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)
THE FIRST WORD:
Father forgive them for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 34)
Here we are at Golgotha, on Calvary, on Good Friday, as the Person of the Son of God, Jesus
Christ, dies, hanging on a tree. Jesus Christ, the God-Man, has never left His Father’s side, and will not begin to do so now. We are in his presence, but because we are confused, bewildered, uncertain over why he must die, He seems more distant than ever. He wentabout doing good and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him. (Acts x. 38)He is unjustly accused, and yet he did say to us that the Son of Man must suffer a great deal and be rejected by His own people. His body writhes and flails in response to the unmerited torture and pain, and nevertheless He cleaves to His Father. His Father has a bit more business for Jesus to do before He dies in the body.
He always spoke from the Father’s inspiration while living, and He will continue while dying. Through the unimaginable pain and suffering, especially that of His soul and spirit, veiled and hidden from man’s experience, He continues to give Himself back to the Father. To be sure, there is much darkness here. But there is more. There is light. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. (St. John i. 4)He prays for others. This is light and life. Praying for others means hoping for their salvation and deliverance not matter what they had done to you or how your character relates to them. This is why He came into the world. He taught us all how to pray, and told us that if we do not forgive others their trespasses against us, neither will our Heavenly Father forgive us our trespasses against Him. (St. Matthew vi. 15) Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and tothe evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven: give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. (St. Luke vi. 35-38)And so even now, Jesus asks for the forgiveness of His enemies. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 34)
The forgiveness of sins is the reason for Christ’s coming in the first place. In fact, as it turns out, He is the Forgiveness of Sins. In His full complete, perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, we find the forgiveness of sins. He seems alien to us but perhaps this Jesus is making us into aliens and outsiders to the natural movements of earthly death in order to give us spiritual life. I am the light of the world: He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. (St. John viii. 12)
But how is He taking us into His light and life? He asks forgiveness for those who know not what they do. He seems to be begging pardon and mercy for those who, in ignorance, desired that He should die. He is petitioning forgiveness for the Pharisees, the Romans, and for Peter our friend who has denied Him three times. Clearly He is doing that. But He is doing more. We begin to ask ourselves if perhaps He is not praying for us too. We are confused and ignorant. Actually, come to think of it, we do tend to live in lots of darkness and ignorance. We think that we are bright. A little bit of knowledge tends to move us to arrogance and hubris. A little bit of knowledge tends to make us into parodies of ourselves. How silly we look. What we are doing here on this dreadful day? We do not even know why it is called Good Friday? We certainly do not expect to learn anything thing from suffering and death. It seems pretty silly to have come in the first place if we are too dense to know that we must face Jesus’ death if we hope to be saved! We promised ourselves that we try to endure Christ’s crucifixion. But we can’t. Why? We are usually cowardly dolts so full of our own limited and undeveloped notions of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
Jesus prays, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.What is this that He says? How incredible. During His life He claimed to be passing on what He had received from the Father. He that is of God heareth God’s words, (St. John viii. 47)And, I seek not mine own glory. (St.John viii. 50)He must be doing the same now.
Father forgive them for they know not what they do.Our minds jump back to contemplate what sinful and ignorant men can do to the Lord of Life. Those Romans and Jews are simply beastly. The torture and affliction are inexcusable. We say, Thank God we don’t live in that world.But we do live in that world. Sin of any kind kills God’s Word and Will in the hearts of others and ourselves. The heart that does not forgive its enemies is ignorant of God. Jesus is God’s forgiveness of sins made flesh. If He is the forgiveness of sins for His enemies, then aren’t we His enemies when we refuse to embrace Him in relation to all others? Fulton Sheen tells us that,it is not wisdom or knowledge but ignorance that saves us. (Seven Last Words: St. Paul’s Press, 7) Perhaps Jesus is praying for us since whenever we sin, clearly we reveal that we do not know God the Father –we know not what we do.If we knew the Father, we wouldn’t sin. If we knew the Father we wouldn’t kill the forgiveness of sins, Jesus Christ, in our hearts. If we knew the Father we would realize that Jesus is speaking to us: Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
In silence we come to the Cross of the Son of God on this Good Friday. We do so by way of remembering. We cannot literally be there, since it is all history. So in memory we come to the Crucifixion of Christ. Some people say that they don’t know how anyone could desire and carry out such a horrific act of torture. Such people have no real consciousness of their own sin or of who and what they have been and still are. For before us we behold the external and visible manifestation of what sin does. Sin in its various forms is nothing other than what abandons, betrays, denies, tortures, and kills God’s Word in human nature. God’s Word is His Articulated Desire, Plan, Purpose, Intention, Wisdom, and Truth for His creation. Thatwe cannot see that we kill God’s Word in our hearts and those of others is wholly evident on Good Friday. For though sin be subtle, it still kills God’s Word in the flesh of others and in ourselves.
It is said that sin is the absence of God, and that is true enough on one level. But it is more than that. It is really the will or desireto make God absent. It is the obstinate refusal to hear, obey, cultivate, and grow God’s Word in human life. Sometimes it is committed quietly in the ivory towerof arrogant stoical indifference. Sometimes it is committed in fear, as when a man can only envy the presence and success of goodness in the world. Sometimes it is committed rashly, impetuously, feverishly, out of impatience, outrage, and exasperation in violent anger. Sometimes it is committed slothfully to ensure earthly comfort, peace, and normalcy, simply because zeal requires sacrifice, sacrifice effort, and effort patience. Or it might be committed by making false gods out of greed’s ideal, gluttony’s comfort, and lust’s fleeting passion. In whatever way it is expressed, it all adds up to one thing: despair. And despair is the failure to hope. The failure of hope is the refusal to believe that a person, situation, predicament, or condition can be changed. Despair is the refusal to admit that the Good might conquer evil, Love might banish hate, Beauty might vanquish ugliness, and Truth might overcome ignorance. Despair then leads men to eliminate God’s Word from human life. Thus we find Jesus hanging upon the Tree of Calvary on this Good Friday.
But is this all that we find? No sooner had they arrested, mocked, derided, stripped, whipped, crowned with thorns, and nailed this man to the tree, than He was back to doing what He had always done, what He had come to do. Archbishop Fulton Sheen reminds us that, Seneca, [the great Roman Stoic Philosopher], wrote that those who were crucified cursed the day of their birth, the executioners, their mothers [for having brought them into this miserable world], and even spat on them that gazed upon them. Cicero recorded that at times it was necessary to cut out the tongues of those who were crucified to stop their terrible blasphemies. (Life of Christ, p. 372) Seneca ended up committing suicide, and Cicero was murdered, both because of alleged crimes against Caesar. Neither could have imagined that out of the death of a good man or out of a noble death something could emerge the likes of which we witness in Jesus. But with Jesus, we shall find something else at work today. Jesus is God’s Word. In Jesus, we find God’s Desire, Plan, Purpose, Intention, Wisdom, and Truth still at work. In Jesus, we shall find the power of good over evil, light over darkness, and righteousness over sin. In Jesus, we shall discover the room for those who do not know what they are doing but might wake up and discover that Jesus truly was the Son of God and thus begin the journey to Heaven. In Jesus, we shall discover room for those who knew what they were doing but repented and believed. In Jesus, we shall learn of those whose faith was tried and tested by what their intellect’s could not fathom but whose hearts would be strengthened again by a deeper faith that would be surprised by joy. In Jesus, we shall find room for all. The key to entry into the wave of the salvation he wins will be repentance and forgiveness. Let us meditate this day on these virtues.
I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it.
(St. Matthew 27. 24)
We in the Christian church are called to silence and contemplation during Holy Week. In silence, we contemplatethe Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Holy Week has been set aside from the time of the early Church to ponder our Lord’s suffering in silence. If we approach this time with a diligent and determined concentration, we will, no doubt, find that it will move us to ponder the nature of our lives in relation to God. Should we persevere in faith with our eyes on Jesus Christ, God’s great unseen eternal design will begin to make sense to our fallen natures. If we persist in following Jesus throughout His Passion, we shall come to the Cross -the place of enduring love and new life.
And yet the task that we set before ourselves today seems so daunting. No sooner have I said that we must be still and silent than we are overwhelmed and swept up in the tumultuous commotion and confusion that surrounds the trial of Jesus Christ. Pontius Pilate, the Prefect or Roman Governor of Judaea, is trying to superimpose order and discipline on chaos, anarchy, and confusion. What he thought was small-town problem of only local significance seems to press down upon him as a very weighty matter indeed. He knows that he must tread gently with the Jewish religious authority. The Temple at Jerusalem is both the center of worship and banking. The Temple served as a place to collect tithes for the religious hierarchy and also to exchange monies into Roman currency to pay taxes to Caesar. So, Pilate must tread softly with the Jews. That Jesus had objected to the commercial uses of the Temple precincts made him dangerous to Rome. The Pax Romana –the Roman Peace, was secured only with the cooperation of the ruling Jewish religious elite. But being also a good Roman, Pilate is moved by gravitas and stabilitas. Roman Law stands transcendently higher than all threats to it. He is more than a little bit irritated that the rag-tag Jewish Temple guards have harassed, rustled, and bound one Jesus of Nazareth in clear defiance of Roman law and the civic peace. The Jewish temple priests and chief elders have roused and excited the plebs, or the mob of unemployed and disgruntled men who had hailed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem –Hosanna to the Son of David, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord…., pinning their hopes on Him as the great liberator and freedom fighter who would break the yoke of Roman oppression. Pilate is not amused. He knows what the Jewish hierarchs are up to.
So, in strict conformity with Roman Law, Pilate will question the so-called disturber of the Jewish -and Roman, peace. He questions Jesus who has been brought before him. Art thou the king of the Jews? (St. Matthew xxvii. 11) Jesus answers, Thou sayest, or So you say. The Jews accuse him of many things and Jesus remains silent. Pilate is astounded. Hearest not how many things they witness against thee? (Ibid, 13) Jesus’ silence confounds and unsettles Pilate so that the governor marveled greatly. (Ibid, 13, 14)But Pilate has another reason to tread cautiously. Rome has an agreement with the Jewish authorities. To placate them, it was the custom, yearly on the Feast of the Passover, to pardon and liberate one prisoner. There was a notorious criminal in custody that year, one Barabbas,whose name means, ironically enough,son of the Father. Pilate knew that out of envy and malice they had delivered Jesus to him, and wondered if the chief priests would really want the release of Barabbas since radical insurrectionists of his stripe threatened the Jewish establishment as much as the peace of Caesar’s Empire. Perhaps he could throw the problem back at the Jews for their solving. So he asks the Jews, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ? (Ibid, 17) Having asked the question, he sits down on the judgment seat. No sooner has he done this, than matters become more complicated by a message that he receives from his wife, Claudia Procula.Do not meddle with this innocent man; I dreamed today that I suffered much on his account. (R. Knox, Ibid, 19) Romano Guardini tells us that, Pilate is skeptical but sensitive –possibly also superstitious. He feels the mystery, fears supernatural power, and would like to free [Jesus]. (The Lord, p. 392)But the chief priests and elders are bent on Jesus’ destruction. So, they have stirred the mob to demand Barabas’ release and Jesus’ death. Pilate needs a crime to convict, and so asks, Why, what evil hath [this Jesus] done? (St. Matthew 27. The crowd offers no crime and thus no evidence.Crucify him, they cry vehemently. Pilate fears the intensity of their malevolence. Then he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it. (St. Matthew 27. 24) TheRoman Peace must be maintained. Let Jews take the blame: His blood be on us, an on our children. (St. Matthew 27. 25)
Now, I have said that we must be still and silent this coming week in order to be touched and moved by the Word of God in the heart of Jesus. What should touch and move us most is Jesus’ relative silencethrough His trial, suffering, and death. Pilate’s soldiers and the bitter, vengeful, and envious Jews were determined to silence this Jesus of Nazareth forever. Extreme torture is always useful in such an endeavor. But most men don’t go down without a fight. Jesus’ silence speaks volumes about His mission and work. His silence invites us to ponder the nature of Great Unseen Eternal Design still alive and well at work in His heart. Romano Guardini says It is frightening to witness this hate-torn world suddenly united for one brief hour, against Jesus. And what does he do? Every trial is, in reality, a struggle –but not this one. Jesus refuses to fight. He proves nothing. He denies nothing. He attacks nothing. Instead, he stands by and lets events run their course –more, at the proper moment he says precisely what is necessary for his conviction. His words and attitude have nothing to do with the logic or demands of a defense. The source lies elsewhere. The accused makes no attempt to hinder what is to come; but his silence is neither that of weakness nor of desperation. It is divine reality; full, holy consciousness of the approaching hour; perfect readiness. His silence brings into being what is to be. (Ibid, 395) And with St. Paul, we remember that though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2. 6-8) Jesus Christ silently but conscientiously and willingly submits to the Great Unseen Eternal Design. God and His Word through the Spirit must effect a work that the world cannot comprehend yet. Jesus has no need to defend Himself against sinful man and his lies. Jesus must be left alone with His Father in order to embrace the work that must be done so that man can be saved. So, to the end, He does not count his Divine Nature a thing to pressed and forced upon an unwilling people. He intends to prove nothing other than that He has come from the Father to do the Father’s will. His Divine Nature is a thing to be discovered when human souls finally realize that Jesus’ silence reveals the Word of the Father hard at work in the suffering heart of the Savior.
This week, the relatively silent Word of God will be hard at work in the suffering and dying Jesus. Jesus refuses to allow any of what He must endure to be anything other than the Father’s will. He knows that the Father’s will triumphs over any and all obstacles to the operation of His goodness. Jesus knows too that this labor of working God’s will out and into the hearts of men is done best silently. Jesus’ silence will allow sin to make one last great assault on God’s goodness in Jesus’ heart. Jesus’ silence will triumph over it. Jesus will suffer silently because the death that it leads into must be endured and transformed by God’s goodness. Christ knows truly that God’s goodness will conquer all. Christ’s silence says:
You have stripped, bound, whipped, and tortured me. You have nailed my hands and feet to the tree. You continue to tempt, taunt, and provoke me. Still, you think that you can sever me from God? Do you think that I will reject my Father because I must suffer? Do you think that because I hang and suffer on this tree the Father cannot make good out of it? I made this body that I inhabit, and I made yours too. Do you think that something as small as suffering and death will put an end to that Great Unseen Eternal Design of my Father? I tell you, that even in the midst of this my earthly end, God is making all things new. In my suffering and death, I will bring sin to death. In my suffering and death, I will bring righteousness to life. On this day I have accepted your judgment of God’s Word in my flesh and in yours. See now how God’s Word is in my flesh. See now how I begin to make all things new.
Dear friends, this day let us begin to follow the Word of God made fleshinto His suffering and death. In stillness and wonder let us see how this Word of God in Jesus Christ speaks to us in silence. As we look on the Crucified One,R. H. Thomas reminds us that,
It’s not that he can’t speak;
who created languages
but God? Nor that he won’t;
to say that is to imply
malice. It is just that
he doesn’t, or does so at times
when we are not listening, in
ways we have yet to recognize
as speech R. H. Thomas
There is a speech to be heard in God’s Word made flesh, now dying silently on the tree. If we behold and listen to His few words, His relative silence will show us the way into death, a new kind of death, a death that is good and beautiful, and a death that is offered to us as the Way into new life. If we behold and listen, the silence shall burst forth as the sweet song of Christ’s desire and His pure Passion, the song of suffering love that wins our salvation.
So then, brethren, we are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free.
(Gal. iv. 21)
The theme for the Fourth Sunday in Lent is liberation and freedom. And our lections for the past three Sundays have been leading us up to this point. On the First Sunday in Lent, we learned that Jesus Christ was tempted like as we are, yet without sin. (Hebr. iv. 15) What we found, I hope, was that the first step on the road to freedom was Christ’s willingness to be tried and tested as we are. We are tempted, and so was He. He resisted the temptations through an act of free will and desires to do the same in and through us. On the Second Sunday of Lent we learned that when we become faithful and loyal dogs which need the crumbs that fall from the Jesus’ table, we shall freely discover a humility that opens our hearts to God’s healing power. And last Sunday we learned that eating the fragments of Christ’s Word is meant to grow into a persistent habit which on the freely willed hearing and keeping the Word move and define us. In sum, then, we are undertaking a difficult and daunting work or labor that will lead us into freedom. The problem is that we become obsessed with our own good works and not with the faith in God’s Grace. We are tempted to forget that it is faith in God’s promises that liberates us and moves us to follow the road to true freedom.
St. Paul is very much aware of this pernicious proclivity in the human heart, and he addresses it head-on in this morning’s Epistle. In his case, what he finds is that Judaizing Christians are threatening the spiritual freedom of his flock. Judaizing Christianswere early believers who taught that strict adherence to the Jewish Law was essential to the success of salvation. Being Jewish, as God’s chosen and elect people, was more important to them than faith in Christ’s redemptive power. They believed that circumcision, dietary regulations, and the ceremonial Jewish Law were necessary for salvation. So, in effect, the ritual traditions of Judaism were as necessary to them as faith in Christ and the work that His Grace. The end result was that Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit seemed subject to the prior binding nature of the Jewish Law. But St. Paul knows that devotion to the tradition of the Law can never sanctify or save a man. If the Jewish Law had been able to save a man, it would have and there would not have been any need for Christ.
St. Paul uses an allegory drawn from the life of Abraham to show these Jewish Christians that they were behaving more like slaves than the free children of God. He uses the illustration of Hagar and her son Ishmael. You will remember that Hagar was Sarah’s slave-girl. She produced the bastard-heir Ishmael for Abram. Prior to the conception of his children, when Abram was old, God promised him that he would sire an heir, and that he would be the Father of children more numerous than the stars in the sky. (Gen. xv. 5) And so Abram and Sarai his wife got to thinking. They were old, childless, and beyond the age of conceiving a child. It was not that they had no faith, but their faith was not strong enough to trust in what seemed naturally improbable, if not impossible. They were too earthly minded. And so they thought that in order to obey God and sire a child, Abram would have to mate with Sarai’s slave girl Hagar. So Abram did so, and Ishmael the son of the bond-woman was born. But Abram and Sarai’s natural and human solution to the problem of siring children was not God’s will for them. Abram and Sarai were enslaved to their own human ingenuity and the good work which they thought they had wrought. They had not found the freedom that is the fruit of faith in God’s Word. But God had other plans for them, and would elicit from them a faith in His promises that would make them the spiritual father and mother of many nations. Because of their increased faith, they would come become the parents of Isaac in their old age. What they learned was that faith in God alone generates true freedom from our fallen and limited earthly existence.
So St. Paul tells us that the early Jewish Christians were behaving more like Ishmael the son of the slave woman than Isaac the son of promise. Because they were consumed with the Jewishness of Jesus and not with His liberating nature as the Son of God, they were slaves to the flesh. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. (Ibid, 29)The early Jewish Christians were caught up in the flesh and not the Spirit. For St. Paul, these Jewish Christians saw Jesus as the apex, apogee, and acme of their own obedience to God through the [Law of] the flesh. They saw Him as the fulfillment of a long history of Jewish obedience to God through the Law. But they did not see aright.What they could not see was that Christ had transformed the Law of fleshly commandments and observances into that Law of faith and belief that ought to follow Him to the Kingdom through the freedom of the will.
But St. Paul is not content to leave it at that. He takes another turn in his allegory that he hopes will eradicate primitive Jewish fleshly pride. He tells them that though Hagar was the slave mother of the slave child Ishmael –and thus of all the Arabic people, she is no different from the earthly children of Israel. A better translation than our Authorized Version reads that Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. (Gal. iv. 25) For those who desire to be under the [old Jewish] law (Ibid, 21), there is no practical distinction between being an unsaved Gentile or an unsaved Jew. St. Paul has added insult to injury. He tells the Jewish Christians that though they are by birthright the children of Jerusalem, they look much more like the spiritual children of Arabia, and that their coveted and cherished Mount Sinai is actually, in spiritual terms, an Arabic hill! As Monsignor Knox says, Mount Sinai, in Arabia, has the same meaning in the allegory as Jerusalem; the Jerusalem which exists here and now; an enslaved city, whose children are slaves. (The Epistles and Gospels, p. 100) Both Jews and Gentiles live in bondage to the elements of nature and her laws. They do so because all men are born slaves to sin. They can become Christians only through the freely willed act of faith in God’s promises. The historic Jerusalem is in bondage and can only find freedom in the spiritual Jerusalem of God’s kingdom. For, Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband. (Ibid, 26, 27)Sarah, well-stricken in years and barren by reason of nature’s laws, through Abraham’s faith, became the mother of promise. Mary, young and innocent, who was barren in the sense that she knew not a man, became the mother of the promise’s fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The faith of both look forward to promises that are to be enjoyed in the liberation and freedom that is above creation in God’s own Kingdom.
My friends, this Sunday in Lent is called Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, or in Latin, Laetare Sunday. The Latin from the ancient introit to the Mass is Laetare Jerusalem: O be joyful, Jerusalem. Today we are called to remember that our salvation comes to us only through faith in God’s promises. So as we continue our Lenten journey up to the Cross of Christ’s love, Mother Church desires to bring us out of slavery and into the freedom of new life. When we live as children of the bondwoman…born after the flesh…and in bondage, (Gal. iv. 23,24) under the elements of the world (Gal. iv. 3) doing service unto them which by nature are no gods (Gal. iv. 8), we are enslaved to Hagar and Ishmael. When this world’s natural attachments, human expectations, and earthly hopes consume us, we imperil and threaten the free operation of God’s Grace in our hearts. The problem is not with the world but with Christians who are too enslaved to it and thus are not being made free from above.
This problem is not new. And, so, as St. Paul rebuked the ancient Galatian church long ago, he admonishes and reproaches us today. My little children, I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you….(Gal. iv. 19 Jerusalem which is above…is free…the mother of us all. (Gal. iv. 26) For Christ to be formed in us, we must allow Him to work His redemption into our hearts. To allow that work to begin, we must freely desire the Grace of God in Christ to rule our hearts. For it to be effective, we must choose also to die to the flesh and the natural man.As Oswald Chambers writes: Some of us are trying to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God before we have sacrificed the natural. (M.U….Dec.10) The Law of Nature binds us to the old Law of sin. Sin’s hold on us must be confessed before true faith in God’s promises can have their effect. Bondage to the flesh is not freedom. Abram’s freedom was found when he trusted in God’s Word. Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness. (Rom. iv. 3)The Blessed Virgin Mary did the same.Her faith so filled her with all of God’s Grace that His promise was conceived in her womb and born into the world. The five thousand followed Christ the Word and trusted in His promises. As a reward, they were fed and filled.
True freedom comes to us when we sacrifice the Ishmael in all of our lives. Ishmael is in bondage to this world. Are we in bondage to this world -to its false promises, false comforts, false delights, and illusory freedoms? If so, we have come to right place. Here we come to feed on the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation. This is food for men wayfaring. We are those men wayfaring, moving from earth to heaven, from Mount Sinai to Jerusalem. Here we freely will to journey to Jerusalem which is above…free…[and] the mother of us all, during this holy season of Lent. Here we learn to freely follow the God of Jesus Christ, who alone can make us the free citizens of the Heavenly City.
He is no unkind physician who opens the swelling, who cuts,
who cauterizes the corrupted part. He gives pain, it is true, but
he only gives pain, that he might bring the patient on to health. He
gives pain, but if he did not, he would do no good.
(St. Augustine: Sermon xxvii)
Last week we examined the temptations that Jesus withstood on our behalf in order to draw us deeper into His love for God our Heavenly Father. And I pray that we came away with a real sense of His desire to serve God alone and to fulfill His will for us. This week we shall come to see and grasp the nature of sin and our powerlessness over it; and, because of this, I pray that we shall come to learn that all sin whether subtle or direct threatens to control us. Lastly, I pray that we shall find deliverance from sin through persistent and humble submission to the Lord’s judgment of our condition and His provision of cure.
This morning, we read in the Gospel that Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.(St. Matthew 15. 21) He comes to the borders of the pagan Gentile world –a place which had only heard of Jesus peripherally and the promises made to God’s chosen Jewish people. Strangely enough and often, Christ journeys to the borders of paganism and to places that do not appear to be ripe for the salvation that Jesus brings. Why is this so? Because it is there that He finds those most in need of His spiritual diagnoses and cures. It is interesting that he had just finished a discourse on how sin originates in the inner man’s heart and soul. He said, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with theirlips; but their heart is far from me. (St. Matthew xv. 8) Jesus saw that the pious Jews upheld the form of religion without ever coming to discover their heartfelt need for its true substance.
So, Jesus will find the need for what He brings into the world from foreigners, aliens, and outcasts. Jesus comes upon a foreigner –a Syro-Phoenician woman, to reveal to His Apostles just what kind of person is most rightly related to Him. From a distance, she had learned that the Jews had brought those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatics to Jesus for healing.(St. Matthew 4. 24)Because His cure was swiftly efficacious, she was determined to have it also.She did not waste any time, for we read that she cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.(St. Matthew 15. 22) She comes from afar not for herself but for one who is even further removed from Jesus. She bears the burden of her daughter’s illness within her heart. Her daughter’s misery is her misery. She will learn that Jesus’ misery is our misery. She cries out for His mercy, but we readthatHe answered her not a word. (Ibid, 23)Jesus is silent. As St. John Chrysostom writes: The Word has no word; the fountain is sealed; the physician withholds His remedies. (Homily LII: Vol X, NPNF:I)
Jesus, however, will elicit more from her in order to teach us about true faith –the suppliant posture of the earnest seeker who would draw near to receive His Grace and Mercy.
We learn that the Apostles cannot see what Jesus is doing. While they have been with Him for some time and have witnessed what He can do, they prefer to hoard Him selfishly, so that seeing, they see, and do not perceive. (St. Mark 4. 12) Like many Christians, they settle for the Jesus whose presence is comforting but not confrontational. Send her away, for she crieth after us. (St. Matthew 15, 23) As far as they are concerned He might heal her daughter or not; their chief end is to be rid of this pestiferous annoyance. Theirs is that heartless granting of a request, whereof most of us are conscious; when it is granted out of no love to the suppliant, but to leave undisturbed his selfish ease fromwhom at length it is exhorted. (Trench: Gospel) And yet, Jesus is more interested in her. He will engage her, for He knows that in her heart there is a faith that will reveal the process by which we all must approach Jesus for healing.
Jesus’ first response to the woman is I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (St. Matthew 15. 24)In St. Mark’s Gospel He says, Let the children first be filled. (St. Mark 7. 27) In both, He means that His mission is first to the Jews because they are the children of Promise. Jesus, the Great Physicianbegins to open this heathen woman’s spiritual swelling.The Apostles are silent. She is neither daunted, nor disheartened, nor disturbed. She needs more from Jesus than any of His Jewish brethren. As audacious and brazen as it would have seemed to the Jewish onlookers, she moves closer to Jesus. The more acute the disease, the greater the need for the physician’s immediate and direct attention. Then came she and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me. (St. Matthew 15.25) Jesus neither commands nor promises anything.From His heart, He is already ministering healing to her. As Calvin writes,We see then that the design of Christ’s silence was not to extinguish the woman’s faith, but rather to whet her zeal and inflame her ardor.(Calvin’s Comm’s. xvii) Jesus is amazed at this woman. She is courageous, determined, and true to herself.
Jesus was first silent and then discouraging. Now, He cuts into her wound as if to add insult to injury. Jesus says: It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. (St. Matthew 15. 26) He compares her to a dog! He uses a pejorative word that the ancient Jews hurled at their Gentile neighbors. Yet, if we look more closely and study him more attentively, we might learn that he is up to something different. Could it be that he is mocking the Jews? He knows that this woman, no matter what her race or cultural origin, might actually be in possession of a faith that will put His faithful Jewish followers to shame.
This Gentile outcast is on a journey after and for Jesus. She is going up to Jerusalem with Him in heart and mind. She needs Him completely. She hangs upon every His every word and she will not its power escape her dogged desire. She will follow Him come what may. She believes Jesus is God’s own Emissary. She responds with, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. (St. Matthew 15. 27) She perceives Jesus’ severe mercy and hard love. She may be a dogand not a lost sheep. But she knows herself to be dog very much in needs of its master’s attention.Jesus can become hers. I am the last and least, like dogs that sit at their master’s feet. But a dog belongs to its master. He is beneath his feet but not cast out; he is under but not forsaken. He depends absolutely upon his master’s care.So she says, Let me be a dog. If you are the master, I shall eat of the crumbs that fall from the table that you have prepared for your chosen people. At any rate, the crumbs shall be more than sufficient for my daughter’s healing.As St. Augustine says,It is but a moderate and a small blessing I desire; I do not press to the table, I only seek for the crumbs. (Serm. xxvii, vol. vi. NPNF) In whatever state you discern me to be in, Lord, let it be true. My daughter is sick, and if I am a dog, let me at least eat the morsels of mercy that fall from your table.I believe that ‘thou hast the words of eternal life.’ (St. John 6. 68) What you give us may be crumbs, but Lord, evermore give [me] this bread. (St. John 6. 34)
With her words, this woman storms the gates of Heaven and conquers its Lord. Jesus says, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (St. Matthew 15. 28) Jesus cauterizes her wound, and her faith ensures that her daughter is healed. In the end, it is her faith that secures the healing she seeks. Faith in Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God and the Power of God, is what always obtains Jesus’ healing for our sin-sick souls. This woman’s faith did not demand that Jesus come down in person to heal her daughter. This woman’s faith knew that the Word could easily retrace the distance she traveled to find her daughter. In faith, she believed that Jesus need speak the word only and [her daughter] would be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8)St. Mark writes that when the woman was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed. (St. Mark 7. 30)
With our opening St. Augustine reminds us that [Christ] the Good Physician gives pain, it is true, buthe only gives pain, that he might bring the patient on to health. He
gives pain, but if he did not, he would do no good. (Idem) So, we must be willing to endure the pain of hearing the hard truth we learn about ourselves from Jesus. He comes to diagnose our condition and provide the cure. He intends to empty us of any pride that our faith might persist in finding His loving cure. Matthew Henry warns us thatthere is nothing got by contradicting any word of Christ, though it bear ever so hard upon us. But this poor woman, since she cannot object against it, resolves to make the best of it. ‘Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs…. (Comm. Matt. xv.)
With the example of the Syro-Phoenician’s faith and humility let us press upon Jesus to be fed by the crumbs that fall from the His table. In all humility, let us follow this remarkable woman and become dogs who eat of the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. Jesus longs to interact with us as He did with the Syro-Phoenician woman long ago. He longs to find us where we are. He longs to drive all pride and arrogance from our hearts. He longs that we, rather than being offended at His knowledge of our condition, might humbly persist until we secure His loving power. He longs to bring out of us that faith that can move mountains and heal human hearts. Jesus longs for us to stir up that faith that seeks in Him all that He has and will offer.
For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities;
but was in all points tempted like as we are, yetwithout sin.
(Hebrews iv. 15)
Monsignor Ronald Knox reminds us that the whole story of the Temptation is misconceived if we do not recognize that it was an attempt made by Satan to find out whether our Lord was the Son of God or not. (The Epistles and Gospels, p. 89) And perhaps this is our question too. To be sure Satan tempts Jesus, but we tempt Jesus also. We want to know if He is the Son of God. We want evidence and proof that provide certain facts; we want confirmation. And today on the First Sunday of Lent we are given good evidence that He is, at least, moving towards revealing this truth to us. After all, proofs aren’t bad things; and in this case, we can thank Satan for confronting Jesus and providing Him with the opportunity to reveal to us how He overcomes temptation.
So we begin with our Gospel lesson for today, remembering that we have accepted Jesus’ invitation togo up to Jerusalem. Presumably, then, we are going upnot merely to be recognized as devout pilgrims, but to find out for ourselves just who this Jesus of Nazareth really is. So we read that Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. (St. Matthew iv. 1,2) From the historical record of Saints Matthew and Luke we learn that Jesus was alone. Having fasted for forty days, being truly and fully human, He was hungry. Thus, the Devil will tempt Him at his lowest bodily point, nearing human exhaustion. Jesus is famished and there is nothing in the desert but stones. So, Satan says to Him, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. (St. Matthew iv. 3) Jesus knows that God sent Him not to destroy human nature but to redeem it. So why shouldn’t Jesus put the natural hunger of his body first before He moves on? Jesus the Man needs to eat. But Jesus has come to remind us that the natural needs of our bodies are meant to be moderated by the good of the soul. Stones are stones, and bread is bread. Later in Jesus’ ministry, we read that he fed the multitudes by multiplying the loaves and the fishes, not by being tempted but by loving those who follow Him. And besides, the poor ye have with you always, but the Son of God ye have…always. (St. Matthew xxvi. 11)Because the Son of Man is first the Son of God, He will hunger and thirst for [God’s] righteousness. (St. Matthew v. 6) Things Divine, righteousness and redemption, must come before things human and natural. Jesus prays thus to Himself: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, that….all [other]….things may be added unto you. (St. Matthew vi. 33) Jesus remembers who He is truly and that He has meat to eat that Satan does not know of. His meat is to do the will of Him that sent…. Him.(St. John iv. 32,34) Jesus is tempted here to sacrifice the demands of His Heavenly mission to the needs of His human body.But He knows that Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (St. Matthew iv. 4)
Jesus’ physical hunger is overcome by His spiritual longing to eat and digest the bread of God’s will.So, where we are, Satan’s first temptation is resisted and overcome by Jesus’ spiritual Sonship. Satan will not be deterred. All right then, thou art feeding on every Word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (Idem) Perhaps this Jesus is called to be an ascetic or a mystic, like the early Christian Desert Fathers, who in denying the body completely can become an angel of God. He has denied the good of the body,Satan thinks, so let this man dispense with his body entirely, cleaving as he does to this ‘Word’ of God. He trusts in God, then let Him deliver Him now, if he will have Him: for he said, I am the Son of God. (St. Matthew xxvii. 43)Then the devil taketh Him up into the holy city, and setteth Him on a pinnacle of the temple,And saith unto Him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou thy foot against a stone. (St. Matthew iv. 5,6) Satan tempts Jesus to provoke God to reveal His anointing by sending angels, pure spirits, to save Him from sure and certain death. Jesus has put the good of His soul over that of His body. If you cannot perform a miracle with regard to the body’s hunger, prove your unbreakable unity with God through the mind or the soul, Satan suggests. Cast yourself down; surely God will not let one perish who places the good of his soul above that of his body. Jesus, however, knows that this is no way for the Son of Man to reveal that He is the Son of God. Man’s soul is in a body. God doesn’t intend for us to prove the good of one by destroying the other. The Son of Man must reveal that He is the Son of God by taking on the whole of human nature. That He is the Son of God will require much more than a selfish and desperate cry for God to Anoint Him as Son of God in a dramatic rescue mission from Heaven. Jesus knows that He must use His soul in His body to make the long journey to Calvary. Men must follow the Son the Man along the hard path of suffering that alone can win loving salvation. We must take up our cross and follow Him.
So what more do we learn about Jesus’ nature? Jesus is the Son of God by that inner determination to cleave to His Father’s will and to reveal His way. Jesus the Son of God came down from Heaven to redeem the whole of human nature. The Son of Man should expect no signs and wonders. The Son of Man is made to be the Son of God through obedience to God the Father. While Satan and his minionsdemand signs and wonders, men of faith will see true signs and wonders givenin the Love of the Son of Man, who rather than jumping off a cliff will allow Himself to be hoisted up upon the Cross by others in order to reveal the nature of redemption. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. (St. Matthew iv. 7)
We come to the final temptation. Satan guesses that if the Son the Man will not prove that He is the Son of God by worshiping the needs of His body or demanding that God rescue and reward Him for spiritual sacrifice, there is but one option left. Surely if He is the Son of God as flesh, He can still be tempted by the will to power. Jesus has come to save all men but He wonders if He is held captive and enslaved to His Father’s will as the Son of God? His last temptation is to despair of His obedience to the Father and to think that He is nothing but a slave. He is tempted to think that He might be freed from God. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (St. Matthew iv. 8,9) Satan tempts Jesus to despair of His Father’s Kingdom and to be freed so that He might find a second best with the kingdoms of the world. The temptation here is for Jesus to believe that His power to resist the first two temptations gives Him the freedom to embrace the third. How does it make sense? Well, here we find that Jesus has forsaken everything for God and His kingdom. He has rejected both bodily and spiritual threats to His mission. His act of will in submitting to the Father seems to have rendered Him utterly powerless. His sense of impending weakness is weighing so heavily upon Him in the face of the long, hard road lying ahead that He is tempted to give it all up –to do evil that good may come of it. (Idem, Knox, p. 65) Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. (St. Matthew iv. 10) The Son of God is God’s only perfect Son. As God, the Father rules the whole of creation, so He gives meaning to all creation through His Son. That Word has neither meaning nor significance apart from the Father who speaks it. As the Father’s Word is received freely and gladly in Heaven, so must it be on earth. Then the devil leaveth Him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto Him.(St. Matthew iv. 11)
That Jesus is the Son of Man has never been doubted. And too, the Sons of Man are born to become the Sons of God. What the Son of Man reveals to us is that if we are to become the Sons of God, we must go to the Cross with Jesus to die. The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (St. Matthew xx. 28) At the end of our Gospel lesson for today we read that, Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (St. Matthew iv. 11) Luther tells us that the angels came down from Heaven to feed Him. This is the proper order and nature of God’s provision. The Son of Man is hungering and thirsting for the righteousness as the Son of God. God the Father feeds Him, nourishes His soul, and now cares for His body. It follows that the Son of God has become the Son of Man in order to serve and redeem all of us. The angels who minister to the Son of Man find Him alive and well as the Son of God. The Son of God will go on to win our salvation on the Cross of Calvary. There Satan will attack Him one last time. Will we, with Christ, go up to the Cross to experience Christ’s ultimate loving victory?
"Behold we go up to Jerusalem."(Luke 18.31)
In the Gospel for today Jesus announces his final journey to Jerusalem: Behold, we go up to Jerusalem,he says, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished.Today we go up. We have changed our direction. For we have just completed the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany. In those liturgical seasons, we meditate upon a certain coming down-God’s coming downin His Son, the Word’s coming down from the Father to be made flesh, Jesus’ coming down to purify and cleanse our consciences of the unclean, the unholy, and the unrighteous. But todaywe begin to go up,to travel up with Jesus to Jerusalem. He must go upto die and rise again. Behold, we go up to Jerusalem and we go up with Him to gaze upon and share in His passion, to be healed and transformed by that vision of the Divine Love. Behold we go up to Jerusalemin order to see and experience the love of God, and how the love of God while enduring all manner of malevolent rejection, will keep on loving. In faith we go up to Jerusalem, in hope we reach forward towards greater wisdom, and in love, we desire to find a passion that can be made our own –that principle of Primal Motion that alone can save, alone can heal.
But this coming downand going upseems confusing. We faithfully follow Jesus, we hope for the best, but we do not understand what it means to go upto His death. Death seems to be a kind of going down, like going downinto the pit or going down into the grave. What profit is therein my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? Shall it declare thy truth? (Psalm xxx. 9) Like the Apostles who went upwith Jesus to Jerusalem, we might be a bit befuddled. For, the more they went up, the less they grasped how they were actually going down. Jesus said that the Son of Man…shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on:And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again. (St. Luke xviii. 32,33)But we read that the disciples understood none of these things, and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken. (St. Luke xviii. 34)The Apostles and we do not understand this. We can’t be going upif our understanding has not emerged up out of the dark pit of ignorance.
But as they will soon learn, going upto Jerusalem with Jesus will involve illumination or enlightenment of a most unusual kind –the illumination that Jesus is God and that God is Love. The eyes of the Apostles, our eyes, will be opened; there is no doubt about it. But not before, with the blind man in this morning’s Gospel, we beg Jesus to come down into our miserable condition. Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy upon me. (St. Luke xviii. 38) We cannot go up to Jerusalem with Jesus until we beg for the mercy of God in Jesus Christ to come downto open our eyes. Jesus asks the blind man what he desires of him. The blind man responds, Lord, that I may receive my sight. (St. Luke xviii. 41)The blind man receives his sight and so too can we if Jesus comes down to us. And immediately he received his sight, and followed him….(St. Luke xviii. 43) Vision is the door that opens the eyes of the heart to know Jesus and to go up with Him to Jerusalem.
Vision is the reward bestowed upon the man whose faith persistently seeks out the source of true healing. What we think should be the gateway to the external and visible world alone, becomes the door to a spiritual vision that goes up to the Cross of Christ’s Love. Christ says in this morning’s Gospel that his impending suffering and death will be necessary that all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished. (St. Luke xviii.31) What the blind man will see and the Apostles will go up to behold is a vision of a healing Love that is always going up and into heart of our Heavenly Father. St. Paul speaks of this Love in this morning’s Epistle. King James’ able translators penned it as Charity.
Charity is the Queen of the Theological virtues. It outruns faith and fulfills all hope since its character and nature is the love of God that knows no end. St. John tells us that, God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God in him.(1 St. John iv. 16) Love is Charity, and Charityis the everlasting expression of God’s nature. Charity is that one essential virtue that must command all others. St. Paul suggests this morning that Charityis preeminent because it alone binds God to Man and Man to God. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. (1 Cor. xiii. 1-3) Articulate speech, theological knowledge, and earthly kindness alone can never save a man, says St. Paul. They go out but don’t necessarily go up.All sorts of men can speak eloquently and inspirationally. Such virtue does not save a man. Countless others can have right belief, near-perfect knowledge of theological truth, and spiritual understanding. Such virtue do not save a man. Generous and liberal people may spend their lives feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless. Such virtue do not save a man. What they are missing is Charity. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.(1 Cor. xiii. 4-7) Charity is that constant and persistent love of God that comes down in order that we might go up with Jesus to the Cross and beyond. It sums up in one word God’s inestimable mercy, pity, compassion, and forgiveness that comes down from Heaven in order that we may go up and back into Heaven. It fulfills all hope in His desire for every man’s redemption. It sees in all men the possibility of salvation, though their ways be wicked, their hearts hardened, and their motives murderous. Charity comes down to conquer all vice. Why? Because God is love, and God’s love alone can come down into the lowest remove from Himself to lift sinful man back up to Himself. It is of Charity’s nature to persistently attempt to reconcile all men to Himself because God’s love is incessantly itself.
Charity is the love of God that is forever alive in the heart of Jesus Christ. Jesus is both God coming down into Man and Man going up into God. In Jesus Christ, we find in one what men have tried to divide since the dawn of time. Of course, the devil will do all he can to divide these two aspects of Charity. As we go up to the Cross of Christ’s Charity, we shall see that Jesus will be tempted in His unjust suffering to think that God is no longer coming down to Him. In His innocent death, He will be tempted to go up and call forth His legions of angels. He will be tempted to feel that God’s coming down and His going up have come to a tragic end. Rather than going up and into the embrace of His heavenly Father’s Charity, He will be tempted to come down from the Cross and abandon God’s way of working out our salvation.
But as we go up to His Cross, we shall find that He will not come down into these temptations. He is God’s Charity made flesh for Man; He is Man’s Charityand Love for God made divine. He goes up in order to die for us. He will come down in order to rise in us. What we think of as two distinct kinds of Love will persist as one in the heart of Jesus. Sin divides; Love unites. The God-Man’s going up and coming down are but one expression of the ceaseless love of God in the heart of Jesus Christ.
This morning a blind man became conscious that Jesus Christ was passing by. His cry goes up and Jesus comes down.St. Cyril of Alexandria remind us that the blind man had faith in the love of God that he perceived in the heart of Jesus.
Let [us] admire…the steadfastness with which the blind man proclaimed his belief, for there were some who, while he confessed his faith, cried out for him to be silent. But he did not cease, nor lessen the confidence of his prayer…For faith knows how to combat all things and overcome all. (On the Gospel: St. Cyril of Alexandria)
Christ is God’s Charity that has come down from Heaven so that we might go up.True Charity comes downin order that through Him we all may go up with Jesus to God. The vision of Charityin the flesh will come downto us this Lent so that we maygo up to the Cross to die. Let us pray that this coming Lent we shall play the man and see, with the blind man,the Charity that Christ is, cherishing and treasuring not only the vision but enduring His incessant love, as old loves fade and come down into death and true Loveis stirred to go up into New Life. Our hearts will be broken if we go up to gaze upon this Charity; but in their breaking comes an opening, into which the loveof God in Christwill flow, grow, expand and triumph. Christ is always coming down. Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, to die, to rise, and then to see His love that we must share with others as we come down to touch the hearts of others.
And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
(St. Luke viii. 9)
The New Testament is full of examples of parables; there are actually thirty in total. We encountered one of them last week in theParable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.A parableis an external and visible story or illustration that carries the mind into an interior and invisible truth. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parablealways involves the story of human beings; never places their moral education in the power of talking trees, birds, or brute beasts; does not mock or deride man’s condition; and represents the creation accurately as the work of a loving and engaged God. Thus a parable is not a fable. Nor is a parable a mythsince myth normally conflates or blends the divine and human, heaven and earth, good and evil in such a way that what is depicted seems to picture more of a conundrum than a solution. A parable, then, involves men and their reconciliation to God, focusing on one aspect or mode of human life that leads to or away from union with Him. A parable…moves in the spiritual world, and never transgresses the order of the natural world. A parable uses the external and visible to lead the mind to the discovery of inward and spiritual truth. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)
But notice something else. The parablesof the New Testament are always about the choices that man makes in this life and how those choices affect his ultimate destiny. Jesus uses parables not only because He wants men to know the Good, but also because He wants them to will it. He wants them to will it since without moral decision a man cannot be saved. St. John Chrysostom writes thatJesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would convert, he would heal them’ (cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). God never forces Himself upon any man. He respects man’s freedom. That freedom is all about the ability of faith to ponder, study, explore and investigate what is not immediately known but which can be discovered and found beneath the surface of reality. In the parables, each of us is invited to study Jesus, to know Him, and thus to follow Him to his Kingdom. Pope Benedict says that Jesus Himself is the Parable…who, in the sign of His humanity, hides and at the same time reveals His Divinity. (Idem)
Yet, for Jesus to become the Parable of our lives, we must embrace His Word and reveal His Nature to the world through our thoughts, words, and works.Of course, every human being is already a parable.Man’s external and visible form already reveals an inner and otherwise hidden spiritual nature. Through his words, expressions, gestures, and actions man reveals what kind of man he truly is. He is a parable of his spiritual condition. You can tell the spiritual nature of a person by his appearance. You can detect if he is temperate, prudent, just, or courageous. You can tell if he is faithful, hopeful, loving, merciful, kind, generous, and so forth. Man is a parable that illustrates outwardly what he embraces inwardly.
St. Paul know this only too well. So, he maintains rightly that the parable of his life must be instrumental in leading other men’s minds to the nature of what is going on in his heart. He offers his experience as a parablefor the honest man who will plant his feet on the ground and resolve to follow Jesus Christ. The parable of his life will give external and visible witness to a true inner love from Christ that has transformed his heart. And itwill make a mockery of any false teaching which disregards the parableas an unnecessary and cumbersome way to Christ. He says, 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) In other words, conversion and discipleship involve much more than cursory and perfunctory faith in God’s Word, evidenced in the parables of certain Christians’ lives that make a mockery of redemption.St. Paul maintains that if man is to faithfully endure the Word of God as it moves him from the external and visible surface of the world well into the depths of his own fallen self that sees the need for salvation, he must suffer. Conversion involves suffering. Man must suffer to find the truth that he does not have. Who is weak, and I am not weak? the Apostle exclaims!(Cor. xi. 29) The parableof St. Paul’s life reveals that the work of becoming a Christian involves the discovery of spiritual suffering. The process is painful as the soul suffers to confront this painful truth. The process is painful as the soul conforms to the truth. The process is painful as the soul suffers at the hands of the world who hates this truth. Yet, in the midst of the pain that suffering conversion brings, St. Paul insists, If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) The confession of true weakness will yield to God’s strength. My Grace is sufficient for thee. My strength is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. xii. 9) St. Paul’s life is a parable of the way of the Cross. This is the parableof spiritual pilgrimage that involves the struggle for conversion, sanctification, and salvation.
All threats to this conversion parableare neatly summarized in today’s Parable of the Sower.Asower went out to sow his seed, Jesus tells us, andsome fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture.And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (St. Luke viii. 5-7) Some Christians hear God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls is trodden down by the habitual busy-ness of this world, and so they never become part of the parable.[Men] have exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they have become hard as the pavement…[having] laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root…(Parables, Trench, p.60) These men are easy prey to the Devil and his ways and, thus, have no time for Christ’s parable. As St. Cyril says, Into…minds that are hard and unyielding, no divine or sacred Word will enter. (On the Gospel: St. Cyril) They are hard and unyielding because their souls are addicted to the influence of all worldly things. They are too busy to notice the real nature of the parable.
Other Christians temporarily hear the Word of God with excitement and joy; it sounds so promising. But they prematurely anticipate its rewards without understanding the depth of faith that must establish its roots. They fall awaybecause they cannot work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) The parable reveals that for man to discover his true self and his need for a savior he must endure much pain and suffering. Like the sun scorching the blade that has no deepness of 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) These are shallow Christians who love the husk of Christianity –the sounds, smells, colors, and movements of a beautiful form. And, as St. Cyril writes, As long as [these] Christians are left in peace, they keep the faith; but should persecution arise, they will be of a mind to seek safety in flight. (Idem) Their faith is superficial and their commitment to the work that is demanded of the Christian laborer in theparable is too costly and laborious.
Finally, there are Christians who hear and more honestly receive God’s Word but are choked and killed by thorns which sprung up with it. (St. Luke viii. 7) These men have become part of the parable. Here, the Word is growing, but only alongside that inner anxiety, fear, worry, and looming despair that eat away at and finally kill faith. They are crushed by the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) 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) The thorns and briars symbolize temptations to past sins that have not effectively been overcome through the soul’s habituation to virtue. St. Paul knows only too well that one or all of these temptations threaten the meaning and fulfillment of today’s parable.
The conclusion of the Parable teaches us that the seed of God’s Word can grow up effectually only in deep, dark spiritual soil that is weeded and fertilized by faith that opens itself completely to God’s Grace. Only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort can the Word of God, Jesus Christ,take root downward and bear fruit upward. (Isaiah xxxvii. 31)If we follow St. Paul, then we learn that each condition of soul described in Jesus’ Parablecould be a pitfall for us. Jesus knew this when He offered the Parable. Christ speaks to each of our natures. He challenges us to ask which level of receptivity best describes our relation to Him. He wonders what kind of parable our lives are revealing to the world. Every level, save the last, is, after all, inadequate to salvation. So Christ challenges us to take the utmost care with the cultivation of the seed of His Word in our souls so that our lives might be parables of men who earnestly follow Him to His Kingdom.
With St. Paul then, let us conscientiously die to all that threatens the life of Christ the Word in our lives. Let us fight the good fight against evil in our lives, so that holding the Word with a noble and generous heart, and enduring courageously…we shall yield a harvest. (St. Luke viii. 15, Knox) And though we shall suffer, we shall also, like St. Paul, become a parable to the world that reveals how inward faith in Grace gives hope to the world for the harvest of souls that God’s implanted Word intends.
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
St. Matthew xx. 16
The Church in her ancient wisdom is nothing if she is not keenly aware of the dangers that human nature poses for the process of redemption and salvation. Think about it. If she were not aware of human nature’s fallen tendency to fall back and away from the vigilance that is required in this process, she would not constantly and habitually provide seasonal themes in her lectionary that remind man of the dangers that accompany his spiritual journey. We have just emerged from the season of light -that of Epiphany, in which many a man is usually bedazzled by the brilliant and beautiful vision of God’s love and good will in the life of Jesus Christ. And were the Church not conscious of man’s tendency to treat it more like a deer in headlights than a vision of the glory to come, she would approach the period between Epiphany and Lent innocuously and tenderly. But thank God that the Church in her prudence has established the season before Lent with more caution and concern. The Church knows that man is more likely than not to fall into resentment and so to become hardhearted. She knows that her sheep are easily distracted by theories of good works and comparative goodness, and so she has given to us the Gesima Sundays, between the season of Epiphany-vision and that of Lenten-mortification.
So today we begin the Gesima Season- comprised of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sunday, named from the Latin words meaning seventy, sixty and fifty days prior to Easter. In this season the Church reminds us of the temptations and dangers that most commonly interrupt the Christian’s preparation for the coming Lent. In Lent, the Christian is called to see and experience the suffering and death of Jesus Christ in a life-changing way. So first Mother Church calls us to cultivate and nurture those habits of mind which will ensure that we are sufficiently prepared to encounter our Saviour’s Passion for us.
Our lections for this Season progressively help us to prepare our bodies, souls, and spirits for a closer walk with [Christ] up to His Cross. Today we focus on our bodies and then on our relation to other people. Our work must begin in the external and visible world before we move to the inward and spiritual. We might find this odd, but we shouldn’t. Adam chose to make a false god out of the creation. What ended up moving and defining him now, more than the grip that God once had upon him inwardly and spiritually, was the outside world and other men. Adam was first tempted through his senses. So it is here that our gesima-work commences.
St. Paul tells us that our work will be like running a race. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, he compares us to athletes or runners who are in training and will compete to win the prize. Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. (I Cor. ix. 24) St. Paul appeals to an external and visible image of athletics to rouse our souls to spiritual exercise. If we are faithful to our calling, we should be striving to win a prize, the way runners do. For our mind’s eye to be focused on the spiritual journey that lies ahead with Jesus, we must temper and moderate our bodies’ physical passions. Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. (I Cor. ix. 25) We must remind ourselves that because we seek a spiritual and eternal prize- which is eternal salvation, our physical natures- appetites, impulses, feelings, emotions, and desires, must be tamed and then subordinated into the service of our soul’s good. What and how much we eat and drink should only be what is absolutely necessary for running the race that is set before us. Thus, the virtue of temperance will be needed for our spiritual race. St. Ambrose says that what we observe and seek most in temperance is tranquility of soul. (De Offic. i. 42) So if our passions and appetites are moderated, we shall not be consumed with the false gods of the external and visible world and our souls will be focused on the race. St. Paul says that people whose loyalties are divided and who worship others gods do it to obtain a corruptible crown (I Cor. ix. 25) –they seek earthly rewards of impermanent meaning and unlasting significance. But we Christians run to obtain an incorruptible crown –a gift and prize of eternal worth and lasting importance. So we are called not to run blindly, erratically, pointlessly and capriciously. Since we know our end, we should moderate and temper our physical lives in such a way that best suits us to pursue our spiritual goal or end.
St. Paul is running to obtain the incorruptible crown.The man who has tempered his appetites and is moderate in all things desires that the free gift of God’s Grace should change his life and move others to share in the same. The effort is directed at all who desire to receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. (1 Peter v. 4)
That the crown on glory that fadeth not away is a gift and cannot be merited by human effort is nicely summarized in today’s Gospel Parable. Here Jesus says:
…The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an household which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them
into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others
standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them; Go ye also into the
vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and
saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him,
Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard;
and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. (St. Matthew xx. 1-7)
Archbishop Trench reminds us that the Parable is offered in response to the question which St. Peter asked in the preceding chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Peter had said, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (St. Matthew xix. 27) Jesus had promised the Apostles…twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Ibid, 28) He said also that others who had forsaken all…would receive an hundred fold…and…everlasting life. (Ibid, 29) But He concluded his promises with the words of the Gospel parable. But, many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. (Ibid, 30) Here, Jesus warns us about that kind of spiritual attitude that might very well imperil our salvation.
The parable teaches that some, like the Apostles, who were already industrious workers, would be called first and promised one penny for their labors. Others would be called later, perhaps out of idleness, with no more specific promise of payment than whatsoever is right [or just]. (Ibid, 4,7) When the workday was over, the Lord of the vineyard would instruct his steward to pay the laborers. But notice this interesting detail. We read that steward was to pay the laborers beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. (Ibid, 8,9) Jesus tells us that the last are called first. And the order is not well-received. 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) It appears that the first have a real problem with the last. They are moved by envy and jealousy and so want to begrudge the last the reward promised only to the first.But the Lord rebukes them with these words: 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? (Ibid, 13-15) As Canon Crouse reminds us, It matters not when they come into the vineyard- at morning, midday or the eleventh hour; the point is that they are called into the labor and that they work for one reward- the one penny that God’s free Grace provides. (Parochial Sermons) The first are meant to set the example of temperance. Temperance in all things must not only tame our excessive appetites but also moderate our temptation to think that we ought to receive more than what God gives to all repentant sinners or to all who are equal in their sin.
Some commentators have said that the reward of one penny is meant to symbolize the eternal and incorruptible reward of salvation. Archbishop Trench thinks this is wrong, and I agree with him. If the one penny symbolizes salvation then it would appear that the first workers or the men who are full of resentment, bitterness, envy, jealousy, and a begrudging spirit are saved, since we read that they received every man a penny. But bitterness, envy, jealousy, and immoderate or intemperate ambition can never land a man in Christ’s Kingdom. The one penny symbolizes God’s Grace. If it is received humbly and gratefully as what we neither desire nor deserve, in body and soul because the heart is sound and the body tempered, then we shall be transformed by God’s Grace.The last shall be first…. We might even, in this Gesima Season, in body and through soul, hear Jesus’ invitation to go up to Jerusalem as the call that binds us closer to all men. We live in a sinful world. We Christians are sinners. We have contributed to the exceedingly sinful nature of our world. Perhaps God’s Grace is given to us first, so that being temperate in all things, by way of example we might behave like the last and the least. If we do so, our humility and meekness might be perceived in our demeanors and dispositions. They might even awaken the hearts of others to that householder who longs to give us all the one penny of salvation!
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons