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 about human nature that is resistant to God and His Word. Most men treat the existence of God carelessly, incautiously, indifferently, or casually. Think about it. The majority of men in our own time are very earthly minded. They don’t seem to be 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 it all figured out and they don’t need to know more. Or, they use arrogance and hubris as a shield against their own fears of confronting themselves and then inconveniently finding God. 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 the feeling that neither they or this life is really all that bad. Of course, such a philosophy of life is nothing more than a surrender, where the ideals of youthful inspiration to pursue greatness have long since vanished, since the norms and ideals that demand labor and sacrifice in the pursuit of excellence would disrupt an adequately agreeable and comfortable life.
Of course, as we learn in Passion Tide, Jesus Christ meets all manner of resistance to His mission to us precisely because of this human hardness to the threat of God’s nearness. Which of you convicts me of sin? 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. Modern 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 nearness 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 wrong, a good opposed to evil, and an absolute that calls into question their relative comfort. Who and what they fear above all is Jesus Christ.
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 contradictory of our ways and mores we fear. We become convinced that there must be something wrong with one who challenges our ideas or habits. Jesus of Nazareth 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 how 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. Thus, we either ignore Him or kill Him in our hearts.
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 irritated because they can’t imagine that Jesus could ever be who He says He is, and so condemn Him as demon-possessed. Their rage is emblazoned 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 other men 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 shall 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 now God’s Word Made Flesh. 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 unshakable 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 to win our salvation. He calls us forward to be moved by 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 touch us and unsettle us. 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’
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 some 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 in order 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 wholly hanging upon 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 –mothering 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 Jerusalem which is above…free…and the Mother of us all. (Ibid) 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. So, 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 a thing meet 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 find or afford and that can satisfy far more than the physical hunger of a paltry five thousand? What measure of faith does Philip have? Philip answers, as most of us would, 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 h 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 they do 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 them.
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 cushioned 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. 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, all the 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 up 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, and 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.
Blessed is the womb that bare thee and the paps which thou
hast sucked. But Jesus said, Yea rather, blessed are they
that hear the word of God, and keep it.
(St. Luke xi. 27, 28)
In last week's Gospel, a heathen woman taught us how to come to know ourselves, repent of our sins, and to supplicate Christ for His all-powerful, merciful love that heals body and soul. You will remember that the Syro-Phoenician woman taught us how to express humility before God- that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. (Collect Lent II) She taught us also that if we are to be healed inwardly and spiritually we must persistently pursue the Lord Jesus and to say at all times O Lord, thou Son of David, have mercy upon me.(St Matthew 15. 22) I hope that like her we came to know ourselves as spiritual whelps or dogs who are never worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under [the Lord’s] table. (Prayer of Humble Access)
I hope that we learned also that the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman is not meant to encourage temporary appeals in times of earthly emergencies. Her daughter was, after all, grievously vexed with a devil (Idem). Our appeal to Christ must be a constant pursuit of sanctification. We are to come near to the Lord in good times and in bad. We are to search for Him, find Him, and embrace the Grace that He gives to heal our sin-sick souls. As Jesus insists in today’s Gospel, Blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it. (St. Luke 11. 28)
Today, another woman, this time a Jewish one, having witnessed Jesus’ healing of the deaf and dumb man and listening to His Word, praised and lauded Him with these words: Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps that gave thee suck. (St. Luke 11.27) Or, Happy is the Woman that has Thee for her Son. The mother…of one who ‘speaks as never man spoke’, that has so much of the Grace of Heaven in Him and is so great a blessing to this earth, as Matthew Henry explains it. (M. Henry Comm…) Jesus is unimpressed. He insists that the source or cause of all wisdom and righteousness is God. It may very well be true, and indeed is, that the womb that bare Him and the paps which He had sucked were blessed- His mother was, after all, the Blessed Virgin Mary. But she was blessed because she heard the Word of God, and kept it. In other words, she was blessed, indeed blessed…among women (Luke 1. 42)) because her soul magnified the Lord, and her spirit had rejoiced in God her Saviour.( St. Luke 1. 47) Blessedness comes from hearing God’s Word, retaining it, nourishing it, and giving birth to it literally and spiritually in human life.
Since the source of all truth is God’s Word, we are called to hear this truth, keep and perfect it. Keeping the Word of God in our souls is what faith's pilgrimage back to God is all about. We must not seek to be healed of incidental demons only to travel on our merry way, forgetting about the nature of God’s Word that longs to transform us more deeply and lastingly. We are called not to treat God and His Word as the doctor and his medicine at Urgent Care. Faith seeks for healing a chronic condition. That chronic condition is sin. Sometimes faith has a particular demon that needs exorcising. Sometimes faith needs help in making it through the common drudgery of life. But faith must always be conquering its vices by amassing those virtues that fortify it against the assaults of other demons. Faith seeks comprehensive healing. The medicine of faith must be allowed to cure the body, soul, and spirit if true spiritual health is to be found.
At the beginning of today's Gospel we read that Jesus was casting out a devil and it was dumb.(St. Luke 11. 14) The man whom Jesus finds is physically deaf and dumb. Obviously, he can neither hear nor speak. He cannot hear the Word of God and keep it because he cannot hear anything. Imagine being in his condition? Imagine not being able to connect with the outside world through words heard and words spoken. We wouldn’t be able to hear poetry recited or music that is sung or played. Sometimes I think that we are so unthankful for the gift of hearing and speech. And look now how our world misuses both. They hear what they want to hear. They take words and insinuate their own malicious interpretations upon them. For what? To destroy the false gods who possess them.
They may not be physically deaf and dumb, but they are certainly spiritually deaf and dumb. They have not heard the Word of God addressing them because they have been too moved and defined by the noise of this world. St. Paul tells us that mindless jabber, filthiness, foolish talking, and jesting (Eph. 5. 4) too often express and define our lives. He warns us against being deceived by vain words that provoke the wrath of God. (Ibid, 6) He reminds us also that when we hear the Word, and keep it as a habit in our hearts, we must then give thanks for it. (Ibid, 4) We cannot begin to give thanks to God for His Word, until the demons of our deaf and dumb natures have been cast off. Hearing God’s Word and keeping it, St. Paul suggests, cannot come about if we are having fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness. (Ibid, 8, 11)
In our Gospel for today, we read that When the devil was gone out…of the deaf and dumb man…the dumb (man) spake. (St. Luke 11.14) and the people wondered. Those present were amazed. And so too, in our own fallen world, people will be confused and sore-amazed when we begin to hear God’s Word and keep it. God no sooner unlooses our tongues in new spiritual ways, begins to change our lives, than our family members, friends, and others become judgmental and censorious. In the Gospel, some of them said, He casteth out devils through Beelzebub, the prince of the devils. And others sought a sign from heaven.(St. Luke 11. 15,16) When we begin to hear God’s Word and it begins to grow and mature in our lives, people will suspect that psychological imbalance and mental instability are hard at work within us. They will judge us. Many will become impatient and then indignant with us. Some will sense that this world and the words that enslave them to it are being judged and measured by the still small voice of God’s Word hard at work in our hearts and souls. They might begin to perceive that our silence is true Wisdom’s best reply. (Euripides)
But Jesus makes it clear that when our spiritual ears are opened and our spiritual tongues are unloosed, God’s Word and not the devil has responded to man’s sickness and infirmity. If I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore shall they be your judges. (Ibid, 19) The Devil disrupts, divides, stirs up, confuses, and confounds men with lots of noise. Jesus says, But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. (St. Luke 11.20) It is the finger of God alone that is powerful enough to find our dumb and deaf silence and to infuse it with the healing and salvific Word of Truth. The Devil or Beelzebub ensnares and entangles us in panic and fear over earthly calamities that won’t make much difference if we remain deaf to God’s Word. Through television, the internet, and the cell phone the Devil is whipping us up into a veritable frenzy, perfecting anxiety and the fear of death. He is having lots of fun. And Christians, falling for it hook, line, and sinker, are being made deaf to the Word of God. The Devil is no friend of spiritual silence and the Word of God that must be our chief concern and interest. He is not divided against himself (St. Luke xi. 18), for his single determination is to sever us from the still small voice of God (1 Kings xix. 12) that would calm our souls and keep us on course to God and Kingdom.
Someone much stronger than Satan must drive Satan out. Someone whose power can overcome all confusion must enable us to hear and respond to God’s voice once again. That one is God’s Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. For when a stronger than [Satan] shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all the armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils. (St. Luke 11. 21) When Jesus the Word drives out Satan, Satan's power is gone. When the Word drives the Devil out, then the Devil is silenced. Goodness and healing come from God’s Word alone. God speaks His healing Word through His Son Jesus Christ and the powers of darkness, disorder, and despair are scattered. God’s Word of love alone banishes Satan’s deafening noise.
Keeping the Word of God is the hard part. Because of silence and stillness, the unclean spirit has gone out of us. (Ibid, 24) But then there is a danger. We walk through dry places. (Idem) We have been emptied but not filled. We might be healed of Satan’s indwelling and yet not from his ongoing effort to confuse and confound us. As the Abbott Bruno says, we are:
Empty, since he finds there no charity, nor true faith, nor humility, nor patience, nor justice, nor mercy, nor any of the other things with which the souls of the saints are furnished. How does he find it? Swept and garnished: he finds it as he desires to find it. (St. Bruno, Toale)
In this Lent, we must find more than courage to welcome Christ the Strong Man into our hearts. We must pray to keep Christ the Word alive and growing in our hearts. With the deaf and mute man in today’s Gospel, we must cherish and treasure the gift of hearing Christ’s healing Word for the first time. We must be silent and quiet each day as we renew our faith with all humility and much patience. We must embrace God’s Word of mercy as a healing love we do not deserve in order to be rewarded with the health of salvation that God’s justice affords. We must be blessed because first we heard the Word, and in hearing the Word, we believed, and in believing we safeguarded it. (St. Bruno, Toale) Safeguarding means receiving with meekness the implanted Word which is able to save [our] souls.The first sound that today’s deaf and dumb man hears is God’s Word. He speaks and, no doubt, praises God for it! Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it. (Ibid, 28)
As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness.
The season of Lent is nothing if it does not confuse human wisdom and turn man’s expectations upside down. For what the lections of this Holy Season attempt to show us is that the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He takes the wise in their own craftiness. (1 Cor. iii. 19) And again, as Isaiah records, therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people…for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29. 14) In Lent, we learn that the Wisdom of God revealed in the human life of Jesus Christ, more often than not, challenges and overturns the wisdom of this world. And I don’t mean to say that human wisdom or reason is destroyed, but rather that its limitations cry out for perfection and redemption at the hands of Jesus.
In last week’s Gospel, we read of a real challenge and trial that Christ underwent in order to resist the wisdom of this world and to embrace God’s Wisdom. You will remember that the Spirit led Christ into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And there we learned that Christ resisted Satan’s temptations and banished him. The wisdom that we gleaned from that Gospel is that Jesus Christ, God as Man, faced evil, resisted it, and in the end, overcame it. Man’s wisdom walks in step with the devil; it thinks that it can use the Divine Spirit for worldly ends, that it can make God subject to its whims and idle curiosities, and that it can be as absolute as God. (RDC. Lent I) What Jesus Christ reveals to us is that true wisdom is God’s will and that the new humanity which He struggles to establish as a pattern depends wholly upon it. The devil strives to sever Jesus and us from God’s will and way. He longs to hide us from ourselves, establishing and centering us in our muddled confusions and delusions, concealing from us the true way of liberation and healing. He longs to hide us even from the Wisdom of God, from seeing and knowing that the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding. (Job xxviii. 28)
But Jesus came down from Heaven to reveal God’s wisdom through His human nature for our benefit. He came down to bring us back to the fear of the Lord so that the Divine Wisdom might be born our hearts. But if we heed the message of today’s Gospel, we learn that there is another dimension still that must be added to our fear of the Lord if God’s Wisdom is to come alive in our lives. This is the element of desire. From our limited earthly passions and desires, we learn to fear the Lord. Then we must desire to secure the power that His Wisdom affords.
In this morning’s Gospel, we see how alien, unfamiliar, and even foreign God’s Wisdom is to most men in most ages. Jesus had departed from Jerusalem and from a people who would not receive the Wisdom that He endeavored to disclose and reveal. The ancient Old Testament prognosis of God’s people was finding fulfillment in Jesus’ hearing: This people draweth unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. (Matthew xv. 8) God’s Wisdom had found no place to germinate and grow itself in the hearts of the religious Jews of Jesus’ day.
Even Jesus’ disciples seemed hard-hearted and dimwitted. Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man. (St. Matthew xv. 18-20) God’s Wisdom cannot touch and transform those who do not desire Him from within. Those who come to need it realize that their earthly efforts provide no lasting health and happiness. Today, because He did not find any need for what He offered from His own people, in this morning’s Gospel Jesus left religious Jerusalem for the frontier territory where Israel bordered the land of the heathen. Perhaps the Wisdom that He carried would find takers with the Gentiles.
What He found confounded the customs and habits of both the Jewish scribes and also of His own disciples. God’s Wisdom was, after all, revealed and shared, first and foremost, with them. That a pagan woman’s understanding of it should have shown up the Jews’ blindness and resistance of it must have been all the more confounding and even irritating. Behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. (St. Matthew xv. 22) Canaan means place of submission, humiliation, and lowliness. So, from this lowly and servileplace, Jesus hears the cry for God’s Wisdom and Mercy. At first, he seems immune and impervious to the plea. St. John Chrysostom writes that The Word [seems to have] no word; the fountain [seems] sealed; the physician withholds His remedies. Perhaps there is something in the nature of the cry that arrests Jesus’ attention and draws Him into prayer. Wisdom is quick to hear and slow to speak…(St. James i. 19) Jesus does not ignore her. Rather, He will hear more from her. He allows her to pursue her desire with passion and persistence. He did, after all, have good reason to come to this place.
Next, we read that, His disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. (St. Matthew xv. 23) The disciples long selfishly to take this time in the Gentile wilderness to their advantage. Jesus responds I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (St. Matthew xv. 24) Jesus reminds her that the Jews alone were called by God and were first given the promises because they should have known themselves to be lost sheep. She will imply that the Gentiles too are promised a share in it all! And, besides, she establishes her claim by showing that she knows and feels deeply that she too is a lost sheep. Jesus tries and tests her faith. I will wound and I will heal, saith the Lord. (Deut. xxxii. 39) St. Augustine describes His method in these words: He is no unkind physician who opens the swelling, who cuts, or cauterizes the corrupted part. He gives pain, it is true; but he only gives pain, that he may bring the patient on to health. He gives pain; but if he did not, he would do no good. (Aug, Serm. xxvii) Jesus applies God’s Wisdom and tough love to this serious seeker. She bears the pain of her daughter’s demonic possession. Her broken heart nevertheless pursues Jesus in faith with a persistence that will secure the Physician’s cure. She knows who Jesus is and she will have His mercy. Then she came and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me. (St. Mattew xv. 25) Jesus will draw out the Divine Wisdom that He finds in her heart. This alone can fuel the passion that will secure her desire. It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. (St. Matthew xv. 26) To which she responds, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. (St. Matthew xv. 27)
Wisdom has elicited from her heart the confession of pain and the poverty of her spirit. She knows that she is alien to Israel’s promises; she claims no rights to God’s Word and Wisdom; she knows herself as a powerless creature in the presence of her mighty Creator. She knows that she is as good as a nearly dead dog in need of a kind man’s care and love. So, she turns to the sole source and origin of all healing. The Wisdom in Jesus is met by her own. Yes Lord, in comparison to your own people who are your lost sheep, I am a lost dog. But, surely, this lost dog can find in you a Master whose mercy is great enough to let me eat of the crumbs that fall from your table. And, unlike your lost sheep, this lost dog has found its Master! God’s Wisdom is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Ps. xlvi. 1) Jesus honors in this Gentile woman what He could not find in His own people or even in His disciples. O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. (St. Matthew xv. 28)
Today let us take note of the alien woman’s pain. I wound and I will heal. (Idem) This woman is self-consciously broken and wounded. She knows herself and she knows that what she needs can come from Jesus alone. They that are whole need not a physician but they that are sick. (St. Luke v. 31) She is content to admit that she is a sick dog. Archbishop Trench reminds us that most people would have turned away in anger and despair. (Notes on the Parables…) This woman is not arrogant with insecurity. She knows the powerlessness of fallen man. She knows the power of Almighty God in Jesus Christ. Many would count this woman a fool in the face of what seems cruel mockery from Jesus. But this woman was no Snowflake! Here we find a truly liberated woman full of wisdom, strong courage, and determined persistence! Where is the wise person?...Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor. i. 20, 21) The woman of Canaan was a fool for Christ. This alien woman, a dog, will humbly and thankfully receive supernaturally charged crumbs that drop from Christ’s table.
Oftentimes, our Savior seems to deny our initial petitions. He seems to say No to us. But Christ knows that He can do us no good until he has established a conversation and relationship with us. He will try and test and even tease out not only what we want but how we must want it. This woman knows that she is not worthy to gather up the crumbs that fall from Christ’s table. Christ will have her not only say it but show it for her benefit and for ours. To this woman’s great humility and faith, Jesus says Be it unto thee, even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (Idem, 28) Amen.
Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
(St. Matthew iv. 11)
On Ash Wednesday you and I entered the Holy Season of Lent as we began our journey up to Jerusalem with Jesus. Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (St. Luke xviii. 31) On that day we were invited to go up to the City of the Jewish Kings or the City of Man that had come closest to a personal relationship with God in order to discover what its citizens will do to God’s only-begotten Son and our Saviour. We were invited to come up higher to study and ponder the final days and unusual end of this Man Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God. We began our Lenten Journey with the hope that we might go up to Jerusalem so that we might be welcomed to go up higher still from the high point of Christ’s Crucifixion through the gate that leads into God’s Kingdom. We were invited by Jesus to go up to Jerusalem so that with and even in Him we might move from death to life and from earth back to Heaven.
But what is the nature of this journey that we have been invited to make with Jesus? It seems to be the culmination of a commitment made long before by Jesus when He began to call us onto His path of life. That road began for Him in the desert or the wilderness where He was tempted to stop His Mission to us before it started. We read that when He began His ministry, He was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. (St. Matthew iv. 1) Long before He invited us to journey with Him up to Jerusalem, He was tempted by Satan in the desert at the bidding of the Holy Spirit. The Son of God came down from Heaven and He cannot invite us to accompany Him on His return journey to Heaven without redeeming our human nature or making it right with God once again. Adam had made our nature wrong with God. Now Jesus Christ will make it right. Thus, Christ must get under our skin to restore us to our Heavenly Father!
Jesus insists that we must follow Him into the desert in order to see clearly the nature of human temptation to sin. We can confront sin head-on only when we enter an isolated place, free of all distractions so that our focus can be concentrated and sharpened. So, we read: And when Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights, He was afterward an hungred. (St. Matthew iv. 1,2) The Spirit leads Jesus because as St. Thomas Aquinas says, Christ wished to strengthen us against temptation, warn us that no man is safe or free from temptation, and to give us a way to overcome temptations through confidence in His mercy. (Summary, Summa…iii. xli. 1) For man to return to God, the Son of Man wishes to remind us that like Him, we all shall be tempted and that no one is immune to it. Jesus also wishes to give us a way to conquer temptation by appealing to His mercy and power.
Jesus must resist those temptations that threaten His journey up to Jerusalem for us. My son, if thou come to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for temptation. Set thy heart aright, and constantly endure. (Ecclus. 2. 1) Fulton Sheen tells us that Jesus is tempted to take three shortcuts from the Cross in His mission to us. (The Life of Christ, Image Press, p. 63) Because Jesus is the Son of God, He is tempted to find an easier and softer way of saving us. We read that when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. (St. Matthew 4. 3) Jesus is the Son of God in the flesh. So, naturally enough because He has fasted for forty days, He is exhausted, physically spent, and desperately hungry. The Devil tempts Him to prove that He is the Son of God by satisfying his bodily hunger first and foremost. But though Jesus is a Man, He `is first the Son of God. Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness. (St. Matthew 5.6) Jesus must first hunger and thirst for God’s will before finding food for his earthly need. He knows that the Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. (St. Matthew xxvi. 41) Man must fast and pray to overcome the temptation to put the earth, its fruits, and our hunger first. Man’s new life can be right with God only when we put spiritual sustenance before bodily cravings. Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread or to make men [fuller and] richer without making them holier. (F. Sheen, Life of Christ, p.66) Man shall not live by bread alone, Jesus retorts, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (St. Matthew 4.4) Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto thee. (St. Matthew 6. 33) Jesus rejects the first shortcut to His Cross. He doesn’t want us to think that the eradication of earthly hunger is His priority.
Jesus is prepared for the second temptation. If Satan cannot convince Jesus that the Son of God came down to eradicate world hunger, then he will play upon the vanity of His spirit. 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 dash thy foot against a stone. (St. Matthew 5. 6) If the urgency of earthly hunger and the needs of the body will not pull Jesus down, perhaps Jesus can herald in a new mysticism that promises to protect all men from earthly harm and danger. Wouldn’t this be far easier than going up to the Jerusalem of the Cross? By throwing Himself off of the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus can prove that He is the Son of God. His holiness in the spirit will trigger a miracle no matter what. God has promised the man of faith protection from harm. Jesus is tempted to use miracles to redeem all men. Cast thyself down, the devil exclaims. Prove to us how holy you are! Prove to us that God would not let His only Son perish! Jesus responds It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.(St. Matthew 4. 7) We will fall into the hands of the Lord, and not into the hands of men: for as His majesty is, so is His mercy. (Ecclus. 2.18) Jesus is God’s only Son. Jesus cannot provoke cheap Grace to save us all. The power of miracles lasts for about as long as fallen man’s attention span. God’s loving protection must be embraced in sickness and in health, on good days and bad, and in the midst of a crooked and perverse world. Jesus will embrace the love of God inwardly and spiritually. Jesus cannot clothe himself in wondrous miracles. He must win men’s hearts from the hearts that He breaks from the Cross of His love. Pilate will say, Behold the Man. (St. John xix. 5) Some men will see a fool dying for no reason. Others will see the pure and innocent Son of God cleaving to the Father in death and thus desiring our salvation. Jesus rejects the second shortcut.
Still, the devil does not let up. Now the devil will remind Jesus that He is the Word of God through whom all things were made. 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 4. 8,9) Jesus is tempted to forget about the hungry body and a frustrated soul and to prove that He is the Son of God by making peace with Satan. But the love of God in Jesus’ heart has come down from Heaven to redeem fallen man. The devil tempts Jesus to abandon fallen man and be as God by striking a deal with the Devil and settling for an evil world. Here Jesus is tempted to sever Himself from God and to be ruled by Satan’s despair. Jesus is tempted by that human despair that says that evil can never be overcome or vanquished and so we must make our peace with it. Jesus is tempted not to change and transform fallen man but to surrender to the illusive power of evil. Jesus responds definitively, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. (St. Matthew 4. 10)
Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (St. Matthew iv. 11) Jesus submits His earthly hunger to the Father’s Word and Will as the body is tamed by the soul. Jesus overcomes the soul’s vainglorious self-conscious magnificence by subjecting His soul to the Holy Spirit. Jesus is moved by Holy Spirit to move up to Jerusalem in order to redeem the whole of human nature and creation. So, in the barrenness of the desert, in the space and place of struggle with temptation, a new clarity emerges. We come to see that the Whole Man must surrender to God for redemption and transformation. We begin to see that Jesus must offer the whole of Human Nature back to God through the Suffering and Death that will become New Life.
Today, let us remember that in Jesus God as Man defeats Satan. St. Thomas tells us that Christ resisted all temptations by quoting the authority of the Law, not by enforcing His power, ‘so as to give more honor to His human nature and a greater punishment to His adversary, since the foe of the human race was vanquished, not as by God, but as by man’, as St. Pope Leo says. (Summa, III, xli. iv. contr.) It is as Man that Jesus Christ rebukes, conquers, and banishes Satan with the Word of God. As Man He will bear our griefs and carry our sorrows; [will be] wounded for our transgressions…and [will be] bruised for our iniquities. By his stripes we [shall be] healed. (Is. liii. 4) The devil vanishes. Behold the Man who silently and humbly comes down the mountain, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, very God and very Man, clothed completely in our frail human flesh with all of us on His mind and in His heart and ready to invite us to journey with Him up to the Jerusalem of His Cross and beyond.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: