And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
(St. Luke viii. 9)
We said last week that the Gesima Season is all about discovering the self-discipline that will help us to keep a more holy Lent. And part of that discovery involves a real effort at persevering in our pursuit of understanding what Jesus Christ teaches us. Last week we began our pursuit with Jesus’ Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. A parable presents us with a surface illustration or story that begs us to delve deeper into a spiritual and heavenly meaning. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parable always depicts a human habit, experience, or labor with which most men can identify. It is different from a fable in that it does not involves talkative donkeys or philosophical cats who aim to teach us some moral lesson about earthly life. It is unlike a myth also since myth never ends up disentangling truth from the story. The myth is believed more as a sign of the union of the supernatural and natural rather than as the way from the one to the other. A parable, then, takes men seriously in his serious endeavors in order to make a spiritual point. It considers the spiritual purpose that lies hidden in earthly intentions and ends. In the case of the parables told by Jesus, He never uses illustrations that contradict the natural and human orders but offers them as earthly depictions of spiritual aspirations and ends. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)
But notice something else. The parables of the New Testament are always about earthly cares and considerations that are always capable of being perfected spiritually. Jesus uses parables not only because He wants to make men think and know but because He wants them to choose and decide for the sake of His Kingdom. Pope Benedict XVI says that Jesus can speak openly about the Kingdom of God to others or all sorts of people. But to those who will follow Him and become His disciples, He speaks in parables, precisely to encourage their decision, their conversion of the heart…. St John Chrysostom says that ‘Jesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would covert, he would heal them” (Idem, cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). Parables are used by Jesus in order to convert men’s hearts, to encourage them to become His disciples, and to give them a picture of what the process of spiritual transformation is all about. Parables stir wonder, questing, seeking, and knocking. The man who seeks out their meaning is the one who desires to know and find happiness in the discovery of a truth that, at first, remains hidden to him. In the parables, each of us is given the opportunity to follow Jesus and to discover God’s Hidden Meaning…which most men couldn’t be bothered about.
Think about how so very hard this is –I mean to decide to follow Jesus and to discover the meaning of His Parables! Last week we prayed for the temperance and perseverance that runs afterGod’s justice. This week, we are reminded that the self-discipline that it demands is no easy business. St. Paul, this morning, takes up the point as he addresses a community of new Christians in Corinth who are being swayed by false prophets to believe that no moral effort or self-discipline is needed at all. They were telling the Corinthians that this Paul was blowing the process of conversion all of out of proportion. True Christianity, they insisted, involves really nothing more than a kind of new-age mysticism that promises an otherwise painless existence. True Christianity, they said, shouldn’t involve anything like what St. Paul was teaching but should be an easier, softer, and gentler endeavor that shouldn’t command any moral effort or suffering at all.
But St. Paul, needless to say, was incensed. St. Paul had digested the Parables of Jesus. For Paul, the life of Jesus Christ in itself was a Parable intended to lead men to the long and hard study that should trigger imitation! Far from wishing to justify himself, St. Paul even desired to use his life as a kind of parable that might lead other men onto the road of conversion and redemption. Remember, the parable uses real human experience to carry the seeker’s mind into spiritual wisdom. St. Paul uses his own experience as a parable to teach his flock what Christian conversion entails. He shows us that true discipleship requires the same effort that goes into understanding any good parable.He asks, Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck…in perils of robbers, in perils of waters, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen…in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…(2 Cor. 23-27) He tells them that conversion and discipleship involve running the race with temperance in all things to obtain an incorruptible crown. In other words, true conversion and discipleship will involve both bodily and spiritual suffering. He tells them that this suffering might demand not only rejection from the outside world but even spiritual warfare and torture that threaten the presence of Christ within. Who is weak, and I am not weak (Cor. xi. 29), he asks? This business of becoming a Christian and staying the course are as real as the parable that his own life reveals. In other words, it hurts. Yet, he concludes, that the end makes the effort worth all of the struggle. If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) The parable of Paul’s experience teaches us that in humility, in weakness and suffering, Christ comes to the soul and reveals God’s hidden Word.
St. Paul’s life and witness comprise a parable for us all. But what had happened to his Corinthian converts so that they were so easily swayed by their new teachers and prophets? I think that we can find all or part of the answer in this morning’s Gospel Parable of the Sower. Jesus tells us that A sower went out to sow his seed. At first, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. (St. Luke viii. 5) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had heard God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls was like the wayside, trodden down by the ongoing traffic and business of this world, and so they cannot hear the Word. They might have been in this state because they have exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they have become hard as the pavement, till they have laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root…(Parables, Trench, p.60) Such men are always prey to the Devil and his friends since they live in a world full of so many words that they cannot distinguish God’s Word from all others.
Next, …some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. (Ibid, 6) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had hearts like gravely rock. Such people hear the Word of God with excitement and joy for a short time; it sounds so promising. They prematurely anticipate its benefits without counting the cost of growing it in the soul. They fall awaybecause they cannot work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) Salvation, they discover, is a parable of real life, full of pain and suffering, doubt and confusion, hard labor and effort. Like the sun scorching the blade that has no depth in the earth, these men’s hearts [are] failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth….(St. Luke xxi. 26)
Next, And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (Ibid, 7) Perhaps some of the Corinthians honestly received God’s Word but choke and kill it with cares and concerns of this life that end up being more important to them. Here the heard-Word is growing for a season but only alongside inner anxiety and fear that kill the growth of the Word within. They are crushed, as the Gospel says, by the cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) As Archbishop Trench remarks, the old man is not dead in them; it may seem dead for a while…but unless mortified in earnest, will presently revive in all its strength anew. (Ibid, p. 65) These thorns and briars may take the form of earthly happiness found or lost. In either case, they have neither been killed nor banished from the soil of the soul, and so the Word cannot grow. One or all of these kinds of hearing might explain what happened to St. Paul’s young flock and what can happen to us.
Finally, today’s Parable concludes with, And other [seed] fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. (Ibid, 8) The Parables are always about real life. In real life, seed can grow up effectually only in deep, dark soil that has been weeded and fertilized. So, in the soul, the seed of God’s Word can grow in our hearts only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort. Like Paul, we must expect both punishment from without and suffering from within if the Seed of God’s Word is to grow in our souls. Each and every one of us is subject to the temptations that threaten the hearing and growth of God’s Word in this morning’s Parable. With St. Paul we must proclaim, If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) For it is precisely in the admission that we are weak that Christ responds to us with the love that alone can grow His Word. God has made the soul; God speaks His Word into it in order to save us. If we begin to hear God’s Word, to clear and cultivate the soil of our souls with sorrow and repentance, to tend the seed with carefulness and devotion, and not superficially and carelessly, by God’s grace we shall bring forth fruit with patience. (St. Luke viii. 15) Then you and I shall become a parable that reveals not only the truth of God’s Word but of its presence and expression in the lives we live. And, with Milton, we shall muse in hope,
…What if earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?
(Paradise Lost: v, 574-576)
Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
We have just completed our journey from Advent through to Epiphany-tide. As Canon Crouse reminds us, the season we have observed has been a time of expectation, coming and manifestation. In it, we saw that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we observed the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. Now we turn to the period spanning between Septuagesima Sunday and Ascension Day. Septuagesima Sunday is the beginning of our short Gesima season; Gesima means days. Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima refer to 70, 60, and 50 days before Lent. On these three Sundays, we prepare for Lent. Our seasons and the appointed readings come to us from patterns established in the Ancient Church. So, as men of old in the ancient Western Latin Church did, we must use our season for self-discipline. Today’s lesson in self-discipline will include the virtues of temperance and justice.
The virtues that we study today are two of what are known as the Cardinal Virtues. The Cardinal Virtues come to us from the Latin word cardo, which means hinge. These then are the hinge virtues without which we cannot hope to obtain any kind of goodness. Goodness here is that holiness and righteousness which we can find by the use of our reason and free will. The Cardinal Virtues were first formulated by the great Greek philosopher Plato in his Dialogues, were later refined by Aristotle, and were then part and parcel of the Graeco-Roman world’s pursuit of goodness and virtue. The early Church Fathers designated them as Cardinal virtues which come to us by way of reason’s study of the universe and human nature and then the will’s expression of them in the habits of human life. The Fathers taught that they were not especially dependent upon Revelation or Scripture. Instead, they formed a kind of goodness that man can find prior to his need for the Divine Grace and Intervention that lead to salvation. So, you can imagine the Cardinal Virtues are laying a kind of groundwork for the acquisition of goodness in this world. The goodness that they establish conditions the body and soul for an understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. The Cardinal Virtues, in a Christian context, provide us with a character of soul and body that will better situate us to pursue the Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and charity in the Holy Season of Lent.
Our first virtue is discussed today by St. Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter IX. In it, he likens our pursuit of Heaven to the spiritual and bodily preparation made by ancient Greek runners who competed in the Isthmian Games. Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? (1 Cor. 9. 24) Using an earthly paradigm illustrated by comparison to what the Cardinal Virtues can achieve, St. Paul inspires us to run so that we might win a prize. Of course, his illustration relates to a competition where only one man can win and receive the laurel wreath, the crown of triumph and victory in pagan life. St. Paul wants to assure us that as Christians we all can run to obtain the prize. In fact, we cannot receive it unless we run. And run we must since without such a commitment of enthusiasm, energy, and effort, we shall never reach the finish line! So run, that ye may obtain (Ibid, 25), he says. Yet, our running must be conditioned. …Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things: now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. (Ibid, 26) As it turns out, our running must be tempered and moderated towards our end. Our end is not the corruptible crown of the laurel wreath that commands the admiration, wonder, praise, and veneration of earthly men. That end is corruptible and passing. Our end is incorruptibleand lasting. And if this is the case, then our moderation and temperance must be of such a sort that best conditions our hearts and souls for the eternal prize of Heaven’s gift in the offer of salvation. The Apostle wants us to remember that we are aiming for a prize of inestimable worth and value. The temperance and moderation that we embrace must be applied to our souls as well as our bodies. The runners at the Isthmian Games kept to a strict diet and discipline. Also, they refrained from those freedoms that stand only to corrupt the body and disrupt focus. How much more then should Christians keep to a strict diet and discipline as they condition their bodies to serve their souls that seek after the prize of God’s Kingdom? The Greek runners were fighting for an earthly prize but Christians for an eternal reward. Thus, the Apostle warns us against that incautious and immoderate indulgence of the world that is always at enmity with God and more likely than not to distract us from running the race. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away. (Ibid, 26, 27) Runners’ arms beat the air as they push their legs onward to an uncertain victory where one wins and the others lose. Christians, with certainty through hope, run all together, tempering their bodies through self-discipline, hoping to gain one reward. Paul calls us to imitate his example as we run with him.
Moderation and temperance condition our body to serve our soul’s end. For Christians, the end is one reward for all. We are invited into collective labour. The ancient pagans were in combat with one another. We cannot afford such a luxury. We must run all together. But their virtues can be used in the service of our Gospel prize. By helping one another to moderate and temper our earthly passions and appetites, we can all appreciate more fully the crown that awaits us. Our crown is the reward or gift of God the Giver. We do not deserve, earn, or merit it. We have been invited to run or to labour in the Vineyard of the Lord, as today’s Gospel would have it. For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.(St. Matthew xx. 1) The offer to work in the Vineyard of the Lord is God’s gift. The work is offered at different times of the day or different times of life to men who will come in the morning, noontide, or evening of their lives. Those who come first to work are promised a penny. They have been awakened by the Lord in the morning of their lives and so come early to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. Others are roused or stirred later in the day of their lives. They have been idle, negligent, slothful, careless, or ignorant. Nevertheless, they are given a chance to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They are told that they will receive what is right in payment for their labour. Others are found at the sixth and ninth hours of their lives. Some are even found in the twilight of their lives, at the eleventh hour or the end of the day. They too are welcomed to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They too will receive what is right as a reward. These men are even rebuked for their sloth. Why stand ye here all the day idle? (Ibid, 6) Yet, the householder’s desire for their service is greater than his bewilderment at their delay in accepting the offer to run to the work that leads to an incorruptible crown.
In today’s Gospel Parable, at the end of the day, all are paid. The last to come are paid first and the first to come are paid last. The moderation and temperance that have conditioned the running and working of the Johnny-come-lately men are of equal value and worth to the first in the heart of the householder. Every man receives a penny. Every man receives the same reward. All run. Some come early and some come late. All are called to work for one end.
But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. (Ibid, 10-12)
Christians are called to run and work not that one may receive the prize but that all may run together to receive the gift of one and the same prize, an incorruptible crown.
Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Ibid, 13-16)
Moderation and temperance prepare us for the virtue of justice. Strictly speaking, as fallen and sinful men, we deserve nothing but just punishment for our sins. That is real justice. God’s justice, however, is always tempered by His mercy. He takes our Cardinal Virtues and rewards them with something greater than we could ever deserve or earn. He offers us an incorruptible crown as the reward of being invited into the running and onto a work that leads back to Himself. God tells us that if we accept His invitation to run and to work, we shall be rewarded with a crown whose worth and value far exceed anything that is right or just for men. And, as John Henry Newman says:
We cannot be wrong here. Whatever is right, whatever is wrong, in this perplexing world, we
must be right in doing justly, in loving mercy, in walking humbly with our God; in denying
our wills, in ruling our tongues, in softening and sweetening our tempers, in mortifying our
lusts, in learning patience, meekness, purity, forgiveness of injuries, and continuance in well
A Light to Lighten the Gentiles,
and the Glory of thy people Israel.
(St. Luke ii. 32)
Today we celebrate the Feast of The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, which is also known as The Purification of St. Mary the Virgin and also as Candlemas. It is called The Purification after the Jewish ritual custom proscribed in the Twelfth Book of Leviticus, where the mother of a newborn boy is commanded to undergo forty days of cleansing from the blood of childbirth and then to offer herself and the child at the temple with an offering. Her purification is accompanied by the presentation of her child. The ritual itself is a consecration of both the mother and child’s lives to God, and the offering is a sign of thanksgiving and gratitude for safe delivery and the continued health of the mother. If the parents were rich enough, they would offer a lamb. If they were poor, they would offer two turtledoves or two pigeons, as Joseph and Mary did. That the Feast is also called Candlemas originates with Simeon’s prophecy that the Christ Child would be a Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of [God’s] people Israel. (Ibid, 32) Later Church tradition has this day as the Feast on which beeswax candles were blessed for use both in churches and in private homes throughout the year. In the old days, Candlemas Term denoted the second trimester in Scottish universities and secondary schools.
So let us study Candlemas. And I would like to do this because I think that it fits nicely in with our Epiphany Season of light. In the past few weeks, we have been focusing on Christ the Light, or on the Light that has begun to illuminate our minds and warm our hearts to the mission and meaning of Jesus Christ. What we have seen is that Christ the Light is the spiritual brilliance and radiance that comes to transform and redeem human nature in such a way that He confuses and confounds before He adjusts and assimilates our vision to His meaning. Think about our Epiphany Gospel readings. In them, we found that the Blessed Virgin Mary was left quite confused about the meaning of her young son’s life. She thought that she had lost Jesus, only to discover that it was she who was truly lost spiritually since she had forgotten why He was born and for what He had come into the world. Later, when she provoked Him to use His power to overcome the depletion of wedding wine, she was reminded that both she and He were destined to face the need for a far more potent wine -the wine of His Sacred Blood. In both cases, the Blessed Virgin’s spiritual vision was not able to see the heavenly Light that informed and defined her earthly Son’s earthly mission.
None of this should surprise us. The Blessed Virgin was Jesus’ earthly mother –the mother of Jesus’ humanity. In so far as she saw what she saw when she saw it, she was a good mother moved and defined by human nature’s light. In this, she was like you and me. She followed Nature’s light. Nature’s light is found in three ways. First, it is the light of the Sun that brings about new life, conserves and moves it to its appointed ends. Through the energy of the Sun the world, as we know it, lives, and moves, and has its being. Second, it is the light of the Sun that sheds its rays and enables us to see. Third, it is the light of man’s intellect by which he comes to study the universe and explore its length, breadth, depth, and height, so that he might order and arrange it to serve his needs. Nature’s light is a gift from God for which we ought to be eternally thankful. This is the light that moves most men, and, no doubt, defined and informed Mary’s relation to her son Jesus.
But there is another Light which stands above Nature’s light. This is the Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. (St. John i. 9) Of course, this Light is Christ or the everlastingly-begotten Word of God. This is the Light that not only makes and creates but calls all men back to God. This is the Light that then joins Himself to human nature in Jesus Christ in order to generate another Light –the Light of faith in the hearts and minds of those who will follow Him. But, this Light of faith is not obtained or possessed easily. The Blessed Virgin, more than others I think, knew this most acutely and painfully. Faith is a gift that grows only with suffering through the trial and error of realizing that we do not yet grasp or understand the true Light. The Light of faith demands humility and obedience. This Light calls us onto the path of Love that leads to true Life. The Light of faithgrows in the heart that listens to Jesus, heeds Jesus, and follows Jesus. One of the hardest truths that the Blessed Virgin had to accept was that her unique role did not entitle the Light of faith in her to the immediate and privileged possession of her Son or His will. She was His earthly mother. God was His heavenly Father. The whole of her life is about letting go of Jesus so that the Light of Faith might carry He to His Cross and beyond.
The Blessed Virgin would learn to follow Jesus in faith and discover in Him the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. Her encounter with the Light began with news brought to her by an unusual other –the Angel Gabriel, who told her of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Ghost. In the Light of [her] faith, she heard of the prophecy of her Son’s everlasting kingship. Nature’s lightcontinually confused her. God’s Son would be born in poverty. The praise brought by Angels and Shepherds reassured her for a time. Still, we must imagine how confused this poor Virgin Mother must have been! Nature’s light taught her that the other Light seemed to be shining in the most unlikely of places and through the strangest of mediums! How could this prophecy of glory and perfection emerge from conditions of such hardship and suffering, she must have wondered. But through it all, by the Light of faith, she followed, and pondered all these things in her heart. (Ibid, ii. 19)
And today we find more of what must have been, at the very least, still more confusing. She and Joseph take the babe to the temple for her ritual Purification and Jesus’ Presentation. And so here, thinking that she was doing only what every other Jewish mother had been commanded to do by Jewish Law after the birth of her male-child, her faith encounters the Light once again. There she and Joseph find old Simeon and Anna. St. Luke tells us that Simeon was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. (Ibid, 25, 26) Simeon sees God’s Light in Jesus and proceeds to sing the Nunc Dimitis.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word:
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
a light to lighten the Gentiles,
and the glory of thy people Israel. (Ibid, 29-32)
Simeon sees God’s Light of salvation in the newborn Jesus; Mary and Joseph marvel at his prophecy. Simeon addresses Mary and reveals the meaning of Jesus’ birth. This child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Ibid, 34, 35) The Light of faith will lead Mary, through Jesus, to a future of fall and rising, of suffering and death before redemption and new birth. The process of faith’s journey into Christ the Light will demand that the Light still shine, even in the face of that darkness which will pierce and rend both Christ’s side and Mary’s soul on Calvary’s Cross.
The Feast of Candlemas reminds us that our faith must never hesitate or waiver in the face of confusion, perplexity, or suffering, as it journeys into Christ the Light, who comes to reveal the truth of God’s plan and purpose for us all. The Light of faith demands patience, watching, waiting, and courage. The Light of Faith demands compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and kindness. Today the Blessed Virgin once again is confronted by God’s Light and in Simeon and Anna sees something of what is to come. Both spent their lives in the temple guided by the Light of faith, patiently praying, keeping vigil, looking for the things that were coming from God with earnest expectation and hope. What was rewarded to them as the prize of their faith and hope was a vision of the Savior. They would not live to see and understand the Light and Love that this Life would bring into the world. They would not live to see how this Light would shine even in the Darkness of unjust suffering and death. But Mary would come to understand it all slowly and painfully. But first, the Lord places before her the Light of faith in the lives of Anna and Simeon. Through their faith, Mary is being purified of all earthly expectations –the usual end of Nature’s light, that the Light of her faith might follow and find, see and understand the spiritual meaning of her Son, Christ the Light.
Today, dear friends, let us be determined to walk by the Light of faith. Today’s Purification and Presentation in the Temple should provoke us to cultivate and grow that Light, and so to present ourselves to God with pure and clean hearts. (Collect) Let us with Mary, as the model of our purification, be patient, ever watching and waiting, and even suffering as the Light of faith leads us deeper into the Love of God in Jesus’ Life. From there, let us pray that the illumination of Christ the Light will enkindle our passion to follow Him wheresoever He bids us go and to obey Him in whatever He asks us to do. His Light never ceases to touch us with God’s Love. With Mary let us ponder all things in our hearts and:
Begin from first, where he encradled was
In simple cratch, wrapt in a wad of hay,
Between the toilful ox and humble ass;
And in what rags, and in what base array
The glory of our heavenly riches lay,
When him the silly shepherds came to see,
Whom greatest princes sought on lowest knee.
Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.
Be not wise in your own conceits. (Romans xii. 16)
Thus far in the season of Epiphany, we have been invited to see and perceive the manifestation and revelation of Divine wisdom, love, and power in the life of Jesus Christ. We have followed the Star that draws and summons the soul’s eye to origin and source of all truth and meaning in human life. We have seen his star in the east, and art come to worship him…(St. Matthew ii. 2) We have learned that out of eternity’s consecration of time in the life of the young Jesus, divine wisdom informs and defines the new life that will save all men. Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business…(St. Luke ii. 49) We have gleaned also that this life is made to be redeemed as new and potent spiritual wine that is always being made out of the simple and elemental fragments of created existence. But thou hast kept the best wine until now. (St. John ii. 10) Love, wisdom, and power reveal themselves to us in Epiphany as marks of Jesus’ intention to do even greater things than these. (St. John xiv. 12) And the greater things than these will involve not only what God does in Jesus Christ then and there, but what Jesus will do in us here and now. Epiphany is not only about vision but is also, and more importantly, about the redemptive power of God’s Grace in your life and in mine.
The image of the transformation that Epiphany brings to us is pictured this morning in Jesus’ encounter with a Roman Centurion. A centurion was a professional officer in the Roman Legion who commanded roughly one hundred men. He, like the soldiers under his rule, would have been a celibate –Roman soldiers were not permitted to marry until active duty was completed. So, perhaps for the Roman Centurion in this morning’s Gospel, the military unit formed a kind of family for him –soldiers and servants who were the subjects of his paternal care. And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. (St. Matthew viii. 5) Capernaum was the home of Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew the tax collector. It also housed a Roman garrison, and thus today’s Centurion. Oddly enough, the pagan Centurion approached Jesus and addressed him as Lord. Jesus responds and says, I will come and heal him. (St. Matthew viii. 7) But the Centurion protests, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) Perhaps he had heard of Jesus’ power from others; maybe he had witnessed the miracles.
In any case, prior to his appeal the Centurion would, no doubt, have known of Jesus’ reputation. We surmise that he must have had some knowledge and experience of Jesus. He must have had a deep sense also of the holiness attached to Jesus’ person. At any rate, he ranked himself as unworthy to have the Lord come down to his house to heal his servant. Jesus was all-holy; the Centurion counted himself as not near such a state of spiritual life. Thus, in humility, he begs Jesus to speak or send His Word only, that his servant might be healed. Only humility can gain from Christ the transformative power of God’s Grace. Clear-headed about his own moral and spiritual weakness, emptied of any pretense to self-importance, disappointed by his own prudence and cleverness, the Centurion’s heart becomes the space that feeds on Faith, looks forward with Hope, and rests in the Love he does not yet possess. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. (St. Matthew viii. 9) This Centurion knows that though he possesses earthly authority, beyond that, he has no access to heaven’s power. In the earthly domain of Caesar, he has the power and authority to command, and he is obeyed. He speaks and it is done. Yet, notice how he says: I am a man under authority. He implies that he too must obey and submit himself to a higher authority. He is Caesar’s soldier.
But he has seen one whom he believes is greater than Caesar and whom he must come to followin a greater way. His sense of the all-holiness emanating from the Person of Jesus commands him to seek out and find Jesus in faith and belief. Jesus has more power and authority than any earthly king. He believes that Jesus is in possession of that Divine power that alone is sufficient to heal his servant. So, with his own feeble desire, he reaches out to One with the power to love and to heal. He believes too that Jesus is in possession of the Divine wisdom, with the truth which will set men free. The overwhelming otherness then that the Centurion finds in the person of Jesus will begin to transform him. He believes and knows; he knows and he seeks; he seeks and he finds. The manifestation and revelation of his own condition and of God’s nature in Jesus carry this pagan Centurion from self-knowledge to faith, and through faith to hope, and in hope to the healing of love. He is moved out of weakness and powerlessness into the redemption that Christ brings. The Epiphany revelation that we find today is twofold. First, we learn of the powerless state of sinful man. Second, if we claim it ourselves, in all humility, we discover God’s response to it in Jesus Christ.
The faith that Jesus finds in this Centurion’s soul is what He came down from heaven to grow. St. Augustine reminds us, this faith is of such a nature that it says, if then I a man under authority have the power of commanding, what power must Thou have, whom all powers serve? The Centurion’s power is earthly and thus limited. The power he perceives in Jesus is the source and origin of all power, can transcend all time and space, overcome all barriers and hurdles, and touch and move the world as it did in the beginning. Speak (or send) the Word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) God spake the word and they were made; He commanded, and it stood fast. (Psalm xxxiii. 9) The Centurion Roman believes that he must supplicate and obtain this power through faith. He will secure and experience the loving power of God by opening to it in hope. When Jesus heard this Centurion’s confession of faith, He marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. (St. Matthew viii. 10, 11) What Jesus finds is a faith that does not hold back in contemplation with wonder, but one which earnestly desires and seeks out the loving power that He carries into the world. What Jesus finds is the prayer that every man must make if he will secure the sanctification and salvation that God longs to bring into human life.
This is the message of our Epiphany-tide. But it comes also with a real warning. Jesus says that the Centurion’s gentile faith is sound and on the way to the Kingdom. He tells us too that the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (St. Matthew viii. 12) What He means is that there are too many Christians who never seek out the healing power of God with all humility. What he means is that those who think that they are the children of the kingdom, are not. Why? Because they are good and, evidently, have no need for the healing power of God in Jesus Christ. These are they who keep God at a safe distance. These are they who have never admitted and confessed their own limitations. These are they who have never admitted their own need for God’s Grace in all of their lives. These are they who have never discovered that spiritual state that we find in today’s Centurion.
Jesus says, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. (St. Matthew vii. 7) Salvation is for the humble. Salvation is for the needy. Salvation is for those who know that they are weak and who know that God alone in Jesus Christ can make them strong! Our Centurion had a vision of God at work in Jesus Christ, and with humility, longed to benefit from its power for his suffering servant. From the ground of humble self-emptying, he reached out with every fiber of his being to procure the power that moved the heart of Jesus. Touched by that power in the poverty of his soul, his faith found healing, not only in the life of his servant but within himself. His servant was healed. But he too was healed because his faith was enlarged as he made room for Jesus in the inn of his soul and had a place where Jesus could lay his head. He was healed because his hope was strengthened, and his love was not disappointed. In the Centurion we find a miracle even more significant than that of his servant.
Be not wise in your own conceits, but… condescend to men of low estate. (Romans xii. 16), St. Paul says this morning. He means that we should, with the Centurion, bow down, and realistically discover in the suffering of our loved ones our powerlessness to heal and save them. He means that from this low and humble seat we ought to seek out God’s mercy with all faith, hope, and love. Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the Word only and my servant shall be healed. (Idem)
Today we must ask ourselves, Do we find and discover ourselves truly in the Epiphany illumination that reveals our own deepest need for Christ the light? Are we pouring out our complaint to Christ? If so, with the Centurion, we shall experience the effective power of our loving Saviour, who says, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant, [and his own soul], were healed in the selfsame hour. (St. Matthew viii. 13) May it be so with our souls in His healing mercy. Amen.
You can only apprehend the Infinite by a faculty that is superior
to reason, by entering into a state in which the Divine Essence
is communicated unto you."
Illumination and enlightenment are the themes of Epiphany tide. Επιϕανια is the Greek word for Epiphany, and it means manifestation or revelation, showing forth or shining forth. For Christians, it refers to the disclosure of God’s love, wisdom, and power in the life of Jesus Christ---the Divine Life calling and summoning all men to the centrifugal center of reconciliation and communion with God. It is like the sun that opens the eyes not only to sight but understanding, whose rays join our eyes to the objects that we seek to know and understand. And this illumination or enlightenment which comes from God through Christ to all men relates not only to our vision but also to the power that can change us. Through it, men sense and perceive the loving power through which we all can be changed in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye. (1 Cor. Xv. 52)
Yet the light through which Christ manifests and illuminates God’s life is not easily apprehended. If it could be, reason would acquiesce and adapt to its nature quickly, perhaps as swiftly as it assents to the proposition that two plus two makes four. But, as Plotinus reminds us, a faculty greater than reason is needed to pursue this truth, discover its meaning, and enjoy its power. That faculty is called faith, for faith alone confesses what it does not have but desires to obtain and enjoy. Think about it. When you first were drawn to someone who intrigued or interested you, you did not yet know that person in any intimate or deep way. You had faith and confidence that there was something mysterious, deeper, and concealed that you wanted to investigate and discover more fully. Your faith pursued the object of your desire in order to seek out and find a hidden reality, a deeper meaning attached to the one you trusted was interesting enough to get to know and maybe even love!
God works in the same way. He intrigues us by calling us forward to search out Him out with confidence that the truth is there to be discovered, as He progressively reveals Himself from the heart of His inner being. We can find Him only if we believe and trust that something beautiful and meaningful is waiting to be disclosed by Him. If all that there is to know about Him were revealed externally, visibly, and instantaneously to the human mind, there would be no place for a faith that follows and a love that grows.
In Epiphany tide, our faith seeks to find and know God’s wisdom and love. Yet what confronts us on the first three Sundays in Epiphany is confusion. In our Epiphany readings, we find ignorance and uncertainty as necessary precursors to enlightenment and knowledge. Not knowing and spiritual darkness seem to crush our faith. The Wise Men ask Where is He that is born king of the Jews? We have seen His star in the east and have come to worship Him, (St. Matthew 2. 2) We believe but where is He, that we may know Him? They believe and trust that an extraordinary star calls them to find an unusual king. They carry sacred gifts with mystic meaning because they believe that this king is calling them forth out of darkness and into His own marvelous light.
Ignorance, uncertainty, and even confusion compel those who love God to search more diligently for His truth. Last Sunday we found that Joseph and Mary were alarmed and frightened at the prospect of having lost their son Jesus. They sought Him out of confusion and bewilderment. Their faith drives them to search for Jesus, but their love is threatened with fear and terror. They hurry back to Jerusalem because they trust and hope that Jesus is somewhere safe. They seek Him out but are then astonished and amazed with where they find Him and with what He is doing. With exasperation, they exclaim to Him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us, behold thy father and I have sought Thee sorrowing. (St. Luke 2. 48) They are perplexed further by His answer: Why is it that ye sought Me? Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business? (Ibid, 49) Mary and Joseph understood not the saying which He spake unto them. (Ibid, 50) But Mary knows that there is a deeper truth she must learn. And so, she kept all these sayings in her heart. (Ibid, 51). In Mary’s heart, there is a desire to learn the deepest truth from her more than enigmatic and strange Son.
Jesus is the wisdom of God that is not self-evidently or clearly understood at first glance. Jesus is also the power of God who comes to transform the world. In today’s Gospel, now some years later, it would appear that Mary, having kept Jesus’ sayings in her heart, believes that she understands Her Son. Today we find her with Him at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. The wedding party has run out of wine. She remembers the Divine love that His infant kingship inspired in the Three Wise Men. She recalls the Divine wisdom that rebuked her worldly fears and distrust. Now she seeks to enlist His Divine power to furnish a Sacramental event with added bliss. She cannot help but verbalize what Her Son surely knows! Son, they have no wine. (St. John, ii. 3) The Mother knows that Her Son can overcome all manner of earthly deficiency. Here, she believes He should do so. Mary thinks that this is justified since Jesus is not amongst the elites of Jerusalem but with the ordinary middleclass people of the relatively insignificant town of Cana in Galilee. If He is to be about His Father’s business, then, surely, He can make more wine for those who, perhaps, cannot afford it!
Jesus knows better, and thus rebukes Mary. Woman what have I to do with thee? Woman, why are you involving Me in this? What does this have to do with Me and thee? (Ibid, 3) The rebuke is needed because she does not ask Him a question like Son, what should we do for they have no wine. She seems to demand Divine Intervention. Jesus will have none of it. He exclaims Mine hour has not yet come. (Ibid, 4) Mary felt, once more, the overwhelming sense of her ignorant earthliness. She does not yet understand Her Son in relation to herself or others.
Yet, Mary believes she must accept Jesus’ rebuke in order to learn from His loving correction.Whatsoever He says, do it, (Ibid, 5) she commands the others. Mary has accepted the Lord’s chastening. She has been humbled. She directs the others correctly. Jesus responds. Fill the waterpots with water, (Ibid, 7) and the servants obey. Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it. When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, and saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. (Ibid, 8-10)
Jesus has not come down from Heaven to perform earthly miracles on earthly men for earthly joy and happiness. Here, He does not merely produce new earthly wine at an earthly wedding for earthly men who had already drunk too much in an earthly manner. Were this all that He had done, drunk men wouldn’t have known the difference. Mary wasn’t drunk. Neither was the governor of the feast. Mary saw what Jesus did in response to her humble subjection to Him. The governor tasted the difference.
Of course, today’s miracle is a sign and symbol of what Christ always intends to do with us. If we are in search of miraculous earthly solutions to earthly deficiencies, we are far too drunk on earthly things to see how Christ the Light longs to bring new spiritual wine into our fallen lives. Christ Jesus is the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. i. 24) He comes to put new wine into new bottles. (St. Mark ii. 22) The Blessed Virgin Mary had to be converted. She had to learn not that they have no wine but that I and We have no wine. We must believe and know that we must become those new bottles that are in need of being filled with Christ’s new wine.
Jesus insists Mine hour is not yet come. (Ibid) Jesus performs a miracle. Jesus provides. But first we must trust in Him. Whatsoever He says, Do it! He might provide wine, or He might not. He might open blind eyes, or He might not. Whatsoever He says, we must do it. We need to obey Jesus. His Hour does not yet come until we go up to His Cross of His Love and beyond. Then a very new kind of wine will pour forth from His hands, His feet, and His side that He has received from His mother and is moved by His Father. The Sacred Gift of Mystic Meaning will be found in the Blood that alone is the new wine that gives new life to a fallen world that with the governor of the feast can taste the difference!
We believe that Jesus saves the best wine until last. For us, the new wine of Christ’s miraculous sacrifice on the Cross is poured out for us whenever we come to Holy Communion. We believe that the wine that we shall drink in the Holy Eucharist can become for us the all-healing, curing, redeeming, and sanctifying Blood of Christ’s Love for us. We believe that this wine is the Sacred Blood that resurrects us from sin into righteousness and from death into new life. Because Christ always saves the best wine until last, we believe that this wine only and always gets better and better.
We must receive it as that Sacred Gift of Mystic Meaning whose power never ceases to astound us with His Amazing Love. This wine is fortified for us the more we feel the effects of its strength pumping lovingly from the Eternal Heart of Christ Himself and into our own. This is the fortified wine made blood that infuses Love in the heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who now knows and understands her Son. Like the water made wine in this morning’s Gospel, may this fortified wine made blood infuse our hearts with the power that opens our eyes to our Saviour’s Love for us, and that with the poet we may heartily exclaim,
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,/
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.
(Agony: George Herbert)
O LORD, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people
who call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things
they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Collect Ep. I)
In Christmas Tide, we directed our mind’s eye to the new birth of Jesus Christ in our hearts and souls. And now in Epiphany Tide, our eyes are opening as Christ the Light begins to illuminate and enlighten us about the character of the new life which God desires us to live. Epiphany comes to us from the Greek word, epifaneia, and it means manifestation, revelation, or shining forth. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, Epiphany is called Theophany, meaning the vision of God. So, this season is all about contemplating the Light of God, which is the manifestation or shining forth of His vision and understanding of human life in Jesus Christ. In Christ the Light, then, we are called to see, grasp, and comprehend how this world is a trial run or preparation for eternal life in God’s Kingdom.
Today we move from Jesus’ birth as recorded in the Christmas narratives and the Epiphany visitation of the Three Wise Men to the only record of Jesus’ adolescence, where we find Him in the Temple at Jerusalem. We know nothing of the period between Jesus’ infancy and His sudden appearance in the Temple at the age of twelve, and then between today’s manifestation and the beginning of His adult ministry. St. Luke, alone, chooses to record a singular event from Jesus’ childhood. Yet, what is revealed and shines forth today is an Epiphany that helps us to follow Jesus back to His Father’s Kingdom. Today’s revelation teaches us what is most important in human life and for what each and every one of us is made.
In this morning’s Gospel, we read that Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. (St. Luke ii. 41-43) St. Luke is in the habit of identifying Joseph by his first name since he was the foster-father but not natural Father of Jesus. Jesus’ natural Father is God the Father, as Jesus will soon remind both his mother and stepfather. Today, the family had traveled up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover. When they began to make their journey home, Joseph and Mary did not realize that Jesus was missing from the assembled clan. Ancient Jewish families traveled as a tribe and thus the entourage would have been large. The adults often entrusted their young ones to older family members and friends as they made their respective journeys.
As Mary and Joseph traveled ahead with the adults, they trusted that Jesus was with the extended family. They thought that they knew where Jesus was. But, as we know, it turns out that they did not. They did not know where he was physically. As it turns out, they did not know where he was spiritually either! Where someone is spiritually is of utmost importance in revealing and shining forthto us the state of his soul and the character of his spirit. Joseph and Mary did not yet understand where Jesus Christ must always be inwardly and spiritually. Perhaps the same is true for you and for me.
A whole day passed before Mary and Joseph realized Jesus’ absence. We read: But they, supposing Him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought Him among theirkinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found Him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking Him. (Ibid, 44,45) Jesus’ parents were concerned about His physical whereabouts. Perhaps He had been attacked, beaten, hurt, or wounded. Perhaps He had managed to get Himself lost. Surely if their Son was to be great…called the Son of the Highest…the heir of…the throne of His father David (St. Luke i. 32), they could not afford to lose Him. They might have been struck by a crisis of conscience. Perhaps they should have been more careful and watchful. They could not afford to lose Jesus. We cannot afford to lose Him either.
But, as we learn, Jesus is never lost. Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem and spent three days trying to find their child. Evidently –by reason of the time it took them to find Him – they were looking in all the wrong places. They did not know His whereabouts, because they had forgotten where Jesus is always spiritually. Finally, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers. (Idem, 46, 47) Jesus was where a young Jewish boy who was searching out God’s will for His future would be. But Jesus would have been pursuing this with more earnest eagerness and desire. After all, He would be called the Son of the Most High. (Idem)To learn of this great vocation, He humbled Himself before the rabbis and theologians in the temple in order to discover His future mission and ministry. He would listen. But he would also question. In turn, He would call them down into His humility so that they might discover the wisdom and stature that informed His character. In Christ, the Doctors of the Temple began to see where this unknown boy from an obscure family and an insignificant village dwelt truly and spiritually.
Mary and Joseph were amazed to find their son in the Temple, but their astonishment was not sufficient to overcome their frustration. Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. (Ibid, 48) Jesus reveals to us that Mary and Joseph did not understand that where He was physically was all-important for where He is always spiritually. He chastises them gently but firmly. How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? (Ibid, 49) In other words, Why were you seeking me? Did you not know that I must be involved with my Heavenly Father’s business first and foremost? Joseph and Mary understood not the word, which He spake to them. (Ibid, 50: Wycliffe) They who were willing to entrust Him to the care of His cousins could not entrust Him to the care of God! And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but His mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. (Ibid, 51,52)
Where is Jesus? This is the question that confronts us on this First Sunday after Epiphany. Or perhaps it would be better to ask: Where are we in relation to Jesus? Jesus is always about His Father's business and this means that HE is everywhere! Where is He physically? is the wrong question to ask. His question to the Doctors of the Temple and to us is: Where are you spiritually? The same question was implied in His answer to His mother: Why did you seek me? For you should know WHERE I am at all times and for eternity! That His parents did not understand His answer is part and parcel of every man’s need to discover what Jesus is doing and where we ought to find Him. Wherever He is, Jesus is always with our Heavenly Father. Jesus doesn’t move; we do! He is where He has always been, with the Father and doing the Father’s work. He was with God from before all beginnings, as the Creative Word through whom all things were made. (St. John i. 3) He was with God from the moment of conception until His Ascension to the Father, disclosing the Father’s will as the Redemptive Word made Flesh busily working out our salvation. He is with God today in our Gospel lesson, preferring to entrust His life to our Heavenly Father’s business rather than to hurry back to meet the expectations of His earthly parents. He even desires that where He is, we might be also. (St. John xiv. 3)
So where are we spiritually today? Have we left Jesus behind or have we lost Him? We cannot have lost Him if we have never found Him! And we can never find Him if we are not seeking and searching for Him, like Mary and Joseph! A friend of mine recently told me that he did not get much out of religion. I responded: How could you? You have never looked for it! You are too busy with other things! If you seek and search for Truth, you will find it. If you find it, you will discover that the Way, the Truth, and the Life is Jesus Christ! In Jesus, you will find the Way, the Truth, and the Life of God the Father. What does this mean? In the Human Life of God’s own Son, the Father reveals Himself andshines forth. Jesus Christ is the Epiphany of God the Father!
We need to stop asking where Christ is and start seeing what Christ is doing. Oswald Chambers asks: Are you so identified with the Lord’s life that you are simply a child of God, continually talking to Him and realizing that all things come from His hands? Is the Eternal Child in you living in the Father’s house? Are the graces of His ministering life working out through you in your home, in your business, in your domestic circle? (My Utmost: Aug. 7) Christ wants to speak with us and to have a relationship with us. Christ wants the Father’s Business to become our business! Christ wants our chief occupation to be taken up with God and His desire to bring us back to Himself forever!
Dear friends, today let us see that the business of the young Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem is to show us the Father. And let us never forget that if we follow Jesus, we shall see that the business of the Father leads to the Cross. At the Cross, we find the True Light of Epiphany. The Light that Shines in the Darkness is the Light of that Love that will suffer all things so that God’s Work might be done. We may not grasp it yet. But, perhaps, with the Blessed Virgin Mary, we can ponder all Jesus’ sayings in [our] heart[s] (Ibid, 51), until, through Him, on the First Day of the Week, the new Light of Resurrection begins to dawn on all of us as the reward for them that must be about the Father’s business. (Idem)
Heaven and Earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. -St. Luke 21:33
We have said that Advent means coming, and in it Christ comes to prepare us for His coming at Christmas. So last week Jesus Christ came to awaken us out of spiritual sleep or slumber in order to purge and cleanse our souls. The urgency of the call was illustrated in Christ’s purging of the Temple at Jerusalem. If the temple was the image of the soul, then its condition – a den of thieves, should have left us with little doubt about His judgment of our present spiritual state. For this reason then we prayed that He might give us Grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life…(Advent Collect) We prayed that Christ the Everlasting Light might penetrate our hearts and souls, freeing up as much room as possible for His immanent coming with new birth in us at Christmas time. Advent’s coming light is the unchanging Word of God, found expressed to the hearts of faithful men on the pages of Holy Scripture, and made flesh in the life of Jesus Christ. In both manifestations, Advent’s coming light intends to make our souls spiritual spaces that Christ can indwell by Grace.
So, on this Second Sunday of Advent, we are called to open our spiritual eyes and understand more fully the nature and work of Christ’s coming light. St. Paul makes it very clear in this morning’s Epistle that Jesus Christ is the light that has come into the world to confirm the promises made to [our Jewish] fathers so that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy. (Romans xv. 8,9) Jesus Christ is God’s Word of Promise made flesh. For the Jews He is the fulfillment of promised salvation and deliverance from the Law of sin and death. For the Gentiles He is the realization of that mercy and forgiveness that they never imagined could emerge from the heart of a God who was always distant, unapproachable, and too radically perfect and unique to even want to have anything to do with the sordid lives of men.
Because the promises of deliverance and salvation were made only to the Jews, the spiritual preparation for Christ’s coming can be found expressed on the pages of the Old Testament in the faithful witness of the Jewish patriarchs, priests, prophets, and kings. Thus St. Paul tells us that ancient books of the Old Testament were written aforetime…for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. (Ibid, 4) The Jews had a personal relationship with God.
To them, God spoke His Word. His Word is Christ. Through Christ the Word, He promised to come to them in a more lasting and unbreakable intimate way. We read the Old Testament to hope for a deepening of our relationship with God. We hope, always, in that union with God through Jesus Christ. Through many dangers, toils, and snares the Jews persistently remembered God’s Word of Promiseand believed that it would be realized in His coming as the Word made flesh.
So, to the hearts and souls of the ancient Jews, the coming light was God’s written Word as Promise.
The coming light to the early Christians was the fulfillment of that promise in the life of Jesus Christ. For both groups of people, the coming light was embraced in the heart by faith as the Word of God which neither changes nor disappoints. The struggle endured by both the ancient Jews and the early Christians was the temptation that Christ’s coming light might be darkened and even extinguished by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, which is always passing away. And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.(St. Luke xxi. 25,26) The ancient Jews and the early Christians knew only too well the many temptations that threatened their relationship to God, through His Word, and by His Spirit.
What we Christians must realize in Jesus’ depiction of His Second Coming is that the creation is always changing, altering, coming to be and passing away. When men fix the hopes of their hearts on earthly things, there shall be distress, anguish, and disappointment. Those who pursue earthly treasures and measure their ultimate value against perishable riches shall always be overwhelmed with fear for the future whether with the ancient Jews, the early Christians, or modern man. They are hewing out for themselves broken cisterns which can hold no water. Jesus uses the parable of the fig tree to describe the state of the earth and those who trust in it.
Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. (Ibid, 29-31)
St. Gregory the Great interprets it this way:
This is as if Jesus were saying: As from the fruits of the trees you know that summer is near, so from the ruin of the world you may know that the Kingdom of God is likewise near. From which it may be truly gathered that the fruit of the world is ruin. To this end it arises, that it may fall…But happily is the Kingdom of God compared to summer, because then the clouds of sadness will pass away, and the days of our life shall be resplendent in the glory of the eternal Sun. (Greg: Homily I)
For those with the eyes of faith, who see the creaturely limitations of the earth and that the fruit of the world is [always] ruin, the powers of heaven shall be shaken. (Idem) And because they believe, the heavenly gates shall open and they shall see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (Idem, 27)
This coming light that we are called to embrace in Advent is the brilliant illumination of Christ who comes to judge the world here and now. It can be seen only with the eyes of faith. We must not postpone for the Second Coming what we must receive as spiritual correction and discipline for our future destiny. Jesus says that heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall never pass away. (St. Matthew xxiv. 35)And so His ever-coming Word must be applied to our present lives. Before this morning’s Gospel passage, Jesus says In patience possess ye your souls. (Ibid, 19) And what He means is: Be vigilant, wait, and watch. He comes to us in the present, but especially in this season of Advent, as one who judges the world and reveals that it is always passing away into its own ruination.
This morning’s message is that we need to embrace the spirit of patience in order to hope for His Second Coming by welcoming His coming light here and now. Our Gospel reading about the Coming of Christ awakens us to the fear of the Lord in the present time so that our souls might submit humbly and endure patiently Christ’s judgment of us through His written Word. We pray that the words of the Bible may changes us so that we might be filled with all joy and peace in believing, abounding in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost in anticipation of His coming Judgment. (Romans xv. 13) And so we should pray: O Lord, let me fear thy coming light here and now, and in fearing thee to submit humbly and heedfully to thy judgment of my life. Shed thy coming light upon my sins, that I may know and confess them. In confessing my sins, give me deeper sorrow for them. Let me desire thy healing power so that my heart may love the thing that is good and hate that which is evil. Give me patience to suffer for holiness and righteousness sake. With thy healing power, infuse me with new life, new virtue, and new hope. To lend content and understanding to this prayer, today’s Collect exhorts us to the devout perusal of Holy Scripture: Blessed Lord who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may in such wise, hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy Holy Word we may ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life…(Advent ii, Collect) Our relationship with God comes through His promised Word, God’s written Word and the Word made flesh. His Word endures. So, in patience, we must possess our souls and embrace His Holy Word. Today this coming light calls us out of the heavens and earth, away from all of created reality that is always passing away. Patience is the companion of wisdom, St. Augustine wrote. The rule and governance of God’s Word take much getting used to, and so patience is essential to our discovery of the wisdom that we shall find in it. But with the practice of patience, we shall begin to see the loving truth in Christ’s coming light which enables us to receive with meekness the engrafted Word which is able to save our souls. (St. James i. 21)
Today, we pray for the fear of the Lord –that we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life. (Idem) Judgment is drawing nigh. There will be a Second Coming and Final Judgment, make no mistake. Then, there will be no more time to make ourselves right with God. God’s Word alone endures; calling and addressing, questioning and judging, punishing and correcting us, beginning here and now. The Kingdom of God can be found only through the fear of the Lord, the patience and comfort of his enduring Word, and the real operation of his quickening Spirit. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the Word of the Lord endureth forever. And this is the Word which by the gospel is preached unto you. (1 St. Peter i. 24, 25) Or, as Alyssa Underwood puts it,
Through drift of days
comes rest in space and silence.
What’s past is ours to release,
God’s to redeem.
Scattered seeds of truth,
once sown in love or violence,
when yielded to His hands
may bloom in glorious gleam.
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple,
and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves,
and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer;
but ye have made it a den of thieves.
(St. Matthew xxi. 12, 13)
The traditional Anglican lectionary is one of the few bodies of liturgical readings that goes back to the Ancient Church. As Father Crouse reminds us If you consider…the selection of…lessons for the Sundays in Advent, as they appear in [our] Book of Common Prayer, you will find that they are…those appointed in the Sarum Missal of the Medieval Church of England, and are in fact the same as those prescribed in the “Comes of St. Jerome”, which goes back to the Fifth Century. Our own Anglican Reformers decided to opt for the readings selected by the Ancient Fathers, since they thought they were probably safer guides to our salvation journey than any others that came after them.
Today’s readings are a case in point. We have read this morning about Jesus’ exultant and euphoric entry into Jerusalem, and our overly literal post-modern minds jump to Palm Sunday. Why on earth, you ask, did the Ancient Fathers choose this reading for Advent Sunday? Aren’t we supposed to be getting ready for Christmas? The answer is, Yes. But according to the logic of the Church Fathers, preparing for the coming of Christ means readying our souls for His Birth at Christmas time. And we ought to liken His Birth to a triumphant entry into our souls once again on Christmas night. St. Paul tells us this morning that, The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. (Romans xiii. 12) Christmas is all about the coming Light, the Light which was the Life of men…the Light [which] shineth in the darkness, and the darkness [overcame] it not…the Light that ligtheth every man that cometh into the world. (St. John i. 4,5,9) So Advent, with the Ancient Latin Fathers, means preparing spiritually for the birth of Christ the Light, and this involves readying the soul so that we may joyfully receive Him for our Redeemer.
Our Advent season encourages us to prepare ourselves through repentance for Christ’s dramatic visitation. Yet, so many materialistic and worldly people today do not take the time to consider how dramatic this visitation really is! People who are moved and defined by earthly riches and their fortunes are most in danger here! Being so mollycoddled and comforted by their riches, their spiritual senses are dulled and their consciousness of God doesn’t seem present at all. Casting away the works of darkness, through sorrow, penance, and contrition seems so alien to them. Compunctious and contrite sorrow over sin is far from their daily routines. The determination to exorcise and expel all darkness from the soul seems far-fetched and strange! And this, because they and we are far too moved by the worship of the creature rather than our Creator! Is it any wonder that the Incarnation of God’s own Son doesn’t seem to move us at all?
Nevertheless, if we shall truly perceive the Light of Christ’s Birth on Christmas Day, we must courageously face the darkness. The contrast between darkness and light is essential to our salvation. What, then, is this darkness? Is it not an accumulation and accretion, a cluster and conglomeration of vice and sin that stubbornly resist and repel the liberating Light and brightness of Christ’s coming? The darkness, actually, is that part of us that hates the love of Christ the Light and resists His determination to redeem and save us through His birth in our souls. Darkness is that character of hard spiritual skepticism that fears the approach of Christ the Light.
Another way of studying the darkness which has a firm grip on our souls is to remember that Advent is all about the Four Last Things. What are the Four Last Things? They are Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. How do they relate to darkness? Are you afraid of Death? When you begin to endure it, you will be powerless. Have you ever thought about that? When you die, you will be in the hands of God. And Christians believe that then you will face God’s Word and Wisdom, Jesus Christ, who will judge your life based upon His Redemptive Love. If you have done good, you shall be saved. If you have done evil, you shall be damned. This comes straight out of the pages of Scripture. Are you ready? Heaven and Hell are the two states of life that await all of us. We go to the one or we go to the other. It is up to us. Perhaps now we might think about darkness and sin with a little more seriousness?
So, Advent begins with Christ’s riding into Jerusalem. With the crowds of old in this Advent season, we must respond Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. (Ibid, 9) We should rejoice that once again in Advent, Christ is coming to us. We sing Hosanna because the God of all glory and holiness has stooped down from His heavenly throne to enter our souls to give us one more time to repent, one more time to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light. He allows us to proclaim Hosanna only if it means that we praise and glorify the One who comes as the Great Physician and healer of our souls. The Christ who comes in Advent awakens us to the darkness that too easily defines our lives. He doesn’t have time for cheap Grace or lukewarm religion. He knows [the] time, [and] that now it is high time to awake [us] out of sleep, for now is our salvation closer than when we first learned to believe. (Romans xiii 11: AV & Knox) Christ comes to cure our souls and to call us out of thedarkness.
His impassioned determination to help us is revealed in what comes next. Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. (Ibid, 12, 13) Christ means business. Materialists and people who find comfort in their earthly comforts and riches are in real trouble. If we want Jesus to cast away the works of darkness in our souls, we had better allow Jesus to purge our systems of the worship of all false gods, like money, mammon, and the false security they deceptively provide! Christ is like any good doctor. He is kind, gentle, loving, and compassionate. But once He knocks you out with anesthesia, He goes after the sickness with the zeal and fervor of a whirling dervish. He is determined to rid the temples of the Holy Ghost of all darkness.
On this Advent Sunday, we must open our souls to the penetrating, invasive, determined, and dynamic Light of Christ’s coming! St. Paul tells us this morning that our patient-prep for Christ’s spiritual surgery must involve love. If Christ is to enter our souls to purge, cleanse, and wash away our sins, we must not be resentful, angry, or bitter. We are sinners in need of a Savior. We must humbly and meekly acknowledge our limitations and weaknesses. We must shut our mouths and submit to His all healing power with gratitude and love. Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. (Romans xiii 8) This means that we must stop comparing ourselves with others, stop judging others, start loving all others and thus focus ourselves on the business at hand. The night is far spent and the night is at hand. (Idem) Christ the Light is coming to us in this the day of our salvation. Now it is high time to wake out of sleep. (Idem) For they that sleep, sleep in the night. And they that be drunken, are drunken in the night. (1 Thes. V. 7) Alas, for the Day. The day of the Lord is at hand. (Joel i. 15) All sinful things are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light. Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. (Ephesians v. 13,14)
My friends, today we are called to slow down and contemplate our darkness in relation to Christ the Light. Advent is all about waking up, being roused, and becoming conscious of our need for Jesus Christ’s effective healing. We need to admit that this world’s false gods have left us mostly in unhappy darkness. We need to admit that they have corrupted us and left us further removed from Christ the Light. We need to repent. Advent is about anticipating, waiting, and watching for the coming of Christ’s birth at Christmas. With no repentance, there will be no room in the inn of our souls for Christ’s birth. The Advent fire of Christ’s Light can wash, cleanse, purify, and heal us of all our sins only if we allow Him to purge the temple of our souls of all false commerce with darkness. What needs to be alive, zealous, and passionate in us is the willingness to pray more fervently for the purifying fire of Christ’s Light in our hearts. For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light. (Eph. v. 8) And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. (Ibid, 11) Then, we need enduring vigilance and eagerness to remain obedient, docile, and acquiescent to the healing directives of Christ the Light. If we persist in the spiritual healing process and begin to be cured, we shall die to sin and ourselves. Through Him, we shall cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of Light now in the time of this mortal life. (Idem) Then we shall be ready to be born again in Christ at Christmas time because we shall welcome Him, who came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and [the]dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door,
I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
(Rev. iii. 20)
I think that it is probably the case that, more often than not, we do not think of God coming to us. Rather we see ourselves as coming to God. Earnest Christians in all churches come to the Lord with laundry lists of supplications and intercessions. Christians expect to be heard and heeded. We spend so much time talking to God that one wonders if God can ever get His Word in edgewise. We forget that we are called to love God because He first loved us and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins. (1 St. John iv. 19, 10) Jesus says that If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. (St. John xiv.23) Jesus makes it clear that He intends to come to His faithful friends who hear His voice and open the door of their hearts to Him.
The point is that the Christian religion is all about God’s nature. His nature involves always desiring us and coming to us. That desire is expressed in our opening quotation: Behold I stand at the door and knock….(Ibid) And yet it requires a response: if any man hear my voice and open the door….(Ibid) If we don’t open the door, then He will not come in to [us], and sup with [us] so that we can sup with Him. (Ibid) So, you might ask, what is this door that Jesus is speaking about? The ancient commentators say that the door is the soul or the human heart. The soul is not only the seat of reason but of the will also. From the ground of the soul, we either say yes or no to God. Paul Claudel reminds us that most men say no, and so refuse to open the door. He says: we are like a bad tenant allowed to remain through charity in a house that does not belong to us, that we have neither built nor paid for, and who barricade ourselves and refuse to receive the rightful owner even for a minute. (I Believe in God, p. 244) The image is brilliant. We have our lives – our souls and bodies -- on loan from God. We have neither made them nor are we able to sustain them. And God intends that we should occupy them usefully and profitably. What we have comes from God, is preserved by Him on good days and bad, and yet is made for Him. Long before we perceive that Jesus is knocking at the door of the human soul, our Heavenly Father has bestowed upon us the precious gifts of creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. (GT) In and of themselves, these are great gifts which no man can ever repay to his Maker. Through mere existence, nature, and even basic forms of human happiness and joy, God comes to man and lavishes him with spiritual riches that ought to compel all men to deepest thanksgiving.
Human life is a gift from God long before Jesus comes knocking at the door. Yet Jesus Christ comes knocking at the door of the human soul because God’s intention for man is about much more than mere existence and temporal happiness. God loves us so much that He wants to save us. He makes this possible through the forgiveness of sins that He brings to us. Without the forgiveness of our sins, we cannot be saved. In His Son Jesus Christ, God incarnates and reveals the forgiveness of sins. Jesus Christ is the forgiveness of sins. And this forgiveness of sins is from a giver who never stops giving. Some believers maintain that Christ died once for all for the sins of the whole world, and that means that He died for my sins and has forgiven me, and so I’ve got a clean slate, and I am saved. Because we believe this to be true, we convince ourselves that we are saved already. But convincing ourselves of something, doesn’t mean that it will necessarily end up being true! Salvation is about more than what Christ did long ago; it really is about whether the effects and merits of Christ’s gift expressed then are alive and working in our souls now! The forgiveness of sins is more like a journey by which Christ infuses his merits and righteousness into our hearts and souls for the whole of our lives.
What I mean to say is that God’s moving and coming to us, His knocking at the doors of our souls, doesn’t stop once Christ has died, risen, and ascended back to the Father. Our religion had better not be merely fond memories of a historical pastimes. We said earlier that the Father and the Son intend to make their abode with us, pitch their tent within our souls (Idem, 23) and dwell in us through the Holy Spirit. If that is the case, then we had better realize that God’s love, which is His forgiveness of our sins through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, is coming to us always to lay claim upon our hearts. God’s life is His love. His love is always alive and on the move. It approaches us with the promises of the forgiveness of sins and resurrection into new life. God intends that His forgiveness of our sins should find a permanent home in our hearts. Again, as Claudel says, we are …tenants who live in the homes of our bodies and souls by the gift of charity. The lease is extended to us for as long as we live, and yet the quality of life in these earthen vessels that we inhabit can be made all the better only if we continue to pay our dues to the owner and holder of the lease. As God’s lessees, we are called to make a good and honest return on the life that is loaned to us. We are called to keep the property up to snuff. Our calling began with our Baptisms when we were filled with the Grace of great hopes and earnest expectations. Throughout our lives, we have been called to cultivate the good Grace which promised to make us better. Christ has been coming to us to repair and renovate us by applying His atoning Death to our sin-sick lives. His death is the forgiveness of our sins! So when [He] stands at the door and knocks, we [must] hear [His] voice, and open the door. (Idem)
When we open the doors of our souls, [Christ] will come in and sup with [us] and [we] with Him. (Idem) And what is this supping but our feeding? Feeding on what, you ask? Feeding on the forgiveness of sins – which alone can repair and redeem us. This means feeding and even feasting on God’s desire to conquer evil in our souls and to redeem us. Give us this day our daily bread, we pray and, Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. (L.P.) The chief form and substance of our nourishment must be God’s Word. This Word is the forgiveness of our sins. St. Maximus Confessor tells us that when we ask God to forgive us…as we forgive others, [we are summoning] God to be for us, what [we must] be towards our neighbours. (Comm. Lord’s Prayer) His point is that if we would be nourished, strengthened, moved, defined, and informed by the unmerited and undeserved mercy of God, it must be shared with all precisely because it neither begins nor ends with us! God’s nature is to forgive. He shares His nature with us and we must share it with all others.
The idea is taken up in this morning’s Gospel. St. Peter asks Jesus, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? (St. Matthew xviii. 21) Jesus responds with, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. (Ibid, 22) The implication is that St. Peter and all of us should forgive men their trespasses against us an infinite number of times. Jesus goes on to offer a Parable in which one man is forgiven a huge debt that he owes to his master. But then the same man turns around and refuses to cancel a much smaller debt owed to him by another. God forgives us an infinite number of times for sins that are more than the number than the hairs on [our] heads. (Ps. lx. 12) And should we fail to forgive every man his sins against us, we are revealing to the world that God’s forgiveness of sins is dead in us. St. Augustine says: Imagine the vanity of thinking that your enemy can do you more damage than your enmity [and unforgiveness]! Jesus says: If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (St. Matthew vi. 15) We delude ourselves into thinking that our enemy has done more damage to us than we do to ourselves by not forgiving him!
Behold I stand at the door and knock. (Idem) Jesus comes to us always in order to plant God’s love and forgiveness in our hearts. Jesus’ response to St. Peter’s question illustrates what it looks like to need forgiveness. Our enemy might ask for forgiveness or he might be too bashful and shy, too fearful and cowardly, or too ignorant and foolish to do so. Jesus suggests that he looks a lot like you and me in the presence of God. Jesus intimates also that the same person who needs our forgiveness might not have come to that knowledge. Again, he is a lot like you and me. (R. Knox: Sermons, p. 75) God is patient with us as we slowly discover the details of our sinning against Him and others. The need for the forgiveness of our sins might take time for us to realize.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. (Idem) Jesus longs to come into us and reveal to us how we have been the enemies of God. God is kind even to the unthankful. (C.T., p. 206) The rubber meets the road when we truly appreciate that the nature of God is found in Jesus Christ, who is the Forgiveness of Sins. We must embrace the forgiveness of sins and impart it to all others if we hope to be saved. Christ’s patience with us might wake us up. When we begin to wake up, we had better start conquering all insult and ingratitude with a hardy, boisterous, all-embracing love and forgiveness. (Idem) Only then can we all assist one another in the hard work of perfecting His love in a world that has forgotten Him.
If ye break faith…
Today we celebrate a service that is designed to remember the fallen men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation. At 5:45 am, on November 11, 1918 in Compiegne, France an Armistice was signed between the Allied Nations and the Empire of Germany for the cessation of hostilities and warfare on the Western Front. The Peace Treaty was to take effect at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. In the Allied nations from the time of the final cessation of hostilities with the Treaty of Versailles, November 11 became a Day of national Remembrance. In the British Empire, now the British Commonwealth, the day is called Remembrance Day. On Remembrance Sunday the Monarch and members of the Royal Family attend a service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. In the United States, Armistice Day has become Veterans Day. As with the British, we Americans remember all of our Veterans on this day. Today is meant to be a day of solemn reflection. Initially, this day was celebrated in thanksgiving for victory. For us now, it is a time of thoughtful challenge to render account for the freedom and liberty that others have won and sustained for us and to wonder if we are using the principles of our freedom in the pursuit of virtue and excellence.
We shall end today’s service with two minutes of silence. In that time, I pray that we shall remember our fellowship with those who have fought valiantly to preserve the liberties which we enjoy. Those who died made the greatest sacrifice. They laid down their lives for their friends. Those who fought and survived endured extreme fear, uncertainty, doubt, and terror as they struggled to embrace courage and wisdom on the battlefield or in preparation for the possibility of conflict and war. We remember with gratitude those who have served our country. Also, by extension, today, in the season of All Souls, we remember those near and dear to us and those whom we have not known who have left us, and who now rejoice with us on a distant shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number whose hope was in the Word made flesh and with whom in the Lord we are forever one.
The hope of this day is, of course, in the belief that those who have gone before still live, and while we cannot tell the nature of that life or the condition of those who have died, we are united with them in the life that is in God. Our Lord gives us no knowledge of the state of the dead. He reminds us sternly that many are called but few are chosen. He tells us too that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. He reminds us always that this life is given to us for proving and preparing ourselves as His followers, His friends, and the Sons and Daughters of His Father. Again, Christ teaches us that whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. And so, we well might imagine that the fallen heroes of our post-Christian world would encourage us to keep up the fight, to continue the struggle, and to run the race that is set before us. We may not be fighting the Kaiser, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Ho Chi Min, as they did, but we are nevertheless called to fight those who would destroy human life in the interests of their ideology, who would pervert and twist God’s will and way, and who would deny His Christ in their vicious and vindictive assault on all that is beautiful, good, and true in His creation. We are called to fight the good fight for the unborn, for the children, for the God-given gift of Holy Matrimony, and for those Divine Principles which must move and define any society that hopes to pursue excellence through the great gift of liberty. The fallen soldiers of the Western World died so that we might retain and perfect the spiritual gifts that freedom and liberty afford to all people. Their words to us are:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you with failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though Poppies grow
In Flanders fields…the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…
Today we face enemies and forces of darkness far worse than Hitler, Stalin, Mao and their kind. They are more powerful because they are more subtle. The Devil has taken our freedom and convinced so many that it is nothing more than a license to do as you please, that if it feels good do it, and all because we are nothing more than brute beasts who have no understanding. The Devil has convinced some that they are entitled to have that for which they have neither labored nor fought. The Devil has convinced others that our history is nothing but a record of A never-ending symphony of villainy and infamy, duplicity, deceit, and subterfuge….The Devil teaches us now that we deserve everything since we are the hapless victims of a bygone age ruled by tyrants who have enslaved us forever. The Devil convinces men to despair, to be cynical, and to judge past history as if we are the giants and the great men of old were barbarian dwarfs. The Devil convinces us that we have rights but no obligations, freedoms but no duties, rewards with no service, and a life bereft of any obligation to give back to a wonderful nation that has given so much freedom with so many blessings. The Devil even now moves arrogant malicious liars to tear down our nation’s foundations because of the will to power.
The 12th century monk, Bernard of Chartres spent his life resisting the same Devil and all of these knavish tricks. Like many of our fallen war heroes, he was a Christian. So, he reminded his fellow pilgrims or fellow soldiers in Christ that we are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. Our glance can thus take in more things and reach farther than theirs. It is not because our sight is sharper nor our height greater than theirs; it is that we are carried and elevated by the high stature of the giants. Richard Southern reminds us that Bernard was calling his fellow scholars to humility and meekness, to awe and wonder, and to courage and hope through thanksgiving and gratitude for all that their forefathers had fought for to give to them. Bernard taught his friends that we take so much for granted and forget the faith and courage of those who toiled and fought so that we might live in a free world.
In closing, I would like to pay tribute to one of our own who fought the same good fight with courage and persistence and now has left us for that distant shore. I speak of our dear departed sister, Dame Beryl Windsor. As many of you know, for all practical purposes, Beryl and her brother Allen were orphaned at the beginning of World War II. Beryl was born in Houston, Texas on May 14, 1930 to the late Jack and Dorothy Maine Sykes. She lived in England and Scotland until at the age of 10. In 1940, during WWII, Beryl and her brother Allen were evacuated to the United States as child war refugees on board the Duchess of Athol bound for Montreal, Canada. Together they traveled by train to Texas to reside with friends of the family. During her 5-year refuge in America, Beryl was sent to boarding school at the Washington Seminary for Young Ladies in Atlanta, GA, now Westminster School. After the war, she returned with her brother to England. The remainder of her education was at the Selhurst Grammar School for Girls and Clarks College, Croydon, England. Beryl went on to work for Radio Free Europe in New York from 1953-1956. She returned to London in 1956 where she worked in the Office of Special Investigations for The United States Air Force. Beryl eventually moved to Denver, Colorado between 1959-60 where she resided until 2000. She worked at the Federal Communications Commission, a U.S. Government agency in Denver as a Public Relations and Investigations Officer for nearly 30 years. Beryl, as you know, was very English. But Beryl also was a proud American Patriot. I once asked her if she ever wanted to live in England again. She said, No, it is much better here. Besides, I am a proud Patriot of this country. This country saved the lives of me and my brother for all that I know, and I am so thankful for this great country. Beryl was widowed after only one year of marriage. She reared her daughter on her own. She labored hard the whole of her life. She gave back to our nation through volunteering and mission work. She was a true American soldier and she was a soldier of Christ. She was a member of the Sovereign Order of the St. John of Jerusalem, Knights of Malta, and was invested as a Dame of the Order in 1985. The Knights of Malta were known chiefly for their hospice work and Beryl did her share of that. She fought until the end. She lived with cancer for at least a year before that night on which she was meant to move on. Beryl possessed a very strong faith, had high courage and an overwhelming conviction that she was called to do the Lord’s work in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. And so today I thank God for Beryl, who was one of a kind, a devoted member of this church, a dear friend, and a true soldier. Beryl was brave and she overcame all obstacles in her quest for truth and goodness.
Today we thank God for all men and women who have taken up the struggle to fight the good fight of life for the highest reasons and causes. We thank God for our veterans and their families. We thank God for the soldiers in the Christ-loving Army who give us reason to hope and inspiration to fight for what is right, good, and true. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin…But thanks be to God that giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. To have courage to fight the good fight is not easy. But we have heroes and saints who inspire us to sit on their shoulders and look ahead. With their help we look forward. For the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear the Son of Man’s voice: and shall come forth, they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life…Let us follow our heroes and saints and sacrifice ourselves to the Goodness that alone can lead us to God’s Kingdom. Amen.
After this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could number
Of all nations and kindreds and peoples, and tongues, stood before the
Throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, palms
In their hands, and cried with a loud voice saying, Salvation to our God
Which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.
Today we find ourselves in the Octave of All Saints Day. The Octave is a period of eight days that follows the Feast of All Saints, which we celebrated this past Friday. In the Octave, we are called first to remember with thanksgiving the lives of the Saints. Second, we are called to imitate them, that as Christ moved them, He might stir us now that we might join them in the Kingdom when our journey here on earth is done.
Of course, thanking God for the life and witness of the Saints requires that we begin to have a sense of who and what they were. Strictly speaking, our English word Saint comes to us from the Latin, Sanctus, meaning holy, virtuous, confirmed, or set apart. The word in Greek is Hagios, which, in the ancient sense, means full of awe, sacred, hallowed, and devoted to the gods. From our Epistle for All Saints Day, we learn that the Christian Saints are they who came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Rev. 7.14) These are they who suffered, toiled, labored, and endured pain for the sake of the Cross. In a basic way, they suffered through the process of dying to sin and coming alive to righteousness. Their suffering part and parcel of spiritual sanctification. Self-consciously, with all Christians, they were being washed in the blood of the lamb of God, Jesus Christ, and made white as snow as His virtue habitually purified them. So, they are set apart, made sacred, and hallowed by the struggle, toil, and work that leads them into victory over sin. They have come out of great tribulation. This is to say that they plumbed the depths of their being to discover that sin which God’s excellence and goodness alone could overcome. When we thank God for the life and witness of the Saints, we are expressing deepest gratitude for those who allowed Jesus Christ to come alive in their hearts and souls. We thank God the Father that Christ so came alive in them through the Holy Spirit that His victory over sin, death, and Satan was complete. In other words, Christ’s redemption was so effectually worked into their hearts that they were enabled to reflect and reveal His all-atoning power to the world.
This brings us to our second point. We must imitate the Saints. The key to our inspiration will rely upon both need and desire. First then, we must come to discover our need to become Saints. That need can come only when we come from God and have our lives on loan from Him. We are not our own. We belong to God. Our duty to God and His Will. Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners,*and hath not sat in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the Law of the Lord; *and in his law will he exercise himself day and night. (Ps. i. 1,2) The Saint is well aware that all excellence and goodness come from God and that their acquisition is impossible without the gift of His Grace. The Saint knows also that we first come to know ourselves in the light of God’s excellence and goodness through the Law. Because God has revealed His Law to His chosen people the Jews, all men can come to see their sins. St. Paul tells us that the Jewish Law reveals that None is righteous, no not one. There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way. They are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (Romans, iii. 10-12) The Saint knows too that the best of men become the most frustrated when they realize that they are incapable of fulfilling or living up to God’s Law. The Saint is one who has found his own poverty of spirit or his own inability to will the good that he has discovered. The Saint is one who is then overwhelmed by the excellence of God the Father, the goodness of His Word, and the power of His Spirit.
The Saint is a man whose faith hangs always upon God’s Grace. As Archbishop Trench writes, the Saint is:
the wise and happy builder…who counts and discovers that he has not enough, that the work far exceeds any resources at his command, and who thereupon forsakes all that he has, all vain imagination of a spiritual wealth of his own; and therefore proceeds to build, not at his own charges at all, but altogether at the charges of God, waiting upon Him day by day for new supplies of strength. (R. C. Trench)
The Saint in the Old Testament faithfully awaited the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation in the future. The New Testament Saint faithfully embraces God’s promise as fulfilled in Jesus Christ. God promises His wisdom, love, and power to the Old Testament Jew. God reveals and imparts His wisdom, love, and power to the New Testament Jew and Gentile in Jesus Christ. The Saints in every age hear God’s Word. The Christian Saint opens his heart and soul to God’s Word Made Flesh, Jesus Christ.
Yet, if we hope to imitate the Saints, we must embrace more than knowledge of what God has done in Jesus Christ. Knowledge is not virtue. The vision must be translated into action. We must learn to will the good we know. Together All Saints form a Communion or community of individuals who spent their lives trying to embrace the goodness and excellence of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Together All Saints comprise a body of brethren who share the goodness and excellence of God in Jesus Christ with others through the same Spirit. They are the friends of Jesus as members of His Body, friends of one another, and our friends too. But, at first, they don’t see themselves as much of anything. Soren Kierkegaard once said God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.
So what do the Saints’ natures look like? Are they those who have left the world, resorted to the desert, and therein searched out mystical ecstasy? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that they have found a peaceful space and place in which to befriend God personally and individually. No, in that they have not abandoned the world since the world is where they are called to share what they have discovered. True enough, their inward and spiritual vision of God in Jesus Christ is an ecstasy which they find by the Holy Ghost. But it must be shared with others. Their joyous experience must move out into the world to impart Christ’s presence. As we learn in this morning’s Gospel, the Saints are as sheep who have been separated from the goats. (St. Matthew xxv. 32) For joy, Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews xii. 1) The sheep of Christ are those who have done the same. How they do it is reflected in the most basic acts of generosity, kindness, and mercy. Jesus has taken on the burden of the Saints and they must imitate Him. Jesus will say, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (St. Matthew xxv. 34) But they will be welcomed into the Kingdom as saved Saints only if they have fulfilled Christ’s conditions. For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in; Naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in prison and ye visited me. (Ibid, 35, 36) The proof that sinners have been made Saints is found in the simplest acts of liberality and kindness. This is the evidence that reveals that Christ’s all saving mercy is moving sinners out of death and into new life as Saints. They need not die on a cross. They need not perform heroic feats in martyrdom or experience transporting Pentecostal frenzies. They need to die to themselves and come alive to others. They can do this by studying the life of Jesus and imitating Him. There we find the real proof of saintliness. Fulton Sheen says, Show me your hands. Do they have scars from giving? Show me your feet. Are they wounded in service? Show me your heart. Have you left a place for divine love?”
On this Feast of the Solemnity of All Saints, we remember that the Saints are not dead but alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Today we desire that God will do with us what He did in them. We remember them especially in these late, dangerous, and dark days when men have failed to desire God’s excellence and goodness. Their communion and fellowship ought to inspire us to see how God’s Grace can make sinners into Saints by bringing good out of evil. The excellence and goodness that they embraced ought to inspire us with a vision of how God can convert evil into goodness in the hearts of men. In them may we find inspiration for the pursuit and final possession of what God has in store for us.
The Communion of Saints is a fellowship of life and faith that brings men closely together in the bond of the Eternal Spirit which comes from God. It does not depend merely on the Saints’ interest in their fellow men’s welfare, or in our appreciation of their Saintliness. We greet them as the heroes of the world, but our fellowship with them is founded neither on our reverence for their goodness nor on their sympathy with our struggles and failures, but on that Divine Spirit which has made them what they are and would make us fit to be numbered with them in glory everlasting. When we learn to reverence the Saints, we are on the way to become like them. They witness that this is possible for all. Our appreciation of their goodness endorses that testimony. The Saints of God come out of every kindred and tongue and people, and their fellowship is complete and permanent because all live in Him. (The Christian Year in the Times, p. 284)
October 27, 2019
There is none to plead thy cause, that thou mayest be bound up: thou hast no healing medicines. All thy lovers have forgotten thee; they seek thee not; for I have wounded thee with the wound of an enemy, with the chastisement of a cruel one, for the multitude of thine iniquity; because thy sins were increased. (Jeremiah xiii. 13, 14)
Our opening verses come to us from the 30th Chapter of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. What the prophet is describing is the sorry and desperate condition of sinful man. The man whom he describes is not meant to be any man in particular, but one who knows himself to be in dire straits by reason of his sin. He knows his sin. He is treated as a leper, a Samaritan, an alien, and an outcast. Other men avoid him because they find nothing in him worthy of sympathy or identification. They shun him like the plague since they judge him beyond the reach of any lasting forgiveness and mercy. They judge that sin is a disease that God alone can cure, one that everybody has contracted, and whose effects can be, at best, mitigated by ritual and ceremonial purification. As Romano Guardini points out, forgiveness to them is a covering up, a looking away, a gracious ignoring, cessation of anger and punishment. (The Lord, p. 131) And yet, God does promise in this morning’s Old Testament lesson to heal and cure the sinner of his wickedness. For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds, saith the Lord; because they called thee an Outcast, saying, This is Zion, whom no man seeketh after. (Idem) The man who feels himself to be an outcast and alien, who knows and remembers his sin, is the very man whom God promises to visit and restore…at some future date.
In our Gospel lesson for this morning we find a similar situation, but that future date, that Jeremiah prophesied seems to have come. One Jesus of Nazareth has come upon the scene of human existence carrying with Him the fulfillment of God’s promise. We read of a man brought to [Jesus], sick of the palsy, [and] lying on a bed. (St. Matthew ix. 2) Any man in Jesus’ time who was sick of the palsy, afflicted with paralysis or any other outward and visible sickness, would have been judged to be suffering the chastisement of a cruel one…because his sins were increased. Yet, in this morning’s lection we find that this man has friends who sympathize with the his inner turmoil, that horrible spiritual sense that must accompany his disease. The man could not move and felt keenly that most of his fellow citizens had shunned him. But he had a few friends who were willing to share in some deep way the pain of this outcast and alien. Unlike those in the Old Testament lesson, who have no compassion for the sick and suffering, here we find a few fast friends who will reach out to Jesus for their friend’s healing. And though St. Matthew doesn’t mention it, both St. Luke and Mark tell us that when Jesus performed this miracle, He was in a house thronged by so many people that the sick man’s friends had to let him down through the roof. (St. Mark ii. 2-4; St. Luke v. 18,19) Archbishop Trench tells us, From them we learn…[of]…a faith that overcame hindrances, and was not to be turned aside by difficulties. (Miracles, p. 157) Both the sick man and his friends see something in Jesus that promises to heal all men of the miseries of this world. And Jesus, who knows what is in [men’s] hearts…and knows their thoughts, brings God’s compassion to the man sick of the palsy. Notice that Jesus speaks first or makes the first move. Son, be of good cheer, (Ibid) He insists. St. John Chrysostom says, O wondrous humility. Despised and weak, all his members enfeebled; yet [Jesus] calls him ‘Son’ whom the priests would not deign to touch. (Catena Aurea, 180) The paralyzed man is treated as one of God’s own sons. And more than that, Jesus even honors him with the best healing that He can offer. Jesus says, thy sins be forgiven thee. (Ibid) Jesus responds always to that faith which persistently seeks to obtain what He has to offer. First and foremost, what faith ought to be seeking is the forgiveness of sins. Jesus sees into the palsied man’s heart. There he finds the sin and corruption that are the root of sickness and death in the creation. Perhaps the man had cursed God for his handicap; maybe he felt too sharply the blow of God’s wrath against his resentment and bitterness. Maybe he was teetering on the verge of despair. No matter what his sin, Jesus sees an inwardly and spiritually wounded, bruised, troubled, confused, and weak man. Archbishop Trench tells us that, In the sufferer’s own conviction there existed so close a connection between his sin and his sickness, that the outward healing would have been scarcely intelligible to him, would hardly have brought home to him the sense of a benefit, till the message of peace had been spoken to his spirit. (Idem, 158) Jesus will offer first to heal the man’s soul.
What follows is remarkable. No sooner does Jesus offer God’s forgiveness to the sick man, than the miracle is interrupted. It would appear that certain members of the crowd, the Scribes, have a real problem with what Jesus has said. What they hear they call blasphemy. Their point is that God alone can forgive and that any man who claims to offer God’s forgiveness is assuming His power. So, they think, who is this man Jesus who presumes to offer God’s forgiveness to another, and not conditionally, but absolutely?Forgiveness, it would seem, is a theoretical ideal to the minds of the Scribes. If it is obtained at all, it is bound up in the repeated sacrificial ritual and offerings of the Jewish priests in the temple. When it comes, again according to Guardini, it is merely God’s covering up or looking away from sin. (Idem) In other words, forgiveness, as the Scribes would have it, is a kind of merciful covering up of God’s eyes that puts sin to one side. For all practical purposes, forgiveness is an ongoing expression of mercy that tolerates sin by ignoring it. Cynically they think, Who can forgive sins but God only? (St. Mark ii. 7)
Now to be fair to the Scribes, if Jesus were only a mere man, His proclamation would be preposterous. But Jesus is always leading men to see that He is not only Man but God’s own Son. And as God’s own Son, part and parcel of His earthly mission is to liberate the forgiveness of sins from the jealous clutches of the Jewish priests and Scribes who hoard it with their Law. The Jewish Scribes, we do well to remember, are not making a theological point only; they also reveal most clearly that the forgiveness of sins is as alien and foreign to them as the poor man sick of the palsy. What one most assuredly misses when one meets the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes on the pages of the New Testament is any hint of mercy, kindness, compassion, pity, or the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? (Ibid, 4) Jesus might have followed up His question to the Scribes with these words: Evil thoughts fill your hearts and paralyze you. You are more paralyzed by your sins than this man whom I have forgiven. But unlike him, who is sorry for his sins and seeks to be forgiven, you persist in your sins and think that you have no need of the forgiveness I bring. For while it is true enough that the forgiveness of sins is God’s alone to give, nevertheless every man must discover his real need for it. Jesus comes to offer it to all men once again. The Scribes cannot forgive because, unlike the paralytic man, they are unwilling to see that the forgiveness of sins is at hand in Jesus and comes with power. Then saith he to the sick of the palsy, Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. (Ibid, 6) Yet, still they would not believe.
Today, my friends, you and I are invited to contemplate the nature of the forgiveness of sins. And I don’t mean to suggest that forgiveness comes naturally. It doesn’t. It comes supernaturally, through Jesus Christ alone. Forgiveness is indeed a hard thing to muster up from the coffers of our own best intentions, benevolence, and good works. Forgiveness is even harder if we subject it to our own calculations, measurements, and judgments. We tend not to forgive because we think that we are owed an apology. So, if we are true to our sinful natures, we shall discover that forgiveness is not something that we can give out naturally, but only what we must receive from Jesus Christ. It is the pure gift of God’s immeasurable love. What the Scribes in this morning’s Gospel lack is the humility to see that they too are sinners, first and foremost, in need of God’s lasting and effective mercy and forgiveness. What they cannot admit is their need for the forgiveness and healing that God brings to men whose consciences are seared by slavery to the tribulations, torments, and trials that sin brings. True healing comes to those like the paralytic and his friends in this morning’s Gospel who have the faith to surrender themselves to the power of God’s love in the heart of Jesus. The forgiveness of our sins and our forgiveness of others’ sins against us are both essential for our salvation.
You see, in the end, the forgiveness of sins is nothing short of the God’s absolute desire for all men’s spiritual healing and salvation. God forgives us for as long as we live because through it he gives us one more chance to repent, believe, and be saved. To repent us of our sins is the necessary first step. Then we must seek out God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the forgiveness of sins. But it does not end here. With the man sick of the palsy, we must cherish this gift so that its power might grow in our hearts. We feed on this forgiveness of sins so that we might take up our beds and walk. We want to walk in the power that forgives all others. The more we need, receive, and cherish this gift in Jesus Christ, the more natural it shall be for us to forgive all others. And with Blake, one day, we shall be able to sing:
Then through all eternity
I forgive you, you forgive me:
As our dear Redeemer said:
This is the Wine and this the Bread.
(Broken Love: William Blake)
October 13, 2019
Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit
at meat with thee. For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth
himself shall be exalted.
(St. Luke xiv. 11)
We open our sermon today with the host at a dinner party asking a guest to go up higher or to sit closer to those who have honored him with their gracious invitation. Initially, the guest had taken a low seat or a place in the back of the banquet hall. The host, however, thinks that the guest ought to sit up higher and closer to himself. The host has been pleasantly surprised and maybe even startled at his guest’s humility and expression of meekness. Jesus uses the parable to exhort his listeners to the virtue of humility before God. Today we are called to study humility so that we might one day be asked to go up higher and take a high seat in the presence of God the Holy Trinity at the Heavenly Banquet Feast.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that humility is a virtue which tempers and restrains the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately…and second to strengthen the mind against despair, and urge it on to the pursuit of great things according to right reason; and this is magnanimity. (S.T. II, ii, 161, i.) So, Saint Thomas tells us that humility must inspire and compel the soul to seek God’s high things, but only with such caution and self-restraint as are consistent with man’s created nature. If a man strives excessively or immoderately after high things in ways beyond his capacity and ability, he will fall flat on his face. Remember the story of the ancient Greek Daedalus, who constructed the Labyrinth so that King Minos of Crete could imprison the Minotaur? Daedalus was a clever master craftsman. He ended up getting himself into trouble when he gave a ball of string to Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, so that she could help her lover Theseus, her father’s enemy, escape the Labyrinth. The King found out and imprisoned Daedalus in the Labyrinth. Daedalus finally escaped and devised wings for himself and his son Icarus so that they could escape from Crete. Daedalus, no doubt cautious about the imperfect nature of technology and of man’s use of it, warned his son to fly in a middle space between the sea and the sky. His thinking was that if he flew too low and close to the water, the sea waves might splash and sink him. If he flew too close to the sun, his wings would melt. In the end Icarus became enamored with the beauty of the sun, forgot himself, and ignored his father’s cautious reason. His wings melted and he fell into the depths of the sea. Man is made to acknowledge that heights and depths are given to him so that he might find a humble mean between the two. If a man pursues things beyond his nature, he will fall into the depths of misery and death. Humility is…a disposition to man’s untrammeled access to spiritual and divine goods. (Idem) Humility alone reveals true self-knowledge. Self-knowledge then leads a man to desire and procure the gifts of God.
Of course, the opposite of humility is selfish pride. There is a sense in which Icarus was full of rash and daring arrogance or pride. Pride is hubris and is found in the man who claims a power that is not his own. The proud man is determined to exceed the limitations of his nature. Since his ego is paramount, he loses all consciousness of his needful dependence upon other people, laws, and God. What he fears most is the loss of himself. Thus, he becomes a god to himself and a lord over others.
St. Anthony Abbott, the Founder of Monasticism, has his own version of Icarus’ fate. He writes that because of pride of heart, the heavens were bowed down, the foundations of the earth were shaken…angels were cast down from glory, and became demons because of their pride of heart…Because of this, the Almighty was angered, and caused fire to come forth from the abyss…made Hell, and its torments…. (On Humility and Deceit, Anthony Abbott) Pride is an intellectual vice that finds its origin in Lucifer’s first rebellion against God. Imagine it. Prior to God’s creation of any other thing, angels were made to exist alongside God. In the beginning God made angels. They were made to experience His glory by gratefully receiving His Grace alone. There was nothing to disturb or distract them! They had God and themselves. They were made to reflect and exchange God’s goodness. Then, suddenly, one of them and a few of his friends wanted more. They were no longer content to receive the gift and share it with one another. Rather, they wanted to be God. So, daring to try to use God’s power to overcome Him, they fell into the distant alienation and exile in Hell. Looking to themselves and not to the Giver and His Gifts, their pride stirred them to take God’s power and to think that they could fly too close to God and not be burned.
At first, Pride is deceived and then deceives itself. The proud man is deceived into thinking that he is the source of his own being and maker of his own meaning. The proud takes a gift and hoards it to pursue his own will to power. The proud man exceeds his limitations and treats himself like a god. He even thinks that he can lord it over others. Always, he refuses to subject his decision making to God’s rule and governance. But as St. Anthony says, The deceitful man deceives only his own soul; for [as the Psalmist says]: His sorrow shall be turned on his own head: and his iniquity shall come down upon his crown. (Ps. vii. 17; Idem)The proud man is left quite alone with his own lies about himself in relation to God.
This brings us to God’s response to man’s proud and deceitful misuse of himself and the world around him. The bad angels are destined to live forever in the depths of Hell. Man sins later, is given a second chance, and can find reconciliation with God only through the method and mediation of Jesus Christ. Man must be humbled before the high and mighty Crucified Son of God before he can find salvation. Christ insists that if we would become His friends [who] might come up higher, (St. Luke xiv. 10) we must take our place in the lowest seat. But what is this lowest seat? Is it not the spiritual disposition that humbles him under the mighty hand of God (1 Peter v. 6)?
We must take time today to pray for humility. There doesn’t seem to be much of it evident in our contemporary world. G.K. Chesterton tells us that the problem with modern man is that he has become humble about truth and not humble about himself. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason. (Orthodoxy) Contemporary man denies absolute truth. He claims this because he speaks from false pride or intellectual laziness. Were he to be humble about himself, he might become courageous enough to seek out the truth that enables him to understand his predicament to begin with! He would be moved by temperance. Temperance moderates the overzealous passion and unstable confidence that asserts that there is no God. In restraining the impetuosity of soul, humility enables a man to find God and to serve Him with all meekness. It also prepares a man for the surprises that accompany God’s gracious invitation to come up higher.
Taking the lowest seat is essential for all of us if we hope to find God and the salvation he brings. St. Paul, in this morning’s Epistle, provides us with a picture of what it looks like to take the lowest seat.This means that we, like him, must become prisoners of the Lord…with all lowliness, meekness, with long suffering….(Eph. iv. 1) Being a prisoner of the Lord means that we know ourselves and our limitations. It means that God’s rule and governance alone can save us. It means that we can discover this power in the liberating death and resurrection of His own Son, Jesus Christ. For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.(2 Cor. v. 14, 15) God’s humbling of Himself in Jesus Christ will strengthen our minds against despair, and urge us on to the pursuit of great things…. (St. Thomas, Idem)
The vision of God’s humility in His Son will overwhelm us. Therefore is my spirit vexed within me, and my heart within me is desolate.(Ps. cxliii. 4). Christ’s weakness, suffering, and death should destroy our pride.…I remember the time past; I muse upon all thy works; yea, I exercise myself in the works of thy hands. (Ibid, 5) God’s work is the humility of Jesus Christ who stretches out His hands on the Cross to lift us out of our own spiritual deaths into the life of His Resurrection. The strength of God is found in the weakness of His Son. His Son becomes weak so that we might be made strong. St. Augustine asks, He who throws a stone at heaven, does it fall on heaven or on himself? (Meditation on the Humility of Christ) We throw stones up at God’s Son…who has come down. Because Jesus makes the lowest seat of the Cross the first place of ascent back to God, man can become His friend and asked [to] come up higher. (Idem)
Dear friends, let us enter into Christ’s humility today. Let us confess our true nature and true need. Through it, we can accept God’s mercy with deep gratitude. In and through it, we leave the futility of the exaggerated ego and its soaring pride and embrace what we need most. With the poet we can be touched by Grace. Then,
That fair lamp, which useth to inflame
The hearts of men with self-consuming fire
Thenceforth seems foul, and full of sinful blame;
And all that pomp to which proud minds aspire
By name of honour, and so much desire,
Seems to them baseness, and all riches dross,
And all mirth sadness, and all lucre loss.
So full their eyes are of that glorious sight,
And senses fraught with such satiety,
That in nought else on earth they can delight,
But in th' aspect of that felicity,
Which they have written in their inward eye;
On which they feed, and in their fastened mind
All happy joy and full contentment find.
(Hymn to Heavenly Beauty, E. Spenser)
Jesus did not come to explain away
suffering, or to remove it.
He came to fill it with His presence.
Trinity tide is full of examples taken from Scripture that bring Jesus Christ into direct contact with human suffering. Most of the miracles that Jesus performs are in response to human suffering. We have examples of those who suffer because they are blind, and Jesus makes them to see. We have instances of those who are deaf and dumb, whom Jesus makes to hear and speak. There are also the lame, the halt, the handicapped, all of whom Jesus brings into healing. There are also instances of those who suffer as outcasts because of their suffering. Remember the ten lepers? Or the publicans and prostitutes who are banished and shunned? All in all, Jesus spends most of His earthly mission with those who are suffering in one form or another. Suffering is not alien to the Son of Man. Suffering, actually, can even take on a quality that is not only positive but absolutely therapeutic and salvific, in God’s eternal scheme of things.
To find just one example of how Jesus comes into our suffering and sadness, we need look no further than today’s Gospel lesson. So, let us travel back in time, and find ourselves with Jesus in about the year 30 A.D.. We are moving about with Him and His disciples and we come upon the city of Nain. Nain is a place barren of any civil society. Dean Stanley tells us that on a rugged and barren ridge, in an isolated place sits the ruined village of Endor. No convent, no tradition marks the spot. (Trench: Miracles) Endor is near to or perhaps identifiable with Nain. The place, to this day, is a little town with a very small Arab population. It is built on the ruins of an ancient Roman village. Its economy is primitive and mostly agricultural. Aside from the Muslim population, there is the Franciscan Church of the Resurrection of the Widow of Nain’s Son. One family protects it and allows tourists to view it for a few shekels. The Roman Catholic Church has been attempting to restore it in recent years, but the local Muslim population is violently resisting their every effort. A barren and empty church, simple but beautifully decorated, awaits the resuscitation and resurrection that Jesus alone can bring.
Today, we read: Now when Jesus came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. (St. Luke vii. 12) Nature has been robbed of any sign of life. This widow been deprived of her only pride and joy. The widow is weeping, her tears the only sign that nature still retains some small hope for the future. Her pain and suffering are not abnormal. We all know someone who has suffered the tragedy of losing a child. There is no pain like it, and many have lost their faith crying out with the feeling that God has forsaken them. For the widow, however, there seems only the inner pain that must endure the final separation from the only family that she had left. She dwells in a barren place and now she has been made barren. With the psalmist this morning, she mourns as the sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. (Psalm cxvi. 3) Into this pain and agony of soul, Christ comes, with much people.
And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. (St. Luke vii. 13-15) The men that carry the dead boy stop abruptly. She who is weeping is told that she may cease for now. When Jesus approaches, the slowly moving experience of death’s sharp sting is brought to a halt. With St. Paul this morning, Jesus says, I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. (Galatians vi. 11) Christ comes to take on our suffering and to overcome it if only we will allow Him to bear our burdens. His words may be simple and sparse but His power and might are great. The extension of kindly compassion and care have their way, and the dead man is brought back to life. The Word is spoken, and the spirit of the dead revives the body. The only words that emerge out of this situation come from the resuscitated youth. We do not know what they were. With the psalmist, perhaps he sings in his heart: The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me. Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee. For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I believed, therefore have I spoken…(Psalm cxvi 6-10) The young man speaks, and lifts the spirit of his mother’s heart into the new life he has been given. The Word made Flesh has given him words- words for new life, words from healing, words of joy that come from the Word. And only then do the others react. And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people. (St. Luke vii. 16)
The point of this morning’s Gospel runs far deeper than the surface-level specifics of an historical event. Surface level experiences and historical events must find their significance in the movement of the Spirit. Think about a mother who recently lost her daughter to death that came on too quickly and without any warning. Think about the man who is told he has three months to live because of inoperable cancer. Think about the widow of Nain. Each of these people is confronted with a spiritual problem; on the one hand they can mourn, despair, give up on life because there is no spiritual meaning now, or, on the other hand, they can believe that there was goodness and there was joy that can be remembered with gratitude and passed along. The point is this: suffering and loss on a human and earthly level always provide opportunities and occasions for deeper awareness and appreciation of God’s love and God’s goodness. Sometimes Jesus surprises us with God’s Grace and heals us of earthly disease or even resuscitates the dead. The widow of Nain found that He did. Most are not blessed in this way. But, still, they may find it when, through their suffering, they seek to find the spiritual gain to be gleaned from the evidence and effects of a limited and fragile, uncertain, and unpredictable earthly existence. A mother can be thankful for the blessings that came to her daughter in the last few years of her life. Her daughter was delivered from darkness and addiction. Her daughter found a few friends and began to heal by God’s good grace. Her daughter found the faith and hope to move on and was raised up by Jesus into a better kind of life.
But, you ask, and rightly so, how do I find this faith today? Well, we might begin by identifying with the dead, only child of his mourning mother. What do I mean? The dead man is a sign and symbol of the kind of person that we are meant to become. Yet, you protest, I am not dead but alive. Yes, you are physically alive, and that is quite clear! You are alive to the physical happiness, creature comforts, good food, fine wine, the economy, and otherwise superficial accoutrements to what we called last week, mammon. But are you spiritually alive? Are you conscious that you possess a soul that alone enjoys the limited forms of happiness that define your life? Are you conscious of a soul that experiences joy, happiness, pleasure and then sadness, grief and pain? Are you aware that your soul seems to be immersed in things and situations that are uncertain, unpredictable, unstable, impermanent, and quite frankly perishable- be they human or inanimate? And if you are conscious and aware, have you ever thought of pursuing something better, nobler, truer, and surer, whose stability will transcend this world of decay and death? And while we are at it, if you have been alerted to the call of the spiritual, have remembered that God is always with us and for us, as Jesus offers to suffer with us and bear our burdens?
Claudel, again, has said, Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it. He came to fill it with His presence. For the Christian, Jesus Christ comes into a suffering and sad human condition, in order to wash and cleanse, purify and fit for its eternal destiny. The only condition is faith. Jesus says, be not afraid, only believe. (St. Mark v. 36) Faith is the key that unlocks the door and alone leads a man through suffering, from spiritual death and into new life.
Jesus says also, Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted (St. Matthew v. 4). St. Paul says, Therefore I ask that you do not lose heart at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. (Eph. iii. 13) Both Jesus and Paul mourn over and suffer for those who are spiritually dead. To love is to suffer. The love that suffers all manner of human weakness, rejection, cruelty, torture, and even death confronts us this morning. That love is with us and for us in Jesus Christ, longing still and ever for faith to be conceived and come alive in our souls. In one way, for certain, it will have touched us, if with St. Paul, we embrace it and share it, as we look out into the world, towards our neighbors, and say, For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height, to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. iii. 14-19) St. Paul has died and come alive in Jesus Christ. With the son of the Widow of Nain, we too must be dead, if the healing touch of Christ is to bring us alive.
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that
exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
(St. Luke xviii. 14)
Trinity tide invites us on to the road that leads to salvation, in the name and nature of the One alone whose offering and sacrifice redeem and reconcile us unto God the Father. No human being is denied this offer of redemption and reconciliation with Almighty God, the Father of lights, the Creator and Mover of all things. Either every human being can come to see and know the way that leads to eternal death and destruction or he can come to see and know the way that leads to eternal life and salvation. The road or way that a man takes is, of course, his spiritual choice. The spiritual path can be trodden only by them that open up to true prayer.
And in this morning’s Gospel Parable, Our Lord teaches us of the kind of prayer that leads to death and the kind that leads to life. Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a Publican. (St. Luke xviii. 10) The first man, the Pharisee, who went up was a member of the religious establishment of his day. From him, Christian common sense expects to learn the right way or correct form of prayer. He was, after all, a religious expert in Jewish Law. The other man who went up to pray was a Publican - a Jew who was despised and hated by the Jewish people for being a traitor because he collected taxes for the Roman Empire. From him we might expect to find only a wrong-headed and misdirected manner of praying since his life was compromised and his loyalties were divided. But what we find actually is quite the opposite. For the Pharisee’s religion ends up being narcissistically empty and vacuous, while the Publican’s path is full of spiritual substance and meaning.
So we read, The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed thus.... (Ibid, 11; Archbishop Trench’s translation) Before we even encounter the substance of what the Pharisee has to say, we find him isolated, standing off by himself, safely removed from the common sort of men, perhaps intending that others should notice his piety and his earnest intention to steer clear of unclean worshipers (Parables, p. 381).Jesus describes the way that he prays. God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. (Ibid, 11) Speaking thus with himself,the Pharisee reminds God that he is wholly unlike most other men since he is no notorious sinner. God forbid that he should identify with such people – all other men, for then God might mistake him for a sinner! He is, evidently, spiritually pure, religiously holy, and, clearly very, very good in his own eyes. His prayer to God is a litany of his good works. As he lifts himself up, up and away, in what he thinks is a soaring flight into God’s divine presence, his demeaning, belittling, and lowering of all others casts them away into the forgotten ditches of despair reserved for the wicked. He proclaims that he is so very, very good because all other men are so very, very bad! He even bolsters his credentials with his claim to suffering and sacrifice: I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. (Ibid, 12) He is at least as good as he is because he is not as bad as all other men are. So, it would seem, he needs to be no better. To be religious, as Cardinal Newman points out, was for him to keep peace towards others, to take his share in the burdens of the poor, to abstain from gross vice, and to set a good example. His alms and fasting were done not in penance, but because the Law demanded it; penance would have implied consciousness of sin; whereas it was only the Publicans and their sort, who had real sins in need of forgiveness.(10th Sunday after Pentecost, 1856) So he thanks God that he has managed to make himself so very, very good. In the end, he thanks God for himself, and crowns his pride and arrogance in gratitude for being spared the condition of this Publican (Ibid, 11), whom he sees standing off at a distance.The arrogance of our Pharisee reveals something more. We discern that he has a disdainful contempt for the Publican’s audacity in even approaching this place of prayer.
And yet, as we read what comes next, we cannot help but be stilled and humbled by what transpires before our very eyes. We read thata Publican, standing, afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Ibid, 13) Here we find a man, rejected, and despised by his own people, alienated and shunned by his own kith and kin for his compromised loyalty and divided fidelity…standing afar off. (Ibid)His inner honesty and self-conscious conviction prevent him from drawing nearer to the wall of prayer with any self-confidence or self-assurance. So he stands at a distance, so painfully conscious of his own unworthiness and sin. The inner spiritual inventory which he has taken has revealed a great distance between the man that he is and the one whom God would have him to be. He is poor in spirit and is fearful of supplicating the mercy of the Almighty. He reminds us of Mephibosheth, the handicapped and disabled son of Jonathan, who responds to King David’s mercy with the words of the unworthy: What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am? (2 Sam. 8) He beats his breast, revealing most forcefully the inner turmoil and intolerable warfare that he knows only God can relieve. He says, neither loudly nor pridefully, but diligently and insistently, God be merciful to me a sinner.(Ibid) This man knows who he is and what he has become. He knows, too, that the all-seeing God knows the secrets of [his] heart. (Ps. xliv. 21) And so he comes as close as he is able to the table of God’s mercy,knowing that he [could] not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven (Ibid, 13), regarding them as unworthy of the celestial vision: because they had preferred to look upon earthly things, and seek for them (Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 358), as St. Theophylactus has said.
Unlike the Pharisee, for whom he can say or do nothing, the Publicanstands before the heart-searching God. He does not walk by his own light, but brings his darkness into God’s light. In God’s light, he sees himself clearly and truly, and he sees also what God’s mercy alone can do for him, the chief of all sinners.Unlike the Pharisee, he is not his own teacher, as Cardinal Newman writes, pacing round and round in the small circle of his own thoughts and judgments, careless to know what God says to him, fearless of being condemned by Him, standing approved in his own sight. (Ibid) Rather he has heard the words of the Lord, addressed to him about himself: Be still and know that I am God.(Psalm 46.10) He has seen himself in the light of God’s truth and mercy. He knows that he has need of God, and that God alone can save him from his spiritual wretchedness, misery, and poverty, giving to him that healing cure that will surely begin to work its effects. He knows himself. He sees the way. He seeks pardon for wrong done, and power to do better. And thus he beats his breast, and so drives out the presence of darkness within to make room for the power of God’s liberating light.
The Publican and his prayer, which the Pharisee can neither see nor understand, comprise the best human model for approach to God’s presence and nearness. The Publican does not postpone the inevitable encounter with God. Rather he sees himself, with all men, in the way that all men should see themselves in the presence of God. He knows that he and all men stand before God as those who need urgently salvation and deliverance. He is one with all men, whether a returning prodigal, a loyal and faithful John, a despair-ridden addict, or a conscientious Mother Theresa. He can identify with all men, because, as Cardinal Newman reminds us, created natures, high and low, are all on a level and one in the sight and comparison of the Creator, and so all of them have one speech, and one only, whether it be the thief on the cross, Magdalen at the feast, of St. Paul before martyrdom. One and all have nothing but what comes from Him, and are as nothing before Him, who is all in all. (Ibid) The Publican’sprayer is the true prayer of all men. From his heart we find the truth of our own. From his words we find that spiritual expression that must emerge from every man’s heart when he comes to God for redemption and salvation.
Let us this day, my brothers and sisters, repeat the words of the Publican and through self-examination, prayer, and confession apprehend our utter need of the Almighty’s mercy. Not needing the Almighty’s mercy and God’s redemption is a sure sign of spiritual insecurity and immaturity. Men who are proud like the Pharisee are really inwardly weak and mostly fearful. They are too fragile and cowardly to claim and confess who they truly are. They fear that their confession and honesty will bring on other men’s censure, derision, and rejection. The strong man is the honest man. The honest man is the courageous man. The courageous man is the man whom God seeks because he is after God’s own heart. (1 Samuel xiii. 14) This man is humble and yet in his humility he can be asked to lift up his head and see the Giver whose gift it is to raise men up, wash, cleanse, heal, and save. This man is our Publican. He knows that the Almighty is like no other; He reproveth, and nurtureth, and teacheth and bringeth again, as a Shepherd his flock. He hath mercy on them that receive discipline, and that diligently seek after His judgments. (Ecclus. xviii. 13, 14) And unlike any other, He can and will save us if we open our mouths with one voice and one accord, joining all others, and especially the Publican, who have the honesty and self-knowledge to plead and to pray, God be merciful to me a sinner.
He dwelleth with you and shall be in you.
(St. John xiv. 17)
Today we celebrate the feast of the Pentecost. In the Church of England, it is called Whitsunday - White Sunday, because of the white garments worn by those who were traditionally baptized on this day. Pentecostderives from the Latin that means the fiftieth day. For the ancientJews, it marked the day on which God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, fifty daysafter Exodus from Egypt. It was also a day of thanksgiving for harvest, falling often in May when, given the temperate climate, the Israelites ingathered wheat, oats, peas, vetch, lentils, and barley. The early Jewish-Christians retained its character of thanksgiving but focused now on the Holy Ghost’s harvesting of souls for God. For on the first Pentecost, the Holy Ghost descended down from the Ascended Christ and into the hearts of the Apostles, vesting and mantling them with the spiritual gifts that would generate new communion with God the Father.
So, today we are bidden to contemplate this newmovement of the Holy Ghost at the time of the Church’s first Pentecost.Yet we should not think that the Holy Ghost had been dormant and inactive prior to the coming of Christ. The Old Testament is full of references to the Holy Ghost’s role in creation and Jewish man’s hope for salvation. In the Creed we say, I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son…. We believe that the Spirit’s lordly rule and governance are essential for animating all created life. The Spirit is that Third Person of the Blessed Trinity without whom creation would not be. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Gen. i. 2)The man who fails to grasp this is like the one who knew not his Maker, and him that inspired into him an active soul, and breathed in a living spirit. (Wisdom xv. 11) This is the Spiritwho comes upon warriors, priests, kings, and prophets to strengthen and fortify them physically and spiritually against their enemies. King David tell us that The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and His word was in my tongue. (2 Sam. Xxiii. 2) He spake by the prophets. Beyond creating and sustaining, we know that the Holy Spirit carried warnings, admonitions, prophecies, and counsels to men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, and others. Monsignor Knox tells us that by the Holy Spirit they were moved to say various things, much of which it is difficult to understand, and some of which they probably didn’t understand themselves. They were carried away by the impetus of the Holy Spirit, and the great point is that many of the things which they said, or rather which He said through them, were prophecies about the coming of Jesus Christ. (The Creed in Slow Motion: p. 143) The Holy Spirit, in other words, was hard at work leading the Jewish people to prepare them for a fuller revelation of God’s promised salvation and redemption. He prepared them for the day when the Word would be made fleshin Jesus Christ and then for that time when the same Word would come alive in the hearts and souls of all believers. And lest we think that He works by a kind-of Divine possession that violates human nature, we must remember that He comes only to those who welcome Him with yearning, longing, groaning, desiring, hungering and thirsting.
For it is the work that He invites men into that is of uttermost importance to the Holy Ghost. It comes about only through relationship with Jesus Christ. Christ has ascended to the Father, and from there He desires to continue His work of salvation in the hearts and souls of His friends the Apostles –indeed out of the raw materials of any human life that will forsake all and followHim. For Christians, Pentecostis the moment where earthly life begins to blend with heavenly desire and communion with God begins afresh through divine rapture. It is the fulfillment of the promise offered by Jesus to his friends: If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him: but ye know Him; for He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. (St. John xiv. 15-17) Again, the offer is not forced. God in Jesus respects man’s power of free will. If…then..., he says. The invitation is conditional. The Holy Ghost comes only to those who desire Him. The ongoing work of God hinges upon desire and love.
Our first encounter of it is found in today’s Epistle reading taken from Acts. And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts ii. 1-4) To so many who read this text, the event seems alien and foreign. Many a Christian is embarrassed to admit that he is really more like the unbelieving bystanders who at the first Pentecostwere in doubt, or,mocking said, these men are full of new wine. (Ibid, 12, 13) We tend then to think that whatever happened to the Apostles long ago is wholly paranormal and thus beyond what can happen to you and me in our present age. And yet we do well to remember that the first receivers of this heavenly impulse were men who were neither extraordinarily creative nor intellectually brave. They were pious and industrious middle-class Jews who were genuinely interested in everything that Jesus of Nazareth said and did. Their last days with Him began in sadness, fear, and shame. Later they were filled with wonder and astonishment. Finally, they would obey, follow, and trust with deepest desire and longing. They were what used to be called normalhuman beings.The transformation in their relation to Jesus all happened, mostly, in one place –the upper room or cenacle. This is where we first find them today. In it, they had learned of an impending betrayal that He foretold. To its safety, they had fled in fear and cowardice when He was dying on the Cross. Into it again, they were found when the Risen Christ entered miraculously with loving forgiveness to invite them into fellowship with His Resurrected being. Into the same cenaclenow, we find that He has sent the Holy Ghost. And while these men and women are not any different from you or me, one thing is significant: as before, in the same place, they were watching and waiting for what would come next. They were gathered together in unity of purpose. (Ibid, AV, Knox, ii. 1) Jesus had said, Tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high. (St. Luke xxiv. 49) Because they had faith in Him and waited for one more thing, the Holy Ghost came upon them, and they began the work of spreading the Good News to all nations.
But how can we be shaken and stirred, defined, and moved by the same work that the Holy Spirit began in the lives of the Apostles? The Holy Ghost intends that we should be involved in this work and yet it seems in our own time that men’s hearts have grown cold to the Gospel. Jesus says to us today, If ye love me, keep my commandments. If…then. So, we must ask ourselves this: Do we love Jesus enough to keep His commandments?If not, or, if we hesitate [to obey Jesus], it is because we love something else in competition with Him, i.e. ourselves. (My Utmost…, p. 307) But we believe that Jesus is God’s own Word and Wisdom. Through this Wisdom, in tandem with the Holy Spirit, we are made, sustained, and quickened. Through this Wisdom made Flesh in union with the Holy Spirit, we believe that our sins have been destroyed and our salvation won. Is it such a long step to embrace the same Holy Spirit as the Person of the Trinity who will infuse Christ’s gifts into our hearts and souls so that this salvation might effectively transform us day by day? His love cannot sanctify and save us without our willingness to accept the conditions of His rule in our lives. His presence was overwhelmingly effectual at the First Pentecost because the Apostles’ watching and waiting were characterized by keeping Christ’s commandments as a foundation for their deeper incorporation into His life by the Holy Ghost. If our watching and waiting are tempered by the same obedient love, the Holy Ghost, even the Spirit of Truth, will abide with us forever. (St. John xiv. 16)
So today, we must pray that the infinite and eternal Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who workest all in all…will pardon all our resistance to His motions…and will fan the flames which He ever enkindles in our breasts. We pray that He may…enlighten our minds and purify our hearts that we may be fit to receive and entertain Him, as the Guide and Comforter of our souls, working mightily upon our hearts, fitting and suiting our souls to that glory which is unspeakable and everlasting. (B. Jenks, 354) At the first Pentecost the irresistible force [of the Holy Spirit]…was compressed into a single narrow compass; and the result was a kind of flood, a kind of explosion. (Sermons, Knox, Ign. Press, p. 477) That flood or that explosionis the rushing mighty wind of Christ’s Spirit who still longs to catch us up in the wind of His love as He carries us into that work that will bear both us and others to His Kingdom. With the poet let us pray that the work of His love will ravish us.
With all thy Heart, with all thy Soul and Mind,
Thou must him love, and his Beheasts embrace:
All other Loves, with which the World doth blind
Weak Fancies, and stir up Affections base,
Thou must renownce, and utterly displace;
And give thyself unto him full and free,
That full and freely gave himself for thee.
Then shalt thou feel thy Spirit so possest,
And ravisht with devouring great Desire
Of his dear self, that shall thy feeble Breast
Inflame with Love and set thee all on fire
With burning Zeal, through every part entire;
That in no earthly things thou shalt delight,
But in his sweet and amiable Sight.
As the briefest liturgical season in the Church Year, Ascension-tide lasts only ten days. We believe that on the fortieth day after Easter Christ ascended to the Father. Ten days later the Holy Spirit was sent into the womb of the nascent Church on the feast of the Pentecost or Whitsunday. So we have but a few days to examine the significance and meaning of the Ascension for us.
The Ascension is Jesus Christ’s return to the eternal state that He shares, as Son, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In the Ascension, Christ restores human nature back to the origin of its being and meaning, so that with Christ as the Head the Holy Spirit might come down from heaven and rebirth all men who believe as Christ’s new Body. In the simplest of terms, Christ the Son of God, in a Resurrected and Glorified state, returns human life to communion with God the Father. Each word, thought, and deed that constitutes man’s return to God in Christ will now be shared from Heaven with all men through the ever-descending and transforming Holy Spirit.
Faithful man had been yearning to ascend back to God since the time of Israel’s primordial Fall. But he found himself in the midst of a godless and idolatrous people. There is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities. (Is. lxiv. 7) Sin had enslaved the ancient Jews; God seemed concealed and unconcerned. But the prophet confesses his sin in order to be lifted up above it. But now, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. Be not wroth very sore, O Lord, neither remember iniquity forever: behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people. (Ibid, 8,9) Acknowledging his sin, and the collective wickedness of his people, the prophet faithfully cries out to God for deliverance and salvation. Israel may have unmade herself, but God can and will fashion her anew if only she lifts up her eyes unto the hills from whence cometh her help.
With Psalmist, he is powerless to fight against spiritual powers that have the advantage over him. O help us against the enemy, for vain is the help is man. (Ps. lxiv. 12) And so his heart ascends up passionately within as he soars up to sing the song of faith. O GOD, my heart is ready, my heart is ready; I will sing, and give praise with the best member that I have. Awake, thou lute and harp; I myself will awake right early. I will give thanks unto thee, O LORD, among the peoples; I will sing praises unto thee among the nations. (Ps. cviii. 1-3) From the ground of his soul the fire of faith envelops, informs, and consumes his heart. The music of the spiritual lute and harp call him up into the song of praise and thanksgiving. He thanks God anticipatorily for what he believes and trusts shall shortly come to pass. For thy mercy is greater than the heavens, and thy truth reacheth unto the clouds. Set up thyself, O God, above the heavens, and thy glory above all the earth; That thy beloved may be delivered: let thy right hand save them, and hear thou me. (Ibid, 4-6) Deliverance comes only from above. The glory that saves must come down from above from the one who is God’s right hand.
Christians believe that what Isaiah reached out and hoped for was the Incarnation of God’s right-hand Man, even His own Son. What was desired from above has come down to the earth in the Mission and Ministry of Jesus Christ, God with us and for us. The Word of God’s promise that was held in faith and embraced in hope then was made flesh and dwelt among us. (St. John i. 14) And yet the chief purpose of His Incarnation was that man’s human nature might once again become a living sacrifice, wholly acceptable unto God. (Romans xii. 1)Man was made to live above Himself, conformed to God’s will, and always to become clay in the hand of the potter.
But in Christ, we are not only called to become clay in the hand of the potterbut also placed into his kiln. We are called not only to being refashioned but also to reanimated and regenerated. This cannot be done until Christ takes us into the fire of His sacrifice, the fire that destroys all sin and death. His suffering and death constitute the necessary first moments in the salvific process of our new birth. His suffering and death are the kiln in which the Potter is firing upthe clayfor new life through a Sacrifice that will begin on earth and ascend up into Heaven. As Paul Claudel writes, Jesus Christ, the Man-God, the highest expression of creation, rises from the depths of matter where the Word was born by uniting with woman’s obedience, toward that throne which was predestined for Him at the right hand of the Father. From this place He continues to exercise his magnetic power on all creatures; all feel deep within them that summons, that injunction, to ascend. (I Believe…159)God’s Son was always called by the Father into Ascending Sacrifice. Throughout the whole of His life, He suffered and died to Himself as He mounted and ascended in heart and soul back to God. Since the time of His Ascension, He has called all men to do the same through the Sacrifice that He shares with us. When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of me. (St. John xv. 26) From His Ascension seat in Heaven, the Son of God sends His Spirit into our hearts so that we mightfeel deep within [ourselves] that summons, that injunction, to ascend.
But before the Holy Spirit’s descending fiery love begins to enable us to ascend back to the Father in Jesus Christ, we must first focus on Christ’s ascent back to the Father. Our eyes must follow persistently and diligently the flame of fiery love that lifts and carries Christ back to the Father. Bishop Westcott reminds us that we are meant to penetrate the passion of the ascending Jesus. We are encouraged to work beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things, all of us, capable of consecration. Then it is, that the last element in our confession as to Christ’s work speaks to our hearts. He is not only present with us as Ascended: He is active for us. (Sermons…) Christ’s Ascension must work its way into our hearts. True Sacrifice mounts up and ascends back to God. True Sacrifice bears our griefs and carries our sorrows. (Is. liii. 4)Austin Farrer describes the movement nicely:
WE are told in an Old Testament tale, how an angel of God having appeared to man disappeared again by going up in the flame from the altar. And in the same way Elijah, when he could no more be found, was believed to have gone up on the crests of flaming horses. The flame which carried Christ to heaven was the flame of his own sacrifice. Flame tends always upwards. All his life long Christ's love burnt towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire, until he was wholly consumed in it, and went up in that fire to God. The fire is kindled on our altars, here Christ ascends in fire; the fire is kindled in the Christian heart, and we ascend. He says to us, Lift up your hearts; and we reply, We lift them up unto the Lord.
Christ’s desire for our reconciliation with the Father ascends in fire. Christ is consumed by us in this Holy Eucharist and He longs to become like a fire kindled in our hearts. We pray that the flame of our own sacrifice might become one with the flame of Christ’s desire for our salvation. We pray that in faith we shall lift our hearts up unto the Lord because in the blazing fire of Heaven’s light we are beginning to see that only through Christ’s ever-ascending sacrifice can we find true return to our Heavenly Father. Thus, old earth-bound habits, customs, and ideals must be burnt up and left behind. Christ who now sits at God’s right hand, interceding and pleading for us, longs for us to rise up into His Ascended union with the Father that our love might burn towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire, and be wholly consumed in it.
St. Peter tells us this morning that the end of all things is at hand because Christ has ascended to offer His Sacrifice for us to the Father. We must betherefore sober, and watchful unto prayer. (1 St. Peter iv. 7) Our spiritual faculties must be exercised in the movement of Ascending love. Trusting that Christ now reigns in the greatness of His power and majesty at God’s right hand, we must have our conversation with Him in Heaven, to love His appearing, and to be dissolved into His love. (Jenks, 352)
We must pray that the Holy Spirit will descend into our hearts and bring us to a forthright confession of our sins and our ongoing need for the surpassing power of His Ascended glory.We must pray that the power of Christ’s Sacrifice will generate in us steadfast courage to persist in the battle against Satan. We must pray that we may feel the powerful attraction of Christ’s Grace and Holy Spirit, to draw up our minds and desires from the poor perishing enjoyments here below, to those most glorious and everlasting attainments above where Christ sits at the right hand of God. (Idem, Jenks)Christ’s power to attract, absorb, and asphyxiate our hearts will consume our hearts as we come alive to Christ’s perpetual Sacrifice to the Father can be concluded effectively in the words of the poet:
Lord, when the sense of thy sweet grace
Sends up my soul to seek thy face.
Thy blessed eyes breed such desire,
I die in love's delicious Fire.
O love, I am thy Sacrifice.
Be still triumphant, blessed eyes.
Still shine on me, fair suns! that I
Still may behold, though still I die.
Though still I die, I live again;
Still longing so to be still slain,
So gainfull is such losse of breath.
I die even in desire of death.
Still live in me this loving strife
Of living Death and dying Life.
For while thou sweetly slayest me
Dead to my selfe, I live in Thee.
(A Song: Richard Crashaw)
These things have I spoken unto you, that in my ye might
have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation but be of good cheer;
I have overcome the world.
(St. John xvi. 33)
Today is the Fifth and final Sunday of the Easter Season. Today is called Rogation Sundaybecause our English word is derived from the Latin word rogareand it means to petition, ask, or supplicate.The tradition of Rogation Sunday comes to us from the 4th century and was standardized in the Latin Church by Pope Gregory in the 6thcentury. It was originally a Roman festival called Robigalia, which comes from robigo– meaning wheatrust,a grain disease,against which pious pagans petitioned the gods by sacrificing a dog to protect their fields. In England, on Rogation Sundaysome clergymen and their flocks process around the parish boundaries to bless the crops and pray for a fruitful harvest.
But the original purpose of Rogation Sundaygoes back to Jesus’ opening words in today’s Gospel: Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give it you. (St. John xvi.) Jesus’ words follow the prophecy of His eventual Ascension back to the Father, where He says, In that day, ye shall ask me nothing. (Ibid, 23) Jesus was preparing His Disciples for that new risen life that He would win for them. But its possession, as we learned last week, would depend upon the coming of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus teaches us today then is that we must ask the Father in or through His Namefor the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Word or Wisdom of God made flesh through whom we pray and supplicate the Father. This is why we end every prayer with through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jesus says today: Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full. (Ibid, 24) Notice He concludes by telling us that we ask sothat our joy may be full. (Idem)Eastertide is all about learning to ask God the Father for the fullness of joyor for what will fulfill our deepest longing and desire. For what else is Eastertide about than how the resurrection from sin, death, and Satan begins to give us that joythat God has in store for us? But to begin to obtain that joy, we must set our sights on those things which are above and not things of the earth. (Col. iii. 2) In heart and mind, we must follow Jesus back Heaven. Here alone we shall find the origin and source of the perfect joythat we should desire from the depths of our hearts.
Yet, what is this joy? For Jesus, this joy is the fulfillment of God’s will. True joyis found by entering into that delight that loves to do God’s will. It is not found first and foremost in bodily health, through earthly ambition and success, by securing temporal riches and treasures, and not even in gaining converts and in seeing God’s work succeed! True joyis found in the vision of God and the experience of His love. True joyis found in the experience that Jesus had with the Father and wants to share with us.
But to do so, we must leave behind the cares of this world which choke God’s Word. If we are consumed with this life and its earthly comfort, we shall never have the time that we need to get into right relation with God. To get into right relation with God, we must follow Jesus, that where He is, there we might be also. (St. John xiv. 3) If we do not get into right relation with the Father, through Jesus the Son, we can never hope to find true joy. So, to follow Jesus and to live in and through Him, we must make time and space for contemplation. Bishop K.E. Kirk has this to say about it:
Contemplation, or the Prayer of Simplicity or Quiet, is the highest interior activity of the spiritual life - indeed, it aims not at being an activity at all, but at reducing the soul to a purely passive condition in which it may listen, unimpeded by thoughts of self or the cares of the world, to the voice God alone.
(Some Principles of Moral Theology, p. 163)
Thus, stillness and quiet are necessary preconditions for the relationship that Jesus desires for us to have with our Heavenly Father. If in stillness and quiet, we become passively open to God’s presence, we shall be postured spiritually to find eternal joy. Jesus says today, The time is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in parables, but I will tell you plainly of the Father. (Ibid, 25)In stillness and quiet, in a plain and simple way, Christ wants to share His joy with us. I came forth from the Father, He says. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that this was for three reasons: (1) That He might manifest the Father in the world: ‘No man hath seen God at any time; the Only Begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him.’ (St. John i. 18) (2) To declare His Father's will to us: ‘All things that I have heard of My Father I have made known unto you.’ (St. John xv. 15) (3) That He might show the Father's love towards us: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him….’ (St. John iii. 16) [Easter Homilies: XII] Jesus wants to reveal the Father’s love to us. This is His joy.In stillness and quiet, if we ask,Jesus will show us the Father, how the Father desires that we should live, and the way to it. This is His joy.
Christ comes down from Heaven to us but then by His leaving He gives us an example. ‘Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.’ (1 St. John ii. 15) ‘Ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.’ (St. John xv. 19)He must leave us and ascend to the Father so that He might give to us the Holy Spirit: ‘If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you.’ (St. John xvi. 7) and‘I go to prepare a place for you.’ (St. John xiv. 2) To which place may He lead us. (Idem) Christ reveals the Father to us, He shows us how to live, and then He leaves us so that we might receive His Holy Spirit to prepare for our final journey to God’s Kingdom. We must welcome the His Spirit into our souls as Christ makes us suitable for the place He is preparing for us. This should begin to pour a deeper joy into our hearts and souls.
But, the true joy of experiencing God’s Word, that has been spoken through Jesus Christ, can be obtained not only [when we] hear it, but [also when we] desire to obey it orlive by it (St. James i. 22), as St. James says this morning.Monsignor Knox tells us thatbeing a hearer of God’s Word and not a doer – the man who looks in the mirror and forgets what manner of man he is, is much like someone who listens carefully to a reading of Thomas a Kempis’ ‘Imitation of Christ’. He understands it and thinks that the book is really about Christians like himself – he finds a reflection of himself in it. [But] it is only if he will give a good long look at our Lord’s teaching that this self-satisfied person will see the real picture which it conveys, very different indeed from the ‘self-portrait’ that he first found in it! (Epistles and Gospels: Know, p. 138) If God’s Word in Jesus Christ is seen and heard but not translated into our everyday living, we shall never reach the heights and summits of true joy in Heaven. We become self-satisfied, stale, and sterile. Then we shall hoard the joy for our own selfish purposes.But the real picture of what Jesus shows us is what we must become in deed and in truth.What we should not find is our own self-portraits but the picture of God in Man, Jesus Christ, as the truest illustration of the Person whose joy for the Father was so alive on earth that it could not help but lead back to Heaven.
The trial run for becoming doers of the Word is found here on earth. Mother Teresa of Calcutta says this about contemplating the life of Jesus.
In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence,
God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only
when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with
Himself (–with His Holy Spirit.) Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.
Mother Teresa never pretended that the silent contemplation of God in Jesus was easy. She, of all people, spent most of her life pulling the poor untouchables out of the gutters of Calcutta, washing them, feeding them, nursing them, bringing them to healing, and strengthening them for new life. Do you believe that she could have carried on with such love if she had not opened up to that supernal joy that God’s Word in Jesus had enflamed in her heart? She, of all people, revealed to us God’s face in Jesus, God’s eyes in Jesus, the hands and feet of God in Jesus, busily being not only a hearer of the Word but a doer of the Word! Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. (St. James i. 27) Mother Teresa found joy in Jesus’ love of the Father and the Father’s love of Jesus. Mother Teresa embraced that joy in her heart and could not keep it to herself.
On this Rogation Sunday let us ask God for the inspiration [to] think those things that are good, [so that] by [His] merciful guiding [we might] perform the same. (Collect)By contemplating the peace which we find in our Saviour, let us be moved by the joy that moves the universe and longs to save all men. Let us be of good cheer with great joy for Christ has overcome the world. There is no greater joy to be found than this, Jesus alive in our hearts and souls moving us to love one another as He loved us. If we love this joy and share this joy the place that Christ prepares for us will indeed be our joy forever.
Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. (Col. iii. 2)
Our journey through the Lenten Season to Good Friday will have been of no use if it has not been characterized by affection. Set your affections on things above, proclaims St. Paul this morning, and not on things of the earth, and if we have been conscientious, this is exactly what we have been doing. Affectionis passion, desire, yearning, and loving. And throughout the Holy Season of Lent, we have prayed that the Holy Spirit might purify the thoughts of our heartsso that we can follow Jesus up to Jerusalem and beyond. Our affections have been set…on the things above [and] not things of the earth, things which have come down to us in the passionate heart of Jesus Christ to lift us up higher. Out of the unquenchable ardor and fervor of His heart, Christ has desired that our affectionsmight meet His in the dialogue of pure death that generates new life. Easter is all about the pure affection of God in Jesus Christ for the transformation of the cosmos and the transfiguration of all men.
In the course of our journey to Easter, we have learned that setting [our] affectionson things that are above and not on the things of the earth is no easy business. And yet the distraction or diversion comes not from God but from us. God’s affectionand desire for us has never ceased. From the Divine Depths, translated into the incessant, caring passion of Jesus, the uninterrupted longing of God for our salvation has persisted. The Word has gone out. God’s desire and affection have never dithered, demurred, nor departed from His Great Unseen Eternal Design. The Word of God came down from heaven to live in man’s heart. His Good Friday is but one moment in the unfolding drama of our redemption.
The common lot of men would have none of it. Their affections and desires were otherwise dominated. The mighty engine of Caesar’s Rome could not accommodate the strange passion of a loving God whose affection is set high above man’s speculative imagination. Even God’s chosen people, the Jews, could not imagine how such love and affection would relate to their Law and its rituals. The fear and the cowardice of those with the best of intentions were rendered equally powerless in the presence of God’s desire. Men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth. (St. Luke xxi. 26) Human affectionfor God is fickle, unreliable, inconstant, and finally treacherous. Man’s fallenness cannot bear the Divine irruption.
And yet, God persists in the heart of Jesus with a greater love that seeks to draw the hearts of all, even His worst enemies. Father forgive them for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 34) In this, Christ says, Come follow me. Today thou shalt be with me in paradise. (St. Luke xxiii. 43) Again he is saying, Come follow me. Woman behold thy son…behold thy mother. (St. John xix. 26, 27) Come follow me. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me. (St. Matthew xxvii. 46) Come follow me.I thirst. (St. John xix. 28) It is finished. (St. John xix. 30) Father into thy hands, I commend my spirit. (St. Luke xxviii. 46) Christ invites us to follow Him into His death. We begin to see His death as what alone can make us new. Our love grows and expands as sin is swallowed up into a death that is strangely alive. Christ dies, and Man dies. Christ is coming alive, and so is Man. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. xv. 22)
In pure affection, God made all things, and in pure affection, God promises to remake all things. Christ brings primal Man into death. In the pure affectionof self-willed exile, man had desired God’s death. God had given man his desire. As you wish, or As you like it. And so God in Christ endures and suffers this choice. God is dead. Christ is interred in the sepulcher, and with Him, it would seem, man’s affection for the things that are above is buried. The affectionsthat moved the human imagination to believe that Christ might be Messiah after all seem to have been put down.
Holy Saturday must seem to be an end for those whose hearts fail, for those whose affectionand desire for God seem to have died in the Crucified One. There is darkness. There is the death of a love that the world had never known. The affection for things above and beyond which He was, is gone. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. (Genesis i. 2) Darkness and death seem to have swallowed up the Love and extinguished theLight. Death holds hope hostage in the cruel constrictor-knot of confusion and fear.
But as we move from the seventh to the first day, something strange begins to happen. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. (Genesis i. 3,4) In the beginning, God lovingly made the lightto inform, define, and enliven all of creation. In the same lightnow, incandescent beams of love will open the eyes of believers’ hearts to a new creation being illuminated by that true Light that lighteth every man that cometh into world. (St. John i. 9) Darkness flees, sin flees, death flees, and ignorance flees as the loving Light emerges from the Resurrected One. The pure affection and eternal desire of the Father of lightshave transformed the Son as flesh from death into new life. The old Man is dead and the new Man has come alive.
At first only angels and nature sense the truth of the Light.The elements stir, the air is parted, the fire blazes, the earth shakes and removes all barriers to the rising Light that follows the passion and affection of its mover. The Father’s immortal, immutable, and immovable course of affection for man’s redemption are on course and thus willingly embraced in the heart of Jesus. Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. (Romans vi. 9, 10) The question and answer of the prophet Ezekiel are fulfilled.
Son of man, can these bones live? …And there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, Son of Man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them…(Ezekiel xxxvii. 1-10)
Christ is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophesy. Yes, these bones can and will live. In Him the Light of God blends with rising lovein the transfigured flesh of Man. The pure affectionof Man for God brings light out of darkness and life out of death. God’s Word rises up, informing still, the now transfigured flesh of Jesus. Christ’s uninterrupted affection for God and Man is one Light whose love makes death into new life. Christ is Risen from the dead…Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us…as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. xv. 20, 22; 1 Cor. v. 7)
But there is more. And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me. (St. John xii. 32) At first, the affectionof both the Apostles and the women seems dead. But then something of the old passion begins to stir within them. On this first day of the week, Mary Magdalene is moved out of the tomb of her soul to the place of Jesus’ burial. And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live. (Ezekiel. xxxvii. 12-14) She is moved by what is still alive of her affection and love for Jesus. She finds the stone rolled away. Her affection and passion for the Lighthasten towards what is yet an unknown hope. They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him. (St. John xx. 2) In the darkness she thinks that Christ’s enemies have stolen the body. John and Peter affectionately and passionately run after this new truth. As Eriugena says, John outruns Peter because contemplation completely cleansed penetrates the inner secrets of the divine workings more rapidly than action still to be purified. John represents contemplation and hope. Peter represents action and faith. But faith must enter the tomb of darkness first, and understandingfollows and comes after. (Hom. Gospel of St. John, 283, 285)
God’s uninterrupted affection and desirefor all men’s salvation is at work in time and space. Stirring within the hearts of Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John are the faithand understandingin the Light that said, I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. (St. John xiv. 18, 19)Christ is risen. Soon the Apostles will see Him and begin to live in Him. Christ is risen. In the Resurrected Light that shines through His transfigured flesh, we must remember thatwe are dead and our life is hid with God in Christ. (Colossians iii. 2,3)In the Resurrected Light, let us reckon [ourselves] to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans vi. 11) In the Resurrected Light let us match Christ’s affectionwith our own –that affection and desire for becoming very members incorporate in His Risen spiritual and mystical Body, transparent, obedient to His Holy Spirit…apt and natural instruments of His will and way, (The Meaning of Man, Mouroux, p.89)reflecting His Lightand Love into the hearts of all others. And with the poet let us rejoice and sing:
Then comes He!
Whose mighty Light
Made His clothes be
Like Heav’n, all bright;
The Fuller, whose pure blood did flow
To make stained man more white than snow.
And none else can
Bring bone to bone,
And rebuild man,
And by His all subduing might
Make clay ascend more quick than light.
(Ascension Hymn: H. Vaughn)
Dr. Jake Haulk
I thirst.Words spoken by Jesus as recorded in the gospel according to of St. John, chapter 19 verse 28.
The full 28thverse says, After this Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled saith, “I thirst.” The reference to the fulfilled scripture is Psalms 69, verse 21, “and in my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink.This is the shortest of the seven last words, being only two words, and in the Greek only one word. Nonetheless its significance is of no less importance than the other “last” words.
For one thing, the reference to fulfilling the scripture reminds us that Jesus throughout his ministry and in his conversations with his disciples frequently alludes to, or cites directly Old Testament scripture. Thus, it is no surprise, indeed, we would have expected that on the cross we would hear Him repeating or adhering to those scriptures.
St. John in his gospel and in his first epistle goes to great lengths to refute the Gnostics and their doctrine of Docetism. In that doctrine Jesus was not flesh and blood but rather only a semblance of being truly human, that he only appeared to be flesh and blood but was actually a phantom. Sadly, there were many who accepted this abominable doctrine. Fortunately, John wrote his gospel much later than the other gospels and had witnessed the rise of this terrible perversion and took it head on by stressing the humanity of Christ including the cry of I thirst. Remember too, that John was the only disciple at the crucifixion and his memory of that event would have been seared forever in his brain.
As we think of Jesus at this awful horrifying moment he had been hanging on the cross for at least six hours according to St. Mark’s telling of the events, that is, from the third to the ninth hour. Presumably Mark was referring to Roman time which means the third hour was about 9:00 AM as we measure. And according to Mark and Matthew, there was darkness over the land from noon until mid -afternoon.
The point is that after six hours of suffering the unimaginable pain of being nailed to the cross, the stretching of muscles and having had nothing to drink all day, Christ’s body would have been aching for water.
By this time on that Friday, Jesus had probably had no sleep since Wednesday night considering the events following the Last Supper on Thursday. He had undergone such a great agony in the garden at Gethsemane that St. Luke writes, and being in agony he prayed more earnestly and his sweat was it as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
Obviously, something in Jesus was exceedingly agitated and in dread of what was coming. We can surely understand how the man Jesus would fear the pain and death that was coming and would rather not endure it. But as we learn from many great scholars and doctors of the church, that asking if this cup could be passed from him was not just about fear of being scourged and mocked and even death. It was the Jesus who knew what would be asked of Him on Calvary’s cross before he died.
As Pope Benedict so eloquently says, Because he is the Son, he sees with total clarity the whole foul flood of evil, all the power of lies and pride, all the wiles of the cruelty of the evil that masks itself as life yet constantly, serves to destroy, debase, and crush life. Because he is the Son, he experiences deeply all the horror, filth and baseness he must drink from the ‘chalice’ prepared for him. All this he must take into himself so that it can be disarmed and defeated in him.
But knowing of the unfathomable burden and price that paying for the world’s evil would mean, Jesus knowing why He had come as the Word made flesh, overcame the natural desire to avoid the path ahead. And out of his immeasurable love for his Father and mankind, he accepted the horror of the Cross and in that acceptance becomes the glorification of God’s name. In this way God is manifested as he really is who in the depth of his self-giving love sets the power of good against all the powers of evil.
After the overwhelming agony of Gethsemane Jesus is betrayed and taken prisoner. From there He is taken to the Jewish high priest, to the Sanhedrin, Herod, and to Pilate who allows himself to be coerced and condemns Jesus and has Him scourged.
Scourging was an extraordinarily brutal punishment typically given to prisoners of the Empire who were to be crucified. Tied to a two foot high post and given as many as 40 lashes with a horribile flagellum,a Roman whip with knots that could break bones if used forcibly and would flay skin off even if used moderately. We cannot imagine the brain searing pain of being subjected to this pre- crucifixion punishment.
After the previous 15 hours of agony, torture, humiliation, imprisonment, harsh treatment, deprivation and abandonment by his disciples, can there be any doubt that Jesus’s body would have been wracked with thirst? The loss of blood, the reaction of the body to severe pain causing Him to sweat profusely and the fact that no liquid had been swallowed for many hours would have produced an overwhelming thirst.
So, a cry ofI thirstfrom a person in unbearable pain and a body screaming for water is not surprising. Indeed, this points to and reminds of the humanity of Jesus. He was flesh and blood and subject to all the suffering and temptations that befall all other humans. And yet He bore our sins in His body and took them to death with Him on the cross.
All Christ’s bodily sufferings may be said to be summed up in this one word, the only one in which they found utterance. The same lips that said, If any man thirst let him come unto Me, and drink, said this. Infinitely pathetic in itself, His cry becomes almost awful in its appeal to us when we remember who uttered it, and why He bore these pangs. The very Fountain of living waterknew the pang of thirst that every one that thirsteth might come to the waters, and might drink, not water only, but ‘wine and milk, without money or price.
Christ’s thirst for our love and our redemption calls us to offer Him our love in return and not the vinegarof refusing to accept him as our redeemer or failing to live faithfully according to His commandments and His example.
We His unworthy servants are ever thirsty for His living waters and redeeming love.
Thanks be to God.
Dr. Jake Haulk
The Fourth of the Last Seven Words
From Mark 15:34, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani. And from Matthew 27:46, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.In both translations this cry from the Cross means My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? This verse has been one of the most difficult to explain. Why? In part, because it is the only time Jesus addresses the Almighty as God. In all other instances of Jesus praying or addressing God He says Father. There is one other instance in the Gospels wherein Jesus uses the words my Godand it is not in prayer. In John 20:11, He tells Mary Magdalene,go to my brethren and say unto them, I ascend to my Father and your Father; and to my God and your God.
Naturally, over the centuries theologians, the early Church Fathers, the great Christian thinkers have pondered this verse.
For instance, St. Ambrose writing in the fourth century says, The man cried out when about to expire by being severed from the Godhead; for since the Godhead is immune from death, assuredly death could not be there, except life departed, for the Godhead is life.And so according to Ambrose it seems that when Christ died, the Godhead was separated from His flesh. Further quoting Ambrose, It was in human voice that he cried: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" As human, therefore, he speaks on the cross, bearing with him our terrors. For amid dangers it is a very human response to think ourself abandoned.
In the view of many who hold to the penal substitution theory of atonement, Christ was made sin as a substitute for our sins and God would not look upon sin and turned away from His Son, evoking the forlorn cry.
Others have pointed out that the cry My God, My God why hast thou forsaken meis the first line of the 22ndPsalm and would have been well known to Jews in the crowd. Jews would have realized that what they were witnessing was the fulfillment of many prophetic passages in the Psalms. Along with Isaiah 53, Psalm 22 is one the most powerfully prophetic chapters regarding the Messiah in the Old Testament. St. John Chrysostom says, Why does he speak this way, crying out, "Eli, Eli, lama sabach-thani?" That they might see that to his last breath he honors God as his Father and is no adversary of God. He spoke with the voice of Scripture, uttering a cry from the psalm. Thus even to his last hour he is found bearing witness to the sacred text.
By crying out the opening sentence of this Psalm, Christ would have forced the Jews, both those for and against Him, to remember the prophetic words David wrote a thousand years before. For example All they that see me laugh me to scorn, they shoot out the lip saying, He trusted on the Lord that He would deliver him, let Him deliver him, seeing that he delightest in him.The very words were being spat at Jesus by the mockers. And then, They part my garments among them, and acts lots upon my vesture.And this perhaps most telling, the wicked have inclosed me; they have pierced my hands and my feet.
Surely, one cannot help but believe that Jesus would choose this verse to make plain that his loving and his suffering had been foretold by King David.
While this explanation has much to recommend it, it still seems incomplete. The difficulty in understanding this verse arises because of our problems in understanding how Jesus could be both fully man and fully God. The Church has accepted this to be the correct understanding since the Council of Chalcedon in the mid5thcentury. The Council decided once and for all to ratify and adopt the arguments of a letter from the Archbishop of Rome (now called Pope Leo I) that forcefully denounced the heresy that Jesus had only a Divine will and that human will was extinguished.
Leo was undoubtedly drawing heavily on Holy Scripture from Paul and John.
Paul in Philipians2:6-7 says, Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal to God: but made himself of no reputation and took him the form of a servant and was made man. And John’s gospel he opens chapter one with In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God, and in verse 14, And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and behold we beheld His glory, the glory as the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth.
What is needed for salvation is the re-creation of human nature, and this re-creation can only occur if the Word dies in the flesh. All must indeed die—such is the divinely ordained curse of mortality. Athanasius writes, And thus it happened, that both things occurred together in a paradoxical manner: the death of all was completed in the lordly body, and also death and corruption were destroyed by the Word in it. For there was need of death, and death on behalf of all had to take place, so that what was required by all might occur. Therefore, the Word, since he was not able to die—for he was immortal—took to himself a body able to die, that he might offer it as his own on behalf of all and as himself suffering for all, through coming into it ‘he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.
We believers in the Lord Jesus Christ seem to prefer to think of Him during His ministry as primarily performing miracles, healing the sick and infirm, changing water into wine, walking on water, raising the dead or delivering wonderful discourses and parables. But the Gospels also contain many examples that point to his humanity. He fasted and was hungry. He grew tired and He slept. He was flogged and he bled. With the mourners at Lazarus’s tomb, He wept. He wearied. And in the Garden of Gethsemane, he is reported to have sweated drops as of blood as He came face to face with the hours of horrible suffering and the terrible soul wrenching burden of taking on himself the sins of the world in his death. And yet He remained without sin even knowing what lay in store. He remained committed to the task He was destined by God to fulfill, even taking on the sins of the world.
Thus, while Christ as the eternally begotten Son could not suffer physical pain or die, He would have been sensitive to the pain and suffering of His human flesh and soul. He was one Person with two natures. By the miracle of resurrection Christ was reunited with His old body that had been transformed into a new incorruptible body. A body that we as believers are promised on the day of judgment if we have believed on Him and kept His teachings and commandments.
The great minds of the Church have struggled with what this cry of Jesus means and what caused Him to cry out. It is possible a complete understanding must wait until we like Paul are face to face with our Maker and no longer see through a glass darkly. But we can know that when Jesus cried out to God in despondency He used the words of a psalm that opens in despair but moves in a few verses to these stirring words. Be not far from me for trouble is near for there is none to help. And thenO Lord, O my strength, haste thee to help me.
In quoting this psalm in His horrendous torment, Jesus proved that He was fully human but knew at the same time that God would see Him through whatever he must endure.
Thanks be to God.
Dr. Jake Haulk
Woman behold thy son
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wifeof Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.
In thinking about these words Jesus spoke to his mother and to John it is important to bear in mind that John was the only disciple to witness the crucifixion. Thus, his account has the additional weight of having seen and heard by his own ears what transpired. It is also important to remember that John would have read the other gospels long before, knew them well, and would not have felt it necessary to repeat the last words written in Mark, Matthew (which are virtually identical) and the three in Luke. John also includes the powerful account of the soldier who pierced the side of Jesus after he died and came forth and issue of blood and water. Nor were Jesus’s legs broken to hasten his death since he had died already. But John remarks on these events saying these things were done that scripture might be fulfilled. There can be little doubt of John’s report of blood and water pouring out of Christ was a vivid, if painful reminder of Jesus’s blood being shed for our sins and the water clearly is reference to the living waters that flow from Christ to those who believe in and love him.
Further, John refers to himself in writing and he that saw it bare record and his record is true: and he knoweth thathe saith is true, that ye might believe.
Many writers of commentary on this passage believe the sister of Jesus’s mother who was standing near the cross was Salome, John’s mother. In that case John would be nephew of Mary, Jesus’s mother.
MacLaren in his commentary writes, If so, entrusting Mary to John’s care would be the more natural. Tender care, joined with consciousness that henceforth the relation of son and mother was to be supplanted, not merely by Death’s separating fingers, but by faith’s uniting bond, breathed through the word, so loving yet so removing, ‘Woman, behold thy son!’ Dying trust in the humble friend, which would go far to make the friend worthy of it, breathed in the charge, to which no form of address corresponding to ‘Woman’ is prefixed. Jesus had nothing else to give as a parting gift, but He gave these two to each other, and enriched both. He showed His own loving heart, and implied His faithful discharge of all filial duties hitherto.
St. Augustine writes, This was without doubt the hour of which Jesus, was about to turn water into wine at Cana said to his mother, “Woman, what have I to do with you? Mine hour is not yet come.” This hour of his death on the cross He had foretold and when at the point of death would acknowledge her with reference to being born as a mortal man. In Cana when about to engage in divine acts, He did not acknowledge her as mother of His divinity but of His human infirmity; but now, when in the midst of human sufferings, He commended with human affection the mother by whom He had become man.
This is therefore a passage of a moral character. Jesus as the supreme teacher in this verse reminds us of what we must do. And from that hour the disciple took her unto his own home. Undoubtedly, John knowing how much Jesus loved him, risked being present at the cross. As William Barclay explains it was very dangerous to be an associate of a man the Roman governors believed was so dangerous that he deserved the cross and the attendant scourging. In being there John showed tremendous courage, far more than the other disciples.
Thus it was, and perhaps even ordained, that John and Mary would be at the cross and Jesus would bring them together as mother and son to care for one another, to share their grief and learn from each other, to strengthen John’s resolve and understanding of what Jesus came to do. And in the end greatly enrich believers’ grasp of God as a loving God through John’s portrayal of Christ in his gospel.
In much the same vein, Augustine commenting on this joining together of mother and son by Jesus says, I believe in this way Christ commends even more highly the divine excellence of this very gospel, which was thereafter to be preached through his instrumentality. John received her, therefore, not unto his own lands, for he had none of his own; but to his own dutiful services, which, by a special dispensation, was entrusted to him.
As we so often see in these gospel accounts there are deeper, richer and inspiring meanings that can be revealed through careful study of the text as learned Christian commentators have done with this verse.
Thanks be to God
Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.
O dearest Lord, thy sacred brow,
With thorns was pierced for me:
O pour thy blessing on my head,
That I may think for thee.
O dearest Lord, thy sacred hands,
With nails were pierced for me:
O send thy blessing on my hands,
That they may work for thee.
O dearest Lord thy sacred feet
With nails were pierced for me:
O send thy blessing on my feet,
That they may follow thee.
O dearest Lord, thy sacred heart,
With spear was pierced for me:
O shed thy blessing on my heart,
That I may live for thee.
These words are taken from Father Andrew, a good and holy priest of the Church of England, who spent his life in East London, with the poorest of the poor, living out the reality of our final words for today. Father into thy hands I commend my spirit. (St. Luke xxiii. 36) Father Andrew was fashioned from that old Anglo-Catholic model that for many years brought Jesus Christ’s sacrificial presence to so many people in need. The old Anglo-Catholics were working priests. They labored and toiled for the poor, the mentally ill, society’s aliens and outcasts. They were priests of the Crucified Oneand so were consumed with the more visible and tangible forms of human suffering. They saw clearly that life in this world is more often than not an ongoing battle between suffering and resurrection, death and new life. They were honest priests who gave themselves back to God for other men and so had a real sense of the words Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.
If we are true to God and ourselves, life is an ongoing struggle and battle to place our spirits into the hands of the living God. The struggle, suffering, spiritual death, and attempts at new life are woven together into the fabric of human existence. That Christ suffered and died once for the sins of the whole world, does not mean that suffering and death cease to define human life. Suffering and death will be with us always. What Christ does, if indeed we are faithful to our Baptismal vows and take the reception of His Body and Blood seriously, is to change the nature of suffering and death so that they become for us necessary moments of sanctification and redemption. On a very level, if we suffer physically, we should offer it up to God in thanksgiving and gratitude and not hoard it selfishly with resentment and bitterness. If we have been another Cross to bear, we should likewise praise God for being members of Christ’s Body in which all forms of suffering and death lead to transformation and new life. Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.
So we do well to remind ourselves that this is Good Friday. The Crucifixion of the Son of God is indeed, we must insist, beautiful. Why? Because suffering has been taken on by Love, taken into Love, and will be transformed and redeemed by Love, if only we begin to let it all happen within us. Father into thy hands I commend my spirit. Nothing need escape the Love of God. The love of God has been revealed to man as the forgiveness of sins in the Person of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. We are invited into the uninterrupted expression of this forgiveness. The love of God has been revealed to man as the Word’s victory over sin, death, and Satan. We are invited into its permanent rule and governance in our lives. Apart from the Cross, the love of God can never be experienced truly. If we would become the sons of God, we must go to the Cross of Christ to suffer and to die. To love is to suffer, old Bishop Morse used to say. And what he meant was that to love one must enter the Crucifixion. The Crucifixion of Christ is our crucifixion.
Jesus remains pinned to the cross, but our souls have been awakened to new life. We know what we have done. We know that we have crucified Him over and over again in a vain attempt to protect and defend our own poor and impotent imitations of His love. But He loves us still. To embrace His love, we must welcome Him into our hearts. Once He enters, shall we allow Him to die in us? Shall we let him say, within us, Father into thy hands I commend my spirit –no longer an external cry made in past history, but an inward desire made in the present from the ground of our hearts? I shall live in you and you shall live in my, but not before I die in you as you die me. His death in us will become our death to sin, death, Satan, and ourselves. His new life in us cannot be formed and created until we allow His death to be present, active, and effectual. Only then, through Him, can we die not into death, but die into life, dying into the hands of our Father. (Lord I Believe, Cowley, p.60.)
On this Good Friday, let us close with some words from Cardinal Von Balthasar that nicely illustrate, Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.
At the very periphery of this thanksgiving to God, it is legitimate to ask that, if God permits it, we may help the Lord to bear a tiny particle of the suffering of the Cross, of his inner anxiety and darkness, if it will contribute to reconciling the world with God. Jesus himself says that it is possible to help him bear it when he challenges us to take up our cross daily. Paul says the same in affirming that he suffers that portion of the Cross that Christ has reserved for him and for other Christians. When life is hard and apparently hopeless, we can be confident that this darkness of ours can be taken up into the great darkness of redemption through which the light of Easter dawns. And when what is required of us seems too burdensome, when the pains become unbearable and the fate we are asked to accept seems simply meaningless—then we have come very close to the man nailed on the Cross at the Place of the Skull, for he has already undergone this on our behalf and, moreover, in unimaginable intensity. When surrounded by apparent meaninglessness, therefore, we cannot ask to be given a calming sense of meaning; all we can do is wait and endure, quite still, like the Crucified, not seeing anything, facing the dark abyss of death. Beyond this abyss there waits for us something that, at present, we cannot see (nor can we even manage to regard it as true), namely, a further abyss of light in which all the world’s pain is treasured and cherished in the ever-open heart of God. Then we shall be allowed, like the Apostle Thomas, to put our hand into this gaping wound; feeling it, we shall realize in a very bodily way that God’s love transcends all human senses, and with the disciple we shall pray: “My Lord and my God.”
It is finished. (St.John xix. 30)
Our journey on this Good Friday involves coming to the knowledge of Christ and to the knowledge of ourselves. Our eyes are beginning to be opened to the light that creates new life. In Christ we find God’s deepest desire for us. In Christ we find not only the thirst of one man for his Maker, but the thirst of God’s Son for the salvation of all human beings. Our eyes are opened to Christ’s love for us even as he is suffering and dying. He never forgets us. We are permanently fixed in the heart of Christ Jesus. Jesus is the light that loves and makes new life. Love has many dimensions. It is passion; He is the Passion of God made flesh. He is God’s Passion for our salvation. And yet also He will become our new Passion for God rediscovered, and our Passion for others’ salvation. He is Sympathy made flesh, God’s sympathy for our condition and predicament. He will become our new Sympathy, through Him, for so many others. He is the Forgiveness of Sins made flesh, God’s forgiveness of our sins, and will become a new and liberating power of Forgiveness in our own lives. He is Yearning made flesh, God’s yearning for our friendship and company. He will become our yearning for Him and then for others discovery of His Love. He is about to die and he remembers us. His thirst for God is his thirst for man.
Jesus is the Love of God and the Love of Man in a simultaneous unity of un-selfed in-othering. Let us just pause for a moment here and think about this. He is Love as in-othering; He lives in and for the other, first God and then every other man. He is Love as un-selfed. He has emptied Himself of Himself, that He might welcome in the Father to meet new sons and daughters within his nature, in his name, as members of his new Body that He is forming. He is the Love of God and the Love of Man coming together. As for Himself, He doesn’t much care. The point, His point, the labor and work of His life is to bring others together- His Father and all human beings. His role is to arrange the meeting, to enable the encounter. True enough, it is only through Himself, but the point is that it can only be through Himself precisely because He has lost himself. He would stand only to get in the way. Who He is, is by definition the Word made flesh- the Father’s Word as man and in human flesh. He provides the space and He is the meeting room. Is He essential? Absolutely. But should He become self-consciously significant, the work and labor collapses. The self-less self of the Saviour is the spiritual reality that allows God’s love to save man’s life once again. Within Jesus Christ, God’s desire and man’s desire can meet again forming one seamless whole that can never be torn apart. There are no longer two worlds and two loves. There is one world about to be recreated, to be seen and experienced once again in God and for God. God and man are united in the heart of Jesus Christ. That one love, which man has tried to tear apart, finds its meeting place in the heart and soul of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is our salvation. His entire earthly visitation revealed to man the longing of God for reconciliation with his people. We must come to know ourselves in him. This is a coming to self-knowledge.
Today we come to know that the mission of Christ finished and accomplished. But we realize also that we ourselves are finished. What is finished? We are finished. The truth is naked before our very eyes. What is finished? Our pride is finished. Our sin is finished. The end of sin is death. Our sin has brought about the death of Christ. But even in this death, the death of Christ, man’s self-willed alienation from God is revealed as what has no power and no future. Life in isolation and alienation from God is illusorily satisfying, temporarily pleasing, and wholly incomplete. Life in isolation from God is death. In the death of Christ what is finished is the illusion that we have any power, that we have any meaning outside of the presence and nearness of God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not even death. Not even our killing of Christ. Nothing can separate us from God at all. For God is near to us. He quenches our thirst. He overcomes our rejection of him, our hatred of him, our killing of him. We have left sin behind us today. Father forgive them for they know not what they do. This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise. Woman behold thy son, son behold thy mother. My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? I thirst.We have been carried through death, from death and are about to enter into life. Our sin is finished. Death is about to be conquered. It is finished.
It is finished. What this means is that Christ Jesus has gone where we could not go. Christ Jesus has endured what we could never endure. He has taken on and felt the curse of His own judgment, the punishment of his own law, the justice of His own measurement. He is, in a word, consistent with Himself. He does not subject His own creatures to anything that he Himself cannot endure. Do not do unto others anything that you would not have them do unto you (St. Luke vi. 31), He meant. And He lived it. This does not make it any the less painful, horrifying and sad. But at the end of the day, it shows us that he is the center of all reality- the light thatbeareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.(1 Cor xiii.7), in order to make new life.
Let us end with the words of the 18thcentury country gentleman mystic, Mr. William Law, who had been called to King’s Cliffe to minister to a certain Mrs. Hutchinson and her sister Miss Hester Gibbon. The curious trio lived on for twenty one years studying God’s Word and ministering the Lord Jesus to all they met. Mr. Law wrote these words about the crucifixion:
Our Lord’s agony was his entrance into the last eternal terrors of the lost soul, into the real horrors of that dreadful death which man unredeemed must have died into when he left this world. We are therefore not to consider our Lord’s death upon the Cross as only the death of that mortal body which was nailed to it, but we are to look upon Him with wounded hearts, as fixed and fastened in the state of that twofold death, which was due to our fallen nature, out of which he could not come, till he could say, It is finished.
This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise. (St. Luke xxiii. 43)
The Cross offends most men. It is a stumbling block. Most men want gods of magic and mystery. They want magic to overcome their slothful refusal to be honest and noble, to work hard and diligently, and to search for the virtue that perfects their characters. Rather than engaging their souls in the pilgrimage of Grace to God’s Kingdom, most men are too busy to seek out and find God’s love in Jesus. Most men in Jesus’ day missed the Crucifixion. They were otherwise occupied, too busy, and utterly oblivious to what was going on outside Jerusalem’s city gates. Like the men of today they were too busy with their lower and lesser selves. Were you to tell them that this is what they were doing, they would take immediate offence. That you might love them enough to try to help them onto a higher spiritual plane wouldn’t register. This is a hate crime. For the brute beast, love means full acceptance of anything he is pre-programed to do. To desire change for the better that reaches out for the best is completely offensive to a world where truth is relative. What is truth? is alive and well. His resentment of you is really the hatred and then murder of Jesus. Violence is the language of the desperately irrational and unthoughtful man. Whether they were present at the Crucifixion or not, most approve of Jesus’ execution. He challenges us to dream about embracing the standards and ways of God. He is the standard and way of God. He is he way back to God. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 24)
But from the Cross, Jesus does not condemn his executioners. He longs for their conversion still. Today they kill Jesus. Tomorrow they may repent and believe. For a long as a man lives, Jesus tells us that we must hope for his conversion and turnaround. The executioners, harlots, publicans, mentally deranged, mammon-worshipers, and idolaters in every age have been kept outside of the churches. Why is this so? The Christians are not full of the merciful love and hope of the dying Jesus. They forget that Christ’s Broken Body must pour out his loving Blood! We all do it. We must stop this. We must become one with Jesus in His death. In becoming one with Him, we must be filled with that mercy that desires all men, regardless of their accidental qualities. We must allow our hearts to be touched by those who are sinners today but might be saints tomorrow. If our Jesus is alive in us, they will begin to perceive His love.
Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. (St. Luke xxiii 42) From His Cross Jesus brings into His Kingdom slowly but surely. The Cross is foolishness to the world.But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness. (1 Cor. i. 23) To move out of ignorance and into the clear perception of God’s goodness in Jesus Christ, we must go to the Cross. We must see with the good thief that we are justly punished for our offences. We must see that Jesus has done no wrong. We must then see that in suffering and dying innocently and without guile, malice, bitterness, or revenge, Jesus Christ is the mercy that overcomes and conquers imperfect justice in our world. Jesus Christ is the desire of God for all men. He desires and welcomes the conversion of all sinners. The good thief is the first convert to Jesus’ way. The good thief sees into the nature of Jesus. The good thief does not doubt, hesitate, waiver, or halt. He believes, hopes, and loves. Both Jesus and the good thief are bound and pinned to their crosses in utter agony. But above the pain and transcending the agony Jesus has made a new friend and son for God.
The Cross is a stumbling block and foolishness to most men. Those who are called to follow Jesus to His Kingdom must be prepared for a radically new kind of relationship with God and their fellow men. Those nearest and dearest to Jesus must let go of the limited rational order of things in the world for the purposes of finding God’s love. Jesus had given His family members and His friends a taste of His way long before the crucifixion. Even they did not understand Him. The mercy and love of God in the heart of Jesus see into the heart of a repentant thief. The mercy and love of God in the heart of Jesus forgive the thief and welcome Him onto the journey into new life. New life begins on the Cross with the death of Jesus. New life begins on the Cross as the repentant thief, who knows his sin and confesses, is forgiven and dies to it. He knows Jesus. He knows Him as Lord. He accepts Him as Lord. He believes and follows Jesus to the Kingdom.
The good thief provides a model and pattern for our belief. Do we know Jesus? In His presence will we begin to confess our sins to Him? Will we long for the forgiveness that His death brings into the world? Will we travel with Him to the Kingdom?
On the cross, the nails fastened his hands and feet, and nothing of him remained free from punishment, but his heart and tongue. God inspired him to offer the whole to Him, of that which he found free in himself, to believe with his heart to righteousness, and to confess with his lips to salvation. In the hearts of the faithful there are, as the Apostle testifies, three chief virtues, faith, hope, and charity, all of which the thief, filled with sudden grace, both received and preserved on the cross.” S. Greg. (xviii. Moral. chap. 13)
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