We love Him because he first loved us. (1 John 4. 19) 19)
Trinity tide is all about the moral life rooted in the vision of God. Today, I will speak about the friendship of God and man. Throughout the seasons of the liturgical year, you and I have been illuminated progressively by the knowledge of God so that we might come to find friendship with Him. If Eastertide might be called the season of vision and knowledge, Trinity tide is one of moral activity. To know God through vision, as He reveals Himself in the historical life of Jesus Christ, is not enough. Vision is knowledge, but knowledge for the Christian is also the Truth that bears fruit in the good life.
The knowledge of God in Jesus Christ is what we have been working through from Lent to Ascension Tide. We have come to the knowledge of what God thinks, speaks, and does in the Sacred Humanity of Our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. What we see in Jesus Christ is the Wisdom, Power, and Love of God the Father perfectly at work in the human life of Jesus. St. Paul tells us, For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich. (2 Cor. viii. 9) St. Paul hopes that we might find the knowledge or vision of God in His Son that [our] hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ; in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians ii. 2-4) St. Paul teaches us that Jesus Christ sets aside the plentiful treasure of His Divine nature to become poor for our sakes. The Wisdom, Power, and Love of God comprise the only treasure that ought to interest every earthly man. Jesus possesses this treasure forever as the only begotten Son of the Father. He is the Logos or Articulation of what the Father intends for us. Adam was made to be moved and defined by this treasure of inestimable worth but rejected it. Jesus takes upon Him the seed of Abraham and becomes the New Adam who will be poor on earth so that He might make many rich in Heaven. How does Jesus become poor? Jesus takes on our frail, weak, suffering human nature. He takes on our sin and subjects Himself to it. He reveals how the Omnipotent Word of God made Flesh responds to sinful man’s attempt to kill it in Man. He reveals how, as God’s Word in the Flesh, in His Death he will conquer all earthly concupiscence and love of earthly riches.
In this morning’s Epistle, St. John reminds us that no man hath seen God at any time (1 John 4. 12). But he tells us also that God is love. (Ibid, 8) God is one who desires and longs for, seeks out and finds a common ground of friendship with us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4. 10) So, we love Him because he first loved us. (1 John 4. 19) God is Love, and that Love is revealed and seen in His Word made flesh. His Word is His Son. His Son not only creates, orders, defines, governs, beautifies, and harmonizes all of creation, but He also humbles Himself to become Man to redeem and reconcile all men to God the Father. To know this is to begin to see how the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ became poor for our sakes. St. John tells us that every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. (Idem, 7,8) In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. (1 John 4. 9) And here is the operative difference between those who live naturally in and through the world and us. God sent His only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. The knowledge that we have in God’s own Son is nothing short of seeing God and coming to believe and know how we must become poor in this world to be made rich spiritually in the next. Our knowledge of Jesus Christ should begin to form a new moral character in us, as He comes to us through the Holy Spirit.
And yet we cannot have any of this until what we know is actualized by following Jesus from poverty into the riches and treasures of His Kingdom. In other words, we must make an act of will that becomes poor in this world and surrenders completely to Jesus Christ by forfeiting and foregoing all rights to ourselves. God is Love, and He loves us in and through His Son. This Love who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (Philippians ii. 7,8) We can be like most men of the world, good enough, but loving and living only for the here and now. They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. (1 John 4. 5) We can be like Dives - the rich man in today’s Gospel, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day, (St. Luke xvi. 19) whose was rich in earthly things, lorded it over others, and cared little for that deeper Mercy and Love that stoop down and become poor, to be one with the poor, in order to lift them up and into the riches of God’s spiritual bounty. Or if we are rich like those who are full of tongue and weak of mind (R.Hooker, E.P., i. viii. 2), we might be like Dives in another way - perhaps we already count ourselves rich spiritually. We keep the Law, we tithe, we attend Church regularly, and we are sufficiently religious, outwardly visible for all to see. We feast sumptuously on Christ’s Body and Blood each week, we live fairly moral lives, and count ourselves blessed, hoping all the while that this might earn us our salvation!
Being like Dives or the rich man may mean that we are either material or spiritual hoarders. In this morning’s Gospel, Dives walked over Lazarus, who was laid at his gate, full of sores and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. (Ibid, 20, 21) Dives’ moral character was such that he was unloving and ungenerous with his earthly treasure. Because Dives did not meet his poor brother’s material needs, Lazarus was left hungry of earthly food and, thus, destitute of spiritual potential. Lazarus found love only from the dogs [who] came and licked his sores. (Ibid, 21) In either case Dives did not know God, love God, or love His neighbor. Friendship with God seemed too costly a price to pay for a man who was possessed with earthly treasure and religious self-satisfaction. So, in the end, his soul is parched and tormented forever because he rejected the knowledge of God and the love that it necessarily implies. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. (Ibid, 22,23) Dives might have known God, but his knowledge had not been converted into Love of God in his neighbor.
Unlike Lazarus, who had nothing here but longed for the more that only God can give, Dives is left with the broken cisterns that can hold no water, crying out of sterile narcissism that rejects God’s offer of loving friendship with man. Had he received the Love of God in Jesus Christ, he would have emptied himself of his riches to stoop down and give bread to poor Lazarus. St. John tells us this morning that If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? (1 John 4. 20) If we do not love those whom God gives us to see with our earthly eyes, how can we love God with supernatural eyes? With Dives, we shall find ourselves in Hell forever where there is a great gulf fixed…an eternal separation, a yawning chasm, too deep to be filled up and too wide to be bridged over. (Trench, Parables…)
Today we come to know about the friendship of God and Man in Jesus the Word of God, who lives out the Summary of the Law: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, strength, and mind. And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. In the Love of Jesus, we find the Father’s rich spiritual treasure come down from Heaven to all of us. But perhaps Archbishop Trench’s warning about the deeper meaning of the Parable ought to strike us today. He reminds us that we all can become like Dives in a spiritual sense. The sin of Dives in its root is unbelief: hard-hearted contempt of the poor, luxurious squandering on self, are only the forms which his sin assumes. The seat of the disease is within….(Idem) Again, with the good Archbishop, the parable is a warning to the Church, that it do not shut itself up in selfish pride; glorying in the multitude of its own privileges but at the same time with no feeling sense of the spiritual wants and miseries of those who know not God, with no earnest effort to remove these distresses; that on such forgetfulness a terrible judgment must follow. (Idem) The Church’s treasure is to be found in the friendship that might have been between Dives and Lazarus. The poor we have with us always. The Church must be awakened to her own spiritual poverty for as long as she neglects the spiritual treasure that still lurks in the heart of that one lost soul that the Church has not found. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. (1 St. John iv. 16) When the Church ministers the poor, the friendship between God and Man is imitated and perfected. Then she shall be rich indeed.
After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.
(Rev. iv. 1-3)
Tradition has it that St. John the Evangelist died a very old man in the city of Ephesus. The same Tradition, dating from the Second Century A.D., tells us that he was the only Apostle not to have suffered martyrdom. Having written his Gospel of love, his Epistles of sanctifying affection, the same man endured the vision that we read of in our properly appointed Epistle for this Trinity Sunday, on the island of Patmos, not long before his death. To the old man a door was opened in heaven. Indeed, a door was opened to one who was in the spirit. But the door had been opening to him from the day that he dropped his fisherman’s net, some eighty five years prior, when as a young man, one Jesus of Nazareth said come follow me (St. Matthew iv. 19) One gets the sense, if one follows John, that he was always in the spirit following and finding Jesus. His Gospel is not merely about Jesus’ love for him and all others, but about his own discovery and knowledge of that love as he grew from young manhood into maturity. His Epistles call others into that same love, into that unbreakable knot of friendship with God the Father that the then Ascended Jesus offered through His Spirit. His Revelation or Apocalypse crowns his life with a vision of the Trinity and the life yet to come. A door was opened in heaven, John says, and I was in the Spirit. Jesus says, come follow me, and John writes, that we too may follow and find our love and affection in friendship with God the Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord and by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost.
Following Jesus, being in the Spirit, finding that a door is opened comprise the reality that John offers to all who will accept it. St. John was a uniter or unifier; John was as one who desired not only God for himself, but God for others, that all might journey with him and find friendship with God. But, perhaps more than others, he knew only too well the spiritual cost of discipleship, the demands that accompany the journey into this new kind of friendship. You will remember, no doubt, that St. John calls himself the disciple whom the Lord loved or the beloved disciple. And indeed, St. John is nothing if he is not the Apostle of love. Of course, love is the basis of any friendship. But the kind of love that St. John came to know in Jesus was as something that stirred him on in the persistent, even insistent, pursuit of his Master through the Spirit. Come follow me takes on a nature for John that then grows and develops as Divine love draws him progressively towards that door that was opened in heaven.
John was stirred on to pursue friendship with God because of the love in Jesus that drew him to it. In Jesus, he discovered and came to know one who came to do not His own will but that of the Father who sent him. In other words, in Jesus, he found one who emptied himself that he might convey to others what he had heard from and seen of the Father. Jesus was human; John had no doubt of that. But John saw something else at work in him; he saw the Divine Life reaching out through the human life of Jesus to offer to men the hope of salvation. In other words, he saw and perceived the Divine Desire of the Father, flowing through the Son by the motions of the Spirit which he had hitherto not known. What he learned, progressively, perhaps slowly, was that its reception in his own heart would require a response costing nothing less than everything. He began to realize then that he would have to die to himself, that the Divine offer of salvation and redemption might be received, treasured, and grown in his heart.
What he realized he records in the Gospel lection which we have read today. At the time, he had not entirely grasped its meaning and urgency. But looking back he remembers the words of Jesus the knowledge of which would prove essential to salvation. John remembered a conversation that Jesus had had with Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Nicodemus had been impressed by the miracles that Jesus had wrought, and under the protective covering of the night, came to Him privately to explore the meaning of His life. Jesus responded to him with these words: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (St. John iii. 3) Nicodemus became confused and asked,
How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? (St. John iii. 4) Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (St. John iii. 5-8)
Jesus makes clear that the whole of a man must be born again by being born from above. He insists that the body and soul must be baptized into new life; the body being purified by water with John the Baptist’s Baptism of Repentance, and the soul being cleansed by the inbreathing of the Divine Spirit. New birth and new life would be Jesus’ condition for all men who would follow him in pursuit of friendship with God the Father in Heaven. This St. John began to learn when he first heard these words. This St. John came to understand more deeply after the events of his Master’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.
You will remember that St. John was the only disciple present at the crucifixion. No doubt, unbeknownst to him at the time, the power of the Divine Spirit’s love and desire called him to follow Jesus even to His Cross. He remained throughout the agonizing death of His master’s earthly life- his mind and heart, for certain, being carried by the love of Jesus into a death that would become his own. His pursuit of Jesus had been confirmed, we surmise, long before those horrific hours. Come follow me. John did. I was in the Spirit. John was. Following the death and burial, on the first day of the week, when news had reached him and Peter of the empty tomb, John outran his good friend. Love that pursues and follows in the Spirit always outruns that which is not yet freed of the flesh. Peter was like Nicodemus: If I have told you earthly things and believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things? (St. John iii. 12) John had been drawn by the heavenly nature of Jesus to death, into death, and now up and out of death into the Master’s new life.
Later in his Epistles, and prior to the Revelation which he endured, St. John added this to Jesus’ conditions for discipleship and salvation. Already he grasped the nature of the Trinity. There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. (1 St. John v. 7) Through Jesus Christ- by water, blood and the Spirit, God the Father had overcome the world. The Father spake his Word into the flesh and blood of Jesus, and by the Spirit had opened Heaven once again to the hopes of all men. On earth, St. John insisted, men could begin to participate in the life of the Holy Trinity. There are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. ( 1 St. John v. 8) To the water and the Spirit which Jesus said were necessary for the Baptism into new life, John adds blood. Indeed, the blood of the everlasting covenant made flesh, was poured out, effectively inviting fallen fleshly man into the new birth through death to sin, death, and Satan. John adds blood because without it there would be no death- Jesus’ death for us, and ours in Him. Without that death, there can be no new life, light, and love in the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven. (St. John iii. 3) Man is born again through the waters of Baptism as the Spirit washes away our sins and in the blood of the Holy Eucharist as the Spirit nourishes and strengthens us with all heavenly virtue.
Trinity Sunday is all about the new life that is opened to all men through the essential process of being born again- through water, blood and the Spirit. But being born-again is a hard and painful process. We might ask ourselves, how can I do it? The best way is through Word and Sacrament. Through both, we shall discover man’s alienation from God and Jesus’ response to it. In Scripture we shall find the Word of Life, Jesus Christ, who intends to return us to the Father through the Spirit. The Spirit establishes the Word of the Father in our hearts efficaciously when we receive the Sacraments faithfully. What we believe and know from Scripture is brought alive by the Spirit as the love of Christ for the Father is established in our hearts by Grace. One thing is clear, it cannot be found unless we accept Jesus’ gracious invitation: Come follow me. When we do, we shall discover that true new life is found with the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit. A door shall be opened. When we do, we shall discover that true new life comes from and returns to God the Holy Trinity, whose chief desire is to stir us up with St. John onto the journey of love and whose ultimate joy is the sweet embrace of unbreakable friendship with Himself in Heaven forever.
They marvelled to see such things; they were astonished,
and suddenly cast down. Fear came there upon them;
and sorrow, as upon a woman in her travail.
(Psalm xlviii. 4,5)
One day in the future men will look back at our age and describe it as the time when man had forgotten his past. In general, we shall be judged as those who had little or no respect for the wisdom of our fathers, and in particular, as those who spent their lives running away from the truth. Because of both, we shall be known as those who forfeited any meaningful future. William Wordsworth once said, Life is divided into three terms - that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future. But Wordsworth was a Christian, and authentic Christianity, we must admit, is the most feared and despised of all religions in this dark age of ours. Why? Well, because it demands that every man face his past, cull it into the present, name it, claim it, repent of it, and open himself up to that sanctification that promises better life in the future. Authentic Christianity is something that our world cannot bear; our world hates the past, and never more passionately than when it creeps into the present to judge and measure us, to reveal to the world why we are not as hale and hearty as we pretend to be.
Pentecost or Whitsunday is all about the past, present, and future. Pentecost helps us to see who we have been and what we have done; Pentecost teaches us who we are now; Pentecost calls us forward into a spiritually informed future. Today we read about the first Pentecost in the cenacle –or upper room, in the Acts of the Apostles. Monsignor Knox describes the setting in this way:
A room haunted with memories –through that door did Judas Iscariot slink out into the night…on that table the consecrated chalice reposed; through that window they listened to the shouts of ‘Crucify Him’; that floor had been trodden by impassible feet. It was in this room that the Holy Ghost visited His people on the day of Pentecost. (Pentecost: R. Knox)
It was in this room that both good and evil battled in response to Christ’s impending Passion. It was in this room that one man betrayed our Lord, another sought refuge having denied Him thrice, and the rest remained huddled together for fear of the Jews. It was in this room that the past events of the Last Supper and the Foot Washing were about to become the signs and badges of the Apostles’ common life and Christian future. It was in this room that past sin would be remembered so that future hopes could be realized in the new life that the Holy Spirit would bring. If man is to be redeemed and saved, the past must always mold and shape the future in the present. Each of the Apostles would bear about in his life the forgiveness of his past sins, the sanctification of his present predicament, and the redemption for his future glory.
So perhaps we should turn to our text in order to examine how this process all began at the first Pentecost.
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. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilæans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, where in we were born? (Acts ii. 1-8)
What jumps out at most Christians immediately is the rushing mighty wind, cloven tongues like fire, then speaking in [other] tongues. What arrests them wonderfully is the vigorously aggressive, paranormal, transcendent, and otherworldly dynamism of the Holy Ghost. So, they tend to conclude that the Apostles were swept up into a chaotic, disordered, even anarchic Dionysian irruption of emotion and passion that defied all reason. So, their response is akin to the eyewitnesses [who] were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this? Or with the others mocking, saying, these men are full of new wine. (Acts ii. 12, 13)
But a more cautious reading of the text reveals a providential ordering and sanctification of the past, in the present, and for the future. This is Christian History in the making. This was the day of Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, on which devout Jews from all over the world descended upon Jerusalem to commemorate God’s giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Holy Spirit only ever comes to sanctify those who gather to thank God for past mercies and future Grace. And so we read that [the Apostles] were all with one accord in one place. (Idem) They were of one mind, united in purposive prayer, in one place, watching and waiting, honoring one past, loving one another in the present, and praying about the future. For that blessed Dove comes not where there is noise and clamour, but moves upon the face of still waters, not the rugged ones. (M. Henry) This particular Pentecost fell on the first day of the week. The pouring out of His Spirit that gives birth to the Church occurs on Sunday, the Day of Resurrection. Even when the sudden sound from Heaven, as of rushing mighty wind (Idem) fills the Cenacle, the Spirit grips the Apostles with fear as they remember John Baptist: He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and fire. (St. Matt. iii. 11) And so tongues of cloven fire gently rest upon their heads making time-past, present. Matthew Henry tells us that the Spirit, like fire, melts the heart, burns up the dross, and kindles pious and devout affections in the soul. (Idem) And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts ii. 4) What could have broken down into confusion and chaos was, as it turned out, ordered, disciplined, and purposive. The Holy Spirit translated one message of the wonderful works of God (Acts ii. 14) in Jesus Christ to devout men out of every nation, and to every man in his own tongue. (Idem)
To the Apostles, the experience of Holy Week and Christ’s Eastertide teaching were just now beginning to be understood. God’s power, wisdom, and love were making sense of the past. For, as Monsignor Knox reminds us, In those six weeks before Pentecost the Apostles had already lived through, as it were, the whole cycle of Church history; there was nothing callow, nothing tentative, nothing inexperienced about their methods from the very first. And because she was born old, the Church remains ever young. (Ibid) What the Apostles experienced was nothing short of the old man being made new as the past was transformed and redeemed in the present for the good of the future. Thus, belief led to repentance, repentance opened to obedience, obedience elicited knowledge, and knowledge reached forth towards its future in God the Father, through Jesus, and in the Spirit.
But they could endure this only because they had patiently allowed the work of God the Holy Spirit to teach them the truth and to change their lives. They remembered the words that Jesus had spoken to them in the Upper Room: 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 for ever; even the Spirit of truth (St. John xiv. 15, 16) Because they loved Jesus, they began to keep His Law. With His departure, He filled them with the deepest desire for the Redemption He had won through the promised illumination of His Holy Spirit. They began to realize that the greatest blessing spiritually is to know that we are destitute; and [that] until we get there, Our Lord is powerless…As long as we are rich, possessed of anything in the way of pride and independence, God cannot do anything for us. It is only when we get hungry spiritually that we receive the Holy Spirit. (The Bounty of the Destitute: O. Chambers) St. Thomas Aquinas, tells us that the Holy Spirit, whom the spiritually destitute desire, conveys to man four operations: Subtleness of substance, perfection of life, impulse of motion, and hidden origin. (Sermon: Emitte Spiritum) So the subtle, perfect, active, invisible, and intangible Spirit passes through physical nature to penetrate their souls. Then, He perfects their lives by infusing all virtue. Next, He moves them to embrace the holiness that He brings from the Father in the Name and Nature of Jesus. Finally, He reveals His hidden origin in the Father’s being and the Son’s wisdom. So the hidden and invisible Divine cause, through the motions of eternal love, perfects the Apostles by refining and rendering them subtle and contemptuous of all temporal and earthly things. (Idem)
Jesus says that the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. (St. John xiv.) The Holy Ghost will illuminate the past so that in the present we might repent, believe, and understand. The Holy Ghost will bring the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ to life in our hearts as He speaks death to our sins. As members of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, the Holy Ghost longs to mold and shape us into the instruments of His unselfconscious holiness. The Church is neither new nor old, but eternal….For her Pentecost is continually repeating herself, making all things new, (Pentecost: R. Knox) for those who know that they can be perfected and made new only by God’s Holy Spirit, and so long as they have not forgotten how to be sorry. (Repentance: O. Chambers)
On this day, let us remember, with the Apostles, that if a man speaks in a tongue that is unknown to him, it is sure indication that someone else is speaking through his mouth. (Claudel, ‘I Believe’) If the Holy Ghost begins to speak through us, Christ Jesus Himself will be heard, and Christianity’s past will no longer be dead but alive in a present that is redeeming the time for a future when the wonderful works of God shall be crowned with glory. Amen.
Christ's Ascension is therefore also our own, upon the glory of the Head rests the hope of the body. On this holy day, we have received not only the assurance of entering into possession of eternal glory, but we have already entered into the heights of heaven with Christ Jesus.
(Leo, Sermon 1 De Ascensione Domini c. iv)
This is the first Sunday after the Ascension. We find ourselves situated between our Lord's Ascension back to the Father and the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost or Whitsunday, which we celebrate next Sunday. Today we must meditate upon the Ascension and find in it the devotion that prepares us for the promise of a new coming made to the Apostles in today's Gospel. Ascension is that day on which the church celebrates the return of the Son of God to Our Heavenly Father. On Ascension Day our Lord's earthly sojourn comes to a close. His temporal life and mission began when He was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. He lived, He taught, He healed, He was rejected, He suffered, He died, and He rose again from death. Nonetheless from the time of His Resurrection to His Ascension, His human nature is transfigured. He is in possession of a spiritual body, transparent, obedient to the Spirit, unconstrained and lightsome, an apt and natural instrument for the salvation He now intends to foment in all others. (The Meaning of Man: Mouroux, p. 89)
Romano Guardini tells us that in Christ’s death on the cross, Jesus’ temporal life comes to an end, but not His life itself. He had been incorporated into terrestrial existence, submitting to its conditions, bound by its limitations. When He is in one place, he is not simultaneously elsewhere; what he does at one moment is not done also at another. Event follows event. (The Lord: R.G. p. 427) Easter’s Resurrection changes all of that. The concrete human is now joined to an indestructible essence. (Idem) Jesus is with His friends again but is not subject to terrestrial power, the laws of government, or the laws of nature. He is here and there; He appears and disappears. He is unrecognizable and then recognized in an as earthly [and seemingly insignificant] gesture as the breaking bread. We feel in the lines how He pauses on the sill between eternity and time. (Idem) Christ is transfigured, and now temptation, evil, and corruption cannot touch Him. He is Risen Man. He moves at once in and out of events that are concurrent but isolated, united to all simultaneously in the event that He is.
Christ has been the victim of the best that sin can do, and now He has broken its chains, condemned its curse, and reversed the course of its rule in human life. Therefore, in His Ascension which we contemplate today, human mortality is redeemed. Christ has won the victory over sin, death, and Satan. Man’s end is found in His beginning, in the Father who is the source and origin of all truth, happiness, and joy. St. Peter says today that The end of all [other] things is at hand. (1 St. Peter iv. 7) In Jesus Christ, the power of human sin –the devil's deceit, is overcome, subdued, and brought to an end. The desire to tamper with God's eternal law for all creation is revealed to be futile, impotent, pointless, and ephemeral. In Jesus Christ, God has brought all sin to death. Satan flees and men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven [are] shaken. (St. Luke xxi. 26) Now the relationship between the Apostles and their Lord must change. Now there is no excuse for disobedience to God. Now there is no justification for sin. God Himself has confronted and crucified sin in the human flesh of His own dear Son. Through that resolute and passionate determination to come closer than any man ever had or could to the corruption of sin, He has felt its power acutely, and because He is God in Man, has overcome it perfectly. In Jesus Christ alone, the eternal life, light, and love of God have endured sin and revealed it to be utterly absurd and unsatisfying. In Jesus Christ alone sin is brought into death, death is brought into death, and Satan becomes progressively ineffectual and insignificant in the lives of men who believe.
In His Resurrection, Christ’s soul took back His body, penetrated it through and through, and made it spiritual. Instead of the body of lowliness, Christ now has the body of glory. The body sacrificed is now the body glorified. (The Meaning of Man: Mouroux, p. 89) Now as Christ the God-Man ascends to sit down on His throne in the Heaven of His Father, He will begin to become the Word made flesh in all times and all places, in one heart here and in another heart there, simultaneously. He sits in Heaven and yet will come alive in the souls of those who fear and love Him. He is in eternity yet in time, though differently from before, in an intimacy of becoming. (Guardini, Idem) Christ desires to become the effectual and operative principle –the way, the truth, and the life, that carries all men to their Divinely intended destiny.
And yet whether He is accepted as such or not, the Ascension establishes His role as Judge. His innocent human life alone has earned Him the right to weigh and measure all other men’s lives in relation to the Word made flesh that He is. Jesus says Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words, thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned. (St. Matthew xii. 36, 37) Christ is God’s Word made flesh and for all flesh. From the seat of His ascended glory, His Holy Spirit will reprove the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. (St. John xvi. 8,9,10)
Again, with St. Peter:
The end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. Use hospitality one to another without grudging. As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God…that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion forever and ever.
If we hope to be sanctified by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we must believe that our lives are now hidden with Christ in God. (Col. iii. 3) We must be vigilant and sober for [our]adversary the devil walketh about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. (1 St. Peter v. 8) The Ascended Christ sings to us: Lift up your hearts! Our chorus replies: We lift them up unto the Lord! He yearns to embrace us in the arms of His ascended love so that the allure of His benevolence might grow into forgiveness that is neither resentfully nor reluctantly offered to others. He longs that His ascended truth might be articulated through us as the oracles that tell of His future coming and judgment. For if His Holy Spirit is to descend into our hearts and souls, we must be lifted up above all things earthly and mundane, seeking those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. (Col. iii. 3)
Ascension tide is all about worshipping and adoring the Saviour who invites us into intimate communion with Our Heavenly Father. Christ has completed His Father's mission. And now a new relationship emerges between His friends –the Apostles, their successors, you and me, and God our Heavenly Father. As Father George Body, sometime Canon Missioner of Durham, has said:
‘They worshipped Him,’ -His very withdrawal from among them, His very elevation to the throne of God, was the development of new relations between the disciples and their Lord. As long as He was on the earth the worship was not the principal feature of their life; but as soon as He was withdrawn from them and seated at God's Right Hand in the heavenly places, the adoration of the Lamb -the worship of Jesus Incarnate, Crucified, Risen, Ascended, Enthroned, -the distinctive worship of the Christian Church, -began to be…where the Ascended Jesus is ever adored.
Ascension tide is the time of Adoration. In this time we worship and adore God’s own Son who has reconciled in Himself man to God and God to man. Today, Christ tells 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: and ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning. (St. John xv. 26, 27) So we must prepare our hearts for bearing witness to the glorious truth of Christ’s Ascension. From His seat on High, He shall move us here below, that others may come to see and understand His triumphant victory over all that hinders us from communion with the Father and in His Person our own redeemed humanity. O God, my heart is ready, my heart is ready; I will sing, and give praise with the best member that I have…I will give thanks unto Thee, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises among the nations. For thy mercy is greater than the heavens; and thy truth reacheth unto the clouds. (Ps. xviii. 1-4) Man and God have united once again. Heaven itself is stirred by the irruption of the Ascended God-Man. Angelic worship and adoration are radically refined. The Ascended Christ takes His seat with the Father and a new light illuminates the intellects of angels and men, a new adoration fills their spirits, a new song bursts forth from their lips, a new worship is begun, the worship of Jesus Christ. (Body, Idem) God is gone up with a merry noise: and the Lord with the sound of the trump.O sing praises, sing praises unto our God: O sing praises, sing praises unto our King. (Ps. xlvii. 5,6)
Today we find ourselves in that space between Ascension’s glory and Pentecost’s calling. Let us end with the poet’s desire for both:
But since he
That brightness soil'd,
His garments be
All dark and spoil'd,
And here are left as nothing worth,
Till the Refiners fire breaks forth.
Then comes He!
Whose mighty light
Made his clothes be
Like Heav'n, all bright;
The Fuller, whose pure blood did flow
To make stain'd man more white then snow.
And none else can
Bring bone to bone
And rebuild man,
And by His all subduing might
Make clay ascend more quick then light.
(Ascension Hymn: Henry Vaughn)
And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.
(St. John 15. 27)
Ascension Day is sadly a spiritual feast that elicits little attention in the post-modern world. Like His Conception –celebrated on the Feast of the Annunciation, Christ’s Ascension is a celebration that too many people avoid to their great peril. It would seem that our Lord’s beginning and ending are not heeded with sufficient spiritual interest. The Conception marks the union of God with Man; God’s Word and Son came down from heaven, He humbled Himself, and was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary, as God became Man. The Ascension marks the return of Man to God, the exaltation of the Crucified and Resurrected One, or the reconciliation Redeemed Man with God the Father, as Man returns to God. God in Jesus Christ, in the Person of the Son, has come to us to recapitulate or reunite Man with God; and now He carries that new life back to the Father. The beginning and ending of God’s mission of mercy and love manifest the invisible source of God’s desire for us. They reveal completely the encircling motion of Christ’s descent and return to the Father. God comes down to be made Man in the Person of His Son, is enfleshed, reaches out, is rejected, suffers, dies, rises, and now ascends back to the Father. And so what we celebrate is one movement of Divine Love in and through the Word that is always descending or coming down to us in order to ascend and return us into union with God our Heavenly Father in Heaven.
Christ’s beginning coming to us in Conception is the beginning of God’s redemption of human nature. In it, He takes our Manhood into God, a Manhood that had hitherto rejected and removed itself from God the Father’s will. Man had willfully rejected God’s will and way for human life, and so, in Adam, had secured for himself a false freedom with a constant battle between good and evil. Man’s forfeiture of the good life earned him a life of suffering, sin, and death. Now in Christ, God had entered the man-made land of alienation from God. God had blasted through the wall of separation and division to open the door to His presence once again. God had come down from heaven and joined Himself to the sorry predicament of lost human nature. Silently and invisibly the reconciliation of Manhood to God began in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Between Conception and Ascension much had happened. Our liturgical memory in the life of the Church is an ongoing meditation upon it. There is the Christ-event, the activity and motion of God in Man, going about and generating all manner of goodness. There is man’s rejection, abandonment, and betrayal of Him. Through it all, Christ, the God-Man lovingly offers Himself as a pure and perfect sacrifice to the Father. He recapitulates human nature. But there is more. For even in the unjust death of God’s own Son, gladly assumed and suffered by Christ, there is the never-ending love, yearning, and desire for all men’s salvation. The same love conquers sin, death, and Satan from the Cross. In Eastertide, the Crucified One rises and faith is made new, knowledge is established, hope is enlarged, and love is made strong. Inwardly and spiritually the followers of the Risen Lord come to believe, grasp, and penetrate the mystery of God’s salvation love in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the God-Man forever moving towards men and catching them up in the net of His Salvation. He is alive. He is lifting the hearts and souls of believers into the eternal and unchanging moving spiritual center of God’s desire for Man.
So with the Ascension, we are being moved back into the sound of silence and the movement of stillness. The visible Christ returns to the Father. The invisible Christ takes His friends into a place and space of new conception and new birth. The 6th-century Kontakia of St. Romanus puts it this way:
He Who descended to earth, as He alone knew how, Rising up from it, again as He alone knew how, took the ones whom He loved, and gathering them together, He led them to a high mountain in order that, when they had their minds and sensibilities on the height, might forget all lowly things. And so, when they were led up to the Mount of Olives, They formed a circle around the Benefactor, As Luke, one of the initiates, narrates in full. (Lk. 24:50-53) The Lord, raising His hands like wings-- Just as the eagle covers the nest of young birds which she warms-- Spoke to the nestlings: "I have sheltered you from all evil Since I loved you and you loved Me. I am not separated from you; I am with you, and no one is against you.
My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. (St. Luke i. 46) The Blessed Virgin Mary was lifted up at the Annunciation and Christ’s conception in her womb and we are being lifted up now. Jesus takes his friends to a high place. God became Man and humbled Himself in order to assume our nature and return it to God. Now He leads His friends to a higher place. Lift up your heads O ye gates, and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. (Psalm 24. 7) Lift up your souls, Jesus says to His Apostles, and my eagle’s wings will lift you up into this high place, far above the mundane and earthly space of your alienation from God. Christ vanishes from men’s sight that He might be embraced in all human hearts by faith. I will vanish from your physical sight. But follow me, remain close by my side in spirit and in truth, and in your hearts and minds you too shall ascend. Come, we are moving into the Father’s bosom. He shall come unto you, even into you, into your souls, and will be with you. Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them…Behold I make all things new. (Rev. 21) This is our reconciliation with the God who dwells on high. It begins now. Be not afraid, follow me, for I am with you. Come up with me and I shall fill you with a love that destroys despair and raises you far above your sin and death. My prophet Moses went up into a high mountain to receive the Law that I am. A greater than Moses is here. Elijah was lifted up on high and taken on a chariot of fire into heaven. A greater than Elijah is here. Austin Farrer says this:
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 calls His Apostles and us to lift up our hearts and to journey to heaven with and in Him. The fire of His love has always burned upward toward His Father. It leaps up to our Beginning and our End. It rises to find consummation in the Father’s heavenly embrace. It extends from His new humanity, our humanity, to find its true home and spiritual rest in Heaven. It comes from the Father and returns to the Father. Christ teaches us that we are made to be caught up into the unbreakable knot of this Heavenly fire of Love, by Faith and with Hope. Creation and Redemption are the evening and morning of one day. Christ desires to spread His love abroad in our hearts. He intends for us to be as on fire as the Apostles were long ago. He has forgiven us, broken down the wall of partition separating us from God. Now He will lift us into the blaze of unending longing and passion for God and salvation.
If this fire is kindled in us, we shall begin to ascend. What is this fire, but the ascent of the soul’s passion and love for God in Christ that conquered all our sins? What is this fire, but the Love of Christ who intends not for us to have Him externally, visibly, and temporarily but inwardly, spiritually, and eternally. He is God’s Word of Love made flesh that desires to be made flesh in us. Not the Earth but Heaven has always held me. Let it take hold of you also. Christ leads captivity captive- captive to the inner dynamism of His own Holy Spirit. Our bondage to sense is transformed into service to God (Village Sermons), as Bishop Westcott reminds us. We are being transformed into service as servants. We are being lifted up; we rise through the fire of Christ’s love for the Father. With Him in heart and mind, we thither ascend that with Him we might continually dwell. (Collect)
Let us desire to do God’s will that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion forever and ever. (1 Peter iv. 11) Christ’s Ascension means that here and now we can rise with Christ to rejoice in His Redemption of our souls and our Reconciliation with God the Father. So, with Cardinal Newman, let us
Set aside every day times for seeking Him. Humble yourself that you have been hitherto so languid and uncertain. Live more strictly to Him; take His yoke upon your shoulder; live by rule. I am not calling on you to go out of the world, or to abandon your duties in the world, but to redeem the time; not to give hours to mere amusement or society, while you give minutes to Christ; not to pray to Him only when you are tired, and fit for nothing but sleep; not altogether to omit to praise Him, or to intercede for the world and the Church; but in good measure to realize honestly the words of the text, to "set your affection on things above;" and to prove that you are His, in that your heart is risen with Him, and your life hid in Him. (Newman: Sermon 15)
Leave me, O love which reachest but to dust;
And thou, my mind, aspire to higher things;
Grow rich in that which never takest rust,
Whatever fades but fading pleasure brings . . .
Draw in thy beams, and humble all thy might
To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be;
Which breaks the clouds and opens forth in light,
That doth both shine and give us light to see.
O take fast hold; let that light be thy guide
In this small course which birth draws out to death,
And think how evil becometh him to slide,
Who seeketh heav’n, and comes of heav’nly breath,
Then farewell, world; the uttermost I see;
Eternal Love, maintain thy life in me. Sir Philip Sidney
Where is Jesus Christ? Is God anywhere to be found? Frustrated and exasperated post-modern Christians complain that He is absent, at least when things don’t seem to be going their way materialistically, physically, or tangibly. Other self-contented, complacent, unmoved non-believers, do not make matters any easier, for they challenge the weak and carnal Christians with where is now thy God? Show Him to us! We cannot see Him. Prove to us that He exists. For if your God does exist, He seems comfortably ensconced and nestled away in heaven's unreachable perfection –far enough away, at any rate, from being of much use to any of us.
And the weak Christian realizes that his pagan friend might have it right and so grows resentful and bitter. On one side, frustration and despair sets in, while on the other the worship of mammon proceeds apace as the human community progressively indulges the wilder elements of the animal kingdom. Both groups, it would seem, have their senses fixed upon the things of this world, with the love which reacheth but to dust, as Sir Philip Sydney names it. And so the poet’s song, which once inspired and inflamed men of old to soar to higher things, growing rich in things which never takest rust, seems to fall upon deaf ears.
In this way, contemporary Christian ears are sealed shut to the sweet truth contained in the poet’s encomium to the love of God. And because they are possessed and moved by what fades and fading pleasure brings, they have no ground upon which to criticize the unbelieving world around them. In most cases what bothers and exorcises them begins and ends with happiness and comfort, health and prosperity, justice and injustice in this world. That it should ever occur to them that this world, as a prelude and preparation for the next, seems wholly lost and gone. And that the justice and happiness of this world are always going to be an imperfect shadow of a far greater land of greater glory seems equally hidden from their spiritual sight. This is because such Christians, by and large, are the worshipers of mammon. Milton puts it nicely, a little later in time:
Mammon led them on--
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From Heaven: for even in Heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heaven's pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed
In vision beatific. (Paradise Lost: i. 678)
And, we mustn’t imagine that Sir Philip Sidney lived in an age which was necessarily more idolatrous than our own. He lived in the 16th century, the age of Reformation, Renaissance, and Discovery. He died at the young age of 32. But he was conscious that the encroaching and advancing, penetrating and piercing, attractive and enticing light of the perverse and profane that always leads the Christian soul to dwell on trodden gold. Having been scorched by this impermanent luminance himself, he hearkens to the appeal of the Muses. It is always the case that those who have indulged the world, the flesh, and devil more than others, have a more acute sense of the disappointment and despair that these gods bring.
So, Sir Philip Sidney confesses that he has spent too much time pursuing false loves and fleeting fancies. And herein we may find the sole cause for our failure to experience and appreciate God’s presence and nearness in the course of our lives. The poet sings out, Draw in thy beams, and humble all thy might /To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be;/Which breaks the clouds and opens forth in light,/That doth both shine and give us light to see. Call back and reject your desire for earthly things, the poet insists. See that you have misplaced and misspent your time, energy, and attention on the things that fade and fail. Reclaim your love and let the light of Eternal Love reveal the path that leads to brighter things that never die.
I rose up at the dawn of day,--
"Get thee away! get thee away!
Pray'st thou for riches? Away, away!
This is the throne of Mammon grey.
(William Blake: Mammon)
The Muses insist that drawing in the beams of light and sight are essential, lest we forget what manner of man (St. James i. 24) we are. With the poet we remember how evil [it] becometh him to slide, Who seeketh heav’n, and comes of heav’nly breath. (Idem) We come from God, were made by His Word, and are quickened by the Heavenly Breath of His Spirit. And if we come to see and know that we were made by God’s Word, we are indeed called to be hearers of the Word. (St. James i. 22)
But St. James tells us this morning that we are to Be…doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving [our] own selves. (Idem) First we must draw in [our] beams, and humble all our might. Then we must see the Word that doth both shine and give us light to see. and…take fast hold, [and] let that light be our guide. The light may seem silent, but the poet hears, obeys, and submits to its summons. This is the light that illuminates his soul and speaks to his heart. This is the light that enables him to behold himself, [to go] his way, and straightway [to remember] what manner of man he [is]. (St. James i. 24) This is the man who looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, [who] being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work… shall be blessed in his deed. (Ibid, 25)
Christians must bid farewell to the world to be blessed because we are not forgetful hearers but doers of God’s good work, walking in His Light. We must let the light of God’s all-seeing eye and not the eye of the world be the star to steer our course. We must be determined not to ‘seem’ religious and good but ‘to be’ religious and good in deed and in truth. (B. Jenks, p. 159) St. James says, If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. (St. James i. 26) Again, hearing God’s Word and walking in His Light calls us into silence. We must hear and then do. Speech gets in the way of hearing God’s Word and discerning His will! St. James calls us to keep silent and remain focused on God’s Light Jesus Christ.
Today we prepare for Christ the Light’s Ascension to the Father. What He has seen and heard from the Father, He has revealed to us. To travel with Him to the Kingdom, in heart and mind we must forsake earthly gods whose cisterns can hold no water. We must hear His Word and follow His Goodness that will reveal the Light of His Love to us. Christ the Word is risen from the dead and is become the first fruits of them that slept. (1 Cor. xv. 20) Now He will Ascend. Will we hear the sweet song of the Word who invites us to follow Him? Cardinal Von Balthasar tells us that Christ’s Ascension is the return to the starting point of His mission. He is the Light and Love that comes from God and returns to God. But He is also the Light and Love who gave us heavenly breath, that we too might seek Heaven in following Him. He tells us this morning in the Gospel that whatsoever [we] shall ask the Father in [His] name, He will give it [to us]… ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full. (St. John xvi. 24) Today is Rogation Sunday and rogation comes from the Latin rogare, to ask. In our Collect, we pray that by [God’s] holy inspiration we may think those things that be good, and by [His] mercifully guiding may perform the same. God, in Jesus Christ, by the comfort of the Holy Ghost, accepts our humble hearing of His Word, knows that we yearn to be doers who perform the same, and now gives us lease to speak, to ask for, and to receive those things that be good. Now Christ invites us to ask to receive His Goodness in the Light of His Love that has gained the victory over all our sins. Christ says, be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world. (Ibid, 33)
So today with Sir Philip Sidney, let us hear the sweet and loving song of God’s Word made flesh. Remember that The Word that was here [long ago], [still longs] to be heard, cherished, treasured up in the heart of man, as what makes him new and carries him to the kingdom of God. Let us dare to become not hearers only but doers of the Word. In the Light of Christ’s Love let us hear God’s Song of Salvation that has overcome the world and calls us up into His Heavenly Choir. Today, dear friends, may the truth, beauty, and goodness of this Song be heard in our hearts, as we respond with great joy and sing…farewell, world; the uttermost I see;/ Eternal Love, maintain thy life in me.
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way,
that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way,
which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
St. Matthew vii. 13, 14
Our opening quotation, taken from St. Matthew’s Gospel, gives us a useful segue into our study of the meaning of Resurrection in this Eastertide. In it, Jesus Christ, true to himself and candid as always, basically tells us that most people go to Hell and few go to Heaven. Pardon me for cutting to the quick, but these are Jesus’ words, and this is Jesus’ analysis of the human condition. I am quite sure that He always wants it to be otherwise, but His words remain. Far from being a condemnation or sentencing of His own people to Hell, these words ought to be taken seriously by men in all ages, and especially by Christians who think that they are “saved” before the gift is bestowed, bank on Cheap Grace, or think that their religion and all their good works are going to save them. None of this is good theology and it certainly isn’t Biblical. Most men go to Hell because they choose the broad way over and against the strait gate and the narrow way that alone lead to salvation.
Of course, none of this is pleasant news. Christians protest, didn’t the Angel Gabriel proclaim to the shepherds, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord? (St. Luke ii. 10, 11) And didn’t Jesus Himself speak often of His mission to bring the Gospel, which means Good News, to all nations? He began His ministry by sending John Baptist’s disciples back to him saying, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them. (St. Matthew xi. 4,5) And St. Paul, repeatedly insisted that he was a bearer of the Gospel or Good News to all people. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. (Romans i. 16) How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! (Romans x. 15) The Gospel of Jesus Christ is always the Good News of the salvation that Jesus Christ brings to all men in all ages.
So, Christians have every reason to rejoice in the knowledge and love of God found only in Jesus Christ and to believe that the Good News or Gospel alone leads us to salvation. But there is more. Jesus also says, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (St. John xiv. 6) Salvation means the return of man to God, through the Redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, and by participating in the Atonement He has made for us. Jesus died and rose for us and yet it is up to us to respond. Jesus has won our salvation and we cannot have it except by and through Him. This means that Christ expects us to have a relationship with Him. Unless we find the strait gate and enter by the narrow way by that He establishes for us, we cannot reach Heaven. And this means that the life that He lived, the unearned, unmerited, and undeserved suffering He endured, and the Resurrection He commenced must all become our own or something that we participate in willingly, sacrificially, and joyfully. This is the message of Eastertide.
To find the strait gate and to enter the narrow way is no easy business. The old adages no pain, no gain, no suffering, no salvation, and no Cross, no Crown are all consecrated by the earthly life our Lord lived and intends to share with us. Christ will sanctify us by the Father’s Grace in a patient progress that leads us out of sin and death and into righteousness and new life. The pattern He consecrates and blesses will involve suffering and death before we find new life. Christ never promised us immediate and paranormal perfection and salvation now. This is a gift to be bestowed upon us as we find the strait gate and enter the narrow way that leadeth unto life. (Idem)
Therefore, what we have before us is the promise of a gift and reward to them that embrace Jesus Christ. Embracing Jesus Christ will be the hard part. In Eastertide we learn that no sooner has Christ risen from the dead than He tells His Apostles, Now I go my way to Him that sent me; and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou? (St. John xvi. 5) Like men in all ages, we want God with us and for us, tangibly present in the flesh. We want the immediate gratification of Christ’s nearness. We believe, immaturely, that His absence from us in the flesh will breed catastrophic sadness and sorrow. Yet we, with the Apostles, must learn that Christ cannot save us unless we are willing to share in His sufferings to gain His victory. His tangible Incarnation is only the beginning. We must find the strait gate and narrow way that leadeth unto life inwardly and spiritually through His indwelling Holy Spirit. Christ intends to come alive in our souls by working His redemption into us. Christ desires to dwell in us. If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. (St. John xiv. 23)
With the Father, Christ intends to come to us and pitch their tent on the soil of our souls. The Resurrected and Ascended Lord wants to live on in us from Heaven to Earth as His all-saving life takes root in our hearts. It will be as full of Satan’s tempting and troublemaking as it was for Him. His Redemption accomplished once for all must be tried and tested from the ground of our souls through persistent faith.
If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you….The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. But all these things will they do unto you for my name’s sake, because they know not him that sent me. (St. John xv. 18-21)
The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is no miracle recipe for instant gratification and premature salvation. Salvation is a process whereby Christ will be born in us and grow up in us through the Holy Spirit. The whole point of Christ’s Victory over sin, death, and Satan in Crucifixion and Resurrection was to order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men. (Collect Easter IV) The comfort and strength of the same Holy Spirit will enable us to love the thing that the Father commandeth and love the thing He doth promise (Collect…) in His Son. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for 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)
Christ will come to us from the Father inwardly and spiritually. St. James exhorts us to Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. (St. James iv. 7,8) Jesus tells us that when He sends the Comforter unto us, He will reprove the world of sin. (St. John xvi. 8) We must be convicted of our sins, which were the cause of Christ’s passion. We must repent and embrace the Father’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. St. Thomas Aquinas says that he will convince, rebuke, the world, as the one who will invisibly enter into their hearts and pour his charity into them so that their fear is conquered and they have the strength to rebuke. (Aquinas: John’s Gospel) We must not only repent but rebuke all sin in the Name of Jesus. Next, the Comforter will reprove…the world of righteousness. (Ibid, 10) Aquinas reminds us that St. Paul, the greatest of convicted Christians, proclaimed that we are sold under sin… There is none righteous, no, not one. (Romans iii. 10, Ibid) and that the world must be convicted always of the righteousness that [we] have ignored or neglected. (Idem) Through the Spirit, the Father will show us how we have rejected the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Finally, the Comforter will rebuke…the world of judgment because the prince of this world is judged. (Idem) Aquinas reminds us that we shouldn’t blame our sins on the devil. Thus, the world is reproved by this judgment because being unwilling to resist, it is overcome by the devil, who although expelled is brought back by their consent to sin: "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies" (Rom 6:12, Idem) In Christ’s death, the Devil was robbed of any power he had over us. In the end, through the Spirit, we shall rebuke Satan if only we believe.
Christians should never seek an easier, softer way. The journey into Christ’s Resurrection is difficult but filled with all faith, hope, and love. St. James exhorts us:
My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience… Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.
(St. James i. 2-4)
This is all Christ’s precious gift to us. St. James continues:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the Word of
Truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (St. James i. 17, 18)
The gift of the Father is Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Word. Jesus longs for the power of His Crucifixion to lift our redeemed hearts into His glorious Resurrection. Jesus, the Word of Truth, will prune away the deadwood of our old hardened sinful selves to implant the new life that He has in store for us as the beauty of the Holy Spirit convicts us towards this end, leading us through the straight gate and narrow way that alone ensure our salvation.
But praised be the LORD, who hath not given us over
for a prey unto their teeth. Our soul is escaped even as a bird out of the
snare of the fowler; the snare is broken, and we are delivered.
(Ps. cxxiv. 5,6)
Easter Tide is all about avoiding those things that are contrary to our profession and follow such things as are agreeable to the same. (Collect Easter III) We do this, of course, because if we have been admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion, this alone as a habit of life will ensure that our pilgrimage is sanctified and that we shall be saved. In Easter Tide, we undertake the hard labor of dying to our old selves and coming alive to the new life that we find in our Resurrected Christ. We die to ourselves as we petition God to show [us] that are in error the light of [His] truth. (Idem) Satan’s power must be banished. And all of this must come to us by the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Christ desires for us to partake of His Resurrection and participate in the New Life that He has won for us. But the power of hope and belief in His Resurrection involve a transition from one state to another –from sin to righteousness, from death to life, in rejecting Satan and embracing our Heavenly Father’s will.
Thus, the Resurrected Christ invites us into a relationship that will ensure our deliverance to His Kingdom. With St. Peter, in this morning’s Epistle we must come to discover ourselves as strangers and pilgrims (I St. Peter ii. 11) in a fallen creation. And this means that we must no longer be at home with this world and its impotent gods. St. Peter insists that the starting point is to
abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul; having [our] conversation honest among the Gentiles: that whereas they speak evil against [us] as evil doers, they may by [our] good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation. (Idem)
We must say No! to any inordinate desire or longing that is not of God. Isaiah the Prophet reminds us that for the iniquity of [our] covetousness was God wroth, and smote [us in times past]: [God] hid [Himself], and was wroth….(Is. xviii. 17) Our old selves had forgotten the secret things that belong to the Lord our God (Deut. xxix. 29). Because we did not remember that our true relationship is always with God, who seemed hidden but was present to the spirit, we were strangers and pilgrims to His Omnipotent Wisdom, Power, and Love.
St. Peter reminds us that we must be cuttingly candid about the spiritual warfare that threatens to envelop us if we forget God. David the Psalmist reminds us If the Lord Himself had not been on our side…when men rose up against us. They had swallowed us up alive, when they were so wrathfully displeased at us. Yea the waters had drowned us, and the stream had gone over our souls. The deep waters of the proud had gone even over our souls. (Ps. 1-4) David claims that the troubled sea…[whose] waters cast up dirt and mire, [in which is]…no peace, always threatens to devour and drown the souls of those who forget God’s Invisible Power. The man who struggles to be faithful to God is even hindered, harassed, and hijacked by those who have no fear of God before their eyes. (Rom. iii. 18) He is assaulted by a blasphemous and brutish generation, that set their mouths against heaven, out of [whose mouths] belch forth impieties and impurities, to dishonour Him who made them, to grieve the souls of his servants, and to spread the contagion of their ungodliness. (B.Jenks: P.P., p.240) But because David knows that his enemy is too strong for him, he resorts to God’s strength in all humility. Praised be the LORD, who hath not given us over for a prey unto their teeth. Our soul is escaped even as a bird out of the snare of the fowler; the snare is broken, and we are delivered. Our help standeth in the Name of the LORD, who hath made heaven and earth. (Ibid, 5-7) David believed in and embraced the presence of the Invisible but living God. He grasps too that God alone can chase away the birds of prey that would [ensnare and] devour God’s Sacrifice in his heart. He believes that God alone can drive out the unclean beasts that would trample down the plantation of God’s Grace in his soul. (Jenks, 224) He trusts that the Lord of hosts is with him; the God of Jacob is his refuge. (Ps. lxvi. 11) He sets aside the clear and visible threats of earthly enemies and in meekness of mind humbles himself before God, for that continual proneness which is in him to sin against His Maker and Redeemer, that makes him so unlike to God, and so contrary to what His holy laws require him to be. (Jenks)
David was a stranger and pilgrim in this world. He looked forward to God’s deliverance by hoping for the fulfillment of His promises in Jesus Christ. Christians know the benefits of Christ’s all-saving life and believe in the power of His deliverance. But for that power to liberate us effectually, we must declare spiritual war on this world and its ship of fools. The fool hath said in his heart there is no God. (Psalm xiv. 1) Fools trust in their wits and the stirrings of their hearts. He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool. (Prov. xxviii. 26) A fool despiseth wisdom and understanding. (Prov. i. 7) Fools rejoice when they should lament and mourn when they should rejoice. Because they are at home in this world, they exult only in the temporary pursuit of happiness and joy. Because it is convenient to their idolatries, they are glad to think that God cannot be bothered and thus remains unmoved by their sin. They have forgotten the wisdom in the wise man’s understanding:
Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
even there shall thy hand lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
(Ps. cxxxix. 7-100
The wise man mourns when he forgets the Invisible God because he has forgotten that he is a stranger and pilgrim. He laments that he has not awakened sooner to God’s caring desire for his soul. For David’s heirs, who have witnessed Christ’s Resurrection, as a manifestation of God’s Invisible Wisdom, Power, and Love, Jesus says to us: Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. (St. John xvi. 20) Mourning and lamentation for man do not disappear with the Incarnation. Rather, they comprise an essential moment in that spiritual movement whereby Christ carries us from the death to sin into new and Redeemed Human Life. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that the wise Christian will be sad for three reasons. First, by sadness of evil, man is corrected. (Easter III: TA) When Christ promises to depart from us in the flesh, He will correct us inwardly and spiritually. Unless we mourn our sinful rejection of Him, the Resurrection virtue that Christ longs to infuse into our bodies and souls will remain dormant. Sorrow for our abandonment of His ever-present sacrificial love renew our passion for finding it anew. Second, by temporal sadness, man escapes eternal torment. (Idem) A healthy sorrow for our refusal to embrace the means of Grace compels our souls to long more fully for the stronger medicine that Christ has for our bodies and souls. Third, by a mean measure of justice, we acquire eternal joys. (Idem) Punishment through sadness impels us to accept the just punishment for our sins now. Then we begin to treasure the gain of Christ’s lasting victory over our earthly sorrow for our sins in this body of death. Temporary suffering will be converted into soaring desire for the exceeding and eternal weight of God’s glory.
Jesus is teaching us that for so long as we are in these earthen vessels, we must become strangers and pilgrims in this world. If we seek Him out amidst it all, His Invisible Presence will enable us to persist. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (St. John xv. 4, 5) If Christ lives in us now Invisibly, our sorrows shall be transformed into the permanence of His joy in our hearts. He likens it to a woman who is with child. A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you. (Ibid, 21, 22) The expectant mother endures all manner of suffering and sorrow in joyful expectation of her child’s birth. So too the wise man must endure the suffering and sorrow that accompany the conception of the Word of God in the womb of his soul before he is born again from above and by the Invisible God. Calvin tells us that Christ means that the sorrow which we shall endure for the sake of the Gospel will be profitable. (J. Calvin: Comm.)
St. Augustine reminds us that, At present, the Church is in travail with the longing for this fruit of all her labor…now she travails in birth with groaning, then shall she bring forth in joy; now she travails in birth through her prayers, then shall she bring forth in her praises. (John xvi) The end that we seek is the consolation of the Divine Presence. So, over and against ungodliness, St. Peter tells us that our incipient joy should be caught up with well doing, [that we] may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men, and not using [our] liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. (Ibid, 13) Christ tells us today, I will see you again, and you will rejoice. (St. John xvi. 22) If we believe in Him, He will take our bodies and souls into all joy, and others shall join us as strangers and pilgrims, visibly and truly embracing the love of the Invisible God, that no man shall take away from us. (Idem)
For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
(1 St. Peter ii. 25)
In this Joyful Eastertide, we are called to become members of Jesus Christ’s Resurrected Body by embracing the forgiveness of sins in our lives. In so doing, we must acknowledge that the forgiveness of sins is really a two-edged sword meant to divide us both from sin and wickedness in ourselves and also from sin in the lives of others. Regarding the first, we are called to receive the forgiveness of our own sins. About the second, we are urged to translate the forgiveness of sins received into acts of compassion, pity, and mercy for all others. All this is given to us from the Risen Jesus Christ so that we might become habituated to the character and nature of Our Heavenly Father.
The Church’s selection of readings for this Joyful Eastertide does not pretend that this new Risen Life we seek is easy. Thus, for example, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, most people think that we ought to be reading about Jesus the soft, all-embracing, and gentle shepherd who forever seeks out His lost sheep. And while this might be true in one way, in another way it tends to ignore the tough love that characterizes the nature of every good shepherd. Christ the Good Shepherd is no exception.
Jesus Christ has demands and conditions for the sheep of His fold and the members of His Body, the Church. As we become His sheep, Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd’s expectations of us become clearer. What the sheep of Christ look like and what the Good Shepherd expects of them are illustrated in this morning’s First Epistle of St. Peter. St. Peter is addressing a group of slaves who are Christians. His letter is to one of his flocks in Asia Minor, many of whose members are servants or slaves. He uses them as a parable or illustration of the kind of life we should expect to live and how that life is fully taken on by Jesus Christ. He writes to slaves who suffer unjustly and undeservedly. We don’t know the specifics of individual cases, but we surmise that Christian slaves are having a hard time with the forgiveness of sins. That they are slaves is disturbing enough. Yet, St. Peter is not interested in the abolition of earthly slavery but with its spiritual counterpart. These slaves are being punishing unfairly and tyrannically and their spiritual freedom in Jesus Christ is in danger of being lost. Peter wants them to pray about becoming slaves in the spirit to Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd. He wants them to see that there is a good kind of slavery that no earthly creature can threaten or destroy.
St. Peter says, Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. (1 St. Peter ii. 18) St. Peter believes that every man, even slaves, can allow the Imitation of Christ to rule their hearts. He is not writing about earthly liberation but of that Divine and lasting spiritual liberty that Jesus alone, the Good Shepherd, brings to every man, no matter what his state in life. He reminds them that Christ too became a slave to earthly injustice, bondage, and malice. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps. (1 St. Peter ii. 21) St. Peter does not pretend in any way that such a spiritual response to earthly wickedness is easy. For, as Monsignor Knox reminds us, St. Peter remembers, too, how he followed in his Master’s footsteps, when Christ was led away to be crucified. (R.K.: The Epistles and Gospels, p. 125) He is only too conscious of the radical injustice done to his Master, Jesus Christ, and of his own slavery and bondage to cowardice, fear, and shame. When he had been sitting by the fire in the cellar of the High Priest’s palace, he was surrounded by slaves. Here were those who were shackled forcibly by other men. Yet Peter was chained and enslaved to his own voluntary faithlessness, dread, and pride. Peter abandoned Jesus Christ as a free man. The slaves knew no such liberty. Peter was afraid of losing his freedom. Yet all the while he was a real slave to his own shallow faith and faint heart. Peter had become a slave to a master far worse than the slaveholders who held his companions in bondage. He feared imminent death by reason of association with Jesus. Then, because he denied Jesus before the cock had crowed twice, he feared God’s judgment. He remembered that guile was… found in his mouth, that when reviled, he reviled…again, and that when he suffered the accusation that he was one of Jesus’ friends, he threatened his accusers. (Ibid) Jesus’ tough love alone would reveal his slavery to sin.
But now in today’s Epistle, St. Peter speaks as one who has been liberated by Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins. St. Peter has repented, and Christ has forgiven his abandonment and betrayal. Christ now calls Peter into the new life of Resurrection. So, St. Peter exhorts all slaves who suffer unjustly to forgive their oppressors and masters as Christ has forgiven His executioners and even His cowardly friends. Christ suffered for our sakes…who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who when reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously: who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. (Ibid, 22- 25)
The slaves St. Peter addresses may be the hapless victims of other men’s wickedness, but this is no excuse for not forgiving all men their trespasses against us. Both Peter and his hearers are potential slaves to sin. Now, they are invited into true spiritual liberation through Christ who is the forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection, and the Life. The slaves are given a great opportunity not only to follow Christ themselves but also to shower their masters, Christian or pagan, with love and forgiveness because they can become emissaries and ambassadors in bonds for the forgiveness of sins and Christ’s Resurrection. They can reveal that they have been made free by the Blood of Jesus Christ and are now the true sons of the living God –whose Love in them can conquer all wickedness because the evil of other men need never provoke vengeance. True freedom is found in Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy…(St. James iv. 12)
This obedience to God calls them to forgive the sins of others, endure grief, suffering wrongfully…take it patiently…[because] this is acceptable with God. (Ibid, 19, 20) If Jesus Christ endured grief, suffered wrongfully on the Cross of His Redemption and made good out of it, so too can all men! Like Christ, we all should forgive those who are the cause of all of our suffering. For Christ is interested in all sinners –both slaves and free men! Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, desires to come alive in every human heart and to help us to forgive whenever we suffer wrongfully. If Jesus –the pattern of the unjustly tortured, punished, and crucified Slave, forgives us our betrayals and abandonments of Him, we should forgive also. In fact, Jesus said, If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you…if they have persecuted me, they will persecute you…. (St. John xv. 18, 20) For Christ bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness. (Ibid, 24) Again, with Monsignor Knox, Christ’s wounds are healing stripes, and His death produces, of its own efficacy, a new death and the beginning of new life in us. (Idem) So, all slaves, all of us, are invited into the new death…and new life through the forgiveness of sins. For ye were as sheep, going astray, but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (Ibid, 25) We all are slaves -the slaves of others, slaves of ourselves, slaves of our sins, and the slaves of Satan. Christ has forgiven us, and we should forgive all others.
St. Peter shows us that all men are the slaves of sin and should want to become the slaves of Jesus Christ, incorporated into the Resurrected Life of the One who has become a Slave for us all. This Slave is the Shepherd and Bishop of [our] souls. This Good Shepherd voluntarily became God’s Slave because He giveth His life for the sheep. (St. John x. 11) The Good Shepherd is the Slave who is works tirelessly and incessantly to bring His Sheep back to God our Heavenly Father. He even lays down His life for His sheep because it is the only way that He can bear the sheep’s burden fully, destroy their sin, and open to them the gate of everlasting life. But even beyond this, He longs to become our Slave even today. He is forever the Father’s willing and happy Slave. He, who is only and ever the obedient revealer of His Father’s Wisdom, Power, and Love, longs to infuse all men with the Spirit’s liberating power. He desires to feed us with God’s Goodness to free us from our slavery to sin. He alone is the Slave who knows our need and meets it. He is the Slave whose service alone can conquer and overcome our sinful condition. He alone is the Slave who selflessly, innocently, and freely becomes our Master from the Cross of His Love and beyond.
Jesus goes where He is sent. He comes to us. Will we allow this Slave to do His work for us? He offers us His service for free! He charges no money. But if we would employ this Slave, we shall begin to see God’s love alive in His heart. If we would keep this Slave, we must allow His tough love to serve us, We need Him most in the hard work of conquering our sins. Funnily enough, we need this Slave to become our Master. Jesus is our Slave. The slaveholders of history should have seen Jesus in their earthly slaves. If they had, they would have freed them and thanked them for leading them to true liberation. Jesus alone is the true Slave and Master. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who can help us to endure grief, suffer wrongfully…and patiently be buffeted for the good. (Idem) Then we can begin to become His sheep, following the blessed steps of His most holy life, and ourselves becoming Slaves to others, following the Commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, with St. Peter and all the Saints.
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above,
Where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affections on
Things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life
Is hid with Christ in God.
(Col. 3. 1-3)
There is something rather strange about our Easter Epistle, which was addressed by St. Paul to the infant Church at Colossae in small Phrygian city in Asia Minor, or modern day Turkey. Easter Sunday is the first of 40 days. Before He ascended back to the Father, during the period of 40 days, Christ appeared to Peter, to Mary Magdalene, to the women, to James and all the Apostles, to some five hundred, to Stephen prior to his masdsrtyrdom, and later to St. Paul as one born out of due time. (1 Cor. xv. 8) So why does Mother Church have us reading an Epistle that seems to be all about the spiritual relationship that we have with Christ after Pentecost? In it, St. Paul speaks about our relationship with the hidden God. Your life is hid with Christ in God. (Col. iii. 3) We haven’t even begun our 40 days of getting used to the Resurrected Christ than the Church turns our minds upward and into the Heavenly realm!
So why are we reading about having our lives hid with Christ in God? For St. Paul, something has happened on the Day of Resurrection that forever changes our lives in relation to God the Father. Jesus Christ is not a mere soul or Spirit. Jesus Christ, the God/Man, has risen from the dead. Article IV of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion states this: Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man's nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day. St. Paul believes that Christ indeed died in a natural body and rose a spiritual body. What he means is that Christ raised up the body through which He lived and died and has transfigured it. His soul took back his body, and penetrated it through and through making it spiritual…this spiritual body is transparent, obedient to the Spirit, unconstrained and lightsome…the instrument of the Divine Saviour’s soul. (Mouroux, p. 89) The Risen Christ is, then, a glorified unity of body, soul, and spirit. He is the same Lord who died once for all our sins. His Risen Body bears the wounds of His Crucifixion, reminding us that He has borne our sufferings, grief, and sin and brought them to death. But the same wounds remind us of His ongoing love for us, as this spiritual Body that He bears will expand deepen to include us in His new Resurrected life, as His Body, the Church. But even during the 40 days of His Resurrection, He begins to call believers into the new Body that He will share with all who will follow Him. This Body has been raised up with the Father’s Blessing and the Spirit’s power. This spiritual Body is in more than one place at one time. Peter sees Him and then James does also. Magdalene has seen Him and so too have the men walking on the Road to Emmaus. Jesus’ Body is already spiritually greater than what our earthly senses can ever comprehend. It is of such a nature that will ensure that our lives [can be] hid with Christ in God.
Of course, it takes time for the Apostles to realize what is going on. The 40 days are necessary. For Man to come to understand timeless Truth, it all takes time. But in that time what they come to realize is that Christ is calling them to become one with Him in a new way. Christ is now ready to share Himself with them in the way that has enabled Him to conquer sin, death, and Satan and to open to them the Gates of Everlasting Life.
So how can our lives be hid with Christ in God? St. Paul reminds us in another place that Christ our passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor v. 7,8) Christ Jesus our Saviour is Risen from the dead. He invites us into that life that has gained the victory over all sin in all ages. Just as Christ’s victory is complete, so too does He conquer all sins in all times. Jesus died at the hands of sinful men and their sin. But He died, being dead unto sin. Sin had no claim or power over Him. Christ conquered sin through His obedience to God the Father and because He has always been alive unto God. (Idem) In the Resurrection, Jesus Christ invites us to begin to participate in His obedience to the Father. Christ, even in death, was alive unto God. We are seldom alive unto God, since with the Jews and Romans and all sinners in all ages, we have killed God’s Word in the flesh -the flesh of Jesus Christ in our own flesh and the flesh of all others. We have been dead but now Christ invites us into the New Life that He reconstitutes for us following His crucifixion. So now, we must seek those things which are above. (Col. iii. 1) Not above and beyond our reach, but above and beyond our wildest expectations, above and beyond what we desire or deserve, above and beyond what Man can do for himself in any age. And yet not above and beyond what God’s love can and will do for us as Heaven reaches down to earth to lift us up back into His loving embrace. Not above and beyond God’s healing touch, His quickening spirit, His ever-present and all-powerful presence, even here and now. But yes, above and within the heart of Jesus, whose Glorified Body and Being are with the Father pleading our case in all ages. Yes, above and within Jesus Christ Himself, in whom every aspect of our lives can become a new occasion for our rising up and out of ourselves, mortifying [our] members which are upon earth; [up and out of] our uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry…(Col. iii. 5) In our bodies, because in His Risen and Glorified Body because Christ is always in God. In our souls, because in His Risen and Glorified Soul, He (is) in us, and we (are) in Him. Christ is risen from the dead. Sin is finished, death is finished, Satan is finished, if only we shall discover our need for Him even now. Our lives are hid with Christ in God. (Col. iii. 3)
And how does He allow us to continue to be hid with Christ in God? Jesus says I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. (St. John vi. 51) As He reveals and manifests the truth of His Glorified Flesh on this Easter Sunday, we remember that Christ gives Himself to us as the Bread of Life. Christ’s life is to do the will of the Father. When we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we believe that we shall begin to partake of that Bread of Life that gives us the power to overcome sin, death, and Satan. Through this Sacrament we come into Communion with Jesus. The Real Presence that He shared with the Apostles on this Day of Resurrection, He shares with us also. When we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we begin to possess eternal life. (1 Cor. xi. 26) Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. (St. John vi. 54-57)
When we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we can reckon [ourselves] to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans vi. 11) Being alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord means that our affections, our desires, and our passions our set on receiving that food and drink that can save us, who deserve none of it. Being fed, we can ask the Father to give us His Heavenly Love that forever moves Jesus Christ the Son to free us from all sin and death through the Holy Spirit. Being fed, we can know that Jesus indwells our hearts and souls and is ready at hand to help us in every time of need. The love of God in the Heart of Jesus Christ leads captivity captive (Ephesians iv. 8). We are no longer to live in bondage to sin, death, and Satan. And mark my words, sin has always and ever been present in this world Our lives are hid with Christ in God because He has overcome them, has set us free, and holds us in His heart in Heaven, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for us! (Hebrews vii. 25) forever praying for our deliverance from our sins. He does so from the core of our hearts and souls, who knows our needs before we ask. (St. Matthew vi. 8)
On this Day of our New Life, as creatures Resurrected from the Dead, let us begin to live freely and thankfully. On this day may true joy fill our hearts. Let us, therefore, thank and praise our Saviour Jesus Christ this morning for dying for us and for rising for us, and for assuring us that our lives are Hid in Him with God. Let us close by ending with the song of the poet:
MOST glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day,
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrow’d hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin;
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
May live forever in felicity!
And that Thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love Thee for the same againe;
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy,
With love may one another entertayne!
So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought,
–Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
Edmund Spenser “Easter Sonnet”.
Christ is alone now. He has forgiven His enemies, He has welcomed a new friend into the journey of death, which His new family begins to experience as new life. Now He is alone, at the primordial point of experiencing the meaning of sin, offering himself to the Father. Jesus is the true life of man. When He dies, He feels the suffering and pain, as only the whole and complete, perfect and unblemished Word of God and forgiveness of sins can. The greater the Life, the greater the feeling of its loss. We cannot know what Christ felt, in the loss of His new human life. The Sinless One is punished as a sinner. Can we be begin to imagine the pain? Jesus is pure human life rejected by so many and now near death.
But He wills to be cut down in order that He may jump up high. His desire has been to do nothing less than the will of God made flesh. The will of God in human flesh involves death, death not only to sin but to any creature other than God.
The Son sees his Father approaching. The spiritual reality of God’s nearness is now known and experienced. Jesus says I thirst. (St. John xix. 28) He thirsts not for earthly drink. Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. (St. John xix. 28) They gave me gall to eat, and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink. (Psalm lxix. 22) But Jesus insists that Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (St. Matthew iv. 4) He thirsts for the righteousness of God. Like as the hart desireth the water brooks, so longeth my soul after thee O God. My soul is athirst for God, yea even for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God? (Psalm 42. 1,2) Christ Jesus desires nothing less than that spiritual water mingled with the blood and the Spirit that will yield new life. The things of the earth have passed away. The forgiven sons and daughters of the earth, the reconciled criminal and the new family that He has taken with Him and into the depths of sin’s meaning will now find new birth, but only through the forgiveness of sins that He is. Man was created in God’s image and likeness. The discarded image must be made new.
Paul Claudel puts it nicely: A drop of water: the only thing in the world that costs nothing, a thing that one would not refuse to a wounded animal, a sick dog, humanity refuses to its maker and Savior. (I believe in God) But neither God nor Christ refuses it to us. We can have it through Christ, who today knows that we need it if we are to be saved. We will learn to receive it ourselves, and then give a cup of this cold water to others in His Name. He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me…And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.(St. Matthew x. 42)
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. I thirst. Christ says. We thirst and begin to drink in death. 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 us all. Our eyes are opened to Christ’s love for us even as He is suffering and dying. He never forgets us. We are an ongoing concern 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, God’s Passion for our salvation. He will become our Passion for God rediscovered and our Passion for others’ salvation. He is the Forgiveness of Sins made flesh, God’s forgiveness of our sins, and will become that liberating power that moves us to forgive all others. 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 friendship. 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 unselfed in-othering. Think about it. He is Love as in-othering; He lives in and for the other, first God and then every other man. He is Love as unselfed. He has emptied Himself of Himself that He might escort new sons and daughters into the Father’s presence, 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 reconcile Man to God and Man to Man. His role is to arrange the meeting, to enable the encounter. Is He essential? Absolutely. But the minute He is self-consciously significant, the work and labor collapses. The selfless Saviour is the spiritual Person who alone conveys God to man and returns man to God.
It is finished. (St. John xix. 30) Today we come to know that the mission of Christ is finished and accomplished. We realize also that we ourselves 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. It is finished. Life in isolation and alienation from God is illusorily satisfying, temporarily pleasing, and wholly incomplete. Life in isolation from God is death. This life is finished. In the death of Christ what is finished is the illusion that we have any power, that we have any meaning apart from the wisdom and love of God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not even death. Not even our Crucifixion of Christ, the Word of God in Man. Nothing can separate us from God at all. For God is near to us. We have been carried into Christ’s death and are about to enter into His New Life. Our sin is finished. Death is about to be conquered and 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 measuring. 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 life, light, and love that beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.(1 Cor xiii.7), in order to make new life.
Life is an ongoing effort and labor to place our spirits into the hands of the living God. Father into thy hands I commend my spirit. Nothing need escape the Love of God. And God’s Love for man, which is Jesus Christ Himself, is reconciled to it. To love is to suffer, old Bishop Morse used to say. In Christ’s crucifixion we find the pathway to love. Father into thy hands I commend my spirit. So, we believe that Jesus’ final Ascent to the Father is an ascent of the whole Person, body and soul, suffering and pain, with joy and gladness. He intends what we should become members of His Body, here on earth, with Him as our Head. He promises us that we should experience as much struggle, pain, toil, and suffering as He did. Within the Body there will be an extension of His Crucifixion, with the crucifixion of many members on the way to Resurrection. Christ establishes the Pattern for Redemption. Let us close with some words taken from Hans Urs Von Balthasar:
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.”
Christ the Word of God, the forgiveness of sins made flesh is making new life from His Cross. The love of his Being is bringing life out of death. St. Luke tells us that Jesus is crucified with two malefactors. Saints Mark and Matthew tell us that they were thieves. One of the thieves, hanging to His right side, knowing that he deserves to be punished for his crimes, begs Jesus to remember Him when He comes into His Kingdom. Jesus and the good thief are approaching earthly death. The thief comes to believe that he is in the presence of God. Jesus consecrates his conversion. Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (St. Luke xxiii. 43)
One thing more must be made for those who still live. Jesus utters His Third Word. Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, 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! (St. John xix. 25,26) We remember the words spoken to the Blessed Virgin by the old prophet Simeon some thirty years prior: Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (St. Luke ii. 35) She did not understand the meaning of those words then but perhaps is beginning to feel their power now. Like any good mother, she feels the pain of her dying child as one who is pierced through with a sword. And how much more must the torture be for her now, as she sees the Son of her womb, God the Father’s Holy Innocent Word made flesh, the child [in whom would be] set the fall and rising again of many in Israel, (Ibid, 34) dying a wholly undeserved, unmerited, unearned, and unjust death. We can only imagine the pain and confusion that she experienced, the bewilderment and amazement at what was transpiring before her very eyes. To her, this was the true blasphemy, execration, and sacrilege of fallen man against her Son whom she conceived by the Holy Ghost of God the Father.
The time was not yet for Jesus to disclose the full truth and meaning that His death would bring to her and others. But in the time between now and what would come later, He takes the first steps to channel her faith and belief towards the new world that He was always making and now redeeming. The Blessed Virgin, we must remember, was nothing if not a creature of pure faith, obedience, and trust. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me, according to thy Word. (St. Luke i. 38) The commencement of man’s salvation began with her Yes to God. Her Son was first conceived in her soul by faith and only thereafter in her womb. And we do well to remember that St. Luke reminds us that on two occasions at least, because she did not grasp the nature and meaning of this Son she had brought into the world, she pondered these things in her heart –immediately following his birth, and when, twelve years later, she thought she had lost Him in Jerusalem, where, when she found him, He rebuked her and said, Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? (St. Luke ii. 49) Later, when He chastised her for pestering him about the depletion of wine at the Wedding of Cana in Galilee, rightly rebuked, she was obedient and trusting, faithful as ever, and said to the servants, whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. (St. John ii. 5) Jesus knows the faith of His Mother. She too knows that her life has been a constant vocation to let Him go. At one point she and His kin were standing outside of the temple waiting for him. One man said, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But Jesus answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? (St. Matthew xii. 47, 48) At another time, Jesus having healed a dumb man, a woman cries out, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked. But Jesus said, yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it. (St. Luke 27, 28.) To some, Jesus seemed always to be pushing His mother away from Himself, separating Himself from her, and so undervaluing her unique role.
And it here that we find revealed His real intention and desire. Jesus is a human son, the Son of Man, for sure. He is fully human. But Jesus is first and foremost the everlastingly-begotten Son of God. He has already begun to open His dying life to others; one man, the good thief, has become a part of this good and living death. His Sonship is enlarged; it will broaden and enlarge so as to include all who repent and follow Him. His Sonship is not limited by His blood-tie to his earthly mother. His Sonship will expand to include all who choose to become the Sons and Daughters of God through Him. Mary is His human mother, but she too is the mother of much more than one earthly son, as unique as He may be. Nay, she is called the Mother of God. And if she is the Mother of God, she must be prepared to bear and care for many more children than Jesus alone. She must die to earthly motherhood so that she might become a spiritual mother. Woman, behold thy Son, Jesus says to her as she stands trembling in the arms of John the beloved disciple. Jesus looks at John and says, Behold thy mother. (St. John xix. 27) In neither case does He address them by their proper names. Mary is to become the Mother of the New Creation that Jesus is making, beginning here and now from His Cross. She will become the Mother of redeemed and reborn humanity, beginning here and now, through the pangs of spiritual rebirth and new life. Her love for Jesus as a natural son dies with Him on His Cross; her method of birthing will move from the physical and particular, to the spiritual and universal. John is to be adopted as her first new child, the child of the Grace that is making all things new through Jesus’ death. He will be the caregiver and son who will ensure that her spiritual mission continues through his earthly protection. She will be John’s mother. In the nearness of God’s Today, she will become the spiritual mother of a new humanity.
Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord. (Isaiah liv. 1)
Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabacthani: My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? (St Matt. xxvii. 46)
Mary hears what must have seemed the most difficult words that Jesus- or perhaps anyone, could ever utter. They strike us as wrong, precisely because they seem so dangerously close to despair. And yet they are not. Jesus feels the potential despair of every man who feels abandoned by the Father. These are the words of psychic and spiritual pain, but they are the very opposite of despair. These are the words of hope actually, for Jesus has joined all who will be poor in spirit. Christ does not curse God and die. Rather He turns to the one and only source of new life, God the Father, in a cry of agonizing helplessness and loneliness. This is the summary of the long, dark night of the soul. The soul can turn to nothing for comfort other than God Himself. The Father is distant and silent, but present. Jesus cries My God, My God.
God’s distance and silence are indeed part of the process of salvation. Here is the sense of utter dependence upon God, even from that separation in silence. O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou [wilt].(St. Matthew 26. 39), He had prayed in His agony in the garden. But God’s will must be accomplished. And so Jesus endures what for all other men is seemingly unendurable. Here is the point where the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness overcame it not. (St. John 1. 5) The light flickers, and trembles, and might even be tempted to despair and yet Jesus does not yield. The light flickers and trembles because Christ has taken into His heart the experience of every man, woman and child who has ever felt the loneliness of abandonment. In the heart of Jesus, mankind’s last and final temptation to surrender to the void of nothingness, a lifeless place emptied of light and love, is overcome. Jesus experiences humanity’s predicament to the full. In the final point of encounter with man’s pain, he feels acutely and sees clearly the possibility of the sin against the Holy Ghost. And yet he does not surrender. He is tempest-tossed, is nearly overwhelmed, and yet He cries with the words of the Psalmist:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?…I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.…They pierced my hands and my feet. I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.
Jesus turns to the Father. Romano Guardini sums up what is at work here beautifully. He writes:
God followed man…into the no man’s land which sin had ripped open. God not only glanced down at him and summoned him lovingly to return, he personally entered into that vacuous dark to fetch him, as St. John powerfully expresses it in his opening Gospel. Thus in the midst of human history stood one was both human and God. Pure as God, but bowed with responsibility as man. He drank the dregs of that responsibility- down to the bottom of the chalice. Mere man cannot do this. Man is so much smaller than his sin against God, that he can neither contain it nor cope with it. He can commit it, but he is incapable of fully realizing what he has done. He cannot measure his act; cannot receive it into his life and suffer it through to the end…It confuses him, leaves him desperate but helpless. God alone can ‘handle’ sin. Only he sees through it, weighs it, judges it with a judgment that condemns the sin but loves the sinner. A mere man attempting the same would break.
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 be there in the flesh, 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 comprehension of who and what they have been and still are. They have not thought about what sin does. Sin, they forget, kills the Word of God in our hearts and those of others. By extension, sin kills God’s Wisdom, Power, and Love in our hearts and others. Today, 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 life. Pride, envy, wrath, resentment, bitterness, sloth, lust, gluttony are all those sins which kill God’s Word in Man’s nature. We don’t see that what they do is endured and suffered by the dying Son of God on the Cross of Calvary. Our sins have killed God’s Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ. Our sins kill that Word made flesh for no reason other than that we cannot get over ourselves for long enough to remember that we are sinners in need of a Saviour. In His Passion, Jesus endures the effects of our sins. What is the worst that our sins can do? Kill God’s Son, God’s Word made Flesh.
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 desire to make God absent or to eliminate His presence. It is the obstinate refusal recognize that God, His Word, His Spirit are always necessary to mere existence, to man’s conquering of nature, to man’s discovery of liberty and freedom. It is the hard-hearted refusal to hear, obey, cultivate, and grow God’s Word in human life, and most especially in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Sometimes it is committed quietly in the ivory tower of 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 fear as violent anger, resentment, and revenge. Sometimes it is committed slothfully to ensure earthly comfort, peace, and normalcy, simply because zeal requires sacrifice, effort, and 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 error. 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. Jesus is the only perfect expression of God’s Word of Wisdom, Power, and Love made flesh that the world has ever known. And He reveals to us what we think of Him and His most Holy Incarnation.
But is this all that we find? No sooner had they arrested, mocked, derided, stripped, whipped, crowned with thorns, and nailed Jesus of Nazareth to the Cross 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 from noble death something could emerge the likes of which we witness in Jesus. For here we find no resentment for ever having been born, no vengeful hatred of those who were crucifying Him, and no spitting upon those who wagged their heads at Him and those who said:
Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. (St. Matthew xxvii. 40-43)
Rather, what we find is the One who looks beyond, behind, and even beneath the sin that has killed Him, to find the heart of man that is capable still of being forgiven and saved. In the hearts of those men and women who have willed His death, Jesus prays only for their forgiveness and eventual conversion. Jesus hopes. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii, 34)
Jesus is the Word of God that always creates and always redeems. He is the Universal Response response to all despair. That response is kind, compassionate, and merciful. He judges their despair as the birth-child of ignorance. For, had they known what where doing, they might not have done it. The Word of God made flesh, Jesus Christ, has perfect Hope for those who do not understand today, but may come to the knowledge and love of God tomorrow. For as long as a man lives, there is time for the discovery of true self-knowledge. With that, there can come a repentance for sin. Out of repentance can spring hope in the power of forgiveness. And the forgiveness of sins is not only what God’s Word is but more so what God’s Word made flesh came down to reveal and freely choose to embrace, even in the hour His own Crucifixion. Jesus Christ is God’s forgiveness embodied. Before He suffered this Passion, Jesus had told his friends, I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father save through me. (St. John xiv. 6) The way to the Father is the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is the forgiveness of sins made flesh. It informs every fiber of His being, as the communication of God’s hope and love for His people. God never stops hungering and thirsting for the salvation of His people. Jesus, God’s Word made Man, is the embodiment of that love and that hope. Sin cannot silence the utterance of God’s desire in Jesus. Suffering and death can do nothing to stop God’s loving all men in and through Jesus. Satan cannot kill the Spirit of this Love. For within the heart of the dying Crucified One is the ability to pray for man’s turning to repentance, turning from his evil ways, and longing to be saved. The Word of God still speaks from the lips of the dying Son of Man. The offer still stands, the hope is alive, and God’s love is as determined as ever in the heart of Jesus.
God’s offer is only and always an offer. It is never compelled, cannot be imposed, and so can never be revealed as an Omnipotent Power that overturns man’s created potential to turn to God’s Love for deliverance.
Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds,/Or bends with the remover to remove:/O no! it is an ever-fixed mark/ That looks on tempests and is never shaken;/It is the star to every wandering bark,/Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken…Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/But bears it out even to the edge of doom…(Shakespeare: Sonnet 116)
Love honors His potential lovers. That He forgives in the face of treachery and murder only stands to reinforce the transcendent nature of Love that longs to conquer all. The acceptance of Love as forgiveness of sins made flesh are in the power of the beloved.
So in Christ’s forgiveness we see the light that still loves. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. (St. John i. 4) He prays for others and thus emits the light that hopes for their salvation and deliverance. 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…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.
Today, Christ the Word as the forgiveness of sins made flesh in Man is petitioning forgiveness for the Pharisees, the Romans, and for Peter our friend who has denied Him three times. Christ the Word as Love, Hope, and Faith in God is made flesh for us that we might be forgiven.
But woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! good were it for that man if he had never been born.
We begin our Holy Week with an act of betrayal. Judas Iscariot has betrayed Jesus
Christ out of resentment and bitterness for Jesus’ refusal to be the earthly liberator that Israel has longed for. At least, this is the view of the Church’s Tradition. Judas had thought that the Christ was set to liberate Israel finally from all foreign occupation. Judas was an earthly minded man for whom the affairs of this world mattered much more than the affairs of God and His plan for Man’s salvation. Tonight we contemplate betrayal.
In fairness to the Jews, who had spent well-nigh 600 years awaiting the fulfillment of promises to them, one might be more than a little sympathetic. Foreign domination had characterized the history of the Jews. But Judas, along with no small number of his race then and now, had not understood the true nature of the promises made to Israel. The Jews had become intoxicated with their own thralldom and slavery. It is a temptation to those in every age. Human bondage and the absence of liberty are bound to make any people forever conscious of their own suffering. Yet, Judas and his friends ignored the finer points of what God had promised to His people. In tonight’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah is full of rage.
And I looked, and there was none, to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold: therefore mine own arm brought salvation unto me; and my fury it upheld me. I trampled the nations in my anger; in my wrath I made them drunk and poured their blood on the ground. (Isaiah lxiii. 5,6)
The wrath of God fills the heart of the prophet. He hears God intending to make atonement for the bondage that Israel endured. Isaiah hears the Word of the Lord who prophesies that blood must be poured out to rectify Israel with God. But he imagines a spiritual state that far exceeds Israel’s need for any earthly Redeemer. His mind is on God and what God alone can do for His people. Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting. (Idem, 16) The prophet does not know what kind of Redemption the Lord will bring, but his focus in on God, His power and love and that Wisdom that alone can bring Israel to spiritual peace. Far be it for the prophet to focus on earthly things. He in consumed with the spiritual intention and plan of God for His people.
Judas and his kind are always overly consumed with earthly responses to earthly problems. To prefer the earthly to the spiritual is to engage in utter idolatry. God’s first mission to His people will always be spiritual. The nature of the promises themselves is hidden to the prophets. Sufficient it is for Isaiah to be focused on His Lord and the Lord’s nature. To be thus consumed will be the intention of God the Father for His people in His Son. Judas has missed the meaning of the Father’s message as articulated in the life of His Son, Jesus Christ.
We too are far too immersed in the affairs of this life on earth. Christ has better things in store for us. Judas, and so many of us, betray the Word of God with that anger and bitterness that reveal what kind of false gods truly move us mostly. Material happiness and worldly comfort seem all the rage and passion. Jesus responds to Judas and us this night with another kind of promise. Far removed from any kind of earthly hope, Jesus intends to fill His followers with what matters most. Tonight, Jesus redirects our attention to those things above and not the things of the earth.
Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God. (Idem, 22-25)
In response to Judas’ betrayal, Christ bids His Apostles and us to wonder about something as simple as a meal. The promises of God are revealed then and now as something strikingly simple and seemingly earthly. But He speaks of some fragments of bread and a sip of wine as somehow linked spiritually to His Body and His Blood. In some mysterious way He prophesies both His leaving us and His coming to us again. The earthly is not abandoned but will become something remarkably new. Through the elements of necessity -bread, and the cause of mirth and all joy -wine, Christ promises to come to His people and to be with them forever. His Body will be offered to them. His blood will be outpoured for them. And more than this, both will be present to them whensoever they repeat the words of this simple ceremony. And He seals this manual act with the promise that He will not eat and drink with them until He drinks it new in the Kingdom of God. (Idem) This earthly action will be an instrument and means of His ongoing presence with them until they reach His Kingdom. Spiritually, Man will commune with God over a meal that will become a Heavenly feast.
To the ancient Jews, what He said must have sounded like gibberish. But to those who believed then and have faith now, this is the seal of God’s promise to His people. There will be no need for any earthly deliverance from tyrannical rulers. In what follows, He will promise His people that they must trust that this is the way that matters most. What matter most is to repent and believe. What matters most is the Forgiveness of Sins that Jesus Is.
The day following, He will offer His Body on the Tree of Calvary and will pour out His blood for the sins to the whole world. The key to grasping the promises is in trusting God’s promise to be our God and we His people as earth is swallowed up in Heaven’s feast. In partaking of His Body, He will indwell His people with His suffering and death. His suffering and death will remain with them as they blend theirs with His in absolute obedience to the Father. In drinking His Blood, they all shall be quickened and resurrected into new life and virtue. What more can man need for the fulfillment of all his hopes in God’s promises? To eat His Body and to drink His blood fulfill God’s promises to His people. In eating His Body and drinking His Blood, men are invited to participate in the meaning of the Forgiveness of Sins and the Resurrection into the New Life. All is well with Jesus. Nothing more is needed. Jesus’ presence with us depends upon nothing less than His promise. This is. Our task this night is to trust and obey. Our calling this night is to follow Jesus to His Cross so that the bread and wine might be ever so simply linked to His broken Body and poured out Blood on Good Friday.
When Pilate was set down upon the judgment-seat, his wife sent
Unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man:
For I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of
(St. Matthew 27. 19)
Holy Week has been set aside from the time of the early Church to ponder our Lord’s suffering in silence. If we approach this time with a determined silence and stillness, we will, no doubt, find that it will interrupt and confound the usual course of human reason and its expectations, as it tears and wrenches the human heart from the fulfillment of its usual expectations. Then, if we sustain the stillness, and with a quiet mind ponder the unfolding drama of Holy Week, the blanket of Divine Otherness might begin to make sense of what seems to be wholly wrong, unjust, and even unthinkable.
Following Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem He had told his Apostles: All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. (St. Matthew 26.31) This Word that was made flesh would be rejected on a number of different levels. Men always find excuses for refusing to allow the Word to be made flesh in human life. In the interests of political expedience, Pilate will convince himself, perhaps, that he has rid the world of a temporary religious nuisance. The Jews’ self-righteous indignation will be justified…or so they think. Jesus’ Disciples will abandon Him out of confused fear and cowardice. Peter will deny Him and repent, and Judas Iscariot will betray Him and hang himself.
In the lections for today, we already begin to see and hear the truth that will emerge through the trial, arrest, and condemnation of Jesus Christ. Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judaea, is confronted with that earthly chaos and confusion that the Pax Romana must never abide, especially on what should be just another peaceful Friday afternoon in an insignificant outpost of the Roman Empire. He seems a reasonable and just enough man, who is neither drawn to nor impressed by the strange religion of the Jewish Aristocracy, which has interrupted his afternoon rest. He is commissioned with enforcing the Pax Romana –the peace of Octavian Augustus, that has brought unimaginable law and order in the now civilized the world. So he will do his best to treat the problem of this Jesus of Nazareth expeditiously with a kind of Stoical calm that the Romans had mastered with fine precision. In the interest of Roman Law, he will rebuke the Jews for their envy, commanding them to judge Christ themselves, or send him to Herod….but to no avail. (St. Matthew xxvii. 14) Then another kind of stillness, silence, and peace will emerge from this strange man, Jesus Christ, whom he must interrogate. Pilate marvel[s] greatly. (Ibid, 14) His wife has the spiritual sense to warn him to have nothing do with that just man (St. Matthew xxvii. 19), not realizing that she will be the prophetess of a new world order. And, in a sense he will try to do just that. But the crowd will demand that Barabbas be released and Jesus be crucified. Pilate’s conscience is nevertheless stirred, for he finds no evil or crime in the defendant. Why, what evil hath he done? (Ibid, 23) Let Him be crucified, the crowd demands. In response to the passionate envy that threatens further chaos and anarchy, we shall read that, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it. (Ibid, 24) The Jews will confess: His blood be on us, and on our children. (Ibid, 25) And they too will prophesy a judgment of themselves that has never since been eradicated.
Many people, including Christians down through the ages, have never had enough time for Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God’s love in the flesh. As T. S. Eliot reminds us, Christ speaks to them and us:
O my people, what have I done unto thee.
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the daytime and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
(Ash Wednesday: Eliot, v.)
But for those who can become contemplatively still and quiet by God’s Grace, the sound and sight of God’s Word of Love will emerge through the suffering and death of Christ, His own Son. From the still and silent center –the heart of the Son of God, who will be suffering and dying not only to the world, the flesh, and the devil enfleshed in others, but also to Himself, the Word will be seen and heard. It will be perceived and received, slowly, even hesitatingly, by those who have chosen to believe and to follow. Even now, as the world and its words assault and kill the Word of God in human flesh, the Word of God endures, to be spoken from the center and through the stillness of His unchanged and unmoved heart. This is the heart whose mind made all things and now intends to redeem them. For this Word made flesh –this Jesus Christ– always sees and hears the Father, and then reveals, communicates, and articulates the Father’s will to the world. He will not cease to do so, and especially through His suffering and death when He will be most challenged not to love the Father’s will and bring it to life in the world. He came from God and He will return to God. But not before He willingly offers Himself to God and man by laying down all claims and rights to Himself.
This morning, with St. Paul, we remember that though He was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2. 6-8) Jesus Christ empties Himself of His humanity, in order that pure powerlessness might be placed back in the hands of God, the maker and molder of all new human life. He will not desperately grab for, grasp, or clutch on to His Divinity in the hour of His human impotence. Rather He prefers to obey, fear, and follow God with all the humanity that remains in Him. He will become the Man who once again is the servant of God because God’s will and Word alone suffice to secure Man’s unbreakable union with Him. He will be one with the Word of the Father that He sees and hears. This is the Word that has spoken and continues to speak to Him, and through Him to us. And the Word that speaks is the eternal Desire of God for His people. This is the Word of Love that conquers hate, the Word of Good that conquers evil, and the Word of Truth that conquers ignorance.
This week, I pray, that each of us shall make time to travel with Jesus up to His Cross. We can travel with the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John looking and listening, to the Word made flesh, though we might be very confused and bewildered. This Word of God in Christ will be mostly silent. Pilate marveled, and so will we. In this Word who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously (1 Peter 2. 22, 23), we will begin to see the Word of God’s Love in the flesh. This is a Love that first touches and moves the still and silent hearts of those who remain faithful to it. This is the Love that was first seen and heard in miracles and parables, and now from the Cross persists in revealing itself to others in succinct statements of forgiveness and hope as He brings our old man, Adam, to death in Himself on the Cross. Ultimately and perfectly, this will be the Love that dies in order that all men might live. Christ takes on the burden of our sin and death, which we cannot bear. He bears it gladly and courageously, and even in the midst of unimaginable pain -not just the pain of the body, but the pain of the soul and the spirit also which nevertheless are true to God as the forgiveness of our sins and the seedbed of new and Resurrected Life.
On this Palm Sunday we sing Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. And yet it seems that as soon as the jubilant song of praise and celebration fades, new malevolent cries for Christ’s execution grow and swell. Crucify Him. Crucify Him. Let him be crucified. Where will we be this week? Will we follow the Word of God’s Love in the heart of Jesus into suffering and death? Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53. 4,5)
This week, let us listen to the silent Word of God’s Love alive in the heart of the dying Saviour. Let us listen as the Word of Love makes innocent suffering and death the occasion for His persistent pursuit of our salvation. Let us listen to the Word of Love that calls us into death. Let us be determined to die in the embrace of Love which offers Himself to God and to us in that simultaneous knot of fire that purges away all cruelty, malice, malevolence, ill will, envy, and pride. Let us be determined to leave our old selves and the familiar haunts behind that the new Man in all of us may be made alive. And let us remember, in stillness and silence, as contemplating the suffering and dying Beloved the words of Archbishop Trench:
Twelve legions girded with angelic sword
Were at his beck, the scorned and buffeted:
He healed another's scratch; his own side bled,
Side, feet, and hands, with cruel piercings gored.
Oh wonderful the wonders left undone!
And scarce less wonderful than those he wrought;
Oh self-restraint, passing human thought,
To have all power, and be as having none;
Oh self-denying love, which felt alone
For needs of others, never for its own.
But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.
(Gal. iv. 26)
At the very beginning of Lent Jesus said to his disciples, Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (St. Luke xviii. 31) We began our journey at Christ's command. Long journeys are hard work, and this Lenten journey is no exception. For nearly seven weeks Christians are invited to walk with Jesus towards Jerusalem. Walking to Jerusalem is what our lives are all about. We walk with Jesus to see how He conquers the temptations of Satan and triumphs over sin for us. We walk with Jesus to discover that, like the woman of Canaan, we are more like dogs than men, aliens and exiles to God’s promises, and yet still wholly craving the crumbs that fall from His table. So, we learn to long humbly for that mercy that persists in obtaining Jesus' mercy and healing. As dogs, we learn also that we are, more often than not, dumb and mute, incapable of comprehending and articulating God’s Word and will in our lives until His inward Grace opens our spiritual senses to His desire.
Our Lenten pilgrimage with Jesus up to Jerusalem, (St. Matthew xx. 18) will not be easy. We learn much about ourselves on this journey, and so we become spiritually exhausted. We grow haggard, hungry, and perhaps even dejected and discouraged. Lenten fasting and abstinence do that to a person. At times, we become distracted and even lose our way. The pull and tug of certain temptations may well have been overcome, but seven other demons worse than ourselves threaten to consume us. (St. Matthew xii. 45) Satan realizes that he is losing our spirits, and so he attacks our bodies with renewed vigor through the elements of this world. (Galatians iv. 3) We have the best of intentions and yet feel ourselves the children of the proverbial Hagar, the bond woman –giving birth to the earthly bastard offspring of vice. We do want to become free men, children of promise, and followers of Jesus, who go up to Jerusalem which is above… and is free. (Galatians iv. 26) And yet it seems the more we try the further back we fall.
Today Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church, provide us with what we need. Today is Dominica Refectionis –Refreshment Sunday or Mothering Sunday: the day on which Mother Church asks us to sit down and rest awhile, to find some spiritual refreshment so that our pursuit of Jesus Christ will not be in vain. Today, we are asked to stop, to breathe, and to contemplate the transcendent and spiritual Jerusalem of Heaven which awaits our arrival. So, we read that Jesus went up into a mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. (St. John vi. 3) Jesus bids us come with Him to the mountain of His holiness so that He might give us a foretaste of our heavenly future. He knows that we are in danger of spiritual languor and listlessness. He intends to provide us with that spiritual food which will give us dogged and dauntless determination to press on.…Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. (St. John vi. 10) St. John Chrysostom tells us:
That Jesus calls us up to rest at intervals from the tumults and confusion of common life. For solitude is good for the study of wisdom. And often doth He go up alone into a mountain, and spend the night there, and pray, to teach us that the man who will come most near to God must be free from all disturbance and must seek times and places clear of confusion. (St.J.C.: Sermon…)
So, we must sit down, listen, and trust. And yet in Lent, worn out as we are, we wonder, Whence shall we buy bread that [we all] may eat? (St. John vi. 5). Our minds are bent on earthly things. Jesus asks this question this morning to prove Philip, for he Himself knew what he would do. (St. John vi. 6) He intends to enlarge and deepen Philip's faith so that he might find hope in heavenly and not earthly nourishment. Philip has seen the finger of God at work in the miracles that Jesus has performed. Will he believe that Jesus can provide food that no man can afford and that can satisfy far more than the physical hunger of a paltry five thousand? What measure of faith does Philip have? Is he a child of Hagar born after the flesh or a child of promise? (Gal. iv. 23) Philip answers as one in bondage to the elements of this world. He responds that even two-hundred penny worth is not enough for this crowd. (St. John vi. 7) Philip is thinking in earthly terms and thus calculates the monetary cost of feeding the hungry thousands. Too many people, too little money, he conjectures. Thus, Jesus intends to reveal the smallness and poverty of Philip’s faith. His faith should be in Christ’s power to fulfill all of his needs. He should have remembered that the same Jesus who made water into wine at the Wedding in Cana of Galilee would surely be able to feed the hungry multitude. His faith should have seen too that if Christ has asked whence shall we buy bread that He intended to remind Philip that God alone provides our every need and want.
Philip’s faith is small and weak because of what he does not have. Andrew’s faith is small and weak because of what they do have. There is a young lad who hath five barley loaves and two fishes, but what are they among so many? (St. John vi. 9) As Philip’s faith was overcome by too much, Andrew’s was constrained by too little. To offer so little to so many could only stand to mock and offend them, Andrew thought. Philip said we have too many to feed. Andrew said we have too little with which to feed.
True faith can often be destroyed because we conclude that we never have enough or we complain about having too little. Jesus tells us to sit down, listen, and trust. He asks us to remember that we are going up to Jerusalem, that we are dogs eating from the crumbs that fall from His table (St. Matt. xv. 27), and that we must not only hear the Word of God but keep it. (St. Luke xi. 28) Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. (St. John vi. 10) The disciples obey the Master, though as yet they have nothing to set before the guests. Nature serves her Master and so affords Him and His guests a plush, green carpet of comfortable grass. And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would. (Ibid, 11) Before we make use of God’s gifts to us, we must give thanks. What He gives to us is more than sufficient to satisfy our hunger. Jesus asks us to join in His thanksgiving to the Father as we are fed on our journey up to Jerusalem. Five loaves and two fishes will feed five thousand. For us, tiny morsels and crumbs of bread along with a small sip of wine will become supernaturally potent with Christ’s loving presence. Andrew’s poverty becomes Philip’s plenty. Something small becomes something great.
The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field. (St. Matthew xiii. 31) Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. (St. Matthew xiii. 31,32) Jesus says, gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost. (St. John vi. 12) Faith is spread through small fragments remaining from Christ’s feast –twelve baskets full to continue to refresh twelve Apostles and the multitudes whom they will convert. Those who think that Jesus Christ comes to satisfy only earthly hunger are in bondage to the elements of this world. (Gal. iv. 3) They are the children of Hagar. They are like Christians who are worried about what might happen to their bodies while ignoring the state of their souls. Their faith rests in earthly things and does not enlarge to embrace Christ’s true desire for man. To them nothing remains of Christ’s desire to feed the faith of their souls.
But faith’s sustenance is food for men wayfaring. As St. Hilary suggests, The substance [of the five barley loaves and two fishes] progressively increases. (The Passing of the Law: St. Hilary of Poitiers) And as Archbishop Trench says, So we have here a visible symbol of that love which exhausts not itself by loving, but after all its outgoings upon others, multiplies in an ongoing multiplying which is always found in true giving.... (Par’s. p. 213) Christ’s real intention is not feeding hungry bodies. He will feed hungry bodies to be sure. But He will do more. The seed of faith and hope open to the indwelling of Christ’s all-powerful spiritual love. His love intends always to fortify and strengthen that faith that must follow Him up to Jerusalem which is above, and is free. (Gal. iv. 26)
Therefore, the Apostles gathered the fragments together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten. (St. John vi. 13) St. Augustine tells us that the fragments that remained were the parts that the people could not yet eat. (Tr. xxiv. 6) What remains over and above is the spiritual substance of a faith that is growing. Jesus says, if you follow me, you will desire to eat of these fragments that remain. In the fragments that remain are hidden gifts of mystic meaning. In the fragments are the Divine potential for those who will hunger and thirst after righteousness. (St. Matthew v. 6) Jesus always provides more and better food to those who follow Him in faith. Faith sees that the more than the multitude can eat is Spirit and is Truth. Within fragments and crumbs of earthly food, lie hidden the spiritual nourishment of God’s Grace that will be food for men wayfaring. There is more to be seen, grasped, and ingested of this Giver and His gifts, but not until the eyes of faith are opened and the believer’s heart is softened. Let us then gather up the fragments that nothing be lost. (St. John vi. 12) We will need them. Behold we go up to Jerusalem; mere earthly fare will never sustain a faith that seeks to behold and plumb the depths of that love that never stops giving…even in Death.
Before Abraham was, I AM.
(St. John viii. 58)
The threat of God’s nearness and proximity are quite enough to unnerve, unhinge, and unsettle men in all ages. There is something in human nature that fears God’s presence and His Word. Most men treat the existence of God carelessly, incautiously, indifferently, or casually. The majority of men in our own time are very earthly minded. Even post-modern “Christians” don’t seem the least bit interested in the intellectual and spiritual pursuit of God and appear rather smugly and self-righteously self-contented. Evidently, they’ve got enough or had enough and don’t need more. Or, they arrogantly assert half a shilling’s bit of knowledge to shield them against their own inner fear of what and who God really might be. If such men go on to describe the philosophy or theology that moves them, what emerges usually amounts to little more than a spiritualization of religious feeling that convinces them that neither they or this life is really all that bad after all. Of course, such a philosophy of life collapses into the self and refuses to pursue what might be God’s excellence and the sacrifice that it will, no doubt, entail. The comforts of this life are too much to abandon in the journey after God.
Of course, as we learn in Passion Tide, Jesus Christ confronts all manner of resistance to His mission to us precisely because of this human hardness of heart that cannot abide God’s Word and Will. Which of you convicts me of sin? He says to us today. And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God, hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God. (St. John viii. 46) To be fair to contemporary man, who has stopped caring about Jesus Christ because he is drowned and drenched in the pagan culture which envelops him, it is no small wonder that Jesus Christ and His message are not only alien but antagonistic. Contemporary man seems so free and yet fears freedom. Test out your local I’m spiritual but not religious neighbors, and you shall find that what they fear most is the existence of God! They are enslaved to what is familiar and controllable. They fear all challenges and confrontations to their pretended freedoms. They fear Christ because of what He might demand or what it might cost to follow Him. They don’t like the idea that there might be a right opposed to their wrong, a good opposed to their evil, and an Absolute Good that to their relative comfort. Who and what they fear above all is Jesus Christ, the One who alone comes to earth to reconcile us with what God has intended for us from the beginning of time.
They are like the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel who find that Jesus Christ questions their religion and the Law that they worship. Because they are so unacquainted with the Divine Goodness, they can only react to what they consider to be evil. Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil? (St. John viii. 48) What is alien, strange, and contradicts our ways fills us with fear. We become convinced that there must be something wrong with One who challenges and calls all of our lives into question. And when He does, wouldn’t we rather think that the problem is more with Him than us? This is why we convince ourselves that we need not heed with too much seriousness who Jesus says He is and what He asks of us. If He merely irritates or annoys us, we excuse ourselves from following Him on the grounds that who He says He is and what He asks are just too much. If He succeeds in enraging us, we proceed to silence and kill Him. Our negligence, fear, and ignorance kill the Word of God as Man.
Of course, technically speaking, we are right. Who He says He is and what He asks seem just too much! If who He says He is was within the scope of human creativity, we would have invented it long ago and saved ourselves. So, the real question is this. Do we believe that He is who He says He is, and will we give Him what He asks of us? Jesus claims that God is His Father…[He] has come from God…that [he came] not of [Himself], [but was] sent. (St. John viii. 42)The Pharisees are enraged because they can’t imagine that Jesus could ever be who He says He is, and so condemn Him as demon-possessed. Their rage jumps at Him out of envy and resentment. Jesus is trespassing upon their sacred ground. Jesus answers, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me. And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth. (St. John 8. 49-50) Jesus comes to honor all men with God the Father’s desire for their salvation. The Pharisees honor themselves and seek glory from men. Those who are sinking and going to decay boast most of how other men hold them in the highest esteem. Christ knows that their arrogance stands only to make them and all others only worse. The clergy in every age are mostly corrupt. What He offers, He has received from the Father, and honors it as what alone can touch human hearts and transform them with eternal glory. He is sent by the Father on a Divine Mission: My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me and to finish His work. (St. John iv. 34) The glory that Christ will offer is something that will come near and touch the world in a radically new way.
Jesus claims that if a man keeps [His] saying, he shall never see death. (Ibid) What He promises to faith exceeds our wildest imagination. We are righteously indignant because we know that we must die. Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, if a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death. Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself? (St. John viii. 52-53) The Pharisees mean: You are a man, Jesus of Nazareth, and when you die, your words will die with you. Abraham and the prophets are all dead. And their words have died with them. Indeed their words are as dead as they. So, we cannot believe that your words are any different.
This is the response of all men who conclude that earthly death is the end of it all. Christ speaks once again. If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that He is your God: yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you; but I know him, and keep his saying. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. (St. John 8. 54-58) Christ the Word teaches us that human life is made by God to become an opportunity to hope for joy beyond misery and life beyond death. What He tells us is that God spoke His Word to Abraham to give him the hope of salvation. Jesus is the fulfillment of Abraham’s hope. He speaks to the Pharisees to reveal to them that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life that will overcome our death with new and joyful life. The Father’s saying is the promise of salvation to His people. Jesus keeps this saying. This means that He cleaves to the power of love that will save all men. Jesus is the same unchanging Word of God, the saying that moved Abraham to hope in salvation. This is the same unchanging Word of God that inspires Jesus to save all of us. Jesus says, Before Abraham was, I AM. I am the Word, that was heard of old, is with you now, and will be with you forever if you believe and follow me. I am my Father’s ‘saying’ of love for you. Will you follow me? If our faith is dead like that of the ancient Pharisees, our irritation will become the rage that kills Jesus and longs to drag Him into our spiritual death. Then took they up stones to cast at him…. (St. John viii. 59)
Jesus, God’s Word as flesh is sent to do His Father’s will. God’s Word is His will, His will is His Love, and His Love is the utterance and expression of God’s deepest desire and delight for all men’s salvation. His Love is that passion that longs to come near to us on this Passion Sunday. This passion is that Love that does not count the cost. His Love is as broad as the universe and as deep as the human heart. His Love incessantly, persistently, and relentlessly desires to make us His own. His Love is His Passion that longs to touch and transform us. This is the Passion that came near to Abraham, touched him, and transformed all his fears into one unchanging hope. This is the Passion that resonated, reverberated, and resounded in the spirits of those ancient souls who heard God’s Word and were athirst for God, yea, even for the living God…. (Ps. xlii. 2) This is the Passion of God in Jesus, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, to purge our conscience from dead works so that we might begin to serve the living God. (Hebrews ix. 11)
On this Passion Sunday, Jesus Christ persists and perseveres in Passion to keep the Father’s saying. Our English word passion comes from the Latin word patior and it means to suffer, endure, or even to be hurt or wounded. Today, we learn that Christ’s Passion will suffer and endure to win our salvation. He calls us forward to suffer and endure the love that is alive in His heart. If we are humble enough, He will come near to us. If we open our hearts, His approach will overturn all our fears. If we remain with Him, His Passion will wound us. If we follow Him up to His Cross, we shall be bruised by His loving death. In that death, we shall believe that we shall not die but live with Him forever. So, with Henry Vaughn, let us gaze with awe upon the Love that dies to smite and wound us into a Death that cannot help but lead to new and glorious life.
Ah, my dear Lord! What couldst thou spy
In this impure, rebellious clay,
That made thee thus resolve to die
For those that kill thee every day?
O what strange wonders could thee move
To slight thy precious blood and breath!
Sure it was Love, my Lord: for Love
Is only stronger far than death.
(Henry Vaughn, ‘Incarnation and Passion’
Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it.
St. Luke xi.
It is rather reassuring to know that the cynicism that characterizes the post-modern and post-Christian world is not new. If we have been attentive this morning, we will have found no small dose of it in the Pharisees who are murmuring against Jesus. Jesus had cast a demon out of a dumb (or mute) man, and the man spake. (St. Luke xi. 14) He had no sooner done this, than they who witnessed the immediate and extraordinary transformation claimed that Jesus had cast out the devil through Beelzebub the chief of the devils. (Idem, 16) In the ancient world, men believed that when any man had a physical handicap he was demonically possessed, and so when he was cured, men concluded that a devil had been cast out. In our own age, demonic possession and demons seem to be out of favor-mostly because postmodern psychiatry that has transcended good and evil believes that truth is relative. Postmodern man believes that truth is not objective, but subjective. So, in the end, if there is no difference between right and wrong, good and evil, then there really can be no talk of God and the chief of the Devils, Lucifer.
The theory that truth is relative is the bastard child of cynicism, and cynicism is the misbegotten child of Stoicism. The Stoic believes that reality is what it is, and that man must be responsible for himself in the pursuit of the Universal Good. None of the tension, struggle, and warfare involved in the conflict of other men must interrupt the Stoic’s philosophical journey. Cynicism emerges out of it because the Cynic sees the Stoic and most other men as selfish. Thus, the Cynic remedies the error by seeking to come to be one with Nature through the self. The Cynic is intent upon a subjective possession of truth for himself. The next step into relativism is not so difficult since man seems to become the measure of all things, of what is good, when, why, and how. The Cynic takes his stand defiantly only against traditional religion and philosophy but also against the state, with its laws and customs. Truth, to a great extent, can be found only subjectively. And so long before they ever get around to meeting God in Himself, they have fashioned another god in their own image -one who might even aid and abet the willful rejection of civilization and the sacrifices it entails for any common good. I am sore displeased with the heathen that are at ease (Zech. i. 15), the Lord tells Zechariah in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. And the problem is that most people use God or gods to promote and ensure their own spiritual comfort. They justify their ways of life, think themselves good enough. They think that their faith or knowledge is good for them, and if they are confronted with the truth that their lives are just as relativistic as their neighbors, they will probably say that you are possessed by an unclean spirit. This temptation is as old as ancient Cynicism.
But we, as Christians, can choose to make one of three responses to that temptation to think that truth is relative or that we are the best judges of what is good or evil and right or wrong. Like the ancient conservative Pharisees, who are much like the Cynics, we can refuse to allow the truth to challenge our carefully formulated and jealously guarded religious prerogatives. The Pharisees think that they have God in full, and that their role is to minister the God they have to others. Thus, when they encounter Jesus, they perceive that an interloper and intruder is poaching upon their territory and supplanting their authority. They say that Jesus casts out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils. (St. Luke xi. 15) In other words, they are moved first through pride and arrogance of their position and station as religious leaders. Truth is relative for them, since it depends upon their philosophy. If we identify with them, we begin and end with ourselves, and thus defiantly refuse to identify with the dumb and deaf man in today’s Gospel, or with the need that we all have for the healing and transformation of our lives by God.
Second, we can identify with those for whom the miracle which Jesus performed today was not enough, and so cry out for another. And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven. (St. Luke xi. 16) With this group, we can choose to become selfishly intent upon the constant consolation that ongoing miracles bring. So, like the Cynics, we require more spectacular miracles -perhaps like those whose faith fails when the external and visible signs of religion do not perfectly meet our childish appetites. Our religion is then natural or rooted in Nature’s soothing touch upon our emotions and feelings. If spiritual life with Jesus does not always involve Transfiguration Moments, or natural and bodily catharsis, as what is always beautiful, true, and good, then we tend to lose faith, hope, and love. This posture is as selfish as the Pharisees, but here the selfishness is less a matter of power and control, and more an instance of the refusal to admit and accept that suffering and pain are part and parcel of the process of sanctification. Truth is relative to this group also, for its validity and authenticity depend upon an ongoing repetition of ongoing highs, appetitive and emotional surges of temporary happiness and thrills. Signs and wonders are demanded constantly in order to prove and authenticate God’s real presence.
Or, third, we can become like the dumb and deaf man in today’s Gospel. Jesus clearly believes that the model for our humanity is found in this man, but only as a starting point on the road that opens to healing and salvation. Like the Syro-Phoenician woman in last week’s Gospel, the man whom Jesus heals in today’s is one who is truly in need not only of a one-off transfiguration moment of healing, but of that process of redemption that lasts as long as a lifetime. Far from thinking that truth is a personal prerogative or feeling-based, here we find a spiritual disposition of helplessness that reaches out to a healing that tries and tests all spirits and ideas that confront and challenge the human predicament.
So, with this third kind of person, we learn from Jesus that the Devil believes that truth is relative. Every kingdom divided against itself, he says, is brought to desolation. And a house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? (St. Luke xi. 17, 18) Satan does not unite but divides a man from truth, from truth’s healing of the self, and of truth’s healing of all others. Satan has one end to divide men from God, within himself, and from others. The Devil believes that relativism is the truth. Satan loves relativism’s delusion of self-sufficiency.
Jesus has been accused of healing a man whose life is separated from the civilized world. He cannot speak, and so is prevented from being connected with any kind of order -spiritual or secular. The man cannot speak and is thus alienated from the world of language and words. The devil delights in this, and if he had healed this man, he would have brought about what he hates -he would have connected this man to a deeper form of healing and goodness through language. Jesus insists that the Devil did not heal this man, for then he would have been at odds with himself.
Jesus says this morning that if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. (St. Luke xi. 20) True healing then comes to a man who knows and admits his own powerlessness and then opens to what alone will carry and unite him to his fellow men and God through the language of salvation. When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace: But when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils. (St. Luke xi. 21, 22) Pharisees, Relativists, and Miracle-Seekers all stubbornly and dogmatically clutch on to a knowledge that they think will save them. But when some unforeseen pain of body or soul, misfortune, loss or tragedy assaults them, they fall apart and into chaos, divided, as the Devil would have it. The armour wherein they trusted- self-assured knowledge, good works, and even the miracles are taken away. Jesus suggests that this is a good thing. Perhaps the mute man is a model of our condition. Jesus desires to cast out the devils from the human soul. He allows pain and misfortune to visit a man in order that our illusions, fantasies, and lies in which we have trusted may be revealed as impotent. Our relative happiness must be deprived of all force and meaning. When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. (St. Luke xi. 24-26) Delusional despair can lead right back to the pursuit of relative and impermanent gods if we do not consider the condition of the mute man.
This morning the Word of God, Jesus Christ, puts His finger on our problem, and desires to cast away our demons. Our demons are any person, place, or thing that resists the Lord’s absolute power to heal us. They can be cast off, but they might return until one stronger than the strong man not only delivers us from them, but overcomes them with His virtue and goodness. Blessed is the womb that bare thee and the paps which thou hast sucked (St. Luke xi. 27) cries a woman who witnesses today’s miracle. Jesus responds, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it. (St. Luke xi. 28) The true miracle we must seek today is that, with St. Paul, we realize that we were sometimes darkness, but now…are light in the Lord. (Eph. V. 8) True healing comes to us from God, who begins to heal us and participate in it. Truth is not relative but Absolute. So, with the dumb mute of today’s Gospel, let us be determined to hear the Word of God and keep it because we can speak the truth that has set us free and walk as children of the light (Idem) so that all other men may realize that the Kingdom of God has come upon us. (Ibid, 20)
He is no unkind physician who opens the swelling, who cuts,
who cauterizes the corrupted part. He gives pain, it is true, but
he only gives pain, that he might bring the patient on to health. He
gives pain, but if he did not, he would do no good.
(St. Augustine: Sermon xxvii)
Last week we examined the temptations that Jesus withstood for us to draw us deeper into His love for God our Heavenly Father. And I pray that we came away with a real sense of His desire to serve God alone and to fulfill His will for us. This week we shall come to see and grasp the nature of sin and our powerlessness over it; and, because of this, I pray that we shall come to learn that all sin whether subtle or direct threatens to control us. Lastly, I pray that we shall find deliverance from sin through persistent and humble submission to the Lord’s judgment of our condition and His provision of cure. I pray also that we might be willing to submit ourselves to Jesus’ potent and stinging medicine so that we might be healed fully.
This morning, we read in the Gospel that Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.(St. Matthew 15. 21) He comes to the borders of the pagan Gentile world. Jesus never went into non-Jewish territory. Rather, He visits the periphery and hopes to draw Gentiles into the land of Promise and Salvation. Jesus’ motives should fascinate us. Jesus intends that all men should be saved. He must offer salvation to God’s chosen people first. Yet, isn’t it interesting that more often than not He finds Himself drawn to the borders of heathen nations. Today, He had just finished a discourse to His own people about how sin originates in man’s heart and soul. He said, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. (St. Matthew xv. 8) What Jesus experienced from his own people was the outward shell of meticulous religious observance of the Law but hearts that were not devoted to the Spirit of the Law.
So, the Spirit draws Jesus to the borders of Canaan. He will find the need for what He brings into the world from foreigners, aliens, and outcasts. A Syro-Phoenician woman, a Greek inhabitant of Canaan will approach Jesus. From a distance, she had learned that the Jews had brought those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatics to Jesus for healing. (St. Matthew 4. 24) She had heard that Jesus’ cures were instantaneous. His cure was efficacious, and she was determined to have it also. Jesus was coming, and she wasted no time. We read that she cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. (St. Matthew 15. 22) She comes from afar not for herself but for her daughter who is further away. She bears the burden of her daughter’s illness in her heart. Her daughter’s misery is her misery. She will learn that Jesus’ misery is our misery. She cries out for His mercy, but we read that He answered her not a word. (Ibid, 23) Jesus is silent. St. John Chrysostom writes: The Word has no word; the fountain is sealed; the physician withholds His remedies. (Homily LII: Vol X, NPNF:I)
Jesus, however, will elicit more from her to teach us about true faith –the faith that storms the gates of Heaven until Jesus responds.
We learn that the Apostles cannot see what Jesus is doing. While they have been with Him for some time and have witnessed what He can do, they prefer to hoard Him selfishly, so that seeing, they see, and do not perceive. (St. Mark 4. 12) Like many Christians, they settle for the observing more of what Jesus can do than what all men need. Send her away, for she crieth after us. (St. Matthew 15, 23) The woman is ruining their spiritual friendship with Jesus. They want only to be rid of this pestiferous annoyance. Theirs is that heartless granting of a request, whereof most of us are conscious; when it is granted out of no love to the suppliant, but to leave undisturbed his selfish ease from whom at length it is exhorted. (Trench: Gospel) They are selfishly annoyed. Jesus is not. He will engage the woman, for He knows that in her heart there is a faith that persists in finding the cure that God alone can give.
Jesus is teasing the woman. His first response to the woman is I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (St. Matthew 15. 24) In St. Mark’s Gospel, He says, Let the children first be filled. (St. Mark 7. 27) In both, He means that His mission is first to the Jews because they should be the Children of Promise. Jesus, the Great Physician begins to open this heathen woman’s spiritual swelling. The Apostles are silent. She is neither daunted, disheartened, nor disturbed. She needs more from Jesus than the Apostles, for now. As audacious and brazen as it would have seemed to these Jews, she moves closer to Jesus. The more acute the disease, more urgent is the need for the physician’s immediate attention. Then came she and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me. (St. Matthew 15.25) She will insist that Jesus is her Lord and she will submit to His rule. From His heart, Jesus is already healing her. As Calvin writes, We see then that the design of Christ’s silence was not to extinguish the woman’s faith, but rather to whet her zeal and inflame her ardor. (Calvin’s Comm’s. xvii) Jesus is amazed. She is courageous, determined, and true to herself.
Jesus is first silent and then discouraging. Now, He rubs salt into her wound. Jesus says: It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. (St. Matthew 15. 26) He calls her a dog! He takes the ancient Jews’ prejudice of the Gentiles and hurls it at her. Yet, if we look more closely, Jesus is trying to tease out of this woman not only faith but humility. Is he mocking this woman or the Jews? He knows that this woman, no matter what her race or cultural origin, might actually possess a faith that will put His faithful Jewish followers to shame.
This Gentile outcast is on a journey after and for Jesus. She is going up to Jerusalem with Him in heart and mind. She needs Him completely. She hangs upon every His every word and refuses to let Him out of her grip. She will follow Him come what may. She believes Jesus is God’s own Son. She responds with, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. (St. Matthew 15. 27) She needs Jesus’ severe mercy and hard love. She may be a dog and not a lost sheep. But she knows herself to be dog who needs the Master’s attention. Jesus can become hers. I am a stray dog who, when found, will sit at my master’s feet. A dog belongs to its master. I sit at his feet but will not be cast out -under but not forsaken. I belong to thee, O Lord. So she says, Let me be a dog. If you are the master, I shall eat of the crumbs that fall from the table that you have prepared for your chosen people. The crumbs shall be more than sufficient for my daughter’s healing. As St. Augustine says, It is but a moderate and a small blessing I desire; I do not press to the table, I only seek for the crumbs. (Serm. xxvii, vol. vi. NPNF) My daughter is sick, and if I am a dog, let me at least eat the crumbs and morsels of mercy that fall from your table. I believe that ‘thou hast the words of eternal life.’ (St. John 6. 68) Lord, evermore give [me] this bread. (St. John 6. 34)
With her words, this woman storms the gates of Heaven and conquers its Lord. Jesus says, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (St. Matthew 15. 28) Jesus cauterizes her wound, and her faith ensures that her daughter is healed. In the end, it is her faith that secures the healing she seeks. Faith in Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God and the Power of God, is what always obtains Jesus’ healing for our sin-sick souls. This woman’s faith did not demand that Jesus come down in person to heal her daughter. This woman’s faith knew that the Word could easily retrace the distance she traveled to find her daughter. In faith, she believed that Jesus need speak the word only and [her daughter] would be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) St. Mark writes that when the woman was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed. (St. Mark 7. 30)
With our opening St. Augustine reminds us that [Christ] the Good Physician gives pain, it is true, but He only gives pain, that He might bring the patient on to health. He
gives pain, but if He did not, H would do no good. (Idem) So, we must be willing to endure the pain of hearing the hard truth we learn about ourselves from Jesus. He comes to diagnose our condition and provide the cure. He intends to empty us of any pride that our faith might persist in finding His loving cure. Matthew Henry warns us that there is nothing got by contradicting any word of Christ, though it bear ever so hard upon us. But this poor woman, since she cannot object against it, resolves to make the best of it. ‘Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs…. (Comm. Matt. xv.)
With the example of the Syrophoenician’s faith and humility let us confess that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. (Collect, Lent II) Let us beg deliverance from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul. (Idem) With her, let us abandon the lust of concupiscence in Gentiles who know not God. (1 Thes. i. 3) Jesus longs to find a faith that will not cease until it finds His cure. Let us all admit that we are dogs. He calls us out as dogs because God call us not to uncleanness, but unto holiness. (Idem) Jesus is always overcome by the faith of dogs who fulfilled with His crumbs can conquer demons and heal human hearts. Jesus may resist us at times, but only to tease out that faith that will have Him, and Him alone as Master.
For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities;
but was in all points tempted like as we are, yetwithout sin.
(Hebrews iv. 15)
Monsignor Ronald Knox reminds us that the whole story of the Temptation is misconceived if we do not recognize that it was an attempt made by Satan to find out whether our Lord was the Son of God or not. (The Epistles and Gospels, p. 89) Perhaps this is our question too. To be sure Satan tempts Jesus, but we tempt Jesus also. We want to know if He is the Son of God. We want evidence and proof that provide certain facts; we want confirmation. And today on the First Sunday of Lent we are given good evidence that He is, at least, moving towards revealing this truth to us. After all, proofs aren’t bad things; and in this case, we can thank Satan for confronting Jesus and providing Him with the opportunity to reveal to us how He overcomes temptation.
We begin with our Gospel lesson for today, remembering that we have accepted Jesus’ invitation to go up to Jerusalem. Presumably, then, we are going up not merely to be recognized as devout pilgrims, but to find out for ourselves just who this Jesus of Nazareth is. We read that Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. (St. Matthew iv. 1,2) St. Matthew records that this happened just after Jesus was baptized by St. John Baptist in the River Jordan,
when the heavens were opened…and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (St. Matthew iii. 16,17)
Jesus had been doubly blessed by the Father and the Holy Ghost. He had fasted for forty days in order to prayerfully embrace this blessing. But as the Son of God made flesh, He was hungry. Jesus is famished and there is nothing in the desert but stones. So, Satan says to Him, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. (St. Matthew iv. 3) Jesus knows that God sent Him not to destroy human nature but to redeem it. The temptation is fleshly and involves lust and gluttony. Jesus is the Son of God in the flesh is famished. He cannot put His earthly hunger before His spiritual mission. Monsignor Knox reminds us that Jesus remembers Moses and flat stones in the wilderness waiting to receive the new law…for that, men’s souls are hungering. (R. Knox: Sermon, ‘The Temptations of Christ) They reveal to man his duty to God as His Maker and Redeemer. Because the Son of Man is first the Son of God, He will hunger and thirst for [God’s] righteousness. (St. Matthew v. 6) The Son of God was made man so that man might become a son of God once again. Jesus will teach, Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, that….all [other]….things may be added unto you. (St. Matthew vi. 33) Jesus remembers who He is truly and that He has meat to eat that Satan does not know of. His meat is to do the will of Him that sent…. Him. (St. John iv. 32,34) In a world without God, there is only food and drink, sex, and material pleasure. But Jesus knows that Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (St. Matthew iv. 4) St. Paul, in today’s Epistle, reminds us that only with patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, and in fastings (2 Cor. vi. 4) in the flesh, can we share in the sufferings of the Son of God for our salvation.
Jesus’ physical hunger is overcome by His spiritual longing to eat and digest the bread of God’s will. Satan will not be deterred. He will tempt Jesus with pride, envy, and wrath. Fasting in the body often brings anger in the soul. This soon brings envy of God’s pure and simple blessedness. Then comes the pride that tempts the Son of God to leave the body altogether and to fast-track salvation by proving His almighty power. He has denied the good of the body, Satan thinks, so let Jesus dispense with his body entirely, cleaving as he does to this ‘Word’ of God. He trusts in God, then let Him deliver Him now, if he will have Him: for he said, I am the Son of God. (St. Matthew xxvii. 43)Then the devil taketh Him up into the holy city, and setteth Him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto Him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou thy foot against a stone. (St. Matthew iv. 5,6) Satan tempts Jesus to prove that He is the Son of God by calling angels to save Him from sure and certain death. Jesus has put the good of His soul over that of His body. If you cannot perform a miracle with regard to the body’s hunger, prove your unbreakable unity with God through the mind or the soul, Satan suggests. Cast yourself down; surely God will not let one perish who places the good of his soul above that of his body. Jesus, however, knows that this is no way for the Son of God to redeem and save all men. Man’s soul is in a body. God doesn’t intend for the Son of God to save us by performing dazzling magic and miracles on Himself to provoke our faith in Him. The Son of God must save us by perfecting faith and reason. That He is the Son of God will require much more than a selfish, rash, and defiant cry to God to save Him after he has irrationally subjected Himself to danger. Jesus knows that as the Son of God He must use His soul in His body to save us selflessly and innocently.
Jesus is the Son of God by that inner determination to cleave to His Father’s will and to reveal His way. Jesus the Son of God came down from Heaven to redeem the whole of human nature. The Son of God can feed the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes later and will perform miracles on others soon enough. Fulton Sheen reminds us that the Son of God had no need to become a Communist Commissar who provides only bread…. He says too that the Son of God would not prove Himself by avoiding His Cross by commanding faith in miraculous powers that would provoke God to contradict reason…and to exempt the Son of God from obedience to natural laws which were the laws of God. (F. Sheen: The Life of Christ, p. 67) Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. (St. Matthew iv. 7)
We come to the final temptation. Satan thinks that only one temptation remains. Surely if He is the Son of God as flesh, He can still be tempted by greed and sloth. Jesus has come to save all men, but He wonders if He is held captive and enslaved to His Father’s will as the Son of God? His last temptation, full of the sloth that these temptations have brought, is to covet with greed His Father’s power and to make off with it for His own selfish glory. He is tempted to think that the Son of God is no Son but His own god. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (St. Matthew iv. 8,9) Satan tempts Jesus to despair of His Father’s Kingdom and to rule over His own kingdom. Perhaps His power to resist the first two temptations gives Him the freedom to embrace the third. Jesus has forsaken everything for God and His kingdom and has been rendered utterly powerless. His sense of impending weakness is weighing so heavily upon Him that He is tempted to give it all up –to do evil that good may come of it. (Idem, Knox, p. 65) Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. (St. Matthew iv. 10) The Son of God is God’s only perfect Son. The Son of God is nothing if He does not come from the Father to embrace what His will requires to lead all men to His Kingdom. The Father rules the whole of creation, and He gives meaning to all creation through His Son. As the Father’s Word, the Son of God must create more than an earthly kingdom that satisfies men’s earthly happiness. Then the devil leaveth Him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto Him.(St. Matthew iv. 11)
The Sons of Man are born to become Sons of God. What the Son of God reveals to us is that if we are to become Sons of God, we must go to the Cross with Jesus to die. The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (St. Matthew xx. 28) At the end of our Gospel lesson for today, we read that, Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (St. Matthew iv. 11) Luther tells us that the angels came down from Heaven to feed Him. This is the proper order and nature of God’s provision. The Son of God is hungering and thirsting for the Father’s righteousness. God the Father rules Christ’s spirit, nourishes His soul, and now cares for His body. It follows that the Son of God has come to serve and redeem us all. The Son of God will go on to win our salvation on the Cross of Calvary. There Satan will attack Him one last time.
In Lent, Jesus the Son of God calls us to His Cross. With Fulton Sheen, the Son of God says:
All I now want of this earth is a place large enough to erect a Cross; there I shall let you unfurl me before the crossroads of your world. I shall let you nail me in the name of the cities of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, but I will rise from the dead, and you will discover that you, who seemed to conquer, have been crushed, as I march with victory on the wings of the morning. (Idem)
And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
(St. Luke viii. 9)
We said last week that the Gesima Season is all about discovering the self-discipline that will help us to keep a more holy Lent. Part of that discovery involves a real effort at persevering in our pursuit of understanding what Jesus Christ teaches us. Last week we began our pursuit with Jesus’ Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. A parable presents us with a surface illustration or story that begs us to delve deeper into a spiritual and heavenly meaning. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parable always depicts a human habit, experience, or labor with which most men can identify. It is different from a fable in that it does not involves talkative donkeys or philosophical cats who aim to teach us some moral lesson about earthly life. It is unlike a myth since myth never ends up disentangling truth from the story. The myth is believed more as a sign of the union of the supernatural and natural rather than as the way from the one to the other. A parable, then, takes man seriously in his spiritual pursuit from nature to the divine. It considers the spiritual purpose that lies hidden in earthly intentions and ends. In the case of the parables told by Jesus, He never uses illustrations that contradict the natural and human orders but offers them as earthly depictions of spiritual aspirations and ends. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)
But notice something else. The parables of the New Testament are always about earthly cares and considerations that are always capable of being perfected spiritually. Jesus uses parables not only because He wants to make men think and know but because He wants them to choose and decide for the sake of His Kingdom. Pope Benedict XVI says that Jesus can speak openly about the Kingdom of God to others or all sorts of people. But to those who will follow Him and become His disciples, He speaks in parables, precisely to encourage their decision, their conversion of the heart…. St John Chrysostom says that ‘Jesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would covert, he would heal them” (Idem, cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). Parables are used by Jesus to convert men’s hearts, to encourage them to become His disciples, and to give them a picture of what the process of spiritual transformation is all about. Parables stir wonder, questing, seeking, and knocking. The man who seeks out their meaning is the one who desires to know and find happiness in the discovery of a truth that, at first, remains hidden to him. In the parables, each of us is given the opportunity to follow Jesus and to discover God’s Hidden Meaning…which most men couldn’t be bothered about.
Think about how so very hard this is –I mean to decide to follow Jesus and to discover the meaning of His Parables! Last week we prayed for the temperance and perseverance that runs after God’s justice. This week, we are reminded that this self-discipline is no easy business. St. Paul, this morning, takes up the point as he addresses a community of new Christians in Corinth who are being swayed by false prophets to believe that no moral effort or self-discipline is needed at all. They were telling the Corinthians that this Paul was blowing the process of conversion all out of proportion. True Christianity, they insisted, involves really nothing more than a kind of new-age mysticism that promises an otherwise painless existence. True Christianity, they said, shouldn’t involve anything like what St. Paul was teaching but should be an easier, softer, and gentler endeavor that shouldn’t command any moral effort or suffering at all.
But St. Paul was incensed. St. Paul had digested the Parables of Jesus. For Paul, the life of Jesus Christ was a Parable intended to lead men to the long and hard study that should trigger imitation! Far from wishing to justify himself, St. Paul even desired to use his life as a kind of parable that might lead other men onto the road of conversion and redemption. Remember, the parable uses real human experience to carry the seeker’s mind into spiritual wisdom. St. Paul uses his own life as a parable to teach his flock what Christian conversion entails. He shows us that true discipleship requires the same effort that goes into understanding any good parable. He asks, Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck…in perils of robbers, in perils of waters, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen…in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…(2 Cor. 23-27) He tells them that conversion and discipleship involve running the race with temperance in all things to obtain an incorruptible crown. In other words, true conversion and discipleship will involve the training and discipline for running a spiritual race. This will demand suffering and toil. He tells them that this suffering might demand not only rejection from the outside world and its pleasures but even spiritual warfare and torture that threaten the presence of Christ within. Who is weak, and I am not weak (Cor. xi. 29), he asks? This business of becoming a Christian and staying the course are as real as the parable that his own life reveals. In other words, it hurts. Yet, he concludes, that the end justifies the means. If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) The parable of Paul’s experience teaches us that in humility, in weakness and suffering, Christ comes to the soul and reveals God’s hidden Word.
St. Paul’s life and witness comprise a parable for us all. But what had happened to his Corinthian converts so that they were so easily swayed by their new teachers and prophets? I think that we can find all or part of the answer in this morning’s Gospel Parable of the Sower. Jesus tells us that A sower went out to sow his seed. At first, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. (St. Luke viii. 5) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had heard God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls was like the wayside, trodden down by the ongoing traffic and business of this world, and so they could not hear the Word. They might have been in this state because they have exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they have become hard as the pavement, till they have laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root…(Parables, Trench, p.60) Such men are always prey to the Devil and his friends since they live in a world full of so many words that they cannot distinguish God’s Word from all others.
Next, …some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. (Ibid, 6) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had hearts like gravely rock. For such people, the heard-Word of God with excitement and joy for a short time; it sounds so promising. They prematurely anticipate its benefits without counting the cost of growing it in the soul. They fall away because they cannot work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) Salvation, they discover, is a parable of real life, full of pain and suffering, doubt and confusion, hard labor and effort. Like the sun scorching the blade that has no depth in the earth, these men’s hearts [are] failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth….(St. Luke xxi. 26)
Next, And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (Ibid, 7) Perhaps some of the Corinthians honestly received God’s Word but choke and kill it with cares and concerns of this life that end up being more important to them. Here the heard-Word is growing for a season but only alongside inner anxiety and fear that kill the growth of the Word within. They are crushed, as the Gospel says, by the cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) As Archbishop Trench remarks, the old man is not dead in them; it may seem dead for a while…but unless mortified in earnest, will presently revive in all its strength anew. (Ibid, p. 65) These thorns and briars may take the form of earthly happiness found or lost. In either case, they have neither been killed nor banished from the soil of the soul, and so the Word cannot grow. One or all of these kinds of hearing might explain what happened to St. Paul’s young flock and what can happen to us.
Finally, today’s Parable concludes with, And other [seed] fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. (Ibid, 8) The Parables are always about real life. In real life, seed can grow up effectually only in deep, dark soil that has been weeded and fertilized. So, in the soul, the seed of God’s Word can grow in our hearts only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort. Like Paul, we must expect both punishment from without and suffering from within if the heard-Word is to grow in our souls. Each and every one of us is subject to the temptations that threaten the hearing and growth of God’s Word in this morning’s Parable. With St. Paul we must proclaim, If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30)
It is precisely in the admission that we are weak that Christ responds to us with the love that alone can grow His Word. God has made the soul; God speaks His Word into it to save us. If we begin to hear God’s Word, to clear and cultivate the soil of our souls with sorrow and repentance, to tend the seed with carefulness and devotion, and not superficially and carelessly, by God’s grace we shall bring forth fruit with patience. (St. Luke viii. 15) Then you and I shall become a parable, where we, who hold the Word in earthen vessels can reveal His will and way to the world. And we can ask with Milton:
…What if earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?
(Paradise Lost: v, 574-576)
Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
We have just completed our journey from Advent through to Epiphany-tide. As Canon Crouse reminds us, the season we have observed has been a time of expectation, coming, and manifestation. In it, we saw that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we observed the Only Begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. Now we turn to the period spanning between Septuagesima Sunday and Ascension Day. Septuagesima Sunday is the beginning of our short Gesima season; Gesima means days. Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima refer to 70, 60, and 50 days before Easter. On these three Sundays, we prepare for Lent. Our seasons and the appointed readings come to us from patterns established in the Ancient Church. So, with the men of old in the ancient Western Latin Church, we must use our season for self-discipline. Again, with Father Crouse, today’s lesson in self-discipline will include the virtues of temperance, justice, and hope.
The first two virtues that we study today are of the Four Cardinal Virtues. The Cardinal Virtues come to us from the Latin word cardo, which means hinge. These then are the hinge virtues without which we cannot hope to obtain any kind of goodness. Goodness here is that holiness and righteousness which we can find using our reason and free will. The Cardinal Virtues were first formulated by the great Greek philosopher Plato in his Dialogues, were later refined by Aristotle, and were then part and parcel of the Graeco-Roman world’s pursuit of goodness and virtue. The early Church Fathers designated them as Cardinal Virtues and acknowledged with their pagan predecessors that through reason’s study of the universe, human nature could come to know and then will a limited form of God’s goodness. The Fathers taught that they were not especially dependent upon Revelation or Scripture. Instead, they formed a kind of goodness that man can find prior to his need for the Divine Grace and Intervention that lead to salvation. So, you can imagine the Cardinal Virtues are laying a kind of groundwork for the acquisition of goodness in this world. The goodness that they establish conditions the body and soul for an understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. The Cardinal Virtues, in a Christian context, provide us with a character of soul and body that will better situate us to pursue the Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and charity in the Holy Season of Lent.
Our first virtue is discussed today by St. Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter IX. In it, he likens our pursuit of Heaven to the spiritual and bodily preparation made by ancient Greek runners who competed in the Isthmian Games. Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? (1 Cor. 9. 24) Using an earthly paradigm illustrated by comparison to what the Cardinal Virtues can achieve, St. Paul inspires us to run so that we might win a prize. Of course, his illustration relates to a competition where only one man can win and receive the laurel wreath, the crown of triumph and victory in pagan life. St. Paul wants to assure us that as Christians we all can run to obtain the prize. In fact, we cannot receive it unless we run. And we cannot run without hope. So, with hope we must run to reach the finish line of salvation! So run, that ye may obtain (Ibid, 25), St. Paul insists. Yet, our running must be conditioned. …Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things: now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. (Ibid, 26) As it turns out, our running in hope must be tempered and moderated towards our end. Our end is not the corruptible crown of the laurel wreath that commands the admiration, wonder, praise, and veneration of earthly athletic enthusiasts. That end is corruptible and passing. Our end is incorruptible and lasting. And if this is the case, then our moderation and temperance must be of such a sort that best conditions our hearts and souls for the eternal prize of Heaven’s gift in the offer of salvation. The Apostle wants us to remember that we are aiming for a prize of inestimable worth and value. The temperance and moderation that we embrace must be applied to our souls as well as our bodies. The runners at the Isthmian Games kept to a strict diet and discipline. Also, they refrained from any activity that would corrupt the body and disrupt their focus. How much more then should Christians keep to a strict diet and discipline as they condition their bodies to serve their souls to hope for the prize of God’s Kingdom? The Greek runners were fighting for an earthly prize but Christians for an eternal reward. Thus, the Apostle warns us against that incautious and immoderate indulgence of the world that is always at enmity with God and more likely than not to distract us from running the race.
I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away. (Ibid, 26, 27)
Runners’ arms beat the air as they push their legs onward to an uncertain victory where one wins and the others lose. Christians, with certainty through hope, run all together, tempering their bodies through self-discipline, hoping to gain one reward. Paul calls us to imitate his example as we run with him.
Moderation and temperance condition our body to serve our soul’s end. For Christians, the end is one reward for all. We are invited into a common labor. The ancient pagans were in combat with one another. We cannot afford such a luxury. We must run altogether. But their virtues can be used in the service of our Gospel prize. By helping one another to moderate and temper our earthly passions and appetites, we can all appreciate more fully the crown that awaits us. Our crown is the reward or gift of God the Giver. We do not deserve, earn, or merit it. We have been invited to run or to labour in the Vineyard of the Lord, as today’s Gospel would have it. For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.(St. Matthew xx. 1) The offer to work in the Vineyard of the Lord is God’s gift. The work is offered at different times of the day or different times of life to men who will come in the morning, noontide, or evening of their lives. Those who come first to work are promised a penny. They have been awakened by the Lord in the morning of their lives and so come early to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. Others are roused or stirred later in the day of their lives. They have been idle, negligent, slothful, careless, or ignorant. Nevertheless, they are given a chance to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They are told that they will receive what is right in payment for their labour. Others are found at the sixth and ninth hours of their lives. Some are even found in the twilight of their lives, at the eleventh hour or the end of the day. They too are welcomed to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They too will receive what is right as a reward. These men are even rebuked for their sloth. Why stand ye here all the day idle? (Ibid, 6) Yet, the householder’s desire for their service is greater than his bewilderment at their delay in accepting the offer to run to the work that leads to an incorruptible crown.
In today’s Gospel Parable, at the end of the day, all are paid. The last to come are paid first and the first to come are paid last. The moderation and temperance that have conditioned the running and working of the Johnny-come-lately men are of equal value and worth to the first in the heart of the householder. Every man receives a penny. Every man receives the same reward. All run. Some come early and some come late. All are called to work for one end.
But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. (Ibid, 10-12)
Christians are called to run and work not that one may receive the prize but that all may run together to receive the gift of one and the same prize, an incorruptible crown. The householder responds:
Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Ibid, 13-16)
Moderation and temperance prepare us for the virtue of justice. Strictly speaking, as fallen and sinful men, we deserve nothing but just punishment for our sins. That is earthly justice. God’s justice, however, is always tempered by His mercy. He takes our Cardinal Virtues and rewards them with the hope of what we never could have imagined. He offers us an incorruptible crown as the reward of being invited into the hope of running and a work that leads back to Himself. God tells us that if we accept His invitation to run and to work, we shall be rewarded with a crown whose worth and value far exceed anything that is right or just for men. And, as John Henry Newman says:
We cannot be wrong here. Whatever is right, whatever is wrong, in this perplexing world, we
must be right in doing justly, in loving mercy, in walking humbly with our God; in denying
our wills, in ruling our tongues, in softening and sweetening our tempers, in mortifying our
lusts, in learning patience, meekness, purity, forgiveness of injuries, and continuance in well
Nay lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
(St. Mattew xiii. 29)
We have said that our Epiphany-tide is a Season of Light. And the Light that we have been trying to follow in faith, see and understand, embrace and cherish, is Christ’s Light. And so we have been learning that this Light comes to us to make new life and love in our hearts and souls. But there is a danger associated with this Light. We must remember that there is a difference between flashing, blazing, or sparkling light on the one hand, and enduring, persevering, and growing Light on the other. The first light is experienced as fleeting, occasional, and at best temporary. It is found, generally, with the kind of person whose spiritual life is characterized by part-time highs, cheap thrills, and instant gratification. The second Light, being Christ’s Light, is far more demanding, since it desires and longs to overcome, overtake, rule, and guide the whole of a man’s life. It is found in the kind of person, who intends that his conversion should be the first moment on a long journey into healing and transformation, redemption and sanctification, with the reward of salvation.
Now the problem for most of us is that we are always wanting Christ the Light to manifest and reveal Himself to us in the manner of the first light. We want signs and wonders, we want glamour and glitz, we want our walk of faith to be full of transfiguration moments. We expect that because we are faithful church-going Christians, our journey should not be marked by struggles, difficulties, temptations, and distractions. We expect that our common life together in the church should be perfect and that our soul’s journey into God should be the same.
But our Lord knows otherwise and never intends that we should be mistaken about the nature and character of our journey into His Light. This is the reason for the parable which he offers for our meditation this morning. Let us listen to what He says. The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field…(St. Matthew xiii. 24) In this parable we are told that the kingdom of heaven is identified with a man, whom we should recognize as Christ the Son of Man, the Life and Light of God the Father, whose kingdom is about hard work and business. And yet no sooner has He been laboring than we read that while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way – which we ought to see as provocations and temptations. But when the blade [of wheat] was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. (Ibid, 25, 26) What is interesting is that God, through His Son, works hard and sows only good seed, but that a devious and mischievous enemy, the Devil, comes in the night – while men sleep, and attacks the planting with blight and parasites. St. John Chrysostom tells us that the Devil did not sow before this, because he had nothing to destroy, but when all had been fulfilled that he might defeat the diligence of the Husbandman [the Son of Man]. (Catena Aurea) God’s creation begins as a good work. He gives His Grace to sustain His people the Jews in hope and then sends His Son to perfect the work. But the devil has always tried to corrupt God’s human creation and with renewed vigour he attacks Christians. The enemy intends to quash all conscientious and earnest men who intend to journey into Christ the Light. The devil’s ways are so devious that until the Christian begins to spring up as a blade of righteousness, it takes time for the Christian to recognize that the garden he is cultivating is full of tares. Prior to his growth into holiness, through Christ the Light, the Christian sees only other men who look very much like himself. The tares are men who have surrendered to the devious corruption of the Devil. For, as Christ says in another place, ye shall know them by their fruits. (St. Matthew vii. 16)
So we read in the parable that the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? From whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. (Idem, 27, 28) What the Christian realizes, as Calvin remarks, is that wicked men are not created by the devil, but, having been created by God, are corrupted by the devil and thrown into the Lord’s field, in order to corrupt the pure seed. (CC: volume xvii) The Devil desires to prevent Christ the Light from growing the good seed, and so he plants tares in the Lord’s field or the church. And the Christian’s response to this malicious attack seems logical enough; he wants to pull up the tares and burn them so that his spiritual experience is free of temptation, struggle, and distraction. Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up (Ibid, 28), the servants ask?
But the Lord’s answer is direct and deliberate: Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. (Ibid, 29, 30) Here we find a rebuke of that Christian zeal and passion to root out all evil with force and suppression. Before God’s judgment day, it is always wrong for Christians to use violent means for the suppression of error (R.C.T. Notes on the Parables), as Archbishop Trench remarks. The Lord means to warn Christians against forced conversion of the evil to the good. For one thing, we do not know who are the wheat and who are the tares. Again, the wheat and tares look very much the same before each grows up and bears fruit. God [alone] knows the secrets of the heart. (Ps. xliv. 21) Christians must not uproot the tares before the time of harvest since the tares will be burnt and the wheat will be saved. A man who is a tare today might become wheat or fruitful seed tomorrow.
Come to think of it, contrariwise, shouldn’t we all beware of the danger of becoming tares ourselves? Isn’t the real point of the parable that we all are liable and susceptible to the temptations and enticements of the Devil? To be sure there are men who become tares rather easily and quickly since they have never experienced the true nature of Christ the Light. But if the tares bother or distract us, so that we judge and condemn them, hasn’t the Devil made us into tares and not wheat? This happens when we don’t heed St. Paul’s advice this morning to put on, as the elect of God…bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering, forbearing one another and forgiving one another….(Col. iii. 12) Haven’t the tares become false gods to us because we are so obsessed with other people’s sins that we have forgotten the need to confess our own in the Light of Christ’s forgiveness? Then the Devil shall have so corrupted us that we truly become tares ourselves.
This is where I think the parable reveals its true force in our lives. The Lord allows the Devil to tempt and distract us. The point is that we must not be overwhelmed by the temptations of sin whether they confront us in other men’s lives or in our own. To be sure, we are called to resist the continual presence of temptations, their determination to sever and break our complete reliance and dependence upon God. But this is just where they can be turned round for our good, and we can beat the Devil at his own game. Far from being the occasion of our unfaithfulness to God, they can yield in us a more vigilant determination to please God in all our lives. Temptations are not sins, and they need not make us into tares. In a positive way, they can reveal and disclose to us, through Christ the Light, our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We even learn that the tares, while attractive and alluring, are false gods that can become the wheat of God or the good seed only through his power and constant care. To be made good, we must depend all the more upon Christ the Light to grow us up and into the fruit that he intends us to become. And more than this, but just as important and instrumental to our becoming that fruit is the need to pray for the conversion of all tares into the good seed or faithful sons and daughters of God. If the tares have helped us to become good seed, why shouldn’t we help them into the same state?
Today, my friends, let us be determined to become the good seed sown by the Son of man. To do so, let us thank God for the temptations, struggles, and difficulties that the tares of this world bring to us. When we become aware of tares, let us look within our own souls and see if we don’t often indulge the same sin or follow the same temptation. Let us thank God for the temptations of the tares, which in their own way, remind and recall us to our deeper dependence upon Christ the Light. Rather than their being flashing, blazing, or sparkling lights that lead us into superficial spirituality, and thus sin and sorrow, let them generate in us that deeper need for the Light of Christ that alone grows us as good seed into perfection. And, let us never be content that those tares should remain tares. And again, with the Apostle, Above all, let us put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness (Col. iii. 14) as we more earnestly pray that the tares become wheat because Christ the Light desires that all men should become His good seed. If our relation to the tares is one of longsuffering intercessory prayer that they be turned from the Devil, the Light of Christ shall shine forth out of us and into the lives of the tares, whose conversion is no less intended by God. For, Christ the Light longs to shine into all men’s lives, drawing us and them closer and closer to the day, as Archbishop Trench remarks [when] the dark hindering element [of the tares will be] removed [from the lives of the faithful]…[and] the element of Light, which was before struggling with and obstructed by it, shall come forth in its full brightness. That shall be the day ‘of the manifestation of the sons of God’; they ‘shall shine forth as the sun’, when the clouds are rolled away, they shall evidently appear, and be acknowledged by all, as ‘the children of Light’….
Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.
Be not wise in your own conceits. (Romans xii. 16)
Thus far in the season of Epiphany, we have been invited to see and perceive the manifestation and revelation of Divine wisdom, love, and power in the life of Jesus Christ. We have followed the Star that realigns and adjusts human vision to the origin of all truth and meaning in human life. We have seen His star in the east, and art come to worship Him…(St. Matthew ii. 2) We have learned that out of the centrifugal point of eternity’s re-appropriation of time in the life of the young Jesus, Divine Wisdom informs and arrests the attention of the One who will save all men. Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business…(St. Luke ii. 49) We have gleaned also that this life is the redemption that makes new and potent spiritual wine that longs to be poured into the hearts and souls of them that seek God. But thou hast kept the best wine until now. (St. John ii. 10) Love, wisdom, and power reveal themselves to us in Epiphany as marks of the Saviour’s intention to do even greater things than these. (St. John xiv. 12) And the greater things than these will involve not only what God does in Jesus Christ then and there, but what Jesus will do in us here and now. Epiphany’s patterns extend into the present to ensure our pilgrimage to the Kingdom of God.
The image of the transformation that Epiphany brings to us is pictured this morning in Jesus’ encounter with a Roman Centurion. A centurion was a professional officer in the Roman Legion who commanded roughly one hundred men. He, like the soldiers under his rule, would have been a celibate –Roman soldiers were not permitted to marry until active duty was completed. So, perhaps for the Roman Centurion in this morning’s Gospel, his military battalion was his family for a season, comprised of soldiers who were the subjects of his constant care. And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto Him a centurion, beseeching Him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. (St. Matthew viii. 5) Capernaum is the home of Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew the tax collector. In addition, it was the home of a Roman garrison, and thus of our Centurion. Oddly enough the pagan Centurion supplicates Jesus and addresses Him as Lord. Jesus responds and says, I will come and heal him. (St. Matthew viii. 7) But the Centurion protests, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) No doubt, he had heard of Jesus’ power from others, has witnessed His miracles, and is taking his proper position under a commander of another kind.
In any case, the presence of Divine wisdom, love, and power in Jesus Christ had arrested the Centurion. He sensed that he was in the presence of a holy being. So holy was this being that the Centurion thought himself unworthy to merit Jesus’ visitation to his earthly abode. So holy was this being that the Centurion felt that Christ might be soiled and sullied through contact with him or his family. Yet in his confession, through the keen perception of his own nature in the presence of the all-holy, the Centurion’s humility is what proves to be instrumental in the healing of his servant and himself. Only a humility, like that found in the Centurion, can elicit from Christ the transformation of God’s Grace. Conscious of his own moral and spiritual corruption, disabused of his own self-importance, conscious of the faulty towers made by men, the Centurion’s soul becomes the space that lives on faith, anticipates with hope, and rests in the love that he does not yet possess. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. (St. Matthew viii. 9) This man has experience with authority and obedience. In the earthly domain of Caesar, he has the power to command and exact obedience. He speaks the word and it is done. Notice, also, tht he says, I am a man under authority. I too must obey, I too must enact the wishes of my superiors, and I too must follow. I am subject and accountable to one much greater than myself, and yet this ruler of mine is nothing in comparison with thee, O Lord! Thus, he knows that he must secure help from one far greater than any earthly ruler. His perception of the all-holiness emanating and manifesting itself from the being of Jesus commands him to seek out and follow Him in faith and hope. He knows that the power of God in Jesus is alone sufficient to heal his servant. With his own feeble desire, he reaches out to secure the merciful power of Christ. With a sincere and simple longing for the healing of his servant, he seeks out Jesus. He seeks out Jesus in faith. He is moved by what he longs to secure on behalf of his servant whom he loves as neighbor to himself.
The faith that Jesus finds in this Centurion’s soul is what He came down from heaven to redeem and perfect. St. Augustine reminds us, this faith is of such a nature that it says, if then I a man under authority have the power of commanding, what power must Thou have, whom all powers serve? The Centurion knows all about earthly power. He knows that it is limited, fickle, unreliable, and usually self-serving. The power he perceives in Jesus seems naturally inclined to spread healing, goodness, and truth. It seems also to come from a source that is impeded by no boundaries and knows no bounds. The Centurion surmises too that it must come from God since it acts in a way that is free of all prejudice and seeks not His own. Speak (or send) the Word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) The Centurion believes that the Word of God in Jesus is capable of remaining in place and yet travelling great distances to heal all manner of sicknesses. God spake the word and they were made; he commanded, and it stood fast. (Psalm xxxiii. 9) The Centurion Roman believes that the redeeming Word of God in Jesus is the Power that made the world.
When Jesus heard this Centurion’s confession of faith, He marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. (St. Matthew viii. 10, 11) What He finds is a faith that does not need for Jesus to be present physically to heal his servant. The Centurion earnestly seeks out only the assurance that Jesus will send God’s healing Word. What Jesus finds is the prayer that every man must make if he believes truly that Christ will bear our sorrows and our cares and supply all our manifold needs and help us to put our whole trust and confidence in Him. (Prayer for Sick: BCP Canada 1962)
This is the message of our Epiphany-tide. But it comes also with a real warning. Jesus says that the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (St. Matthew viii. 12) What He means is that Christians -like the religious Jews whom Jesus rebukes, who think that tradition and ritual alone will save them are mistaken. Many religious people think that mere church attendance and ritual observance will carry them to God’s Kingdom. Other religious people think being Anglican or being a member of some other denomination will save them. Jesus says, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. (St. Matthew vii. 7) Salvation is not awarded to those who show up and go through the motions. Nor is salvation just for other people. Salvation comes to those who believe truly that they are in dire need of God’s power and cure. Jesus Christ does not wish to be adored as a concept, idea, or notion. Jesus Christ does not come only to remembered later as one of the world’s great, dead heroes. Jesus Christ intends to be embraced and held in the human heart, in which He can work all manner of healing and salvation.
Our Centurion had a vision of God in Jesus, and with humility, he longed for Christ’s love to heal his servant. From the ground of his own humble self-emptying, he reached out with every fiber of his being to procure the healing power of God in Jesus Christ. We must ask ourselves: Do we need this healing power in our lives? Are we sinners in need of salvation? We hear so much sighing, moaning, and groaning in our world. What, exactly, is the problem? We fear earthly illness? What about our souls? How are they? Sick, by all accounts. Our souls should be aching because of the sin needs to be worked out so that the righteous healing power of Jesus Christ can be worked in. This is what the vision of God’s shining forth, his showing forth, is meant to accomplish in Epiphany-tide. Be not wise in your own conceits, but… condescend to men of low estate. (Romans xii. 16) St. Paul means that we should, with the Centurion, bow down, realistically acknowledge our lowliness, and identify with the mean condition of our fallen humanity. He means that, with the Centurion, we should seek out the benefits of Christ’s healing not only for ourselves but for others also.
Today we must ask ourselves, Do we see ourselves truly in the Epiphany illumination that reveals our own deepest need for Christ the Light? Are we pouring out our complaint to Christ? The prayer of faith is the prevailing supplication that must consume our lives. Speak and send thy Word and my servant shall be healed. Speak and send thy Word and I shall be healed. If we are true Christians, we must pray for ongoing healing. The good prayer that we make for others will heal them in God’s time. The good prayer will heal us too because our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus and His righteousness. Then with the Centurion, we shall feel the operative energy of our loving Saviour, who says, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant, [and his own soul], were healed in the selfsame hour. (St. Matthew viii. 13)
They have no wine…(St. John ii. 3)
Epiphany means manifestation or shining forth. And the Epiphany season has been set apart in the Church as a time for Christians to consider the meaning and will of God the Father as revealed in the human life of Jesus Christ His only-begotten Son. In this season we contemplate the Divinity of Christ ministering to us through His humanity as we encounter it on the pages of Holy Scripture. On this Second Sunday in Epiphany, in particular, we find God’s power over nature revealed through Jesus. But we find this power only after He has revealed to us the priority of Divine Wisdom in the face of the limitations of human reason. For while God comes into the world to save us, He also takes our nature upon Him so that He can realign our hearts with His rule and governance in human life. Jesus will teach us that the same God whose Wisdom rules and governs all of creation, desires to claim our allegiance also. He will begin to reveal this truth to us through the exchange He has with His Mother in today’s Gospel.
When we think of wisdom, we think of human wisdom or what used to be called prudence. In the Gospels, no better example of that prudence exists than in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Blessed Virgin was, you will remember, astounded, and perhaps even alarmed when the Angel Gabriel visited her prior to the conception of God’s Son in her womb. How can this be, she wondered prudently? Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce through her own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts might be revealed. (St. Luke ii. 35) The Blessed Virgin pondered these things in her heart because she was often confused and flummoxed. Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing, (St. Luke ii. 48) she exclaims this morning. Through prudence she struggled to understand her son. Wist ye not, He responded, that I must be about my Father’s business? (St. Luke ii. 49) And they understood not the saying which He spake unto them. (Ibid, 50) Humility and prudence urged her to silence. But, again, Mary kept all of these things and pondered them in her heart. (Ibid, 51)
To be fair to the Blessed Virgin, human wisdom or prudence is essential to acting with virtue. It is the perfected ability to make the right decisions. (The Four Cardinal Virtues: Pieper, p. 6) Yet human wisdom can also be elevated onto a higher plane when God opens the human mind to a heavenly end. We find this in this morning’s Gospel, where we read that on the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there with both Jesus and His disciples. (St. John ii, 1) At the outset, we should rejoice to learn that Jesus blesses the institution of Holy Matrimony. The Holy Union of male and female is Divinely ordained, and Christ will reveal how the wisdom in it points to a heavenly end.
Cana means zeal, and Galilee means passage. On this third day, then, Jesus will embrace Holy Matrimony with zeal and transform it as a rite of passage to the Father’s Kingdom. Thomas Aquinas tells us that, this marriage was celebrated in the zeal of a passage, to suggest that those persons are most worthy of union with Christ who, burning with the zeal of a conscientious devotion, pass over from the state of guilt to the grace of the Church. (STA, Comm. on St. John) The married couple is celebrating that zeal of passage, devoting themselves the one to the other so that the two shall be one flesh. (Gen. ii. 24) Marriage reveals a conscientious devotion that purifies affection and orders human love. And Jesus Christ, God’s Word, Wisdom, and Plan made flesh rejoices to bless and perfect the devotion of those who will follow Him conscientiously to God’s Kingdom.
But being the good Jewish mother that she is, the Blessed Virgin becomes consumed with the earthly elements that should contribute to the perfection of the marriage celebration. So, she tugs at Jesus’ tunic and exclaims, they have no wine. (St. John ii. 3) Jesus seems irritated. O, woman what is that to me and thee? (St. John ii, 4) A better translation would be: Woman what does your concern have to do with me? (Orthodox Study Bible transl.) Or what do you expect me to do about it? For, He adds, mine hour is not yet come. (Ibid, 4) Jesus, as last week’s Gospel reminded us, must be about [His] Father’s business. (St. Luke ii, 49). He means no disrespect to His earthly mother, but she does not grasp the true meaning of His Heavenly mission. Her motherly prudence and concern arise from a fear that the perfect wedding is about to come to an abrupt halt. She does not yet grasp how Holy Matrimony is an outward and visible sign of that conscientious devotion that moves from guilt to blessedness through God’s Grace.
But Jesus’ Wisdom is not of this world. His concern is for a kind of wine that will overflow perfectly at a kind of wedding she cannot yet imagine. What does your concern have to do with me? Mine hour is not yet come. (Ibid, 4) Have you forgotten what kind of marriage you have with my Heavenly Father’s Spirit that brought about my earthly Birth? Mary is silenced and probably shamed by the rebuke of the Wisdom of God in her Son. Acquiescing to His Wisdom, she instructs the hired servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. (Ibid, 5) Whatever or whoever her Son is, He is to be heeded. Her fear of earthly embarrassment for the bride’s parents collapses in the presence of Heaven’s plan. She remembers that her Son Jesus should be called the Son of the Highest…and of his kingdom there should be no end. (St. Luke i. 32-33) She remembers that earthly good must be perfected by God’s Grace as she learns to trust and obey her Heaven-sent Son.
But what is Heaven’s Plan that Jesus brings to earth? Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. (St. Matthew vi. 33) We know what happens next. There were set there six water pots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. (St. John ii, 6,7) Jesus will use not wine-skins but pots meant to hold water for ritual cleansing and purification. Add water to the vessels for purification Jesus says.
So the holy water becomes a basis for a miracle that manifests a number of things. First, we see that Jesus' Heavenly Mission has begun. Next, we learn that the Wisdom that Jesus reveals is not of this world and that His Mother’s worldly prudence must subject itself to the priority of the Divine Mission. Jesus takes the old waters of purification and then fortifies them with Heavenly Potency. The wine that the wedding guests will drink reveals what God intends to do for man. This is what Thomas Aquinas means when he writes that Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.
The hired hands obey first Mary and then Jesus and bear the wine to the governor of the feast. (Ibid, 8) When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. (St. Luke ii, 9,10) According to ancient tradition, the governor of the feast would first taste all wine that was intended to be served. But see how the governor’s mind in drawn into wonder and bewilderment. Why was this wine not served at the beginning, he wonders? The governor marveled not at the miracle -since he was unaware of it, but at the fact that somehow the best wine was saved until the end.
This morning the Blessed Virgin Mary exclaims, they have no wine. Indeed. They have no wine. We have no wine. Both she and we realize that there is no wine until Christ, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, the Ruler of all Creation makes new wine. Wine maketh glad the heart of man. Today’s miracle is a foreshadowing of the new wine that He will pour forth from the vine of the His Body on the Cross of Calvary. Christ’s hour is not yet come. (Idem) With the Blessed Virgin we must wait for the Bridegroom to pour out His life for His Bride. His Bride is the Church. We cannot be filled with the new wine of His Blood until He has given Himself to us in Perfect Love and Sacrifice from the Tree of New Life. The new wine is the libation of His Blood through which we shall be born again in marital union with Him. In consummation with Him, as one flesh, we shall become bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh, one flesh with Him, as His Bride.
Will Christ make our water into wine? Will we listen to Him? Will we do whatsoever he saith? Will our minds be turned from earthly wine and the merriment it brings to the new wine that he saves and serves last? John Calvin reminds us that when the Blessed Virgin says, ‘Whatsoever He saith, do it’, we are taught….that if we desire any thing from Christ, we will not obtain our wishes, unless we depend on Him alone, look to him, and, in short, do whatever he commands. What we should desire first is to seek out and find the new wine of salvation that Jesus the Bridegroom will give to us if we faithfully wait until His hour is come (Idem). His hour has come. Christ has died, Christ is Risen, and Christ will come again. Christ gives us His new life in the Bread of His Body and the Wine of His Blood. As Pope Benedict XVI has said:
In the Eucharist, a communion takes place that corresponds to the union of man and woman in marriage. Just as they become ‘one flesh,’ so in Communion, we all become ‘one spirit,’ one person, with Christ. The spousal mystery, announced in the Old Testament, of the intimate union of God and man takes place in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, precisely through his Passion and in a very real way (see Eph 5:29-32; I Cor 6:17; Gal 3:28).”
With the servants at the feast, we should depend upon Christ who saves the best wine ‘til last.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons