the foundation of Solomon’s beginning. The Temple was meant to be a place of encounter between God and man in this world, but Jesus finds it rather a site of sinful commerce. And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. (St. Luke xix. 41, 42) Instead of faith, hope, and love, there Jesus finds ignorance and blindness. Jesus approaches the Holy City only to find that the gift of God’s Word and Promises to His people are wholly ignored. The proclamation of God’s Word that heralded His coming is unheard by the Jews, who have been blinded by their worship of dumb idols as they engaged in false commerce. They were consumed with anything but faith in the gifts of God’s Word, now to be summed up and perfected in the visitation of His Son. They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course. (Ps. lxxxii. 5) as the Psalmist says. They worship mammon and money and are far from any consciousness of the dangers that we spoke of in last week’s sermon. The ancient Jews would not hear God’s Word.
Second, in Jesus’ weeping over the sins of His own people and the sins of lukewarm Christians today, we learn from our Saviour that we ought to mourn and weep over our own sins and the sins of the Church. The Church is the new Temple of God, and in it we must grieve and lament over our ignorant worship of dumb idols. Origen of Alexandria, commenting upon these first few verses, says that Jesus weeps over Jerusalem first to confirm and establish those virtues which He desired should come alive in us. He writes, All of the Beatitudes of which Jesus spoke in the Gospel He confirms by his own example. Just as He had said “blessed are the meek”, He confirms this where He says “learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart. And just as He said “blessed are ye that weep”, He also wept over the city. (Origen: Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers: iii, p. 341) St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes this, For Christ who wishes that all men should be saved, had compassion on these. And this would not have been evident to us unless made so by some very human gesture. Tears however are a sign of sorrow. (Ibid) Jesus longs for us with such love that He is moved to weep and mourn over our failure to welcome His ongoing visitation to us. St. Gregory the Great writes that the compassionate Saviour weeps over the ruin of the faithless city, which the city itself did not know was to come. (Ibid) And so three of the great Church Fathers remind us that Christ uses His human nature to reveal and express God’s love for us, the forgiveness of sins that He brings to us, the salvation that He will win for us. They remind us also of our need to mourn over our ignorant rejection of the love that has come down from Heaven to be seen, heard, remembered, and embraced as the Holy Spirit makes the gift of Christ’s Redemption our own, even forever.
So, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we are called to claim and confess that we have too often and for too long worshiped dumb idols in ignorance and have failed to confess our sins and mourn over them. But what of the specifics? How can we begin to abandon the false commerce and shady business practices of this world, and embrace the gifts of our Lord the Holy Ghost? The fallen Jerusalem over which Jesus weeps in this morning’s Gospel is the fallen Jerusalem of our souls. The soul that is fallen has lost its connection to God’s Word, Promise, and Plan for its salvation. The soul that is fallen has lost consciousness of its sin because it has lost consciousness of its powerlessness in relation to the God who alone can heal, redeem, and save it.
We might recover the soul’s spiritual consciousness by looking at today’s Old Testament lesson. Here we read that Jacob rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok. (Genesis xxxii. 22) Jacob, the son of Isaac, crosses the river Jabbok, which means to struggle, to empty, or to pour out. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Jacob was struggling to leave his old self, the natural man, and the soul immersed in earthly ends and profane commerce behind. Jacob can be our model for the man who empties himself of the worship of dumb idols, leaves behind corrupted desires for impermanent riches, and struggles to cross the spiritual waters. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. (Genesis xxxii. 24) Possessions, money, even spouses must be left behind for a season so that true spiritual combat can begin. Jacob struggles and wrestles. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that, The Church’s spiritual tradition has seen in this story a symbol of prayer as a faith-filled struggle which takes place at times in darkness, calls for perseverance, and is crowned by interior renewal and God’s blessing. This struggle demands our unremitting effort, yet ends by surrender to God’s mercy and gift. (Weekly Catechesis, May 25, 2011) Wrestling is spiritual combat. Each of us must engage it. God struggles with us against the deceitful promises of the devil. God’s presence, His Word, Jesus Christ, struggles to purge the temples of our bodies and souls of any evil desires that pursue false commerce with the world. God will not force His saving power upon us. He does not wish to prevail against Jacob or us. He touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was put out of joint, as he wrestled with him. (Genesis xxxii. 25) Wrestling with God leaves behind a sign of our own imperfection and finitude. The thigh, which means his heart, is restless until it rests in God. God’s touch is the loving reminder that He will be the source of our healing and redemption. Jacob is touched by the love of God that saves him. He will wrestle a blessing out of God. God asks, What is thy name? (Genesis xxxii. 27) Jacob answers. God says, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. (Genesis xxxii. 28) Israel means he has striven, hunted, aspired with God. And so too must we, if we would be saved.
You and I must be prepared for spiritual warfare. Jesus weeps because He knows what we lose if we refuse to struggle and wrestle with God. Blessed are they that mourn. (St. Matthew v. 4), Jesus insists. Mourning is grief over a contradiction that we discover between ourselves and God. We mourn over our failure to rely wholly and completely on God to discover His promises for us. Our spiritual thighs must be felt to be out of joint. We must grasp that without God’s Grace we can only ever hope to hobble around this sad, sad world desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope…mourning the vanished power of the usual reign, as T. S. Eliot reminds us. (Ash Wednesday) If we fail to wrestle and struggle with God, we shall never come to comprehend our true condition as sinners in need of a Saviour. If we fail to wrestle with God, we shall never be able to see the Saviour He sends in the Person of His Only Begotten Son. If we fail to wrestle with God, we shall never see how this Son has won our redemption and salvation.
No sooner do we read that Jesus…wept than we read that He went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought; saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves. (St. Luke xix. 45, 46) If we appreciate Jesus’ tears, we must also know that through Him, God expresses His Love in wrath against our sin. For whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth. (Hebr. Xii. 6)Let us receive this wrath as Divine Love and Desire. Christ brings us to a place of our own helplessness. Jacob wrestled with God and discovered himself. Now God, in Jesus Christ, would wrestle Satan for us. Satan underestimated the omnipotence of his adversary. To be sure, Satan stripped, tortured, and crucified Christ as Man. But what he forgot was that the Man was also God. For while Christ the Man was dying, the death had already become the instrument and tool of Christ the God’s victory over sin and Satan. In the Crucified Dying Lord, Death took on new meaning as the source and seedbed of the beginning of new life that never, never dies.
Jesus is the Love of God in the flesh. He cares for us. Jesus wept over the destruction of Jerusalem because in it He saw the ruination of the human soul. Jerusalem is fallen. We are fallen. But now Christ takes us into His loving death. In His death, we struggle to be born again and begin to walk upright. Walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour. (Eph. V. 2) Thank God for this and Rejoice! Let us mourn, so that we may rejoice.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons