O God whose never-failing providence ordereth all things
both in heaven and earth, we humbly beseech thee to put away
from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things that be
profitable for us…
(Collect: Trinity VIII)
We concluded last week’s mediations with an exhortation to zeal. Having learned that the Divine desire for all men is that they faint not, but rather feed continually on the living Word of God, we opened our souls to the ongoing nutriment that overcomes sloth. I hope that we prayed fervently that the love of God might grow in us, grafting in our hearts the love of his name, increasing in us true religion, nourishing us with all goodness, and keeping us in the same. In a sense, what we prayed for was that the same providence that ordereth all things in heaven and in earth, might rule and govern our lives. Its actualization, we learned, would depend upon our willful desire and longing for its effectual operation.
But what is this never-failing providence that our Collect for today recites? Providence comes to us from the Latin providentia, and it means literally looking for or seeing into. In former times the word was used to describe God’s knowledge of all things –past, present, and future, in the eternal now of His perfect vision. Some theological controversialists used it to defend the Divine nature against the claims of others who maintained that God can and does change His mind. The doctrine of Divine Providence insists that God knows every particular form of life and every facet of its being in all ages and simultaneously. Perhaps a simpler way of putting it is that nothing ever has or ever will escape His all-penetrating gaze and censorious vision and knowledge. Nothing escapes God’s seeing and knowing, because his never failing providence orders all things in heaven and earth. Whether men acknowledge it or not, God’s thinking of all things is present to and determinative of everything that ever has, does, or will happen. What happens in the universe is subject completely to God’s will at all times. Even evil itself –a rejection of God’s Wisdom and Will, much to its own rage and resentment, ends us having meaning only in relation to God!
We might find this view of Divine providence not a little bit intimidating. The all-seeing eye of God, the surveyor and judge, might startle and shake us. This is a good and healthy spiritual thing! Post-modern, materialistic Christians have become too used to treating God like the conceptual aider and abetter of temporary healing and of earthly peace. They gather and fancy presumptuously that God’s chief role and function in the universe is to overcome and overturn any physical or material impediment to human happiness. Of course, what they have forgotten is that familiarity breeds contempt. And spiritual overfamiliarity betrays an arrogance or hubris that can never admit of the need for Divine Grace and its promise of salvation. The so-called Christian who controls any spiritual conversation or dialogue with God is in serious danger.
Such a spiritual disposition is not, of course, one that God intends for us to embrace. We do well to remind ourselves that God does see and know all things, and that His ever-present gaze sifts, weighs, and measures the devices and desires of [all human] heart[s], or the determinants and motives of men’s choices and voluntary acts. Not only does He see, but also He knows; not only does He know, but also He judges and discerns where men’s voluntary choices situate them in relation to His Divine Being. God is nothing if not fair. St. Paul reminds us: Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. (Gal. vi. 7,8) What we choose or will to think, say, and do will, in the end, be summarized perfectly as what is one with or alienated from God…forever.
What we should want, then, is for the Divine Wisdom to bring us to the knowledge and love of God forever. To obtain that, we need to submit to the never-failing providence that ordereth all things both in heaven and earth. (Collect) So we pray that God will put away from us all hurtful things and give us those things which are profitable for our salvation. Providence, again, is the vision or knowledge by which God orders, rules, governs, informs, defines, enlivens, conserves, changes, betters, and perfects all things. It is the Divine Wisdom which, while ruling all things in general, must govern our hearts in particular if we would be saved. Jesus ben Sirach, the author of this morning’s Old Testament lesson, tells us that man acquires it through the fear of the Lord. All wisdom cometh from God and is with him forever. (Ecclus. i. 1) It stands above all things as what alone illuminates and enlightens us to our sin, reminds us of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ, and shows us the way onto the path of sanctification through the Holy Spirit. Man can have it only through fear. To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…whoso feareth the Lord, it shall go well with him at the last. (Ecclus. i. 13, 14) The fear of the Lord is a healthy and mature awe or wonder at God’s power, wisdom, and love. It is not abject terror or horrified dread of a God who has predestined us to an inescapable fate. Rather it is that searing and startling apprehension and consciousness of God’s presence that elicits dutiful respect and profound humility from fallen man in the presence of an all-merciful God. Let all the earth fear the Lord: stand in awe of him all ye that dwell in the word. (Psalm xxxiii. 8) the psalmist sings. For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. (Isaiah lvii. 15) With the fear of the Lord comes humility; humility leads to penitence, and penitence to a contrition that desires the order and rule of God’s Widsom in human life. The fear of the Lord is to hate evil. Pride, arrogance, the evil way, and the forward mouth do I hate. Counsel is mine and sound wisdom, (Proverbs viii. 13, 14) says the Lord.
God’s providence is His Divine Wisdom. St. Thomas, quoting Aristotle, says it belongs to the wise man to order… The name of the absolutely wise man, however, is reserved for him whose consideration is directed to the end of the universe, which is also the origin of the universe. That is why, according to the Philosopher, it belongs to the wise man to consider the highest causes.(SCG i. 1) The wise man rules his life with reason; the wiser man seeks God and discovers that the cause of his perfection is found in the order and governance of Divine Wisdom. Divine Wisdom has, of course, offered itself to the hearts and minds of men through the life of Jesus Christ. Wisdom has been made flesh and thus has borne the burden of human nature, scattered its darkness and ignorance, silenced its foolishness, and humbled its heart. Wisdom made flesh now, as always, desires to become operative in the lives of those who choose Him. It teaches us that we should be debtors not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. (Romans viii. 12). Rather, the Divine Providence intends that we should be illuminated and liberated by Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. i. 24), remembering that if we through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, we shall live. (Romans viii. 13) Mortifying the deeds of the body means that we must allow God’s wisdom to rule and govern our earthly lives. Man is made for goodness- to discover, see, know, and embrace it. In this morning’s Gospel the wise man is compared to a good tree that bringeth forth good fruit. (St. Matthew vii. 17) The good fruit are the virtues that grow in the human soul that subjects himself to God’s Wisdom. Wisdom cannot be present and effective unless and until a man has stopped living to himself, the flesh, the world, and the devil. The good fruit of Wisdom is the increase, yield, and harvest that Divine Providence intends for all human beings.
In the face of Divine Wisdom, we must ask ourselves this morning these questions: Do I habitually recognize the never-failing providence that orders all things in heaven and earth? Do I thank God for my creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life? Do I desire that His Wisdom might enter my soul and crucify all things that frustrate and threaten my adhesion to God’s will? Do I remember that I was born to be a child of God’s omnipotent Wisdom through the fear of the Lord, seeking, knocking, and asking? As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. (Romans viii 14) Do I remember with William Law that, Resignation to the divine will signifies a cheerful approbation and thankful acceptance of everything that comes from God. It is not enough patiently to submit, but we must thankfully receive and fully approve of everything that by the order of God's providence happens to us. Do I remember that the Spirit of Wisdom, the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. (Romans viii. 15), calls us away from false prophets, who bring forth only evil fruit? (St. Matt. vii. 17) She crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city she uttereth her words, saying, How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge? Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you. (Proverbs i. 21-23) God has an eternal vision of who and where we should be forever.
My friends, today let us remember, with Romano Guardini, that there is at work in world history an intention, a heart, a concern, and a power that is stronger than all worldly powers. This power brings about what the Divine heart intends and what the Divine intention wills. (VLG. ii) If we embrace the Wisdom of God in our flesh, the light of the Divine Providence shall guide us into salvation. Then the same light will shine out of us and into the hearts of others, that they too might hope be sanctified and saved by God’s everlasting vision for them. Amen.
The Earthly and the Heavenly Life
For if ye live after the flesh ye shall die; but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Romans viii. 13.)
THE Apostle does three things in these words. Firstly, he commands us that we should mortify the pleasure of the flesh, through the Spirit do ye mortify the deeds of the body. Secondly, he places the necessity of mortifying it, if ye live after the flesh ye shall die. Thirdly, he places the profit of the mortification, ye shall live.
I. On the first head, it is to be noted, that in a threefold manner we ought to mortify the flesh.
(1) We are to mortify the flesh first by destroying its carnal desires and sin. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry, for which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience; in the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. But now ye also put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him. (Col. iii. 5-10)
Carnal desires emerge both from the body and the soul. These are not the sins of the spirit. So first St. Thomas exhorts us to heed the Apostle’s counsel in abandoning the sins of the body and soul. First, he calls us out of sexual sins or the sins of lust. Human sexuality is made for the procreation of children. So any expression of sexuality that does not use the body for this purpose is sinful. Thus the Apostle warns us not to separate the sexual desire from its intended end. Any sexual desire, passion, or appetite that is freed from God’s original intention for it is sinful. When a man divorces sexual desire from procreative intention his appetite grows and becomes gluttonous. The subject thus over-indulges and over-consumes the object of his passion, and so he dishonors and disrespects the image and likeness of God in the other. Therefore redeemable passion becomes animal appetite that treats another human being as the an object to be devoured rapaciously. Over-indulgence then makes the subject more and selfish as the object becomes a kind of commodity. The subject becomes covetous and greedy. Avarice then defines his relation to the world. He has forsaken the spiritual good and he is drawn more and more into the idolatry of the flesh and the world through the devil. Selfishness leads to sloth in spiritual matters. Spiritual sloth then generates blasphemy and despair of God. Out of blasphemy comes malice and ill will. Soon anger and wrath grow as the slothful man speaks evily of his neighbor and even harms him physically. Against these sins of the body united to the soul, the Apostle warns us. The Apostle then tells us not to lie to ourselves about ourselves or to others but to live under God’s truth. Christians are to become ‘a new man renewed in knowledge of the image of the Creator’. Thus we are to use our bodies and souls in the service of our end, which is the perfection of the image and likeness of God in ourselves and others.
(2) We are to mortify the flesh, second by macerating it by fasting and afflictions to the likeness of the passion of Jesus Christ, Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. (2 Cor. iv. 10)
If we hope to live chastely, we must fast and pray. When we fast and pray we love all others in God and God in them. Thus we do not use or abuse them lustfully, gluttonously, or greedily. Rather, when we fast and pray we die to ourselves and allow Christ’s passion, suffering, and death to come alive in us. We pray God to fill our bodies and souls with a desire for purity, through moderation and temperance, embracing also the virtues of generosity and kindness. We pray that Jesus might be seen, heard, and sensed in our bodily natures. We pray also that through our zeal and passion we might reveal and disclose that we intend to please Him with all our lives. So we treat others honorably and respectfully; we long to give to them rather than take from them; and we strive to love the image and likeness of God in them. With deepest passion then we long for their salvation and our own. We shall thus do them no harm with words or deeds, for what we love in them is Jesus Christ –waiting to be elicited from them or already emerging from their hearts and assisting us.
(3) Third, we are to mortify the flesh by afflicting it with spiritual meditations. Much study is a weariness of the flesh. (Eccles. xii. 12) Watching for riches, consumeth the flesh, (Ecclus. xxxi. 1) that is carnal pleasures. The thought of it takes away sleep, i.e., the weariness of sluggishness. The thinking beforehand taketh away the understanding (Ibid, 2), i.e., he who sees beforehand the rewards of gifts turns away sense, i.e., from all evil concupiscence; and heavy infirmity, i.e., of the body makes the mind free from sin.
Too many people today do not undertake or assume spiritual duties in order to tame the flesh and lift them into the spiritual purification and sanctification of the soul and spirit. And yet all Christians are called to take time each day to ‘wait for the riches of God’. Spiritual meditation upon one’s sins, one’s wretchedness, and one’s hopelessness without God is a tiring and exhausting endeavor. The soul and spirit that work hard in this self-emptying self-denial bring the body into line and order with God’s intention for the whole person. Carnal pleasures are consumed and burnt away as requisite and ongoing spiritual warfare is waged. And as the soul is subject increasingly to the spirit, the demands of sense in the body are dulled and enervated; concupiscence is no longer a bodily urge but a spiritual malady that is now seen by the soul and resisted by the spirit. The soul or mind becomes free from sin as the sorrowful penitent receives with joy the forgiveness of his sins and the amendment of his life through the infusion of God’s Grace.
II. On the second head, it is to be noted that it is necessary we should mortify the flesh, since if we live after the flesh we shall die; for it follows that there is a threefold death from the pleasure of the flesh.
(1)The first reason for mortifying the flesh is the death of sin.
Now we move from the way of mortification to the reason for it. We move from the body into the soul. In the soul we come to see that we must die to sin if we are to perfect the image and likeness of God within by His Grace alone. We die to sin because we desire to come alive to righteousness. We desire to come alive to righteousness and holiness because through these virtues God acclimates or habituates us to the operations of His Divine Wisdom and Goodness. We were made to see and know God. To see and know God we must die to sin and come alive to all those virtues that ensure our fear of Him alone, our unbreakable obedience to Him, and the fulfillment of His will in our lives. The last is His creative meaning and purpose for us. All other creatures follow His will by the laws imprinted upon their natures. We, with the angels, because we are rational, are to be subject to him not by necessity or force, but by the voluntary act and decision or the perfection of our wills. Thus we are encouraged to choose not sin and eternal death in alienation from God but righteousness and everlasting life in communion with Him forever.
(2) The second reason for mortifying the flesh is the death of nature. By surfeiting many have perished. (Ecclus. xxxvii. 34)
Overindulgence of the flesh through lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, and anger brings about eternal death. To make a god out of the body and soul and their appetites is a choice that man makes to his eternal peril. His body is made for the soul and the soul is made for the spirit. The spirit is made to know and love God. The willful divinization of animal appetite and psychic self-possession leads not closer and closer to but further and further away from God. Like the house of Saul man grows weaker and weaker. And yet, like the House of David, he is intended by God to grow stronger and stronger because he is created to return willfully to His first love and the Grace that alone can make him better and better. The fallen nature is meant to be brought to death that the redeemed nature might be brought to life as man willfully assents to partake of Christ’s Redemption.
(3) The third reason for the mortification of the body is the death of Gehena. He that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption. (Gal. vi. 8) Evil shall slay the wickes. (Ps. xxxiv. 21)
He who does not mortify the sins of the flesh but rather worships, obeys, follows, and perfects them, will be rewarded with eternal death. Eternal death is life in the presence of God from a great distance. The wicked shall see, know, and endure God’s victory over sin, death, and Satan as the love which the Blessed enjoy and they have rejected. They will see, know, and experience the love and mercy that they willfully refused. Hell in Heaven is far worse that Hell in isolation from it.
III. On the third head, it is to be noted that a threefold life is acquired by the mortification of the flesh. The benefits rewarded to those who mortify the flesh are threefold.
(1) First, there is the benefit of the prolongation of natural life: He that is temperate shall prolong life. (Ecclus. xxxvii. 31)
St. Paul addresses those who have mortified the flesh and all lusts therein. ‘I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now; being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.’ (Phil. i. 3-6) Those who mortify the deeds of the flesh have begun a good work that is being perfected and carrying them closer and closer to the Kingdom of God. The new life of Jesus Christ, alive in the bodies, souls, and spirits of the faithful, does not come to any termination point. As the human being grows older and older he is made younger and younger as the Grace of God rebirths him from above with each new day.
(2) Second, there is the benefit of the life of grace. To be spiritually minded is life and peace. (Rom. viii. 6)
To be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Those who have mortified the carnal deeds of the flesh have willfully subjected themselves to the Law of God’s Wisdom and Mercy, and thus are at peace with Him. They begin to share in the life of God. His Wisdom and His Love are being made flesh in them. They are being refashioned into the sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father. ‘The life that they live is by the faith of the Son of God who loved them gave himself for them.’ (Gal. ii. 20) They are peace with God through the reconciliation, peace, and atonement made flesh, Jesus Christ.
(3) Third, the benefit of mortifying the body is the prolongation of the life of glory. Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. (2 Cor. iv. 11)
Interestingly enough, St. Thomas tells us that our earthly lives will not have ended aright unless we are dying spiritually up until we breathe our last. Earthly life for the Christian pilgrim is an ongoing death to the world, the flesh, the devil, and the self. The dying of the Lord Jesus Christ that the Apostle says must be the form and pattern, the real spiritual living that we embrace willfully, is the only sure and certain recipe for salvation. While our Lord and Saviour lived in the flesh, He was always mortifying it. Our Lord and Saviour’s whole Incarnation was nothing other than dying to Himself and coming alive to the Father through the Holy Spirit for all of us. His whole life was therefore a living death and a dying life. He longs to die in all of us each day. By this we mean that He who alone has died to sin, death, Satan and Himself perfectly desires to share this power, this wisdom, and this love with us. His Grace is nothing other than the merciful presence that He lends to us in order that we too might die daily to all that separates us from loving obedience to our Heavenly Father. He longs that His Death should not be relegated to the dustbin of past history. He longs that His Death should be alive to us and in us. He longs to die in us and for us through His Holy Spirit. If we willfully receive the Gift of this His Grace, we shall be rewarded with eternal glory. So let us this day, my friends, let Jesus die in and through us that we might begin to live in unbreakable communion with our Heavenly Father, moving from glory into glory. Amen.
If it be asked, What this one Thing that essential and only available to our Rising out of our Fallen State, and becoming, as we were at our Creation, an holy Offspring of God, and real Partakers of the Divine Nature is? It is the SPIRIT OF GOD brought again to his FIRST POWER OF LIFE IN US. Nothing else is wanted by us, nothing else intended for us, by the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel. Nothing else is, or can be effectual, to the making sinful man become again a godly Creature.
What do we need to enable us to rise out of our Fallen State? The Reverend Mr. Law says that it is nothing but the Spirit of God. It is not knowledge of the Father in His everlasting Word that shall save us. Knowledge is not virtue. Rather, it is that stirring of the heart that would embrace the same knowledge and allow that knowledge to rule and govern our lives. And thus what we need is to say 'yes' to the offer of salvation that the Spirit brings to us. There is nothing worse in this sorry world of ours than to see Christians assuming that what they know will save them. ‘Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in Heaven.’ (St. Matthew vii. 21-23) It is never what we know that will save us but that we desire what we know to change, transform, redeem, sanctify, and save us. The voluntary act is essential. Without it, we shall perish in a way worse than those who claim no such knowledge and thus are not hypocrites. And so, O Christians, it is the Spirit of the Father’s Word whom we must embrace, that he might make us not only to seem and appear to be Christians, but to be Christians in verity and truth.
Everything else, be it what it will, however glorious and Divine in outward Appearance, every Thing that Angels, Men, Churches, or Reformations, can do for us, is dead and helpless, but so far as it is the immediate work of the Spirit of God breathing and living in it.
Thus we must supplicate the Spirit of the Father and the Son not only to dwell in us, for that He already does, since if He didn’t, we wouldn’t be living, moving, and breathing. What we must ask is that Our Lord the Holy Spirit should begin ‘the immediate work’ of sanctifying us or making us into what the full reach of His power intends. His work for us is nothing other than making us obedient to the Father through the Son by the motions and stirrings of our deepest desire and delight. And thus while He is always present, He is not ever active until we surrender our wills to His will, our desire to His desire, and our loves to His love. To keep the Holy Spirit under lock and key in a prison-house of our own making will ensure that we never be in deed and in truth everything that our God wants us to be.
All Scripture bears full witness to this Truth, and the End and Design of all that is written, is only to call us back from the Spirit of Satan, the Flesh, and the World, to be again under full Dependence upon, and Obedience to the Spirit of God, who out of free Love and Thirst after our Souls, seeks to have his first Power of Life in us. When this is done, all is done that the Scripture can do for us. —Read what Chapter, or Doctrine of Scripture you will, be ever so delighted with it, it will leave you as poor, as empty and unreformed as it found you, unless it be a Delight that proceeds from, and has turned you wholly and solely to the Spirit of God, and strengthened your Union with and Dependence upon Him. For Love and Delight in matters of Scriptures, whilst it is only a Delight that is merely human, however Specious and Saintlike it may appear, is but the Self-love of fallen Adam, and can have no better a Nature, till it proceeds from the Inspiration of God, quickening his own Life and Nature within us, which alone can have or give forth a godly Love. For if it be an immutable Truth, that no man can call Jesus, Lord, but by the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. xii. 3), it must be a Truth equally immutable, that no one can have any one Christ-like Temper or Power of Goodness but so far, and in such Degree, as he is immediately led and governed by the Holy Spirit.
We can never desire and delight in God’s truth until we have exchanged our earthly, temporal, fickle, unsteady, wavering, hesitant, and uncertain love for the love of God that is found in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit yearns and longs to come alive in us as the First Power of our created humanity. Our humanity is incomplete, limited, and sinful until our Lord the Holy Spirit overwhelms, overtakes, and overturns our tendency to self-love. It is only in that perfect love exchanged between the Father and the Son that man can discover and actualize his intended meaning and destiny. The Father makes us through the Word or Wisdom that is His Son. In His Son we find knowledge of our true human nature. It is only through the Holy Spirit that we can live in the Redeemed Human Nature that the Son offers to share with us. If we embrace the effectual desire of the Holy Spirit, the mind of the Son will rule and govern us and we shall be reconciled with our Heavenly Father. Dear Christian Friends, let us desire to be ruled and governed by God’s Life and Nature through the Holy Spirit. Let us forever long to become what He alone can make out of us through the free reign of the same Spirit. Let us never quench this Spirit of Divine Love but open up to those horizons in which we shall forever be made better and new.
‘Why did the Lord first show His resurrection to a woman and not to a man?’ This is not a question driven by 21st century gender politics, but rather the great Syrian theologian, St Ephrem, contemplating the place of the mother of God in the mystery of the Incarnation: ‘A mystery is here revealed to us with regard to the Church and the Lord’s Mother. The Virgin received the first beginning of His advent on earth, and to a woman He himself showed His resurrection from the sepulchre. Both at the beginning and at the end, it is His mother’s name that is there and resounds … It was a Mary that received Him on His coming into life, and a Mary who saw also the angels at the sepulchre’. St Ephrem helps us to see why Eastertide is as much the season of the Mother of God as Christmas and Epiphany. His praise for the holy God-bearer is full of wonder as he searches for language to describe the beauty and the joy of the Lady Mother of God, most high above all the earth. In the Saviour’s first beginning, he says, ‘Mary is made for us a heaven bearing the divinity, which Christ, without leaving His Father’s glory, shut up within the narrow limits of her womb … She is the temple of the Son of God … that mystical new heaven, wherein dwelt the King of kings as in His mansion’. She is the new Eden, in which the tree of life is planted, the ladder of Jacob, whereby God has descended to us.
These titles and forms of praise help us to appreciate our Lady’s unique role in the work of salvation and in the renewal of creation. She only is the mother of God, ‘the bride whom the Father betrothed, the bridal chamber of the divine incarnation of the Logos’. In a beautiful sermon E. B. Pusey contemplates her as the New Eve, the one who undoes the knot of Eve’s disobedience, and leads us back to Paradise: ‘She, being the Mother of Him Who is our Life, became the Mother of Life; she was the Gate of Paradise, because she bore Him Who restored to us our lost Paradise; she was “the gate of Heaven,” because He, born of her, “opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.”’ Again, we hear the unique role of the New Eve proclaimed, but we are also moved to consider her as a model for the Church which she figures – what Christ has done in her, he must also do in us: “the gate of Heaven,” because He, born of her, “opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers”. This door is opened for us, and we are invited to enter in.
One of the great Old Testament figures of the Mother of God is the burning bush. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, speaks to Moses from the burning bush; the bush burns but is not consumed. In stained glass and icon this scene is presented as a type or foreshadowing of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary: just as the bush burned and was not consumed, so Mary gave birth while remaining a virgin, neither was she consumed by the divine fire. On the one hand, this type pictures our Lady’s uniqueness – no other bears the fire of the Godhead in this way. And yet, the fire which burns in Mary, is the fire of the divine life which burns in all who have been co-interred and wrapt round in the life of the Risen Son. This is the fire of the Holy Spirit which does not consume us, and which yet is to burn up all that is mere earth, the stubble in our lives, whatever does not lead us back to God.
The life which is born of the God-bearer must also be born and grow in us. Lancelot Andrews made this point with a wonderful image, describing the fountain of baptism as corresponding to the Virgin’s womb. The same life and ‘original’ which He took in the womb of the Virgin, the same He placed for us in the womb of the Church, the font of baptism.
I will conclude by considering how the Mother of God, His mother and ours in Him, serves as a model for us. Twice in second chapter of Gospel of St Luke, we are told that Mary ‘kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart’. Here Mary serves for us an image of the inner life of the Church. Mary pictures for us the attitude of attentive listening which is the stillness or silence of the heart (Luke 2:19, 51).
The great teacher of the mystical life, Baron Von Hugel said that ‘Man is what he does with his silence’. Well, brothers and sisters, is that not a disturbing thought? What do we do with our silence, if we have any at all? Do we pick up our favourite electronic gadget – text, surf, face time, or, in other words, anything but silence. Or, perhaps we have less electronic forms of distraction and dissipation. But what do we do with our silence? In our Lady, we see an image of ‘the one who listens, who listened to the word of God at the Annunciation, who “kept all these sayings, and, pondered them in her heart”, who told the servants at the marriage feast to listen to her Son’.
Mary is described as ‘a living heaven’ or ‘wider than heaven’ because of the life she bears, in John Donne’s words, ‘light in dark, and shutt’st in little room, Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.’ But this ‘Immensity’ is not simply room in her body for a special baby, it is rather a spiritual landscape, the inner kingdom, the dwelling place of the Holy Trinity, and the place where she keeps and ponders all these things. We are invited not just to know about this kingdom, but to live in it.
The sayings and the things which Mary pondered are given to us especially in the Scriptures – they are placed into our hands that we may keep and ponder them with her. John Keble, one of the fathers of the Catholic revival whose fruits we enjoy and celebrate today, urged his readers to this kind of contemplation: ‘The words and doings of God cannot but be full-charged with heavenly and mysterious meaning’. The things which Mary contemplated in her heart, and the things and words that we are given to ponder, are full-charged with the heavenly life of Christ, the life and presence which is the life of the Church, His Body.
Mary is our joy, wider than heaven, the Mother of life, in part, because she is the model of contemplative union. This is not a message for spiritual superstars, but for each one of us. We may come to discover the inner kingdom if we can make any space for stillness and silence in our lives, to ponder the Word which she kept first in her womb then in her heart: ‘It is not in heaven … Neither is it beyond the sea, but the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart’ (Deut 30). This is the gift of the Mother of God to us – ‘Be it unto me according to thy word’ and through thy Word. The glories of the worship which we enjoy today belong to the reality which we may, with the our Lady, keep and ponder in our heart; they belong to the inner life of the Church which she embodies.
‘O divine living image in whom God the Creator has rejoiced, possessing a mind which is governed by God and directed to God alone, Earth-born little daughter whose womb contained a living heaven, a path of noetic silence: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. To Him be glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit to the infinity of the ages of ages. Amen.
 Sources referred to the in the sermon include:
Thomas Livius, The Blessed Virgin in the Fathers of the First Six Centuries
The Rev. Dr. George Westhaver is the Principal of Pusey House, Oxford.
Being a Christian means looking at the world from (the) central point, which gives us freedom, hope, decisiveness, and consolation. (The God of Jesus Christ, p. 35)
I began today’s sermon with a quotation from Pope Benedict XVI because I think that it sums up nicely the predicament that all Christians face in a time of distorted and distracted vision and unprincipled and ungrounded behavior. The only central point that contemporary man seems to study is himself and his own identity, which seems to be nothing more than a collection of carnal appetites and emotions that remain wholly unaccountable to any higher principles. Against this, Benedict intends to root and ground the Christian in the unchanging and unalterable central point of God’s wisdom and will. For it is only from this central point that man can hope to be lifted above the changes and chances of this fleeting world, as the Cause or Source of his being leads him progressively forward towards the realization of lasting freedom, hope, decisiveness, and consolation.
But to stay focused and concentrated on this spiritual central point of God’s revelation is not easy.We spend our days insanely and foolishly addicted to our cell phones, talking the hours away in gossip and complicating our lives and others’ with unnecessarily generated chaos and confusion. Our world is nothing if it is not a unity or ingathering of insane and inane distractions, all of which make the spiritual life well nigh impossible. And so we must examine how we can habituate ourselves to the spiritual central point of God’s meaning and intention for us.
The first step towards this spiritual central point would seem to call for a radical un-selfing. St. Paul tells us that we become servants to the lords whom we obey. If we selfishly choose to serve sin, we shall reap death. If we selflessly choose to obey God, we shall harvest righteousness. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification. [For]when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. (Romans vi. 19) St. Paul tells us that if we are now living from the central point of ourselves and not Jesus Christ, then we are freed from the obligations of righteousness because we have become the slaves of our own ungodly lusts. Far from revealing any familiarity with God’s goodness and true religion, we have allowed the surrounding world and those in it to form and mold our freedom, hope, decisiveness, and consolation.
As a consequence we are not full of the love of God that should generate the righteousness that leads to salvation freedom. Instead we have fallen into what is called acedia –spiritual sloth or indolence of mind, a mortal sin that earns all damnation. Geoffrey Chaucer says that because we are no longer praising and adoring God…no longer praying to God for the amendment of our sins…and no longer accepting works of penitence fit for the renewal of life by the Grace of God, we are possessed by the anguish of a troubled heart, with, as St. Augustine says, ‘sadness for goodness and joy for evil.’ As slothful men we do everything morosely and with peevishness, slackness, falsely excusing ourselves, with slovenliness and unwillingness…serving God negligently. (The Parson’s Tale) In other words, in the grip of extravagant sorrows and great fears, we despair of God’s love, because we are so self-centered. As slothful creatures, we conclude either that we have done too much and can never do enough, or can never do any good but only spread evil. We complain, pout, and sink into the doldrums of spiritual depression and dormancy.
St. John of Ruysbroeck adds this to Chaucer’s prognosis. He tells us that we have forgotten to acknowledge God’s Divine Generosity and to live out lives that are responsive to it. So by willfully refusing to be touched and transformed by the Divine Generosity, a man slinks into sullen sloth. Generosity is a liberal flowing forth of the heart which has been touched by charity and pity. When a man considers with compassion the sufferings and the sorrows of Christ, the Divine Generosity springs into his heart, which makes him offer to Christ, for His pains and for His love, praise and thanks, worship and adoration, with a joyful and humble surrender of body and soul, in time and in eternity. (The Adornment…., Book I, Ch. xix) God’s compassion, pity, mercy, and forgiveness of sins have been made flesh in Jesus Christ. The central point of God’s passion for us is revealed in the Divine Generosity of His holy life. If we look into this central point of Divine Generosity, we shall discover that Love which never ceases to approach, confront, challenge, and illuminate us. If we are willing, this same loving Divine Generosity will transform us into what we were always meant to be. But we can have this Love only if our spiritual senses are awakened and we discover our absolute need for Jesus Christ, the Forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection from sin and death, and the only way, truth, and life that can save us. Ruysbroeck continues: If a man…thinks upon the good which God has done to him, and his own failings: then he must pour himself forth into the generosity of God, taking refuge in His faithfulness and His mercy, turning to Him with trust and with a perfect and free intention to serve Him for evermore. (Idem)
Man must come to know himself as utterly in need of the Grace of God. So we must look into the central point of all reality and desire to be enflamed with zeal and passion, with hunger and thirst for righteousness, remembering that God is the Lord of all power and might. Fallen man derives his beginning, his middle, and his end from God. The Divine Generosity issues forth from the Lord of all power and might. God alone can lend to man that vitality, intensity, and stamina necessary to turn him away from himself and back to the spiritual central point of his salvation. He surrenders himself humbly to the Divine Generosity to secure his perseverance in sanctification. The Lord of all power and might desires to transform our zeal and passion into spiritual fortitude and courage so that despising annoying things, we will become mighty and vigorous to withstand evil sturdily and keep ourselves wisely from dangers that are wicked, wrestling against the devil. (Chaucer, Idem) St. John reminds us: Ye are of God, little children…because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world. (1 St. John iv. 4)
As zeal and passion become courage and fortitude from the central point of Divine Generosity, man is called forth to remember gratefully that God is also the author and giver of all good things. God is generous as He communicates the good to every creature in its form, pattern, purpose, and configuration. Every creature, in its mere existence, reveals a nature that is ruled and governed by God’s law for it. The creature follows a prototype and pattern that it did not invent and could never perfect by any power of its own. Men and angels alone can perceive, study, and understand this truth in creation. What they perceive in a deeper way is how the Divine Generosity is communicated to them as God thinks, creates, sustains, and perfects all creatures according to His loving purposes for them. Because God is the author and giver of all good things, our zeal and passion for Him should enlarge in response to His creative Wisdom, as we learn how to embrace practical reason or prudence, which increasingly enables us to undertake hard and grievous things wisely and reasonably. (Chaucer, Idem) I should have utterly fainted, but that I believe verily to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. (Ps. xxvii. 15)
Focusing on the central point of Divine Generosity, with increasing zeal and passion, we pray now that [He] will graft in our hearts the love of [His] Name. We must reverently and devoutly vow to make the Father’s name Holy in the whole of our lives: Hallowed be Thy Name. (St. Matthew vi. 9) We must solemnly and piously, lovingly obey the Father through the Son, counting ourselves worthy to suffer shame for the Name of Jesus (Acts v. 41), believing passionately that there is no other Name under Heaven given among men whereby we must be saved (Acts iv. 12), That at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. ii. 10)
So we must yearn also for that zeal and passion that seek to be defined by God’s sanctification. Increase in us true religion. We desire to love God not only for the gifts of creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, but above all for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. (General Thanksgiving) With zeal and passion we must thankfully pray for the means of Grace and the hope of Glory (Idem), the Divine Generosity of the ascended Christ who intends to come alive in us by the motions of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul asks us, What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. (Romans vi. 21) But, Death is swallowed up in victory.O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Cor. xv. 54, 55) Our Lord invites us into His victory over sin, death, and Satan. In that Christ died, He died unto sin once. But in that He liveth, He liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Ibid, 10, 11) If we love the Holy Name of Jesus, and are habituated to true religion, we shall be made free from sin that we might become the sons of God, being sanctified for our end, which is eternal life. (Ibid, 22)
Finally, our zeal and passion must be forever cultivated so that it can be diffused to others. Nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy, keep up in the same. Being sustained and perfected from the central point of God’s Divine Generosity, we must long to impart to others the Love that we receive. St. John Ruysbroeck concludes that none can feel true zeal save him who overflows with generosity…By generosity of heart all other virtues are increased, and all the powers of the soul are adorned; for the generous man is always blithe in spirit and untroubled of heart, and he flows forth with desire and in his works of virtue, to all men in common. Of all such Christ says: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’ in that day when they shall hear these words: ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you—because of your mercy,—from the foundation of the world.’ (Idem) Amen.
As ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity, even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness." (Romans vi. 19).
In this Epistle the Apostle exhorts us to two things firstly, to the avoidance of evil, As ye have, yielded your members to uncleanness; secondly, to the love of good, even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.
St. Paul reminds us that when we ‘were the servants of sin, we yielded our members from iniquity to iniquity.’ There are three dimensions of human nature that sin affects. First, it affects the body; second, the soul; third, the spirit.
Regarding the first we recognize that our sin has corrupted our bodies or made them unclean. This could be in the form of gluttony, covetousness, or lust. The mortal sin of gluttony is committed by those who eat too much or too little and thus have treated a need as an exaggerated god. The mortal sin of covetousness is committed by those who spend too much or too little because the god of mammon possesses them either with a fear to spend on and for the Lord because of selfishness, or a fear not to spend since the external and visible signs of wealth are needed to show the world how much they have and how far they have come. The mortal sin of lust is committed by both bitter celibates or profligate fornicators. Celibacy is not a sin, but it should be embraced as a calling which yields a deeper love of God. A resentful and bitter celibate is not celibate. Contrariwise, sexual intercourse is not a sin, provided that it is rooted and grounded in the intention to procreate within the honorable estate of Holy Matrimony. Otherwise it produces lust and Holy Matrimony is polluted and corrupted. For a man to be healed of any or all of these sins takes much time. They are grounded in spiritual illness and thus must be overcome only gradually as the Grace of God generates spiritual health by infusing those virtues that conquer them. Some men and women live into old age never having confronted and overcome these sins.
Regarding the second, we realize that we have corrupted our souls also. The chief sin of soul is acedie or acedia. This is spiritual or even bodily sloth that comes about due to an absence of zeal, passion, and ardour for the rule and governance of God in human life. It is full of despair that leads to sluggishness, spiritual and mental sloth, apathy, indifference, lack of care, incaution, and negligence. This comes about both from the sins of the body in one direction and the sins of the spirit in the other. The soul’s sins tend to link up the two. It is for this reason that anger, ire, fury, or rage might be located either here in the soul tending downwards into the body or upwards into the spirit. Anger is the harm that one man brings to another either mentally or physically. So Anger hangs uncomfortably between the soul and the spirit.
Regarding the third, we realize that we have corrupted our spirits. The two major mortal sins of the spirit are envy and pride. Envy begrudges another man any goodness and hopes that misfortune will befall him. ‘He loves the misfortune of his neighbor’. (D.C., Purg. Canto vii. 120) It is the sin of malevolence. It is closer to the body than the soul since another person has a grip and hold upon the envious or jealous man. The envious man’s malevolence and ill-will are driven by the goodness that is present in the life of another, and so the sinner wishes for a kind of ongoing unhappiness for his neighbor. Above envy is pride. Pride is the Queen of all sins since it really would rather that other men did not exist. Pride longs that his neighbor’s excellence be cast down and destroyed. So he treats his neighbor as non-existent. His own supremacy is wholly ensured only when all others are qualitatively beneath him and, with any luck, banished and annihilated.
(2) Sin should be avoided also because through it man ignominiously subjects himself to servitude, When ye were the servants of sin. Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. (St. John viii. 34)
When we sin the false gods rule us. They infuse into our lives habits of unholiness. The sinful habits govern and move us because we have indulged spiritual sloth. From the side of the body zeal and right reason have not ordered and governed it into the service of higher truth. From the side of the spirit zeal and faith have not inspired us to lovingly long for the rule and governance of God’s Word in our flesh. The net result: we are the slaves of sin, of ‘the Good’s Absence’, and thus of Satan.
(3) Sin should be avoided because of the great confusion that flows from it. What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed ? O Lord, all that forsake Thee shall be ashamed. (Jeremiah xvii. 13)
When we sin, we forsake the right ordering of our bodies, souls, and spirits and thus welcome confusion and obscurity into our lives. We introduce elements of vice that compete for the rule and governance of Jesus Christ in our hearts. And thus we are not respecting and honoring the Image and Likeness of God in our natures. Every part of human nature has a role or function to perform in the pursuit of that holiness that leads to salvation. If the parts are not honored and used in combination with the whole person’s pursuit of God, turbulence and turmoil reign freely. Shame comes as a consequence of sin’s habituation in human life. It takes a good long time to work out the guilt, shame, and horror. Confessions must be followed with conscientious contrition and compunction for sin. It takes a good long time for Christ to work His healing Redemption in. Too many Christians try to run away from their past sins and thus are all the more spiritually sick and diseased. One should not, of course, mourn to the point of despair. But true sorrow is essential for the inner working of the Holy Spirit.
(4) Sin is to be avoided because by sin man is led to eternal death. The wages of sin is death. The death of the wicked is very evil. (Psalm xxxiii. 22)
Sin leads to eternal death. If it has not been worked out of the human system through the Forgiveness of Sins and the Sanctification of the Holy Ghost, a man will not be saved. Some people delude themselves into thinking they have faced and overcome their sins. Cessation from sin is not enough. This is a first step. Next comes the process whereby the Holy Ghost heals the memory, understanding, and will of ignorance, false motives, ill will, despair, unbelief, and hatred. The process requires the sinful soul often to bear a cross for some time that he might be made more conscious of his utter powerlessness and need for humility and meekness. The process of healing takes time. The threat of eternal death should stir the soul to spiritual warfare against past sin and present sickness. The mind or soul is called upon to reunite the body with the spirit under the guidance and direction of God’s Grace that leads to eternal life.
The good should be chosen because God’s goodness alone purifies the human heart of all lust, covetousness, gluttony, sloth, anger, envy, and pride. Purity of heart is the gift given to them who desire to be moved by God’s loving goodness alone. It is the desire and passion to love God wholly and completely and to love all neighbors in God and for God. It is that state whereby the human heart intends to please God with all of his life. Purity of heart means that love of God and love of neighbor are united in the Divine and Human natures of Jesus Christ. A man can never truly love until this combined love of Christ comes alive in his heart. This love alone leads to the vision of God.
(2) Good should be chosen because of the justice of the will to righteousness. For righteousness is a right will. Justice is rectitude of the will preserved on its own account. (St. Anselm)
Goodness leads to justice or a right ordering of the human will in relation to God and neighbor. Justice comes about when every part of human nature perfects its function for the good-ordering and operation of the whole human person. A right will chooses to use all parts of human nature in service of the pilgrim journey towards salvation. Justice orders the body, soul, and spirit in such a way that God’s will, His Wisdom and Truth, rule and govern human life.
(3) Good should be chosen for the liberty of the spirit. Ye were free from righteousness. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty. (2 Cor. iii. 17) If the Son, therefore, shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed. (St. John viii. 36)
A man can be truly free only when the meaning and purpose of human life are perfected for its ultimate end. True liberty is found when nothing hinders, frustrates, or distracts a man from his true natural and foreordained purpose. Man is made for the vision and love of God. Once a man embraces God’s goodness by the operation of Grace, he begins to be freed from all that threatens to destroy and kill his human nature. Sin kills man’s nature and prevents its ultimate perfection. Liberty is not the absence of restraint to do whatever one pleases. Liberty is found only when a man becomes a man, i.e. when he submits to the Goodness that has made him, preserves him, and always desires to save or reconcile him with his beginning. ‘In my beginning is my end.’ To return to the origin and source of our being, knowing, and loving is an act of true liberty because it depends exclusively upon faith in God’s Grace, or a voluntary act that says “Yes” to God. The rational creature then finds liberty only through a freely willed decision to become what the Maker intended him to be.
(4) Man should choose Goodness because by doing good obtains eternal life. The gift of God is eternal life. And shall come forth they that have done good unto the resurrection of life. (St. John v. 29) Those shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal. (St. Matt. xxv. 46)
Choosing goodness comes with the reward of eternal life, pure and perfect resurrection from the dead, unbreakable union and communion with God. Life eternal here means everlasting joy and happiness that is found in the knowledge and love of God. Today friends, let us choose this Goodness of God, which alone perfects and saves us. Let us endeavor to be inspired with zeal to pursue passionately salvation and eternal life. Let us thus surrender to the motions of God’s Holy Spirit that our zeal may yield love, and our love may carry us into the everlasting embrace of God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, our One God. Amen.
Show me a Man whose Heart has no Desire, or Prayer in it, but to love God with his whole Soul and Spirit, and his Neighbor as himself, and then you have shown me the Man who knows Christ, and is known of him;—The best and wisest Man in the World, in whom the first paradisaical Wisdom and Goodness are come to life.— Not a single Precept in the Gospel, but is the Precept of his own Heart, and the Joy of that new-born heavenly Love which is the Life and Light of his Soul.— In this Man, all that came from the old Serpent is trod under his Feet, not a Spark of Self, of Pride, of Wrath, of Envy, of Covetousness, or worldly Wisdom, can have the least Abode in him, because that Love, which fulfilleth the whole Law and the Prophets, that Love which is God and Christ, both in Angels and Men, is the Love that gives Birth, and Life, and Growth to every Thing that is either Thought, or Word, or Action in Him.— And if He has no Share or Part with foolish Errors, cannot be tossed about with every Wind of Doctrine, it is because, to be Always governed by this Love, is the same Thing as to be Always taught of God.
William Law: Address to the Clergy, #164.
Fisher of mortal men, them that the saved be,
Ever the holy fish caught up from the depths of the sea,
Out of the world’s tumultuous sea of sin
Enticed into thine embrace, forever to be held therein .
(Clement of Alexandria)
Post-modern man seems wholly afraid of being caught –caught in an embarrassing situation, caught off guard, caught in the act, caught red-handed, caught short of something. The fear is caused by a lack of inward and spiritual integrity that leaps out of a world whose vision can rise no higher than the emotional and psychological peaks of pandemic adolescence. When those will higher hopes denounce it as immature or disordered, it is met with the juvenile gibes of derogatory derision. For the adolescent, judgment moves in one direction –away from the self, onto others, and into Hell. But fortunately for us, today’s Gospel turns us around, and encourages us to move us in a better direction, to be self-consciously caught out in our sinful condition so that we might be caught up and into the net of Jesus Christ. For whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth; And scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. (Hebr. xii. 6)
Prior to today’s Gospel reading, St. Luke tells us that Jesus had been healing those who were sick with divers diseases. (St. Luke iv. 40) Exhausted, He then went into a desert place (Ibid, 42) to pray, only to be interrupted by the multitude who would have kept Him from leaving them because they were caught up in the healing power that He brought into their midst. He said, ‘I must preach the Kingdom of God to other cities also’. But they nevertheless followed Him. Today we read that As the [same] multitude pressed upon Him to hear the Word of God, He stood by the lake of Genesaret, and saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. (St. Luke v. 1) This crowd pursues Jesus so persistently, passionately pressing upon Him to hear the Word of God, that He is nearly driven to take refuge in the sea! The sinful world they inhabit can offer no healing, refuge, defense, or release from their sin. And so with all zeal, alacrity, and dispatch, having spent their lives caught by the short hairs in the devil’s lair, they are determined to be caught up into the salvation that Jesus brings.
But the zeal and passion with which men press upon Jesus must be tempered and moderated. When we press upon Jesus overzealously or impetuously we run the risk of being caught up in own unfulfilled earthly desires. Zeal must be converted into spiritual love, and thus sober detachment is needed to discover it apart from our passions. The crowd is quieted, Jesus is silent, the sea is still, and the only activity we discover comes from fishermen who were gone out of their boats and [were] washing their nets. (Ibid, 2) There is something about the daily drudgery of fishermen that we all ought to caught up in. These are men whose worldly success and failure depend upon the unpredictable movements of the wind, the stirring of the sea, and concomitant migration of fish. In them all heartfelt hope hovers uncomfortably over the sea in the company of proximate failure. Isaak Walton says, Blessings upon all who hate contention, and love quietness, and virtue, and angling. (The Compleat Angler) Angling is fishing, but with A. K. Best we must remember that often the fishing [is] good, but the catching [is] bad. And that, They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep. (Ps. cvii. 23, 24) The surging and shrinking of the great deep aggravate the fisherman’s art of following and catching his elusive prey. Two motions blend to confuse and confound the fisherman’s science of the seas. Walton says that Angling may be said to be so like mathematics that it never can fully be learnt. (Idem) Driven by persistent curiosity and wonder, fisherman aim for a precision they never obtain.
So we read that Jesus entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land: and He sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. (Ibid, 3) Jesus doesn’t force Himself upon any man. Archbishop Trench reminds us that the work of the fisher is one of art and skill, not of force and violence. (Miracles, p. 106) So He prays or asks Peter to thrust out a little from the land in order to draw spiritual fish into the net of His preaching. He has no pulpit, and thus, as Matthew Henry reminds us, must ask St. Peter for the loan of his fishing boat. (Comm: Luke V) The multitude –the hoi polloi, must learn of the distance and differentiation between their condition and that of the fishermen. The multitude had zeal and passion, but the conscientious diligence and habitual humility of Peter and his fellow fishers –James and John, prepared them sooner for being caught up in the net of Christ.
Jesus commands Simon Peter: Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draft. (Ibid, 4) Simon responds, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing….(Ibid, 5) The nighttime art of fishing had brought Peter and his companions no closer to a catch. They pressed on, washed their nets, and cleaned theirs boats hoping for a better return on the evening next. Oddly enough, Jesus takes them out now in the clear light of day. He will take their art, their science also, and use it to reveal His spiritual power and desire. Peter is curious and now full of wonder. We know that we are fishers, but is Christ a fisher also? Christ presses upon Peter. Peter presses upon Christ. Peter is docile, acquiescent, and obedient. Nevertheless at thy Word, I will let down the net. (Idem) Peter the fisherman may distrust his profession and despair over its yield, but he does not doubt his Lord. He and his fellow men have already been caught out and seized by the consciousness of their fallen condition. Now they are caught up and into the commands of their Christ. Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. (Ps. cxxvii.1) Peter’s hope for accomplishing anything on his own has been thrown overboard; but he knows that they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. (Is. xl. 30, 31) And when they had this done, they enclosed a great multitude of fishes, and their net brake, and they beckoned to their partners in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both ships, so that they began to sink. (Ibid, 6,7) The word of Jesus is obeyed and God does what no man can do for himself.
But what is the real miracle? Is it a temporary relief to a temporal deficiency alone? The answer can be found in the response of St. Peter. As Isaac Williams explains, [St. Peter had] no thought of his own profit at such a supply, no sense of relief after having so long toiled in vain occurred to him, but all was lost in the feeling of God’s presence and of his own sinfulness. (I. W. ‘The Peaceable Ordering of the World.’) Peter falls down before Jesus and says, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ For he was astonished, and all that were with them, at the draught of fishes which they had taken. (Ibid, 8,9) Archbishop Trench writes, Peter, while drawing the multitude of fishes into his net, has himself fallen into the net of Christ, taking a prey, he has himself also been taken a prey, and now the same man as ever after, yielding as freely to the impulse of the moment…can no longer, in the deep feeling of his own unholiness, endure a Holy One so near. (Idem)
St. Peter can do little by his own ingenuity and effort. Man’s artistry and craftsmanship can produce only unpredictable and impermanent gains in comparison of what God in Jesus Christ can do for us. There is a miracle of fishes. Jesus’ power if manifested. There is a greater miracle. Because Saint Peter is overwhelmed by the presence of God’s power before him, he is drawn and caught up into Christ’s net. His heart sinks, as he discovers the wisdom and love that alone can draw the migrating soul back out of the tempestuous seas of human sin into the net of that love that can reconcile all men to God. Peter senses the loss of himself; he is drowned in the sea of spiritual death. The miracle is twofold: Peter dies to himself, and Peter, reborn through the knowledge of who Christ is, comes alive. Father Mouroux reminds us that man must realize that [he] is dust and ashes before his God; however much he abounds, he is always a poverty-stricken thing hanging on the Divine Mercy, and however much he may be purified, he is still a sinner face to face with Holiness. (The Meaning of Man, p. 217)
The fish which the men have caught are still alive –flailing, thrashing, and thwacking with all their might to return to their life in the sea. Peter falls down, resists no longer, and begins to die one of many deaths to himself before truly embracing the new life that Christ promises to bring. But Jesus says, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. (Ibid, 10) At the conclusion of our Gospel we then read that when the [Apostles] had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed Him. (Ibid, 11)
The Apostles were on their way to becoming fishers of men for Jesus. Their forsaking all is a spirit of self-renunciation. To be caught up in the net of Christ requires nothing short of treating our fallen human condition as dead. If we would become Apostles of Christ, in ourselves the contradiction [must be] felt between the holy and the unholy, between God and the sinner. (Trench, 102) For then we shall become spiritual fish out of water, caught up into the net of Christ, so that other men might see that even the postmodern sea of pandemic adolescence is not beyond the art of the Fisher of Men. So let us close by singing along with Mr. Walton, not only caught up by Christ into His net, but also pressing upon Jesus that we too might become fishers of men!
The first men that our Saviour Dear,
Did chuse to wait upon Him here,
Blest fishers were, and fish the last
Food was, that He on earth did taste.
I therefore strive to follow those,
Whom he to follow Him hath chose.
(The Compleat Angler, Modern Library, p. 112)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons