He riseth up from supper, and laid aside his garments, and took a towel and girded himself.
Tonight you and I are invited to the last supper of Christ. With the Apostles, we move into a realm that is fraught with the fear and trembling of Jesus’ friends, who do not understand the meaning of it all and what will come next. For the Apostles have been following Jesus for some three years, and they have experienced the hand of God extended to them and others through the life of Jesus. In a sense there was so much to be thankful for, so many wonders and miracles, so many beautiful teachings and sayings, so much that seemed so very positive. But there were also the ominous words of gloom impending, frightful prophecies, and terror striking promises. Perhaps if the Apostles were anything like you and me they might have forgotten or chosen to ignore the negative in Jesus –what was not yet known, and so misunderstood. Surely what was coming would not be all that bad. It couldn’t be as grim as He suggested. Perhaps Jesus, the Son of the Most High God, would be able to work some miracle and wonder in order to lessen the blunt of the prophesied gloom.
But what we observe tonight cannot be disconnected or severed from the complete and total fabric which we call the life of Jesus Christ. The signs and the wonders had been performed in order to point to deeper faith in a more certain union with God that is about to unfold before our very eyes. The power of God is with and in Jesus. It has generated all goodness and must endure all evil. The whole fabric of Jesus’ life- the meaning of His presence, begins to draw us towards its fullest manifestation in the Cross of Good Friday. Jesus and the Father are always in union and Communion. He has been tempted to reject his Father’s will and way, but thus far has rejected all of its illusory power. God’s Grace defines every moment of Jesus’ mission. God’s desire will unfold in every act of His free choosing. The Father desires the Son, and the Son desires, always, to please the Father. The intention of the two is one passion for man’s redemption. Through Jesus, God has spoken his words of promise. Through Jesus, God has revealed His work of salvation. Through Jesus, God is never far away and distant, but rather always present, with patience and determination, fulfilling his Word. His power in Jesus has opened the eyes of the blind, unloosed the tongues of the dumb and mute, freed the lame legs of crippled men to walk. His wisdom has been expressed in parables and illustrations that drew men deeper into the meaning of His Word. God’s omnipresence has never been denied by Jesus, and that reality persists into the drama of this night.
Tonight’s celebration marks the Last Supper that Jesus will share with His Apostles and us. Christ has eaten a Passover supper with his friends. He has broken bread and poured out wine, offered it to his friends, and promised that they would become His Body and his Blood. What was meant on that night was hidden and unclear to the Apostles. The understanding and meaning must come later. What Jesus did and said, He offered as a friend and brother. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. (St. John xv. 14, 15)
Bread is broken; wine is poured out. Tomorrow a Body will be broken and Blood will be shared. The two will not be, in the end, divided, but one will be made into the other as God’s love in Christ expands. Tonight the Body –soon to be broken into and pierced, stoops down to wash and to cleanse the dirty feet of His disciples. With God always present, Christ Jesus reveals to us that God has forever stooped down from Heaven to wash, cleanse, and heal His people. God in Jesus Christ is the servant of His friends, the one who stoops down from the Heaven of his Father to wash, cleanse, and save. In the today of tonight’s Gospel, Jesus waits upon His friends. Tomorrow, He will do the same, in another form. He is the servant who comes to wash and to cleanse, today with water and wine, and tomorrow with blood. Both will be one. We are washed through water and blood. We are purified through Baptism and Eucharist. The today and tomorrow of God with us and for us, God near to us in Jesus, is but one revelation coming from the loving heart of God and shown forth in the real human life of Jesus Christ. Tonight seems rather ominous. Tomorrow will be disturbing and yet wholly Good!
But there is more that we should see and grasp as we move through the drama of the Last Supper and Good Friday. What Jesus does is who He is. Jesus is the Desire and Love of God the Father made flesh. What Jesus does and who He is, is what He intends for us to become. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet…These things I command you, that ye love one another. (St. John xiii. 14, xv. 17) He will give us bread and wine and will wash men’s dirty feet. He will give us His Body and Blood and will wash the dirty feet of our souls. He must do this, that we might be strengthened and nourished, and then transformed and redeemed by His presence in the inner man. Too many Christiansforget that they need the Body and Blood of Jesus as food for men wayfaring en route to Heaven!
On this night we share in the Apostles’ unknowing and wonder. We do not yet know and have what Christ will give to us- either in fact or in its true meaning. He does what he does, and we have no part of him if he does it not. Jesus comes to wash our feet, and, with Peter, we react with horrified surprise and proud resistance. Lord, thou shalt never wash my feet. (St. John xiii. 8) Our instinct thinks it wrong that God the Almighty should stoop down, serve, and wash us. We sense that the Holy One of God should never be contaminated by our sinfulness. God is high, we are low; the Master should never condescend to the slave. Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man. (St. Luke v. 8) Jesus answers, If I do not wash thee, thou hast no part with me. (Ibid) In the today of God’s nearness we learn that God stoops down from heaven to wash our dirty feet, the dirty feet of our souls.
The God of this today, is the very God who has never left, forsaken, or abandoned his people. The God of today is approaching, one who knocks at the doors of our souls and bodies in order to make all things new. The God of today is the God we need always more than all else. If He does not wash us, if He does not die for us, if He does not rise for us, then we can have no part in the salvation that he offers.
But we do need him. The outward and visible sign of God’s service today for us is seen in Jesus who washes the disciples’ feet. The outward and visible sign of God’s today for us is seen in Jesus who dies for His friends. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (St. Mark x. 45) Will we allow Jesus to wash and to cleanse us? Will we realize that God’s stooping down in Jesus Christ is nothing short of bearing our burden, taking on our sinful predicament and condition? Will we begin to understand that God alone in Jesus Christ can assume and endure our sinful pride, envy, wrath, murder, sloth, indifference, greed, lust, and so forth? Will our eyes be opened to the fact that our sin has willed His death? For sin is nothing other than the will to silence and kill God’s Word and Will in time and space, to refuse His presence, to resist His power, to banish His love, to ignore His wisdom. Sin, in other words, refuses to imagine that every man’s heart can be softened, his life changed, a sinner can be saved, and an exile welcomed home as a long-lost, prodigal son. Will we begin to realize that God in Christ must die to sin and at the hands of sin, die for sin, and in the miraculous operation of the Divine Omnipotence bring sin, death, and Satan to an end once and for all? Will we begin to see that His death is the only pure and perfect posture of self-abnegation, humility, and obedience that can conquer sin with the Father’s power in Jesus’ human heart? Will we start to realize that He invites us into His death so that the Redemptive Power might take root between the bone and the marrow?
Many rejected God in Jesus Christ long ago and they do so today. And, yet, Jesus still desires as the Desire of God’s Word and in the Spirit of the Father’s Love. Tomorrow, this same Lord, in His own body hanging upon a tree, will say this: I love you and forgive you. Come follow me. I die and you will die. I will rise and so shall you. Come follow me. You can become Members of My Body. My Spirit will enliven and quicken you. My life and my love I offer to you, always and everywhere, ever broadening, ever expanding. God’s love for you in me. Your love for God in me. Come follow me, and you shall find true life. Come follow me, and you shall find true love. Come follow me, and you shall find your true home and destiny, ‘ a kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ (St. Matthew xxv. 34) Come follow me, and through you, others will follow as they find the One Love, the One Wisdom,and the One Power that forever and forever ‘makes all things new.’
And he answered him to never a word; insomuch that the governor marveled greatly.
(St. Matthew 27. 19)
There is a good deal of quiet that is meant to surround us as a response to the Passion and Crucifixion of the Son of God during Holy Week. Holy Week has been set aside from the time of the early Church to ponder our Lord’s suffering in quiet stillness. If we approach this time with the quiet concentration that it commands, we will, no doubt, find that it assaults and confounds our human reason, as it wrenches our hearts from the fulfillment of their usual desires. But if we sustain the stillness, and with a silent mind ponder the unfolding drama of Holy Week, a reassuring blanket of divine quiet might begin to warm the soul this week, enveloping it with the Word that desires to be made flesh in us so that we might journey with Jesus from death to new life.
In the lections for today, we already begin to observe the truth that will emerge from the trial, arrest, and condemnation of Jesus Christ. There is a lot of commotion. Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judaea, wants a different kind of quiet than what we are in search of. He is more than a little bit irritated by the chaos and confusion caused by Jesus of Nazareth’s entry into Jerusalem on what should have been just another Friday afternoon in a relatively insignificant outpost of Caesar’s Empire. He seems to be what one might imagine a Roman governor should be in one of the provinces of Augustus Caesar’s expansive Empire -prudent, Stoical, but firm. He does not seem to be impressed by the religion of the local Jewish Aristocracy, which has stirred up the people of Jerusalem against this Jesus of Nazareth. He is commissioned with enforcing the Pax Romana –the peace of Octavian, that has successfully brought law, order, and prosperity to the then civilized world. Earthly calm and peace comprise his vocation. The chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death: and when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor. (St. Matthew xxvii. 1) The Jews have told Pilate, according to St. Luke that they had found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Cæsar, saying that he himself is Christ a King. (St. Luke xxiii. 2) Pilate needs just cause. He asks Jesus, Art thou the King of the Jews? (Ibid, 11) Jesus answers, So you say. (Ibid, 12) Pilate is wholly skeptical. If the accused has not violated the law or given just cause for unrest, he is bound by Roman Law to release him. So, he will aim at reestablishing order. In the service of Roman Law, he will allow the Jews to judge Christ themselves, or send Him to Herod. (St. Matthew xxvii. 14) Needless to say, none of this works. To complicate matters, another kind of deafening quiet and silence is found in this Jesus of Nazareth. It will be so unsettling that Pilate marvels greatly. (Ibid, 14) For Pilate knows that out of envy the Jews have delivered Jesus up. And their jealousy threatens the Pax Romana. The city’s peace must be maintained. Caesar’s rule cannot be questioned. Pilate’s wife will tell him to have nothing do with that just man (St. Matthew xxvii. 19) and in a sense, he will try to do just that. But the crowd will demand that Barabbas be released and Jesus crucified. Pilate demands quiet and then finds himself drawn into the noisome conflict: Why, what evil hath he done?(Ibid, 23) Pilate will exclaim. The Jews are not interested in facts. When a people hates a man they will invent all manner of exaggerated malicious lies to destroy him. They want blood. Let Him be crucified, they cry. So, in response to that determined envy that promises only to breed 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 Pax Romana is asserted. The Jews will confess: His blood be on us, and on our children. (Ibid, 25)
Pilate will believe that he has rid the world of Jesus Christ for political expedience. The Jews’ hatred of Him will be quenched. Even the disappearance of His Apostles into hiding seems promising for the silence and stillness of the Roman Peace. The problem seems to have been solved quickly and satisfactorily. The greater silence and stillness in Christ’s heart that ensure His obedience to the Father have not, as yet, startled and triggered others into consciousness of what is really happening. From the firm core or His established determination, His mission and meaning have not yet found fertile ground in men’s souls. So, the external chaos of this week will drive them into the world of madness, fear, and desperation. Then saith Jesus unto them, 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) God’s own Good Shepherd and Sacrificial Lamb, it would appear, is rejected on a number of different levels, and for a variety of reasons. Men always find ample justification for doing away with and killing Jesus Christ.
But for a few others, the solid quiet of the dying Son of God will begin to move the ground of their souls. From the still and silent center of His obedience to the Father, this Jesus of Nazareth will begin to turn a world full of lunatics on its head. Christ the Word will be heard and heeded, slowly, even imperceptibly, by those who have chosen to believe and to follow. Even now as the world and its words assault and kill the human Jesus, the Word of God persists and endures in order to speak from the quiet of His dying heart. For this Word made flesh –this Jesus Christ is always dying to Himself and coming alive to the Father for the world. He did not cease to do so, especially when He will be most tempted to through His earthly suffering and death. He came from God and He will return to God. But not before He willingly offers himself to God and man by laying down His life in death so that all might live.
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’s silence and stillness in suffering and death are the centrifugal points around which His mission of service is perfected. Here, He does not desperately pry into the secrets of His Father’s will and plan. He is content to humbly obey. Rather, He prefers to die so that the Father’s will might be realized in Him for all other men. He will become the new Man, the Second Adam, who once again is happily free because, in silence and stillness, He joyfully obeys and fulfills the Father’s desire. He knows that only from that quiet center of His heart can He die to Himself so that the Father’s plan and purpose will emerge into new life.
This week, I pray, that each of us shall make time to travel with Jesus up to His Cross. The world around us is certainly stirred up. But the Word of God in Jesus Christ looks at us with the same quiet determination to share with us the merits of His obedience to the Father. Pilate marveled, the world around us marvels, but we must remain constant and determined. We are going up to the Cross, together, come what may. If we should become sick on our journey up to Jesus’ Cross, so be it. We have opportunity to gather together each day of this Holy Week to do what the Church has always done, especially during times of plague, pestilence, and warfare. To be sure, we are not throwing caution to the wind. Rather, we take our precautions and come together to partake of that food and medicine that, of all things, is sure to see us through this life and on to the next with healthy souls. The Body and Blood of Jesus are far more powerful than any disease or threat…if only we believe.
On this Palm Sunday, we hear Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. Next, we hear, Crucify Him, Crucify Him. In the quiet of today, let us remember that 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. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53. 4-6)
Some years back Fulton Sheen described the fear that prevented Pilate from believing Jesus. He wrote:
“The terror of Tiberius [Caesar] seemed more real to Pilate than the denying of justice to Christ. But in the end, those who fear men rather than God lose that which they hoped men would preserve for them. Pilate was later deposed by the Roman Emperor on a complaint by the Jews — another instance of men being punished by the very instruments in which they confided.”
The terror of this so-called pandemic seems more real to most men than denying justice to Jesus or giving Him His due. What is due to Him is our obedience and faith and love. We are called to do what He has asked us to do. We are called to come together, to give thanks, break bread and pour out wine. We believe that in the quiet of this Holy Communion we shall eat His Body and drink His Blood. We believe that we need His Body and His Blood more than bodily health and earthly cures. We believe that from His quiet stillness, He lovingly longs to give this to us as the only medicine that can cure us of what most ails us. What most ails us is sin. And if we are not cured of that, then we shall be so sick that we might very well go right into Hell, Chinese Flu or not. No Cross, No Crown.
Before Abraham was, I AM.
(St. John viii. 58)
The threat of God’s nearness and proximity are quite enough to unnerve, unhinge, and unsettle men in all ages. There is something about human nature that is resistant to God and His Word. Most men treat the existence of God carelessly, incautiously, indifferently, or casually. Think about it. The majority of men in our own time are very earthly minded. They don’t seem to be the least bit interested in the intellectual and spiritual pursuit of God and appear rather smugly and self-righteously self-contented. Evidently, they’ve got it all figured out and they don’t need to know more. Or, they use arrogance and hubris as a shield against their own fears of confronting themselves and then inconveniently finding God. If such men go on to describe the philosophy or theology that moves them, what emerges usually amounts to little more than a spiritualization of the feeling that neither they or this life is really all that bad. Of course, such a philosophy of life is nothing more than a surrender, where the ideals of youthful inspiration to pursue greatness have long since vanished, since the norms and ideals that demand labor and sacrifice in the pursuit of excellence would disrupt an adequately agreeable and comfortable life.
Of course, as we learn in Passion Tide, Jesus Christ meets all manner of resistance to His mission to us precisely because of this human hardness to the threat of God’s nearness. Which of you convicts me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God, hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God. (St. John viii. 46) To be fair to contemporary man, who has stopped caring about Jesus Christ because he is drowned and drenched in the pagan culture which envelops him, it is no small wonder that Jesus Christ and His message are not only alien but antagonistic. Modern man seems so free and yet fears freedom. Test out your local I’m spiritual but not religious neighbors, and you shall find that what they fear most is the nearness of God! They are enslaved to what is familiar and controllable. They fear all challenges and confrontations to their pretended freedoms. They fear Christ because of what He might demand or what it might cost to follow Him. They don’t like the idea that there might be a right opposed to wrong, a good opposed to evil, and an absolute that calls into question their relative comfort. Who and what they fear above all is Jesus Christ.
They are like the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel who find that Jesus Christ questions their religion and the Law that they worship. Because they are so unacquainted with the Divine Goodness, they can only react to what they consider to be evil. Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil? (St. John viii. 48) What is alien, strange, and contradictory of our ways and mores we fear. We become convinced that there must be something wrong with one who challenges our ideas or habits. Jesus of Nazareth calls all of our lives into question. And when He does, wouldn’t we rather think that the problem is more with Him than us? This is how we convince ourselves that we need not heed with too much seriousness who Jesus says He is and what He asks of us. If He merely irritates or annoys us, we excuse ourselves from following Him on the grounds that who He says He is and what He asks are just too much. If He succeeds in enraging us, we proceed to silence and kill Him. Thus, we either ignore Him or kill Him in our hearts.
Of course, technically speaking, we are right. Who He says He is and what He asks seem just too much! If who He says He is was within the scope of human creativity, we would have invented it long ago and saved ourselves. So, the real question is this. Do we believe that He is who He says He is, and will we give Him what He asks of us? Jesus claims that God is His Father…[He] has come from God…that [he came] not of [Himself], [but was] sent. (St. John viii. 42)The Pharisees are irritated because they can’t imagine that Jesus could ever be who He says He is, and so condemn Him as demon-possessed. Their rage is emblazoned out of envy and resentment. Jesus is trespassing upon their sacred ground. Jesus answers, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me. And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth. (St. John 8. 49-50) Jesus comes to honor all men with God the Father’s desire for their salvation. The Pharisees honor themselves and seek glory from men. Those who are sinking and going to decay boast most of how other men hold them in the highest esteem. Christ knows that their arrogance stands only to make them and all other men worse. The clergy in every age are mostly corrupt. What He offers, He has received from the Father, and honors it as what alone can touch human hearts and transform them with eternal glory. He is sent by the Father on a Divine Mission: My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me and to finish His work. (St. John iv. 34) The glory that Christ will offer is something that will come near and touch the world in a radically new way.
Jesus claims that if a man keeps [His] saying, he shall never see death. (Ibid) What He promises to faith exceeds our wildest imagination. We are righteously indignant because we know that we shall die. Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, if a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death. Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself? (St. John viii. 52-53) The Pharisees mean: You are a man, Jesus of Nazareth, and when you die, your words will die with you. Abraham and the prophets are all dead. And their words have died with them. Indeed their words are as dead as they. So, we cannot believe that your words are any different.
This is the response of all men who conclude that earthly death is the end of it all. Christ speaks once again. If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that He is your God: yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you; but I know him, and keep his saying. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. (St. John 8. 54-58) Christ the Word teaches us that human life is made by God to become an opportunity to hope for joy beyond misery and life beyond death. What He tells us is that God spoke His Word to Abraham to give him the hope of salvation. Jesus is now God’s Word Made Flesh. He speaks to the Pharisees to reveal to them that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life that will overcome our death with new and joyful life. The Father’s saying is the promise of salvation to His people. Jesus keeps this saying. This means that He cleaves to the power of love that will save all men. Jesus is the same unchanging Word of God, the saying that moved Abraham to hope in salvation. This is the same unchanging Word of God that inspires Jesus to save all of us. Jesus says, Before Abraham was, I AM. I am the Word, that was heard of old, is with you now, and will be with you forever if you believe and follow me. I am my Father’s ‘saying’ of love for you. Will you follow me? If our faith is dead like that of the ancient Pharisees, our irritation will become the rage that kills Jesus and longs to drag Him into our spiritual death. Then took they up stones to cast at him…. (St. John viii. 59)
Jesus, God’s Word as flesh is sent to do His Father’s will. God’s Word is His will, His will is His Love, and His Love is the utterance and expression of God’s deepest desire and delight for all men’s salvation. His Love is that passion that longs to come near to us on this Passion Sunday. This passion is that Love that does not count the cost. His Love is as broad as the universe and as deep as the human heart. His Love incessantly, persistently, and relentlessly desires to make us His own. His Love is His Passion that longs to touch and transform us. This is the Passion that came near to Abraham, touched him, and transformed all his fears into unshakable hope. This is the Passion that resonated, reverberated, and resounded in the spirits of those ancient souls who heard God’s Word and were athirst for God, yea, even for the living God…. (Ps. xlii. 2) This is the Passion of God in Jesus, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, to purge our conscience from dead works so that we might begin to serve the living God. (Hebrews ix. 11)
On this Passion Sunday, Jesus Christ persists and perseveres in Passion to keep the Father’s saying. Our English word passion comes from the Latin word patior and it means to suffer, endure, or even to be hurt or wounded. Today, we learn that Christ’s Passion will suffer to win our salvation. He calls us forward to be moved by the love that is alive in His heart. If we are humble enough, He will come near to us. If we open our hearts, His approach will touch us and unsettle us. If we remain with Him, His Passion will wound us. If we follow Him up to His Cross, we shall be bruised by His loving death. In that death, we shall believe that we shall not die but live with Him forever. So, with Henry Vaughn, let us gaze with awe upon the Love that dies to smite and wound us into a death that cannot help but lead to new and glorious life.
Ah, my dear Lord! What couldst thou spy
In this impure, rebellious clay,
That made thee thus resolve to die
For those that kill thee every day?
O what strange wonders could thee move
To slight thy precious blood and breath!
Sure it was Love, my Lord: for Love
Is only stronger far than death.
(Henry Vaughn, ‘Incarnation and Passion’
But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.
(Gal. iv. 26)
At the very beginning of Lent Jesus said to his disciples, Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (St. Luke xviii. 31) We began our journey at Christ's command. Long journeys are hard work, and this Lenten journey is no exception. For nearly some seven weeks Christians are invited to walk with Jesus towards Jerusalem. Walking to Jerusalem is what our lives are all about. We walk with Jesus in order to see how He conquers the temptations of Satan and triumphs over sin for us. We walk with Jesus to discover that, like the woman of Canaan, we are more like dogs than men, aliens and exiles to God’s promises, and yet wholly hanging upon crumbs that fall from His table. So, we learn to long humbly for that mercy that persists in obtaining Jesus' mercy and healing. As dogs, we learn also that we are, more often than not, dumb and mute, incapable of comprehending and articulating God’s Word and will in our lives until His inward Grace opens our spiritual senses to His desire.
Our Lenten pilgrimage with Jesus up to Jerusalem, (St. Matthew xx. 18) will not be easy. We learn much about ourselves on this journey, and so we become spiritually exhausted. We grow haggard, hungry, and perhaps even dejected and discouraged. Lenten fasting and abstinence do that to a person. At times, we become distracted and even lose our way. The pull and tug of certain temptations may well have been overcome, but seven other demons worse than ourselves threaten to consume us. (St. Matthew xii. 45) Satan realizes that he is losing our spirits, and so he attacks our bodies with renewed vigor through the elements of this world. (Galatians iv. 3) We have the best of intentions and yet feel ourselves the children of the proverbial Hagar, the bond woman –mothering the earthly bastard offspring of vice. We do want to become free men, children of promise, and followers of Jesus, who go up to Jerusalem which is above… and is free. (Galatians iv. 26) And yet it seems the more we try the further back we fall.
Today Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church, provide us with what we need. Today is Dominica Refectionis –Refreshment Sunday or Mothering Sunday: the day on which Mother Church asks us to sit down and rest awhile, to find some spiritual refreshment so that our pursuit of Jesus Christ will not be in vain. Today we are asked to stop, to breathe, and to contemplate Jerusalem which is above…free…and the Mother of us all. (Ibid) So we read that Jesus went up into a mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. (St. John vi. 3) Jesus bids us come with Him to the mountain of His holiness so that He might give us a foretaste of our heavenly future. He knows that we are in danger of spiritual languor and listlessness. So, He intends to provide us with that spiritual food which will give us dogged and dauntless determination to press on.…Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. (St. John vi. 10) St. John Chrysostom tells us that Jesus calls us up to rest at intervals from the tumults and confusion of common life. For solitude is a thing meet for the study of wisdom. And often doth He go up alone into a mountain, and spend the night there, and pray, to teach us that the man who will come most near to God must be free from all disturbance, and must seek times and places clear of confusion. (St.J.C.: Sermon…)
So, we must sit down, listen, and trust. And yet in Lent, worn out as we are, we wonder, Whence shall we buy bread that [we all] may eat? (St. John vi. 5). Our minds are bent on earthly things. Jesus asks this question this morning to prove Philip, for he Himself knew what he would do. (St. John vi. 6)He intends to enlarge and deepen Philip's faith so that he might find hope in heavenly and not earthly nourishment. Philip has seen the finger of God at work in the miracles that Jesus has performed. Will he believe that Jesus can provide food that no man can find or afford and that can satisfy far more than the physical hunger of a paltry five thousand? What measure of faith does Philip have? Philip answers, as most of us would, as one in bondage to the elements of this world. He responds that even two-hundred penny worth is not enough for this crowd. (St. John vi. 7) Philip is thinking in earthly terms and thus calculates the monetary cost of feeding the hungry thousands. Too many people, too little money, he conjectures. Thus, Jesus intends to reveal the smallness and poverty of Philip’s faith. His faith should h in Christ’s power to fulfill all of his needs. He should have remembered that the same Jesus who made water into wine at the Wedding in Cana of Galilee would surely be able to feed the hungry multitude. His faith should have seen too that if Christ has asked whence shall we buy bread that He intended to remind Philip that God alone provides our every need and want.
Philip’s faith is small and weak because of what they do not have. Andrew’s faith is small and weak because of what they do have. There is a young lad who hath five barley loaves and two fishes, but what are they among so many? (St. John vi. 9) As Philip’s faith was overcome by too much, Andrew’s was constrained by too little. To offer so little to so many could only stand to mock and offend them, Andrew thought. Philip said we have too many to feed. Andrew said we have too little with which to feed them.
True faith can often be destroyed because we conclude that we never have enough or we complain about having too little. Jesus tells us to sit down, listen, and trust. He asks us to remember that we are going up to Jerusalem, that we are dogs eating from the crumbs that fall from His table (St. Matt. xv. 27), and that we must not only hear the Word of God but keep it. (St. Luke xi. 28) Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. (St. John vi. 10) The disciples obey the Master, though as yet they have nothing to set before the guests. Nature serves her Master and so affords Him and His guests a plush, green carpet of cushioned grass. And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would. (Ibid, 11) Before we make use of God’s gifts to us, we must give thanks. What He gives to us is more than sufficient to satisfy our hunger. Jesus asks us to join in His thanksgiving to the Father as we are fed on our journey up to Jerusalem. Five loaves and two fishes will feed five thousand. Tiny morsels and crumbs of bread along with a small sip of wine will become supernaturally potent with Christ’s loving presence. Andrew’s poverty becomes Philip’s plenty. Something small becomes something great.
The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field. (St. Matthew xiii. 31) Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. (St. Matthew xiii. 31,32) Jesus says, gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost. (St. John vi. 12) Faith is spread through small fragments remaining from Christ’s feast –twelve baskets full to continue to refresh twelve Apostles and the multitudes whom they will convert. Those who think that Jesus Christ comes to satisfy only earthly hunger are in bondage to the elements of this world. (Gal. iv. 3) They are the children of Hagar. They are like Christians who are worried about what might happen to their bodies, all the while ignoring the state of their souls. Their faith rests in earthly things and does not enlarge to embrace Christ’s true desire for man. To them nothing remains of Christ’s desire to feed the faith of their souls.
But faith’s sustenance is food for men wayfaring. As St. Hilary suggests, The substance [of the five barley loaves and two fishes] progressively increases. (The Passing of the Law: St. Hilary of Poitiers) And as Archbishop Trench says, So we have here a visible symbol of that love which exhausts not itself by loving, but after all its outgoings upon others, multiplies in an ongoing multiplying which is always found in true giving.... (Par’s. p. 213) Christ’s real intention is not feeding hungry bodies. He will feed hungry bodies to be sure. But He will do more. The seed of faith and hope open up to the indwelling of Christ’s all-powerful spiritual love. His love intends always to fortify and strengthen that faith that must follow Him up to Jerusalem which is above, and is free. (Gal. iv. 26)
Therefore, the Apostles gathered the fragments together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten. (St. John vi. 13) St. Augustine tells us that the fragments that remained were the parts that the people could not yet eat. (Tr. xxiv. 6) What remains over and above is the spiritual substance of a faith that is growing. Jesus says, if you follow me, you will desire to eat of these fragments that remain. In the fragments that remain are hidden gifts of mystic meaning. In the fragments are the Divine potential for those who will hunger and thirst after righteousness. (St. Matthew v. 6) Jesus always provides more and better food to those who follow Him in faith. Faith sees that the more than the multitude can eat is Spirit and is Truth. Within fragments and crumbs of earthly food, lie hidden the spiritual nourishment of God’s Grace that will be food for men wayfaring. There is more to be seen, grasped, and ingested of this Giver and His gifts, but not until the eyes of faith are opened and the believer’s heart is softened. Let us then gather up the fragments that nothing be lost. (St. John vi. 12) We will need them. Behold we go up to Jerusalem, and mere earthly fare will never sustain a faith that seeks to behold and plumb the depths of that love that never stops giving…even in Death.
Blessed is the womb that bare thee and the paps which thou
hast sucked. But Jesus said, Yea rather, blessed are they
that hear the word of God, and keep it.
(St. Luke xi. 27, 28)
In last week's Gospel, a heathen woman taught us how to come to know ourselves, repent of our sins, and to supplicate Christ for His all-powerful, merciful love that heals body and soul. You will remember that the Syro-Phoenician woman taught us how to express humility before God- that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. (Collect Lent II) She taught us also that if we are to be healed inwardly and spiritually we must persistently pursue the Lord Jesus and to say at all times O Lord, thou Son of David, have mercy upon me.(St Matthew 15. 22) I hope that like her we came to know ourselves as spiritual whelps or dogs who are never worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under [the Lord’s] table. (Prayer of Humble Access)
I hope that we learned also that the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman is not meant to encourage temporary appeals in times of earthly emergencies. Her daughter was, after all, grievously vexed with a devil (Idem). Our appeal to Christ must be a constant pursuit of sanctification. We are to come near to the Lord in good times and in bad. We are to search for Him, find Him, and embrace the Grace that He gives to heal our sin-sick souls. As Jesus insists in today’s Gospel, Blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it. (St. Luke 11. 28)
Today, another woman, this time a Jewish one, having witnessed Jesus’ healing of the deaf and dumb man and listening to His Word, praised and lauded Him with these words: Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps that gave thee suck. (St. Luke 11.27) Or, Happy is the Woman that has Thee for her Son. The mother…of one who ‘speaks as never man spoke’, that has so much of the Grace of Heaven in Him and is so great a blessing to this earth, as Matthew Henry explains it. (M. Henry Comm…) Jesus is unimpressed. He insists that the source or cause of all wisdom and righteousness is God. It may very well be true, and indeed is, that the womb that bare Him and the paps which He had sucked were blessed- His mother was, after all, the Blessed Virgin Mary. But she was blessed because she heard the Word of God, and kept it. In other words, she was blessed, indeed blessed…among women (Luke 1. 42)) because her soul magnified the Lord, and her spirit had rejoiced in God her Saviour.( St. Luke 1. 47) Blessedness comes from hearing God’s Word, retaining it, nourishing it, and giving birth to it literally and spiritually in human life.
Since the source of all truth is God’s Word, we are called to hear this truth, keep and perfect it. Keeping the Word of God in our souls is what faith's pilgrimage back to God is all about. We must not seek to be healed of incidental demons only to travel on our merry way, forgetting about the nature of God’s Word that longs to transform us more deeply and lastingly. We are called not to treat God and His Word as the doctor and his medicine at Urgent Care. Faith seeks for healing a chronic condition. That chronic condition is sin. Sometimes faith has a particular demon that needs exorcising. Sometimes faith needs help in making it through the common drudgery of life. But faith must always be conquering its vices by amassing those virtues that fortify it against the assaults of other demons. Faith seeks comprehensive healing. The medicine of faith must be allowed to cure the body, soul, and spirit if true spiritual health is to be found.
At the beginning of today's Gospel we read that Jesus was casting out a devil and it was dumb.(St. Luke 11. 14) The man whom Jesus finds is physically deaf and dumb. Obviously, he can neither hear nor speak. He cannot hear the Word of God and keep it because he cannot hear anything. Imagine being in his condition? Imagine not being able to connect with the outside world through words heard and words spoken. We wouldn’t be able to hear poetry recited or music that is sung or played. Sometimes I think that we are so unthankful for the gift of hearing and speech. And look now how our world misuses both. They hear what they want to hear. They take words and insinuate their own malicious interpretations upon them. For what? To destroy the false gods who possess them.
They may not be physically deaf and dumb, but they are certainly spiritually deaf and dumb. They have not heard the Word of God addressing them because they have been too moved and defined by the noise of this world. St. Paul tells us that mindless jabber, filthiness, foolish talking, and jesting (Eph. 5. 4) too often express and define our lives. He warns us against being deceived by vain words that provoke the wrath of God. (Ibid, 6) He reminds us also that when we hear the Word, and keep it as a habit in our hearts, we must then give thanks for it. (Ibid, 4) We cannot begin to give thanks to God for His Word, until the demons of our deaf and dumb natures have been cast off. Hearing God’s Word and keeping it, St. Paul suggests, cannot come about if we are having fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness. (Ibid, 8, 11)
In our Gospel for today, we read that When the devil was gone out…of the deaf and dumb man…the dumb (man) spake. (St. Luke 11.14) and the people wondered. Those present were amazed. And so too, in our own fallen world, people will be confused and sore-amazed when we begin to hear God’s Word and keep it. God no sooner unlooses our tongues in new spiritual ways, begins to change our lives, than our family members, friends, and others become judgmental and censorious. In the Gospel, some of them said, He casteth out devils through Beelzebub, the prince of the devils. And others sought a sign from heaven.(St. Luke 11. 15,16) When we begin to hear God’s Word and it begins to grow and mature in our lives, people will suspect that psychological imbalance and mental instability are hard at work within us. They will judge us. Many will become impatient and then indignant with us. Some will sense that this world and the words that enslave them to it are being judged and measured by the still small voice of God’s Word hard at work in our hearts and souls. They might begin to perceive that our silence is true Wisdom’s best reply. (Euripides)
But Jesus makes it clear that when our spiritual ears are opened and our spiritual tongues are unloosed, God’s Word and not the devil has responded to man’s sickness and infirmity. If I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore shall they be your judges. (Ibid, 19) The Devil disrupts, divides, stirs up, confuses, and confounds men with lots of noise. Jesus says, But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. (St. Luke 11.20) It is the finger of God alone that is powerful enough to find our dumb and deaf silence and to infuse it with the healing and salvific Word of Truth. The Devil or Beelzebub ensnares and entangles us in panic and fear over earthly calamities that won’t make much difference if we remain deaf to God’s Word. Through television, the internet, and the cell phone the Devil is whipping us up into a veritable frenzy, perfecting anxiety and the fear of death. He is having lots of fun. And Christians, falling for it hook, line, and sinker, are being made deaf to the Word of God. The Devil is no friend of spiritual silence and the Word of God that must be our chief concern and interest. He is not divided against himself (St. Luke xi. 18), for his single determination is to sever us from the still small voice of God (1 Kings xix. 12) that would calm our souls and keep us on course to God and Kingdom.
Someone much stronger than Satan must drive Satan out. Someone whose power can overcome all confusion must enable us to hear and respond to God’s voice once again. That one is God’s Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. For when a stronger than [Satan] shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all the armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils. (St. Luke 11. 21) When Jesus the Word drives out Satan, Satan's power is gone. When the Word drives the Devil out, then the Devil is silenced. Goodness and healing come from God’s Word alone. God speaks His healing Word through His Son Jesus Christ and the powers of darkness, disorder, and despair are scattered. God’s Word of love alone banishes Satan’s deafening noise.
Keeping the Word of God is the hard part. Because of silence and stillness, the unclean spirit has gone out of us. (Ibid, 24) But then there is a danger. We walk through dry places. (Idem) We have been emptied but not filled. We might be healed of Satan’s indwelling and yet not from his ongoing effort to confuse and confound us. As the Abbott Bruno says, we are:
Empty, since he finds there no charity, nor true faith, nor humility, nor patience, nor justice, nor mercy, nor any of the other things with which the souls of the saints are furnished. How does he find it? Swept and garnished: he finds it as he desires to find it. (St. Bruno, Toale)
In this Lent, we must find more than courage to welcome Christ the Strong Man into our hearts. We must pray to keep Christ the Word alive and growing in our hearts. With the deaf and mute man in today’s Gospel, we must cherish and treasure the gift of hearing Christ’s healing Word for the first time. We must be silent and quiet each day as we renew our faith with all humility and much patience. We must embrace God’s Word of mercy as a healing love we do not deserve in order to be rewarded with the health of salvation that God’s justice affords. We must be blessed because first we heard the Word, and in hearing the Word, we believed, and in believing we safeguarded it. (St. Bruno, Toale) Safeguarding means receiving with meekness the implanted Word which is able to save [our] souls.The first sound that today’s deaf and dumb man hears is God’s Word. He speaks and, no doubt, praises God for it! Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it. (Ibid, 28)
As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness.
The season of Lent is nothing if it does not confuse human wisdom and turn man’s expectations upside down. For what the lections of this Holy Season attempt to show us is that the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He takes the wise in their own craftiness. (1 Cor. iii. 19) And again, as Isaiah records, therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people…for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29. 14) In Lent, we learn that the Wisdom of God revealed in the human life of Jesus Christ, more often than not, challenges and overturns the wisdom of this world. And I don’t mean to say that human wisdom or reason is destroyed, but rather that its limitations cry out for perfection and redemption at the hands of Jesus.
In last week’s Gospel, we read of a real challenge and trial that Christ underwent in order to resist the wisdom of this world and to embrace God’s Wisdom. You will remember that the Spirit led Christ into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And there we learned that Christ resisted Satan’s temptations and banished him. The wisdom that we gleaned from that Gospel is that Jesus Christ, God as Man, faced evil, resisted it, and in the end, overcame it. Man’s wisdom walks in step with the devil; it thinks that it can use the Divine Spirit for worldly ends, that it can make God subject to its whims and idle curiosities, and that it can be as absolute as God. (RDC. Lent I) What Jesus Christ reveals to us is that true wisdom is God’s will and that the new humanity which He struggles to establish as a pattern depends wholly upon it. The devil strives to sever Jesus and us from God’s will and way. He longs to hide us from ourselves, establishing and centering us in our muddled confusions and delusions, concealing from us the true way of liberation and healing. He longs to hide us even from the Wisdom of God, from seeing and knowing that the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding. (Job xxviii. 28)
But Jesus came down from Heaven to reveal God’s wisdom through His human nature for our benefit. He came down to bring us back to the fear of the Lord so that the Divine Wisdom might be born our hearts. But if we heed the message of today’s Gospel, we learn that there is another dimension still that must be added to our fear of the Lord if God’s Wisdom is to come alive in our lives. This is the element of desire. From our limited earthly passions and desires, we learn to fear the Lord. Then we must desire to secure the power that His Wisdom affords.
In this morning’s Gospel, we see how alien, unfamiliar, and even foreign God’s Wisdom is to most men in most ages. Jesus had departed from Jerusalem and from a people who would not receive the Wisdom that He endeavored to disclose and reveal. The ancient Old Testament prognosis of God’s people was finding fulfillment in Jesus’ hearing: This people draweth unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. (Matthew xv. 8) God’s Wisdom had found no place to germinate and grow itself in the hearts of the religious Jews of Jesus’ day.
Even Jesus’ disciples seemed hard-hearted and dimwitted. Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man. (St. Matthew xv. 18-20) God’s Wisdom cannot touch and transform those who do not desire Him from within. Those who come to need it realize that their earthly efforts provide no lasting health and happiness. Today, because He did not find any need for what He offered from His own people, in this morning’s Gospel Jesus left religious Jerusalem for the frontier territory where Israel bordered the land of the heathen. Perhaps the Wisdom that He carried would find takers with the Gentiles.
What He found confounded the customs and habits of both the Jewish scribes and also of His own disciples. God’s Wisdom was, after all, revealed and shared, first and foremost, with them. That a pagan woman’s understanding of it should have shown up the Jews’ blindness and resistance of it must have been all the more confounding and even irritating. Behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. (St. Matthew xv. 22) Canaan means place of submission, humiliation, and lowliness. So, from this lowly and servileplace, Jesus hears the cry for God’s Wisdom and Mercy. At first, he seems immune and impervious to the plea. St. John Chrysostom writes that The Word [seems to have] no word; the fountain [seems] sealed; the physician withholds His remedies. Perhaps there is something in the nature of the cry that arrests Jesus’ attention and draws Him into prayer. Wisdom is quick to hear and slow to speak…(St. James i. 19) Jesus does not ignore her. Rather, He will hear more from her. He allows her to pursue her desire with passion and persistence. He did, after all, have good reason to come to this place.
Next, we read that, His disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. (St. Matthew xv. 23) The disciples long selfishly to take this time in the Gentile wilderness to their advantage. Jesus responds I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (St. Matthew xv. 24) Jesus reminds her that the Jews alone were called by God and were first given the promises because they should have known themselves to be lost sheep. She will imply that the Gentiles too are promised a share in it all! And, besides, she establishes her claim by showing that she knows and feels deeply that she too is a lost sheep. Jesus tries and tests her faith. I will wound and I will heal, saith the Lord. (Deut. xxxii. 39) St. Augustine describes His method in these words: He is no unkind physician who opens the swelling, who cuts, or cauterizes the corrupted part. He gives pain, it is true; but he only gives pain, that he may bring the patient on to health. He gives pain; but if he did not, he would do no good. (Aug, Serm. xxvii) Jesus applies God’s Wisdom and tough love to this serious seeker. She bears the pain of her daughter’s demonic possession. Her broken heart nevertheless pursues Jesus in faith with a persistence that will secure the Physician’s cure. She knows who Jesus is and she will have His mercy. Then she came and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me. (St. Mattew xv. 25) Jesus will draw out the Divine Wisdom that He finds in her heart. This alone can fuel the passion that will secure her desire. It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. (St. Matthew xv. 26) To which she responds, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. (St. Matthew xv. 27)
Wisdom has elicited from her heart the confession of pain and the poverty of her spirit. She knows that she is alien to Israel’s promises; she claims no rights to God’s Word and Wisdom; she knows herself as a powerless creature in the presence of her mighty Creator. She knows that she is as good as a nearly dead dog in need of a kind man’s care and love. So, she turns to the sole source and origin of all healing. The Wisdom in Jesus is met by her own. Yes Lord, in comparison to your own people who are your lost sheep, I am a lost dog. But, surely, this lost dog can find in you a Master whose mercy is great enough to let me eat of the crumbs that fall from your table. And, unlike your lost sheep, this lost dog has found its Master! God’s Wisdom is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Ps. xlvi. 1) Jesus honors in this Gentile woman what He could not find in His own people or even in His disciples. O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. (St. Matthew xv. 28)
Today let us take note of the alien woman’s pain. I wound and I will heal. (Idem) This woman is self-consciously broken and wounded. She knows herself and she knows that what she needs can come from Jesus alone. They that are whole need not a physician but they that are sick. (St. Luke v. 31) She is content to admit that she is a sick dog. Archbishop Trench reminds us that most people would have turned away in anger and despair. (Notes on the Parables…) This woman is not arrogant with insecurity. She knows the powerlessness of fallen man. She knows the power of Almighty God in Jesus Christ. Many would count this woman a fool in the face of what seems cruel mockery from Jesus. But this woman was no Snowflake! Here we find a truly liberated woman full of wisdom, strong courage, and determined persistence! Where is the wise person?...Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor. i. 20, 21) The woman of Canaan was a fool for Christ. This alien woman, a dog, will humbly and thankfully receive supernaturally charged crumbs that drop from Christ’s table.
Oftentimes, our Savior seems to deny our initial petitions. He seems to say No to us. But Christ knows that He can do us no good until he has established a conversation and relationship with us. He will try and test and even tease out not only what we want but how we must want it. This woman knows that she is not worthy to gather up the crumbs that fall from Christ’s table. Christ will have her not only say it but show it for her benefit and for ours. To this woman’s great humility and faith, Jesus says Be it unto thee, even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (Idem, 28) Amen.
Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
(St. Matthew iv. 11)
On Ash Wednesday you and I entered the Holy Season of Lent as we began our journey up to Jerusalem with Jesus. Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (St. Luke xviii. 31) On that day we were invited to go up to the City of the Jewish Kings or the City of Man that had come closest to a personal relationship with God in order to discover what its citizens will do to God’s only-begotten Son and our Saviour. We were invited to come up higher to study and ponder the final days and unusual end of this Man Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God. We began our Lenten Journey with the hope that we might go up to Jerusalem so that we might be welcomed to go up higher still from the high point of Christ’s Crucifixion through the gate that leads into God’s Kingdom. We were invited by Jesus to go up to Jerusalem so that with and even in Him we might move from death to life and from earth back to Heaven.
But what is the nature of this journey that we have been invited to make with Jesus? It seems to be the culmination of a commitment made long before by Jesus when He began to call us onto His path of life. That road began for Him in the desert or the wilderness where He was tempted to stop His Mission to us before it started. We read that when He began His ministry, He was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. (St. Matthew iv. 1) Long before He invited us to journey with Him up to Jerusalem, He was tempted by Satan in the desert at the bidding of the Holy Spirit. The Son of God came down from Heaven and He cannot invite us to accompany Him on His return journey to Heaven without redeeming our human nature or making it right with God once again. Adam had made our nature wrong with God. Now Jesus Christ will make it right. Thus, Christ must get under our skin to restore us to our Heavenly Father!
Jesus insists that we must follow Him into the desert in order to see clearly the nature of human temptation to sin. We can confront sin head-on only when we enter an isolated place, free of all distractions so that our focus can be concentrated and sharpened. So, we read: And when Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights, He was afterward an hungred. (St. Matthew iv. 1,2) The Spirit leads Jesus because as St. Thomas Aquinas says, Christ wished to strengthen us against temptation, warn us that no man is safe or free from temptation, and to give us a way to overcome temptations through confidence in His mercy. (Summary, Summa…iii. xli. 1) For man to return to God, the Son of Man wishes to remind us that like Him, we all shall be tempted and that no one is immune to it. Jesus also wishes to give us a way to conquer temptation by appealing to His mercy and power.
Jesus must resist those temptations that threaten His journey up to Jerusalem for us. My son, if thou come to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for temptation. Set thy heart aright, and constantly endure. (Ecclus. 2. 1) Fulton Sheen tells us that Jesus is tempted to take three shortcuts from the Cross in His mission to us. (The Life of Christ, Image Press, p. 63) Because Jesus is the Son of God, He is tempted to find an easier and softer way of saving us. We read that when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. (St. Matthew 4. 3) Jesus is the Son of God in the flesh. So, naturally enough because He has fasted for forty days, He is exhausted, physically spent, and desperately hungry. The Devil tempts Him to prove that He is the Son of God by satisfying his bodily hunger first and foremost. But though Jesus is a Man, He `is first the Son of God. Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness. (St. Matthew 5.6) Jesus must first hunger and thirst for God’s will before finding food for his earthly need. He knows that the Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. (St. Matthew xxvi. 41) Man must fast and pray to overcome the temptation to put the earth, its fruits, and our hunger first. Man’s new life can be right with God only when we put spiritual sustenance before bodily cravings. Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread or to make men [fuller and] richer without making them holier. (F. Sheen, Life of Christ, p.66) Man shall not live by bread alone, Jesus retorts, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (St. Matthew 4.4) Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto thee. (St. Matthew 6. 33) Jesus rejects the first shortcut to His Cross. He doesn’t want us to think that the eradication of earthly hunger is His priority.
Jesus is prepared for the second temptation. If Satan cannot convince Jesus that the Son of God came down to eradicate world hunger, then he will play upon the vanity of His spirit. Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. (St. Matthew 5. 6) If the urgency of earthly hunger and the needs of the body will not pull Jesus down, perhaps Jesus can herald in a new mysticism that promises to protect all men from earthly harm and danger. Wouldn’t this be far easier than going up to the Jerusalem of the Cross? By throwing Himself off of the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus can prove that He is the Son of God. His holiness in the spirit will trigger a miracle no matter what. God has promised the man of faith protection from harm. Jesus is tempted to use miracles to redeem all men. Cast thyself down, the devil exclaims. Prove to us how holy you are! Prove to us that God would not let His only Son perish! Jesus responds It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.(St. Matthew 4. 7) We will fall into the hands of the Lord, and not into the hands of men: for as His majesty is, so is His mercy. (Ecclus. 2.18) Jesus is God’s only Son. Jesus cannot provoke cheap Grace to save us all. The power of miracles lasts for about as long as fallen man’s attention span. God’s loving protection must be embraced in sickness and in health, on good days and bad, and in the midst of a crooked and perverse world. Jesus will embrace the love of God inwardly and spiritually. Jesus cannot clothe himself in wondrous miracles. He must win men’s hearts from the hearts that He breaks from the Cross of His love. Pilate will say, Behold the Man. (St. John xix. 5) Some men will see a fool dying for no reason. Others will see the pure and innocent Son of God cleaving to the Father in death and thus desiring our salvation. Jesus rejects the second shortcut.
Still, the devil does not let up. Now the devil will remind Jesus that He is the Word of God through whom all things were made. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (St. Matthew 4. 8,9) Jesus is tempted to forget about the hungry body and a frustrated soul and to prove that He is the Son of God by making peace with Satan. But the love of God in Jesus’ heart has come down from Heaven to redeem fallen man. The devil tempts Jesus to abandon fallen man and be as God by striking a deal with the Devil and settling for an evil world. Here Jesus is tempted to sever Himself from God and to be ruled by Satan’s despair. Jesus is tempted by that human despair that says that evil can never be overcome or vanquished and so we must make our peace with it. Jesus is tempted not to change and transform fallen man but to surrender to the illusive power of evil. Jesus responds definitively, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. (St. Matthew 4. 10)
Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (St. Matthew iv. 11) Jesus submits His earthly hunger to the Father’s Word and Will as the body is tamed by the soul. Jesus overcomes the soul’s vainglorious self-conscious magnificence by subjecting His soul to the Holy Spirit. Jesus is moved by Holy Spirit to move up to Jerusalem in order to redeem the whole of human nature and creation. So, in the barrenness of the desert, in the space and place of struggle with temptation, a new clarity emerges. We come to see that the Whole Man must surrender to God for redemption and transformation. We begin to see that Jesus must offer the whole of Human Nature back to God through the Suffering and Death that will become New Life.
Today, let us remember that in Jesus God as Man defeats Satan. St. Thomas tells us that Christ resisted all temptations by quoting the authority of the Law, not by enforcing His power, ‘so as to give more honor to His human nature and a greater punishment to His adversary, since the foe of the human race was vanquished, not as by God, but as by man’, as St. Pope Leo says. (Summa, III, xli. iv. contr.) It is as Man that Jesus Christ rebukes, conquers, and banishes Satan with the Word of God. As Man He will bear our griefs and carry our sorrows; [will be] wounded for our transgressions…and [will be] bruised for our iniquities. By his stripes we [shall be] healed. (Is. liii. 4) The devil vanishes. Behold the Man who silently and humbly comes down the mountain, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, very God and very Man, clothed completely in our frail human flesh with all of us on His mind and in His heart and ready to invite us to journey with Him up to the Jerusalem of His Cross and beyond.
Behold, we go up to Jerusalem
(Matthew 20. 18)
The Gesima season ends with an invitation to take up another beginning. Behold we go up. (Matt. 20. 18) We are invited onto yet another road, a spiritual road that leads to our death and new life with God. The road which we will tread is not an easy one. It will require a new and determined readiness. The self-discipline we have acquired must be put into the service of a more difficult task. It will call for drastic measures as we learn how to hand over our sin to the Lord for death. It will demand a death to all else but the love of God in Jesus Christ. Progressively our journey will be an invitation on to the road that Jesus Christ is. I am the way, the truth, and the life, (John 14. 6) Follow me, Jesus says, for behold we go up to Jerusalem. In other words, behold we go up…if we wish to follow Jesus to His Kingdom.
Our journey will teach us many things about ourselves and about God’s Love. First, of course, we shall learn what happens when sinful man cannot endure the love of God in the heart of Jesus. Every one of us is fallen, fallen out of the love of God and the love of our neighbor. Fallen man rejects God’s Love. God’s Love never ceases to be itself and this means that it insists upon conditions that most men cannot endure. Love is made flesh for us in the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is that perfect Love that never ceases to offer itself to all people in all ages. But fallen man rejects this Love, this desire that is at once persistent and consistent. God’s Love persistently reveals the truth in Jesus Christ. That Love is consistent with the nature of God and His expectations for men.
Long before the coming of Christ, the prophets foretold of how God’s Love would be received in the heart of sinful man. They foretold of how fallen man would not be able to endure the persistent presence of God’s Love in the world. Fallen man resists when God’s Love threatens to disrupt the continuance of his constant comfort. The prophets knew that most men would be hard pressed to abandon the good of this world for the sake of God’s Love.
Even the Apostles themselves bear witness to how difficult it will be to embrace the love of God in Jesus Christ. They believe that Jesus is the Love of God the Father made flesh. But they cannot see that He must be delivered unto the Gentiles.
(Luke 18. 31) Nor can they allow themselves to imagine that He shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on. (Luke 18. 32) That Jesus will be demoralized, derided, and despoiled is beyond what they think is right or appropriate for God’s Good Man. Why? Their concept of Love knows no struggle, difficulty, or sacrifice. What they see of Love involves neither suffering nor self-denial. The Apostles desire to go up with Jesus to Jerusalem and yet they have no conception of what God’s Love in the heart of Jesus must suffer from the hands of sinful man in order to save them all. Jesus prophesies that they shall scourge Him and put Him to death. (Ibid, 33) But the Apostlesunderstood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken.(Ibid, 34) Calvin says that they had formed the expectation for joyful and prosperous advancement and therefore had reckoned it to be in the highest degree absurd that Christ should be ignominiously crucified. (J. Calvin: Harmony of the Gospels, xvii) Their minds see only the prospect of going up to joyful glory. They cannot see. Their blindness is confirmed in what follows.
And it came to pass, that as he was come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the way side begging: And hearing the multitude pass by, he asked what it meant. And they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by.(Luke 18. 35-37) The Apostles do not understand what Jesus has said to them. They are blind and cannot see. And what do they find? A man who is blind in another way stumbles onto their path. They are spiritually blind, but he is physically blind. But this physically blind man sees what the Apostles do not see. And he cried, saying, Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.(Luke 18.38) What he could not see with his eyes, he saw and knew with the eyes of his soul. And so he cries out for God’s love in the heart of Jesus for mercy. In some deep way, he knows that the Jesus who is going up to Jerusalem will come down to minister to him. The Apostles are blind and thus cannot see the point. And they which went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace. (Luke 18. 39) The Apostles are confused enough already; so, why should they allow some pathetic blind man to interrupt a journey already wrought with perplexity? Yet, the blind man sees. He sees that he must reach out to Love made flesh. He sees that he cannot let Love made flesh pass him by. With the eyes of faith and the determination of hope, he sees God’s Love and the Power in Jesus, and so he cried so much the more, Thou son of David, have mercy on me. (Luke 18. 39) Let the Apostles luxuriously wallow in philosophical confusion. This man sees plainly and will have some of that Love that condescends to men of low estate! Love is near. The blind man will procure His healing power.
Behold we go up to Jerusalem. And as we go up, we find one who was blind and truly sees, who has only heard of this Jesus and yet sees and understands! Love is going up to Jerusalem, and He will take with him those who see His love and desire more of it. The relationship is established. Will we go up to Jerusalem? Will we follow Love, cry out to Love, implore Love’s mercy as we travel into the depth of its meaning and purpose?
And Jesus stood, and commanded him to be brought unto him: and when he was come near, he asked him, Saying, What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee? And he said, Lord, that I may receive my sight. And Jesus said unto him, Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee. (Luke 18. 40-42.) Yes, behold we go up to Jerusalem, and as we go up, the Love that will be mocked, spitefully entreated, spitted upon, still loves. Love reaches out to all. Here to a new friend who knew more than Jesus’ old followers because he truly saw who Jesus was and understood the power of His Love. The blind man reveals a faith that sees the Love that heals. This is the Love that is going up to His death. And so He finds one who can assist Him in beginning the process. This Love cannot help but love. This Love cannot help but die to Himself as He comes alive to God in the life of His brother. Jesus sees faith and hope and responds with God’s Love. His says Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee. (Luke 18. 42) Love says to the blind man, because you see me inwardly and spiritually, you shall see me now outwardly and materially. And, blessed are they who have not seen, and yet believe. (John 20. 29) Behold, we go up to Jerusalem. (Idem)
On the journey up to Jerusalem, Love in the flesh is always Himself. It will never cease to be the Love received from the Father and passed on to all –friend and foe alike. Here a new friend asks for its power and receives it. The new friend has the eyes of faith with which to see. Will we desire this Love with the faith and hope of the blind man? We have been blind, but Love desires for us to see. As St. Paul reminds us this morning, Love or Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth. Love or Charity is always itself. Love made flesh is always Himself. Jesus is Love or Charity made flesh. He suffers all resistance to God’s Love. His Love never ceases to be kind, benevolent, humble, and meek. He is never puffed up or proud, never seeks his own advantage and worldly comfort. In fact, Love always reaches down to lift others up. It stoops down to lift the blind man into the light of day. It will come down from the Cross to see and perceive that those who are killing it on Good Friday might just have a change of heart on Holy Saturday in order to embrace it wholeheartedly on Easter Sunday.
Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (Idem) Will we begin to imagine that Love in the flesh must suffer innocently in order to reveal God’s persistent desire for all men’s salvation? Will we begin to imagine that Love in the flesh must die in order to welcome all men into new life? Will we participate in this reality that Jesus will offer to share with us? If we don’t, we do well to remember that it is always that one thing more that separates man from the Love of God in Jesus Christ. It might be the love that forgives the worst of sinners and their sin. It might be the love that calls forth more generosity at the cost of a sacrifice. It might be the love that must suffer real mental and even physical anguish and loss in order to be rewarded with new life and its gains. Whatever it is, it is usually something rather insignificant in the eternal scheme of things. Will we see, with the blind man, that unless we believe and hope in the invisible work of God’s love in the heart of Jesus, we cannot be saved?
Today, let us forsake all, follow Jesus, and glorify God. (Ibid, 43) With Calvin, those who are healed of their blindness show a grateful mind in presenting themselves to others as mirrors of the Grace of Christ. (Idem) With the blind man, we might even gratefully anticipate the Resurrection that stands behind the Cross.
Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long-expected healing wings could see,
When Thou didst rise!
And, what can never more be done,
Did at midnight speak with the Sun!
(Henry Vaughn: The Night)
In the midnight of darkness, behold we see! Behold, we go up to Jerusalem. (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. And part of that discovery involves a real effort at persevering in our pursuit of understanding what Jesus Christ teaches us. Last week we began our pursuit with Jesus’ Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. A parable presents us with a surface illustration or story that begs us to delve deeper into a spiritual and heavenly meaning. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parable always depicts a human habit, experience, or labor with which most men can identify. It is different from a fable in that it does not involves talkative donkeys or philosophical cats who aim to teach us some moral lesson about earthly life. It is unlike a myth also since myth never ends up disentangling truth from the story. The myth is believed more as a sign of the union of the supernatural and natural rather than as the way from the one to the other. A parable, then, takes men seriously in his serious endeavors in order to make a spiritual point. It considers the spiritual purpose that lies hidden in earthly intentions and ends. In the case of the parables told by Jesus, He never uses illustrations that contradict the natural and human orders but offers them as earthly depictions of spiritual aspirations and ends. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)
But notice something else. The parables of the New Testament are always about earthly cares and considerations that are always capable of being perfected spiritually. Jesus uses parables not only because He wants to make men think and know but because He wants them to choose and decide for the sake of His Kingdom. Pope Benedict XVI says that Jesus can speak openly about the Kingdom of God to others or all sorts of people. But to those who will follow Him and become His disciples, He speaks in parables, precisely to encourage their decision, their conversion of the heart…. St John Chrysostom says that ‘Jesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would covert, he would heal them” (Idem, cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). Parables are used by Jesus in order to convert men’s hearts, to encourage them to become His disciples, and to give them a picture of what the process of spiritual transformation is all about. Parables stir wonder, questing, seeking, and knocking. The man who seeks out their meaning is the one who desires to know and find happiness in the discovery of a truth that, at first, remains hidden to him. In the parables, each of us is given the opportunity to follow Jesus and to discover God’s Hidden Meaning…which most men couldn’t be bothered about.
Think about how so very hard this is –I mean to decide to follow Jesus and to discover the meaning of His Parables! Last week we prayed for the temperance and perseverance that runs afterGod’s justice. This week, we are reminded that the self-discipline that it demands is no easy business. St. Paul, this morning, takes up the point as he addresses a community of new Christians in Corinth who are being swayed by false prophets to believe that no moral effort or self-discipline is needed at all. They were telling the Corinthians that this Paul was blowing the process of conversion all of out of proportion. True Christianity, they insisted, involves really nothing more than a kind of new-age mysticism that promises an otherwise painless existence. True Christianity, they said, shouldn’t involve anything like what St. Paul was teaching but should be an easier, softer, and gentler endeavor that shouldn’t command any moral effort or suffering at all.
But St. Paul, needless to say, was incensed. St. Paul had digested the Parables of Jesus. For Paul, the life of Jesus Christ in itself was a Parable intended to lead men to the long and hard study that should trigger imitation! Far from wishing to justify himself, St. Paul even desired to use his life as a kind of parable that might lead other men onto the road of conversion and redemption. Remember, the parable uses real human experience to carry the seeker’s mind into spiritual wisdom. St. Paul uses his own experience as a parable to teach his flock what Christian conversion entails. He shows us that true discipleship requires the same effort that goes into understanding any good parable.He asks, Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck…in perils of robbers, in perils of waters, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen…in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…(2 Cor. 23-27) He tells them that conversion and discipleship involve running the race with temperance in all things to obtain an incorruptible crown. In other words, true conversion and discipleship will involve both bodily and spiritual suffering. He tells them that this suffering might demand not only rejection from the outside world but even spiritual warfare and torture that threaten the presence of Christ within. Who is weak, and I am not weak (Cor. xi. 29), he asks? This business of becoming a Christian and staying the course are as real as the parable that his own life reveals. In other words, it hurts. Yet, he concludes, that the end makes the effort worth all of the struggle. If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) The parable of Paul’s experience teaches us that in humility, in weakness and suffering, Christ comes to the soul and reveals God’s hidden Word.
St. Paul’s life and witness comprise a parable for us all. But what had happened to his Corinthian converts so that they were so easily swayed by their new teachers and prophets? I think that we can find all or part of the answer in this morning’s Gospel Parable of the Sower. Jesus tells us that A sower went out to sow his seed. At first, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. (St. Luke viii. 5) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had heard God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls was like the wayside, trodden down by the ongoing traffic and business of this world, and so they cannot hear the Word. They might have been in this state because they have exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they have become hard as the pavement, till they have laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root…(Parables, Trench, p.60) Such men are always prey to the Devil and his friends since they live in a world full of so many words that they cannot distinguish God’s Word from all others.
Next, …some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. (Ibid, 6) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had hearts like gravely rock. Such people hear the Word of God with excitement and joy for a short time; it sounds so promising. They prematurely anticipate its benefits without counting the cost of growing it in the soul. They fall awaybecause they cannot work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) Salvation, they discover, is a parable of real life, full of pain and suffering, doubt and confusion, hard labor and effort. Like the sun scorching the blade that has no depth in the earth, these men’s hearts [are] failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth….(St. Luke xxi. 26)
Next, And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (Ibid, 7) Perhaps some of the Corinthians honestly received God’s Word but choke and kill it with cares and concerns of this life that end up being more important to them. Here the heard-Word is growing for a season but only alongside inner anxiety and fear that kill the growth of the Word within. They are crushed, as the Gospel says, by the cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) As Archbishop Trench remarks, the old man is not dead in them; it may seem dead for a while…but unless mortified in earnest, will presently revive in all its strength anew. (Ibid, p. 65) These thorns and briars may take the form of earthly happiness found or lost. In either case, they have neither been killed nor banished from the soil of the soul, and so the Word cannot grow. One or all of these kinds of hearing might explain what happened to St. Paul’s young flock and what can happen to us.
Finally, today’s Parable concludes with, And other [seed] fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. (Ibid, 8) The Parables are always about real life. In real life, seed can grow up effectually only in deep, dark soil that has been weeded and fertilized. So, in the soul, the seed of God’s Word can grow in our hearts only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort. Like Paul, we must expect both punishment from without and suffering from within if the Seed of God’s Word is to grow in our souls. Each and every one of us is subject to the temptations that threaten the hearing and growth of God’s Word in this morning’s Parable. With St. Paul we must proclaim, If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) For it is precisely in the admission that we are weak that Christ responds to us with the love that alone can grow His Word. God has made the soul; God speaks His Word into it in order to save us. If we begin to hear God’s Word, to clear and cultivate the soil of our souls with sorrow and repentance, to tend the seed with carefulness and devotion, and not superficially and carelessly, by God’s grace we shall bring forth fruit with patience. (St. Luke viii. 15) Then you and I shall become a parable that reveals not only the truth of God’s Word but of its presence and expression in the lives we live. And, with Milton, we shall muse in hope,
…What if earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?
(Paradise Lost: v, 574-576)
Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
We have just completed our journey from Advent through to Epiphany-tide. As Canon Crouse reminds us, the season we have observed has been a time of expectation, coming and manifestation. In it, we saw that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we observed the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. Now we turn to the period spanning between Septuagesima Sunday and Ascension Day. Septuagesima Sunday is the beginning of our short Gesima season; Gesima means days. Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima refer to 70, 60, and 50 days before Lent. On these three Sundays, we prepare for Lent. Our seasons and the appointed readings come to us from patterns established in the Ancient Church. So, as men of old in the ancient Western Latin Church did, we must use our season for self-discipline. Today’s lesson in self-discipline will include the virtues of temperance and justice.
The virtues that we study today are two of what are known as the Cardinal Virtues. The Cardinal Virtues come to us from the Latin word cardo, which means hinge. These then are the hinge virtues without which we cannot hope to obtain any kind of goodness. Goodness here is that holiness and righteousness which we can find by the use of our reason and free will. The Cardinal Virtues were first formulated by the great Greek philosopher Plato in his Dialogues, were later refined by Aristotle, and were then part and parcel of the Graeco-Roman world’s pursuit of goodness and virtue. The early Church Fathers designated them as Cardinal virtues which come to us by way of reason’s study of the universe and human nature and then the will’s expression of them in the habits of human life. The Fathers taught that they were not especially dependent upon Revelation or Scripture. Instead, they formed a kind of goodness that man can find prior to his need for the Divine Grace and Intervention that lead to salvation. So, you can imagine the Cardinal Virtues are laying a kind of groundwork for the acquisition of goodness in this world. The goodness that they establish conditions the body and soul for an understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. The Cardinal Virtues, in a Christian context, provide us with a character of soul and body that will better situate us to pursue the Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and charity in the Holy Season of Lent.
Our first virtue is discussed today by St. Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter IX. In it, he likens our pursuit of Heaven to the spiritual and bodily preparation made by ancient Greek runners who competed in the Isthmian Games. Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? (1 Cor. 9. 24) Using an earthly paradigm illustrated by comparison to what the Cardinal Virtues can achieve, St. Paul inspires us to run so that we might win a prize. Of course, his illustration relates to a competition where only one man can win and receive the laurel wreath, the crown of triumph and victory in pagan life. St. Paul wants to assure us that as Christians we all can run to obtain the prize. In fact, we cannot receive it unless we run. And run we must since without such a commitment of enthusiasm, energy, and effort, we shall never reach the finish line! So run, that ye may obtain (Ibid, 25), he says. Yet, our running must be conditioned. …Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things: now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. (Ibid, 26) As it turns out, our running must be tempered and moderated towards our end. Our end is not the corruptible crown of the laurel wreath that commands the admiration, wonder, praise, and veneration of earthly men. That end is corruptible and passing. Our end is incorruptibleand lasting. And if this is the case, then our moderation and temperance must be of such a sort that best conditions our hearts and souls for the eternal prize of Heaven’s gift in the offer of salvation. The Apostle wants us to remember that we are aiming for a prize of inestimable worth and value. The temperance and moderation that we embrace must be applied to our souls as well as our bodies. The runners at the Isthmian Games kept to a strict diet and discipline. Also, they refrained from those freedoms that stand only to corrupt the body and disrupt focus. How much more then should Christians keep to a strict diet and discipline as they condition their bodies to serve their souls that seek after the prize of God’s Kingdom? The Greek runners were fighting for an earthly prize but Christians for an eternal reward. Thus, the Apostle warns us against that incautious and immoderate indulgence of the world that is always at enmity with God and more likely than not to distract us from running the race. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away. (Ibid, 26, 27) Runners’ arms beat the air as they push their legs onward to an uncertain victory where one wins and the others lose. Christians, with certainty through hope, run all together, tempering their bodies through self-discipline, hoping to gain one reward. Paul calls us to imitate his example as we run with him.
Moderation and temperance condition our body to serve our soul’s end. For Christians, the end is one reward for all. We are invited into collective labour. The ancient pagans were in combat with one another. We cannot afford such a luxury. We must run all together. But their virtues can be used in the service of our Gospel prize. By helping one another to moderate and temper our earthly passions and appetites, we can all appreciate more fully the crown that awaits us. Our crown is the reward or gift of God the Giver. We do not deserve, earn, or merit it. We have been invited to run or to labour in the Vineyard of the Lord, as today’s Gospel would have it. For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.(St. Matthew xx. 1) The offer to work in the Vineyard of the Lord is God’s gift. The work is offered at different times of the day or different times of life to men who will come in the morning, noontide, or evening of their lives. Those who come first to work are promised a penny. They have been awakened by the Lord in the morning of their lives and so come early to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. Others are roused or stirred later in the day of their lives. They have been idle, negligent, slothful, careless, or ignorant. Nevertheless, they are given a chance to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They are told that they will receive what is right in payment for their labour. Others are found at the sixth and ninth hours of their lives. Some are even found in the twilight of their lives, at the eleventh hour or the end of the day. They too are welcomed to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They too will receive what is right as a reward. These men are even rebuked for their sloth. Why stand ye here all the day idle? (Ibid, 6) Yet, the householder’s desire for their service is greater than his bewilderment at their delay in accepting the offer to run to the work that leads to an incorruptible crown.
In today’s Gospel Parable, at the end of the day, all are paid. The last to come are paid first and the first to come are paid last. The moderation and temperance that have conditioned the running and working of the Johnny-come-lately men are of equal value and worth to the first in the heart of the householder. Every man receives a penny. Every man receives the same reward. All run. Some come early and some come late. All are called to work for one end.
But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. (Ibid, 10-12)
Christians are called to run and work not that one may receive the prize but that all may run together to receive the gift of one and the same prize, an incorruptible crown.
Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Ibid, 13-16)
Moderation and temperance prepare us for the virtue of justice. Strictly speaking, as fallen and sinful men, we deserve nothing but just punishment for our sins. That is real justice. God’s justice, however, is always tempered by His mercy. He takes our Cardinal Virtues and rewards them with something greater than we could ever deserve or earn. He offers us an incorruptible crown as the reward of being invited into the running and onto a work that leads back to Himself. God tells us that if we accept His invitation to run and to work, we shall be rewarded with a crown whose worth and value far exceed anything that is right or just for men. And, as John Henry Newman says:
We cannot be wrong here. Whatever is right, whatever is wrong, in this perplexing world, we
must be right in doing justly, in loving mercy, in walking humbly with our God; in denying
our wills, in ruling our tongues, in softening and sweetening our tempers, in mortifying our
lusts, in learning patience, meekness, purity, forgiveness of injuries, and continuance in well
A Light to Lighten the Gentiles,
and the Glory of thy people Israel.
(St. Luke ii. 32)
Today we celebrate the Feast of The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, which is also known as The Purification of St. Mary the Virgin and also as Candlemas. It is called The Purification after the Jewish ritual custom proscribed in the Twelfth Book of Leviticus, where the mother of a newborn boy is commanded to undergo forty days of cleansing from the blood of childbirth and then to offer herself and the child at the temple with an offering. Her purification is accompanied by the presentation of her child. The ritual itself is a consecration of both the mother and child’s lives to God, and the offering is a sign of thanksgiving and gratitude for safe delivery and the continued health of the mother. If the parents were rich enough, they would offer a lamb. If they were poor, they would offer two turtledoves or two pigeons, as Joseph and Mary did. That the Feast is also called Candlemas originates with Simeon’s prophecy that the Christ Child would be a Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of [God’s] people Israel. (Ibid, 32) Later Church tradition has this day as the Feast on which beeswax candles were blessed for use both in churches and in private homes throughout the year. In the old days, Candlemas Term denoted the second trimester in Scottish universities and secondary schools.
So let us study Candlemas. And I would like to do this because I think that it fits nicely in with our Epiphany Season of light. In the past few weeks, we have been focusing on Christ the Light, or on the Light that has begun to illuminate our minds and warm our hearts to the mission and meaning of Jesus Christ. What we have seen is that Christ the Light is the spiritual brilliance and radiance that comes to transform and redeem human nature in such a way that He confuses and confounds before He adjusts and assimilates our vision to His meaning. Think about our Epiphany Gospel readings. In them, we found that the Blessed Virgin Mary was left quite confused about the meaning of her young son’s life. She thought that she had lost Jesus, only to discover that it was she who was truly lost spiritually since she had forgotten why He was born and for what He had come into the world. Later, when she provoked Him to use His power to overcome the depletion of wedding wine, she was reminded that both she and He were destined to face the need for a far more potent wine -the wine of His Sacred Blood. In both cases, the Blessed Virgin’s spiritual vision was not able to see the heavenly Light that informed and defined her earthly Son’s earthly mission.
None of this should surprise us. The Blessed Virgin was Jesus’ earthly mother –the mother of Jesus’ humanity. In so far as she saw what she saw when she saw it, she was a good mother moved and defined by human nature’s light. In this, she was like you and me. She followed Nature’s light. Nature’s light is found in three ways. First, it is the light of the Sun that brings about new life, conserves and moves it to its appointed ends. Through the energy of the Sun the world, as we know it, lives, and moves, and has its being. Second, it is the light of the Sun that sheds its rays and enables us to see. Third, it is the light of man’s intellect by which he comes to study the universe and explore its length, breadth, depth, and height, so that he might order and arrange it to serve his needs. Nature’s light is a gift from God for which we ought to be eternally thankful. This is the light that moves most men, and, no doubt, defined and informed Mary’s relation to her son Jesus.
But there is another Light which stands above Nature’s light. This is the Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. (St. John i. 9) Of course, this Light is Christ or the everlastingly-begotten Word of God. This is the Light that not only makes and creates but calls all men back to God. This is the Light that then joins Himself to human nature in Jesus Christ in order to generate another Light –the Light of faith in the hearts and minds of those who will follow Him. But, this Light of faith is not obtained or possessed easily. The Blessed Virgin, more than others I think, knew this most acutely and painfully. Faith is a gift that grows only with suffering through the trial and error of realizing that we do not yet grasp or understand the true Light. The Light of faith demands humility and obedience. This Light calls us onto the path of Love that leads to true Life. The Light of faithgrows in the heart that listens to Jesus, heeds Jesus, and follows Jesus. One of the hardest truths that the Blessed Virgin had to accept was that her unique role did not entitle the Light of faith in her to the immediate and privileged possession of her Son or His will. She was His earthly mother. God was His heavenly Father. The whole of her life is about letting go of Jesus so that the Light of Faith might carry He to His Cross and beyond.
The Blessed Virgin would learn to follow Jesus in faith and discover in Him the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. Her encounter with the Light began with news brought to her by an unusual other –the Angel Gabriel, who told her of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Ghost. In the Light of [her] faith, she heard of the prophecy of her Son’s everlasting kingship. Nature’s lightcontinually confused her. God’s Son would be born in poverty. The praise brought by Angels and Shepherds reassured her for a time. Still, we must imagine how confused this poor Virgin Mother must have been! Nature’s light taught her that the other Light seemed to be shining in the most unlikely of places and through the strangest of mediums! How could this prophecy of glory and perfection emerge from conditions of such hardship and suffering, she must have wondered. But through it all, by the Light of faith, she followed, and pondered all these things in her heart. (Ibid, ii. 19)
And today we find more of what must have been, at the very least, still more confusing. She and Joseph take the babe to the temple for her ritual Purification and Jesus’ Presentation. And so here, thinking that she was doing only what every other Jewish mother had been commanded to do by Jewish Law after the birth of her male-child, her faith encounters the Light once again. There she and Joseph find old Simeon and Anna. St. Luke tells us that Simeon was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. (Ibid, 25, 26) Simeon sees God’s Light in Jesus and proceeds to sing the Nunc Dimitis.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word:
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
a light to lighten the Gentiles,
and the glory of thy people Israel. (Ibid, 29-32)
Simeon sees God’s Light of salvation in the newborn Jesus; Mary and Joseph marvel at his prophecy. Simeon addresses Mary and reveals the meaning of Jesus’ birth. This child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Ibid, 34, 35) The Light of faith will lead Mary, through Jesus, to a future of fall and rising, of suffering and death before redemption and new birth. The process of faith’s journey into Christ the Light will demand that the Light still shine, even in the face of that darkness which will pierce and rend both Christ’s side and Mary’s soul on Calvary’s Cross.
The Feast of Candlemas reminds us that our faith must never hesitate or waiver in the face of confusion, perplexity, or suffering, as it journeys into Christ the Light, who comes to reveal the truth of God’s plan and purpose for us all. The Light of faith demands patience, watching, waiting, and courage. The Light of Faith demands compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and kindness. Today the Blessed Virgin once again is confronted by God’s Light and in Simeon and Anna sees something of what is to come. Both spent their lives in the temple guided by the Light of faith, patiently praying, keeping vigil, looking for the things that were coming from God with earnest expectation and hope. What was rewarded to them as the prize of their faith and hope was a vision of the Savior. They would not live to see and understand the Light and Love that this Life would bring into the world. They would not live to see how this Light would shine even in the Darkness of unjust suffering and death. But Mary would come to understand it all slowly and painfully. But first, the Lord places before her the Light of faith in the lives of Anna and Simeon. Through their faith, Mary is being purified of all earthly expectations –the usual end of Nature’s light, that the Light of her faith might follow and find, see and understand the spiritual meaning of her Son, Christ the Light.
Today, dear friends, let us be determined to walk by the Light of faith. Today’s Purification and Presentation in the Temple should provoke us to cultivate and grow that Light, and so to present ourselves to God with pure and clean hearts. (Collect) Let us with Mary, as the model of our purification, be patient, ever watching and waiting, and even suffering as the Light of faith leads us deeper into the Love of God in Jesus’ Life. From there, let us pray that the illumination of Christ the Light will enkindle our passion to follow Him wheresoever He bids us go and to obey Him in whatever He asks us to do. His Light never ceases to touch us with God’s Love. With Mary let us ponder all things in our hearts and:
Begin from first, where he encradled was
In simple cratch, wrapt in a wad of hay,
Between the toilful ox and humble ass;
And in what rags, and in what base array
The glory of our heavenly riches lay,
When him the silly shepherds came to see,
Whom greatest princes sought on lowest knee.
Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.
Be not wise in your own conceits. (Romans xii. 16)
Thus far in the season of Epiphany, we have been invited to see and perceive the manifestation and revelation of Divine wisdom, love, and power in the life of Jesus Christ. We have followed the Star that draws and summons the soul’s eye to origin and source of all truth and meaning in human life. We have seen his star in the east, and art come to worship him…(St. Matthew ii. 2) We have learned that out of eternity’s consecration of time in the life of the young Jesus, divine wisdom informs and defines the new life that will save all men. Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business…(St. Luke ii. 49) We have gleaned also that this life is made to be redeemed as new and potent spiritual wine that is always being made out of the simple and elemental fragments of created existence. But thou hast kept the best wine until now. (St. John ii. 10) Love, wisdom, and power reveal themselves to us in Epiphany as marks of Jesus’ intention to do even greater things than these. (St. John xiv. 12) And the greater things than these will involve not only what God does in Jesus Christ then and there, but what Jesus will do in us here and now. Epiphany is not only about vision but is also, and more importantly, about the redemptive power of God’s Grace in your life and in mine.
The image of the transformation that Epiphany brings to us is pictured this morning in Jesus’ encounter with a Roman Centurion. A centurion was a professional officer in the Roman Legion who commanded roughly one hundred men. He, like the soldiers under his rule, would have been a celibate –Roman soldiers were not permitted to marry until active duty was completed. So, perhaps for the Roman Centurion in this morning’s Gospel, the military unit formed a kind of family for him –soldiers and servants who were the subjects of his paternal care. And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. (St. Matthew viii. 5) Capernaum was the home of Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew the tax collector. It also housed a Roman garrison, and thus today’s Centurion. Oddly enough, the pagan Centurion approached Jesus and addressed him as Lord. Jesus responds and says, I will come and heal him. (St. Matthew viii. 7) But the Centurion protests, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) Perhaps he had heard of Jesus’ power from others; maybe he had witnessed the miracles.
In any case, prior to his appeal the Centurion would, no doubt, have known of Jesus’ reputation. We surmise that he must have had some knowledge and experience of Jesus. He must have had a deep sense also of the holiness attached to Jesus’ person. At any rate, he ranked himself as unworthy to have the Lord come down to his house to heal his servant. Jesus was all-holy; the Centurion counted himself as not near such a state of spiritual life. Thus, in humility, he begs Jesus to speak or send His Word only, that his servant might be healed. Only humility can gain from Christ the transformative power of God’s Grace. Clear-headed about his own moral and spiritual weakness, emptied of any pretense to self-importance, disappointed by his own prudence and cleverness, the Centurion’s heart becomes the space that feeds on Faith, looks forward with Hope, and rests in the Love he does not yet possess. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. (St. Matthew viii. 9) This Centurion knows that though he possesses earthly authority, beyond that, he has no access to heaven’s power. In the earthly domain of Caesar, he has the power and authority to command, and he is obeyed. He speaks and it is done. Yet, notice how he says: I am a man under authority. He implies that he too must obey and submit himself to a higher authority. He is Caesar’s soldier.
But he has seen one whom he believes is greater than Caesar and whom he must come to followin a greater way. His sense of the all-holiness emanating from the Person of Jesus commands him to seek out and find Jesus in faith and belief. Jesus has more power and authority than any earthly king. He believes that Jesus is in possession of that Divine power that alone is sufficient to heal his servant. So, with his own feeble desire, he reaches out to One with the power to love and to heal. He believes too that Jesus is in possession of the Divine wisdom, with the truth which will set men free. The overwhelming otherness then that the Centurion finds in the person of Jesus will begin to transform him. He believes and knows; he knows and he seeks; he seeks and he finds. The manifestation and revelation of his own condition and of God’s nature in Jesus carry this pagan Centurion from self-knowledge to faith, and through faith to hope, and in hope to the healing of love. He is moved out of weakness and powerlessness into the redemption that Christ brings. The Epiphany revelation that we find today is twofold. First, we learn of the powerless state of sinful man. Second, if we claim it ourselves, in all humility, we discover God’s response to it in Jesus Christ.
The faith that Jesus finds in this Centurion’s soul is what He came down from heaven to grow. St. Augustine reminds us, this faith is of such a nature that it says, if then I a man under authority have the power of commanding, what power must Thou have, whom all powers serve? The Centurion’s power is earthly and thus limited. The power he perceives in Jesus is the source and origin of all power, can transcend all time and space, overcome all barriers and hurdles, and touch and move the world as it did in the beginning. Speak (or send) the Word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) God spake the word and they were made; He commanded, and it stood fast. (Psalm xxxiii. 9) The Centurion Roman believes that he must supplicate and obtain this power through faith. He will secure and experience the loving power of God by opening to it in hope. When Jesus heard this Centurion’s confession of faith, He marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. (St. Matthew viii. 10, 11) What Jesus finds is a faith that does not hold back in contemplation with wonder, but one which earnestly desires and seeks out the loving power that He carries into the world. What Jesus finds is the prayer that every man must make if he will secure the sanctification and salvation that God longs to bring into human life.
This is the message of our Epiphany-tide. But it comes also with a real warning. Jesus says that the Centurion’s gentile faith is sound and on the way to the Kingdom. He tells us too that the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (St. Matthew viii. 12) What He means is that there are too many Christians who never seek out the healing power of God with all humility. What he means is that those who think that they are the children of the kingdom, are not. Why? Because they are good and, evidently, have no need for the healing power of God in Jesus Christ. These are they who keep God at a safe distance. These are they who have never admitted and confessed their own limitations. These are they who have never admitted their own need for God’s Grace in all of their lives. These are they who have never discovered that spiritual state that we find in today’s Centurion.
Jesus says, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. (St. Matthew vii. 7) Salvation is for the humble. Salvation is for the needy. Salvation is for those who know that they are weak and who know that God alone in Jesus Christ can make them strong! Our Centurion had a vision of God at work in Jesus Christ, and with humility, longed to benefit from its power for his suffering servant. From the ground of humble self-emptying, he reached out with every fiber of his being to procure the power that moved the heart of Jesus. Touched by that power in the poverty of his soul, his faith found healing, not only in the life of his servant but within himself. His servant was healed. But he too was healed because his faith was enlarged as he made room for Jesus in the inn of his soul and had a place where Jesus could lay his head. He was healed because his hope was strengthened, and his love was not disappointed. In the Centurion we find a miracle even more significant than that of his servant.
Be not wise in your own conceits, but… condescend to men of low estate. (Romans xii. 16), St. Paul says this morning. He means that we should, with the Centurion, bow down, and realistically discover in the suffering of our loved ones our powerlessness to heal and save them. He means that from this low and humble seat we ought to seek out God’s mercy with all faith, hope, and love. Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the Word only and my servant shall be healed. (Idem)
Today we must ask ourselves, Do we find and discover ourselves truly in the Epiphany illumination that reveals our own deepest need for Christ the light? Are we pouring out our complaint to Christ? If so, with the Centurion, we shall experience the effective power of our loving Saviour, who says, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant, [and his own soul], were healed in the selfsame hour. (St. Matthew viii. 13) May it be so with our souls in His healing mercy. Amen.
You can only apprehend the Infinite by a faculty that is superior
to reason, by entering into a state in which the Divine Essence
is communicated unto you."
Illumination and enlightenment are the themes of Epiphany tide. Επιϕανια is the Greek word for Epiphany, and it means manifestation or revelation, showing forth or shining forth. For Christians, it refers to the disclosure of God’s love, wisdom, and power in the life of Jesus Christ---the Divine Life calling and summoning all men to the centrifugal center of reconciliation and communion with God. It is like the sun that opens the eyes not only to sight but understanding, whose rays join our eyes to the objects that we seek to know and understand. And this illumination or enlightenment which comes from God through Christ to all men relates not only to our vision but also to the power that can change us. Through it, men sense and perceive the loving power through which we all can be changed in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye. (1 Cor. Xv. 52)
Yet the light through which Christ manifests and illuminates God’s life is not easily apprehended. If it could be, reason would acquiesce and adapt to its nature quickly, perhaps as swiftly as it assents to the proposition that two plus two makes four. But, as Plotinus reminds us, a faculty greater than reason is needed to pursue this truth, discover its meaning, and enjoy its power. That faculty is called faith, for faith alone confesses what it does not have but desires to obtain and enjoy. Think about it. When you first were drawn to someone who intrigued or interested you, you did not yet know that person in any intimate or deep way. You had faith and confidence that there was something mysterious, deeper, and concealed that you wanted to investigate and discover more fully. Your faith pursued the object of your desire in order to seek out and find a hidden reality, a deeper meaning attached to the one you trusted was interesting enough to get to know and maybe even love!
God works in the same way. He intrigues us by calling us forward to search out Him out with confidence that the truth is there to be discovered, as He progressively reveals Himself from the heart of His inner being. We can find Him only if we believe and trust that something beautiful and meaningful is waiting to be disclosed by Him. If all that there is to know about Him were revealed externally, visibly, and instantaneously to the human mind, there would be no place for a faith that follows and a love that grows.
In Epiphany tide, our faith seeks to find and know God’s wisdom and love. Yet what confronts us on the first three Sundays in Epiphany is confusion. In our Epiphany readings, we find ignorance and uncertainty as necessary precursors to enlightenment and knowledge. Not knowing and spiritual darkness seem to crush our faith. The Wise Men ask Where is He that is born king of the Jews? We have seen His star in the east and have come to worship Him, (St. Matthew 2. 2) We believe but where is He, that we may know Him? They believe and trust that an extraordinary star calls them to find an unusual king. They carry sacred gifts with mystic meaning because they believe that this king is calling them forth out of darkness and into His own marvelous light.
Ignorance, uncertainty, and even confusion compel those who love God to search more diligently for His truth. Last Sunday we found that Joseph and Mary were alarmed and frightened at the prospect of having lost their son Jesus. They sought Him out of confusion and bewilderment. Their faith drives them to search for Jesus, but their love is threatened with fear and terror. They hurry back to Jerusalem because they trust and hope that Jesus is somewhere safe. They seek Him out but are then astonished and amazed with where they find Him and with what He is doing. With exasperation, they exclaim to Him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us, behold thy father and I have sought Thee sorrowing. (St. Luke 2. 48) They are perplexed further by His answer: Why is it that ye sought Me? Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business? (Ibid, 49) Mary and Joseph understood not the saying which He spake unto them. (Ibid, 50) But Mary knows that there is a deeper truth she must learn. And so, she kept all these sayings in her heart. (Ibid, 51). In Mary’s heart, there is a desire to learn the deepest truth from her more than enigmatic and strange Son.
Jesus is the wisdom of God that is not self-evidently or clearly understood at first glance. Jesus is also the power of God who comes to transform the world. In today’s Gospel, now some years later, it would appear that Mary, having kept Jesus’ sayings in her heart, believes that she understands Her Son. Today we find her with Him at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. The wedding party has run out of wine. She remembers the Divine love that His infant kingship inspired in the Three Wise Men. She recalls the Divine wisdom that rebuked her worldly fears and distrust. Now she seeks to enlist His Divine power to furnish a Sacramental event with added bliss. She cannot help but verbalize what Her Son surely knows! Son, they have no wine. (St. John, ii. 3) The Mother knows that Her Son can overcome all manner of earthly deficiency. Here, she believes He should do so. Mary thinks that this is justified since Jesus is not amongst the elites of Jerusalem but with the ordinary middleclass people of the relatively insignificant town of Cana in Galilee. If He is to be about His Father’s business, then, surely, He can make more wine for those who, perhaps, cannot afford it!
Jesus knows better, and thus rebukes Mary. Woman what have I to do with thee? Woman, why are you involving Me in this? What does this have to do with Me and thee? (Ibid, 3) The rebuke is needed because she does not ask Him a question like Son, what should we do for they have no wine. She seems to demand Divine Intervention. Jesus will have none of it. He exclaims Mine hour has not yet come. (Ibid, 4) Mary felt, once more, the overwhelming sense of her ignorant earthliness. She does not yet understand Her Son in relation to herself or others.
Yet, Mary believes she must accept Jesus’ rebuke in order to learn from His loving correction.Whatsoever He says, do it, (Ibid, 5) she commands the others. Mary has accepted the Lord’s chastening. She has been humbled. She directs the others correctly. Jesus responds. Fill the waterpots with water, (Ibid, 7) and the servants obey. Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it. When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, and saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. (Ibid, 8-10)
Jesus has not come down from Heaven to perform earthly miracles on earthly men for earthly joy and happiness. Here, He does not merely produce new earthly wine at an earthly wedding for earthly men who had already drunk too much in an earthly manner. Were this all that He had done, drunk men wouldn’t have known the difference. Mary wasn’t drunk. Neither was the governor of the feast. Mary saw what Jesus did in response to her humble subjection to Him. The governor tasted the difference.
Of course, today’s miracle is a sign and symbol of what Christ always intends to do with us. If we are in search of miraculous earthly solutions to earthly deficiencies, we are far too drunk on earthly things to see how Christ the Light longs to bring new spiritual wine into our fallen lives. Christ Jesus is the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. i. 24) He comes to put new wine into new bottles. (St. Mark ii. 22) The Blessed Virgin Mary had to be converted. She had to learn not that they have no wine but that I and We have no wine. We must believe and know that we must become those new bottles that are in need of being filled with Christ’s new wine.
Jesus insists Mine hour is not yet come. (Ibid) Jesus performs a miracle. Jesus provides. But first we must trust in Him. Whatsoever He says, Do it! He might provide wine, or He might not. He might open blind eyes, or He might not. Whatsoever He says, we must do it. We need to obey Jesus. His Hour does not yet come until we go up to His Cross of His Love and beyond. Then a very new kind of wine will pour forth from His hands, His feet, and His side that He has received from His mother and is moved by His Father. The Sacred Gift of Mystic Meaning will be found in the Blood that alone is the new wine that gives new life to a fallen world that with the governor of the feast can taste the difference!
We believe that Jesus saves the best wine until last. For us, the new wine of Christ’s miraculous sacrifice on the Cross is poured out for us whenever we come to Holy Communion. We believe that the wine that we shall drink in the Holy Eucharist can become for us the all-healing, curing, redeeming, and sanctifying Blood of Christ’s Love for us. We believe that this wine is the Sacred Blood that resurrects us from sin into righteousness and from death into new life. Because Christ always saves the best wine until last, we believe that this wine only and always gets better and better.
We must receive it as that Sacred Gift of Mystic Meaning whose power never ceases to astound us with His Amazing Love. This wine is fortified for us the more we feel the effects of its strength pumping lovingly from the Eternal Heart of Christ Himself and into our own. This is the fortified wine made blood that infuses Love in the heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who now knows and understands her Son. Like the water made wine in this morning’s Gospel, may this fortified wine made blood infuse our hearts with the power that opens our eyes to our Saviour’s Love for us, and that with the poet we may heartily exclaim,
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,/
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.
(Agony: George Herbert)
O LORD, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people
who call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things
they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Collect Ep. I)
In Christmas Tide, we directed our mind’s eye to the new birth of Jesus Christ in our hearts and souls. And now in Epiphany Tide, our eyes are opening as Christ the Light begins to illuminate and enlighten us about the character of the new life which God desires us to live. Epiphany comes to us from the Greek word, epifaneia, and it means manifestation, revelation, or shining forth. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, Epiphany is called Theophany, meaning the vision of God. So, this season is all about contemplating the Light of God, which is the manifestation or shining forth of His vision and understanding of human life in Jesus Christ. In Christ the Light, then, we are called to see, grasp, and comprehend how this world is a trial run or preparation for eternal life in God’s Kingdom.
Today we move from Jesus’ birth as recorded in the Christmas narratives and the Epiphany visitation of the Three Wise Men to the only record of Jesus’ adolescence, where we find Him in the Temple at Jerusalem. We know nothing of the period between Jesus’ infancy and His sudden appearance in the Temple at the age of twelve, and then between today’s manifestation and the beginning of His adult ministry. St. Luke, alone, chooses to record a singular event from Jesus’ childhood. Yet, what is revealed and shines forth today is an Epiphany that helps us to follow Jesus back to His Father’s Kingdom. Today’s revelation teaches us what is most important in human life and for what each and every one of us is made.
In this morning’s Gospel, we read that Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. (St. Luke ii. 41-43) St. Luke is in the habit of identifying Joseph by his first name since he was the foster-father but not natural Father of Jesus. Jesus’ natural Father is God the Father, as Jesus will soon remind both his mother and stepfather. Today, the family had traveled up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover. When they began to make their journey home, Joseph and Mary did not realize that Jesus was missing from the assembled clan. Ancient Jewish families traveled as a tribe and thus the entourage would have been large. The adults often entrusted their young ones to older family members and friends as they made their respective journeys.
As Mary and Joseph traveled ahead with the adults, they trusted that Jesus was with the extended family. They thought that they knew where Jesus was. But, as we know, it turns out that they did not. They did not know where he was physically. As it turns out, they did not know where he was spiritually either! Where someone is spiritually is of utmost importance in revealing and shining forthto us the state of his soul and the character of his spirit. Joseph and Mary did not yet understand where Jesus Christ must always be inwardly and spiritually. Perhaps the same is true for you and for me.
A whole day passed before Mary and Joseph realized Jesus’ absence. We read: But they, supposing Him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought Him among theirkinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found Him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking Him. (Ibid, 44,45) Jesus’ parents were concerned about His physical whereabouts. Perhaps He had been attacked, beaten, hurt, or wounded. Perhaps He had managed to get Himself lost. Surely if their Son was to be great…called the Son of the Highest…the heir of…the throne of His father David (St. Luke i. 32), they could not afford to lose Him. They might have been struck by a crisis of conscience. Perhaps they should have been more careful and watchful. They could not afford to lose Jesus. We cannot afford to lose Him either.
But, as we learn, Jesus is never lost. Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem and spent three days trying to find their child. Evidently –by reason of the time it took them to find Him – they were looking in all the wrong places. They did not know His whereabouts, because they had forgotten where Jesus is always spiritually. Finally, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers. (Idem, 46, 47) Jesus was where a young Jewish boy who was searching out God’s will for His future would be. But Jesus would have been pursuing this with more earnest eagerness and desire. After all, He would be called the Son of the Most High. (Idem)To learn of this great vocation, He humbled Himself before the rabbis and theologians in the temple in order to discover His future mission and ministry. He would listen. But he would also question. In turn, He would call them down into His humility so that they might discover the wisdom and stature that informed His character. In Christ, the Doctors of the Temple began to see where this unknown boy from an obscure family and an insignificant village dwelt truly and spiritually.
Mary and Joseph were amazed to find their son in the Temple, but their astonishment was not sufficient to overcome their frustration. Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. (Ibid, 48) Jesus reveals to us that Mary and Joseph did not understand that where He was physically was all-important for where He is always spiritually. He chastises them gently but firmly. How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? (Ibid, 49) In other words, Why were you seeking me? Did you not know that I must be involved with my Heavenly Father’s business first and foremost? Joseph and Mary understood not the word, which He spake to them. (Ibid, 50: Wycliffe) They who were willing to entrust Him to the care of His cousins could not entrust Him to the care of God! And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but His mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. (Ibid, 51,52)
Where is Jesus? This is the question that confronts us on this First Sunday after Epiphany. Or perhaps it would be better to ask: Where are we in relation to Jesus? Jesus is always about His Father's business and this means that HE is everywhere! Where is He physically? is the wrong question to ask. His question to the Doctors of the Temple and to us is: Where are you spiritually? The same question was implied in His answer to His mother: Why did you seek me? For you should know WHERE I am at all times and for eternity! That His parents did not understand His answer is part and parcel of every man’s need to discover what Jesus is doing and where we ought to find Him. Wherever He is, Jesus is always with our Heavenly Father. Jesus doesn’t move; we do! He is where He has always been, with the Father and doing the Father’s work. He was with God from before all beginnings, as the Creative Word through whom all things were made. (St. John i. 3) He was with God from the moment of conception until His Ascension to the Father, disclosing the Father’s will as the Redemptive Word made Flesh busily working out our salvation. He is with God today in our Gospel lesson, preferring to entrust His life to our Heavenly Father’s business rather than to hurry back to meet the expectations of His earthly parents. He even desires that where He is, we might be also. (St. John xiv. 3)
So where are we spiritually today? Have we left Jesus behind or have we lost Him? We cannot have lost Him if we have never found Him! And we can never find Him if we are not seeking and searching for Him, like Mary and Joseph! A friend of mine recently told me that he did not get much out of religion. I responded: How could you? You have never looked for it! You are too busy with other things! If you seek and search for Truth, you will find it. If you find it, you will discover that the Way, the Truth, and the Life is Jesus Christ! In Jesus, you will find the Way, the Truth, and the Life of God the Father. What does this mean? In the Human Life of God’s own Son, the Father reveals Himself andshines forth. Jesus Christ is the Epiphany of God the Father!
We need to stop asking where Christ is and start seeing what Christ is doing. Oswald Chambers asks: Are you so identified with the Lord’s life that you are simply a child of God, continually talking to Him and realizing that all things come from His hands? Is the Eternal Child in you living in the Father’s house? Are the graces of His ministering life working out through you in your home, in your business, in your domestic circle? (My Utmost: Aug. 7) Christ wants to speak with us and to have a relationship with us. Christ wants the Father’s Business to become our business! Christ wants our chief occupation to be taken up with God and His desire to bring us back to Himself forever!
Dear friends, today let us see that the business of the young Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem is to show us the Father. And let us never forget that if we follow Jesus, we shall see that the business of the Father leads to the Cross. At the Cross, we find the True Light of Epiphany. The Light that Shines in the Darkness is the Light of that Love that will suffer all things so that God’s Work might be done. We may not grasp it yet. But, perhaps, with the Blessed Virgin Mary, we can ponder all Jesus’ sayings in [our] heart[s] (Ibid, 51), until, through Him, on the First Day of the Week, the new Light of Resurrection begins to dawn on all of us as the reward for them that must be about the Father’s business. (Idem)
Heaven and Earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. -St. Luke 21:33
We have said that Advent means coming, and in it Christ comes to prepare us for His coming at Christmas. So last week Jesus Christ came to awaken us out of spiritual sleep or slumber in order to purge and cleanse our souls. The urgency of the call was illustrated in Christ’s purging of the Temple at Jerusalem. If the temple was the image of the soul, then its condition – a den of thieves, should have left us with little doubt about His judgment of our present spiritual state. For this reason then we prayed that He might give us Grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life…(Advent Collect) We prayed that Christ the Everlasting Light might penetrate our hearts and souls, freeing up as much room as possible for His immanent coming with new birth in us at Christmas time. Advent’s coming light is the unchanging Word of God, found expressed to the hearts of faithful men on the pages of Holy Scripture, and made flesh in the life of Jesus Christ. In both manifestations, Advent’s coming light intends to make our souls spiritual spaces that Christ can indwell by Grace.
So, on this Second Sunday of Advent, we are called to open our spiritual eyes and understand more fully the nature and work of Christ’s coming light. St. Paul makes it very clear in this morning’s Epistle that Jesus Christ is the light that has come into the world to confirm the promises made to [our Jewish] fathers so that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy. (Romans xv. 8,9) Jesus Christ is God’s Word of Promise made flesh. For the Jews He is the fulfillment of promised salvation and deliverance from the Law of sin and death. For the Gentiles He is the realization of that mercy and forgiveness that they never imagined could emerge from the heart of a God who was always distant, unapproachable, and too radically perfect and unique to even want to have anything to do with the sordid lives of men.
Because the promises of deliverance and salvation were made only to the Jews, the spiritual preparation for Christ’s coming can be found expressed on the pages of the Old Testament in the faithful witness of the Jewish patriarchs, priests, prophets, and kings. Thus St. Paul tells us that ancient books of the Old Testament were written aforetime…for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. (Ibid, 4) The Jews had a personal relationship with God.
To them, God spoke His Word. His Word is Christ. Through Christ the Word, He promised to come to them in a more lasting and unbreakable intimate way. We read the Old Testament to hope for a deepening of our relationship with God. We hope, always, in that union with God through Jesus Christ. Through many dangers, toils, and snares the Jews persistently remembered God’s Word of Promiseand believed that it would be realized in His coming as the Word made flesh.
So, to the hearts and souls of the ancient Jews, the coming light was God’s written Word as Promise.
The coming light to the early Christians was the fulfillment of that promise in the life of Jesus Christ. For both groups of people, the coming light was embraced in the heart by faith as the Word of God which neither changes nor disappoints. The struggle endured by both the ancient Jews and the early Christians was the temptation that Christ’s coming light might be darkened and even extinguished by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, which is always passing away. And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.(St. Luke xxi. 25,26) The ancient Jews and the early Christians knew only too well the many temptations that threatened their relationship to God, through His Word, and by His Spirit.
What we Christians must realize in Jesus’ depiction of His Second Coming is that the creation is always changing, altering, coming to be and passing away. When men fix the hopes of their hearts on earthly things, there shall be distress, anguish, and disappointment. Those who pursue earthly treasures and measure their ultimate value against perishable riches shall always be overwhelmed with fear for the future whether with the ancient Jews, the early Christians, or modern man. They are hewing out for themselves broken cisterns which can hold no water. Jesus uses the parable of the fig tree to describe the state of the earth and those who trust in it.
Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. (Ibid, 29-31)
St. Gregory the Great interprets it this way:
This is as if Jesus were saying: As from the fruits of the trees you know that summer is near, so from the ruin of the world you may know that the Kingdom of God is likewise near. From which it may be truly gathered that the fruit of the world is ruin. To this end it arises, that it may fall…But happily is the Kingdom of God compared to summer, because then the clouds of sadness will pass away, and the days of our life shall be resplendent in the glory of the eternal Sun. (Greg: Homily I)
For those with the eyes of faith, who see the creaturely limitations of the earth and that the fruit of the world is [always] ruin, the powers of heaven shall be shaken. (Idem) And because they believe, the heavenly gates shall open and they shall see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (Idem, 27)
This coming light that we are called to embrace in Advent is the brilliant illumination of Christ who comes to judge the world here and now. It can be seen only with the eyes of faith. We must not postpone for the Second Coming what we must receive as spiritual correction and discipline for our future destiny. Jesus says that heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall never pass away. (St. Matthew xxiv. 35)And so His ever-coming Word must be applied to our present lives. Before this morning’s Gospel passage, Jesus says In patience possess ye your souls. (Ibid, 19) And what He means is: Be vigilant, wait, and watch. He comes to us in the present, but especially in this season of Advent, as one who judges the world and reveals that it is always passing away into its own ruination.
This morning’s message is that we need to embrace the spirit of patience in order to hope for His Second Coming by welcoming His coming light here and now. Our Gospel reading about the Coming of Christ awakens us to the fear of the Lord in the present time so that our souls might submit humbly and endure patiently Christ’s judgment of us through His written Word. We pray that the words of the Bible may changes us so that we might be filled with all joy and peace in believing, abounding in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost in anticipation of His coming Judgment. (Romans xv. 13) And so we should pray: O Lord, let me fear thy coming light here and now, and in fearing thee to submit humbly and heedfully to thy judgment of my life. Shed thy coming light upon my sins, that I may know and confess them. In confessing my sins, give me deeper sorrow for them. Let me desire thy healing power so that my heart may love the thing that is good and hate that which is evil. Give me patience to suffer for holiness and righteousness sake. With thy healing power, infuse me with new life, new virtue, and new hope. To lend content and understanding to this prayer, today’s Collect exhorts us to the devout perusal of Holy Scripture: Blessed Lord who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may in such wise, hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy Holy Word we may ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life…(Advent ii, Collect) Our relationship with God comes through His promised Word, God’s written Word and the Word made flesh. His Word endures. So, in patience, we must possess our souls and embrace His Holy Word. Today this coming light calls us out of the heavens and earth, away from all of created reality that is always passing away. Patience is the companion of wisdom, St. Augustine wrote. The rule and governance of God’s Word take much getting used to, and so patience is essential to our discovery of the wisdom that we shall find in it. But with the practice of patience, we shall begin to see the loving truth in Christ’s coming light which enables us to receive with meekness the engrafted Word which is able to save our souls. (St. James i. 21)
Today, we pray for the fear of the Lord –that we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life. (Idem) Judgment is drawing nigh. There will be a Second Coming and Final Judgment, make no mistake. Then, there will be no more time to make ourselves right with God. God’s Word alone endures; calling and addressing, questioning and judging, punishing and correcting us, beginning here and now. The Kingdom of God can be found only through the fear of the Lord, the patience and comfort of his enduring Word, and the real operation of his quickening Spirit. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the Word of the Lord endureth forever. And this is the Word which by the gospel is preached unto you. (1 St. Peter i. 24, 25) Or, as Alyssa Underwood puts it,
Through drift of days
comes rest in space and silence.
What’s past is ours to release,
God’s to redeem.
Scattered seeds of truth,
once sown in love or violence,
when yielded to His hands
may bloom in glorious gleam.
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple,
and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves,
and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer;
but ye have made it a den of thieves.
(St. Matthew xxi. 12, 13)
The traditional Anglican lectionary is one of the few bodies of liturgical readings that goes back to the Ancient Church. As Father Crouse reminds us If you consider…the selection of…lessons for the Sundays in Advent, as they appear in [our] Book of Common Prayer, you will find that they are…those appointed in the Sarum Missal of the Medieval Church of England, and are in fact the same as those prescribed in the “Comes of St. Jerome”, which goes back to the Fifth Century. Our own Anglican Reformers decided to opt for the readings selected by the Ancient Fathers, since they thought they were probably safer guides to our salvation journey than any others that came after them.
Today’s readings are a case in point. We have read this morning about Jesus’ exultant and euphoric entry into Jerusalem, and our overly literal post-modern minds jump to Palm Sunday. Why on earth, you ask, did the Ancient Fathers choose this reading for Advent Sunday? Aren’t we supposed to be getting ready for Christmas? The answer is, Yes. But according to the logic of the Church Fathers, preparing for the coming of Christ means readying our souls for His Birth at Christmas time. And we ought to liken His Birth to a triumphant entry into our souls once again on Christmas night. St. Paul tells us this morning that, The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. (Romans xiii. 12) Christmas is all about the coming Light, the Light which was the Life of men…the Light [which] shineth in the darkness, and the darkness [overcame] it not…the Light that ligtheth every man that cometh into the world. (St. John i. 4,5,9) So Advent, with the Ancient Latin Fathers, means preparing spiritually for the birth of Christ the Light, and this involves readying the soul so that we may joyfully receive Him for our Redeemer.
Our Advent season encourages us to prepare ourselves through repentance for Christ’s dramatic visitation. Yet, so many materialistic and worldly people today do not take the time to consider how dramatic this visitation really is! People who are moved and defined by earthly riches and their fortunes are most in danger here! Being so mollycoddled and comforted by their riches, their spiritual senses are dulled and their consciousness of God doesn’t seem present at all. Casting away the works of darkness, through sorrow, penance, and contrition seems so alien to them. Compunctious and contrite sorrow over sin is far from their daily routines. The determination to exorcise and expel all darkness from the soul seems far-fetched and strange! And this, because they and we are far too moved by the worship of the creature rather than our Creator! Is it any wonder that the Incarnation of God’s own Son doesn’t seem to move us at all?
Nevertheless, if we shall truly perceive the Light of Christ’s Birth on Christmas Day, we must courageously face the darkness. The contrast between darkness and light is essential to our salvation. What, then, is this darkness? Is it not an accumulation and accretion, a cluster and conglomeration of vice and sin that stubbornly resist and repel the liberating Light and brightness of Christ’s coming? The darkness, actually, is that part of us that hates the love of Christ the Light and resists His determination to redeem and save us through His birth in our souls. Darkness is that character of hard spiritual skepticism that fears the approach of Christ the Light.
Another way of studying the darkness which has a firm grip on our souls is to remember that Advent is all about the Four Last Things. What are the Four Last Things? They are Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. How do they relate to darkness? Are you afraid of Death? When you begin to endure it, you will be powerless. Have you ever thought about that? When you die, you will be in the hands of God. And Christians believe that then you will face God’s Word and Wisdom, Jesus Christ, who will judge your life based upon His Redemptive Love. If you have done good, you shall be saved. If you have done evil, you shall be damned. This comes straight out of the pages of Scripture. Are you ready? Heaven and Hell are the two states of life that await all of us. We go to the one or we go to the other. It is up to us. Perhaps now we might think about darkness and sin with a little more seriousness?
So, Advent begins with Christ’s riding into Jerusalem. With the crowds of old in this Advent season, we must respond Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. (Ibid, 9) We should rejoice that once again in Advent, Christ is coming to us. We sing Hosanna because the God of all glory and holiness has stooped down from His heavenly throne to enter our souls to give us one more time to repent, one more time to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light. He allows us to proclaim Hosanna only if it means that we praise and glorify the One who comes as the Great Physician and healer of our souls. The Christ who comes in Advent awakens us to the darkness that too easily defines our lives. He doesn’t have time for cheap Grace or lukewarm religion. He knows [the] time, [and] that now it is high time to awake [us] out of sleep, for now is our salvation closer than when we first learned to believe. (Romans xiii 11: AV & Knox) Christ comes to cure our souls and to call us out of thedarkness.
His impassioned determination to help us is revealed in what comes next. Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. (Ibid, 12, 13) Christ means business. Materialists and people who find comfort in their earthly comforts and riches are in real trouble. If we want Jesus to cast away the works of darkness in our souls, we had better allow Jesus to purge our systems of the worship of all false gods, like money, mammon, and the false security they deceptively provide! Christ is like any good doctor. He is kind, gentle, loving, and compassionate. But once He knocks you out with anesthesia, He goes after the sickness with the zeal and fervor of a whirling dervish. He is determined to rid the temples of the Holy Ghost of all darkness.
On this Advent Sunday, we must open our souls to the penetrating, invasive, determined, and dynamic Light of Christ’s coming! St. Paul tells us this morning that our patient-prep for Christ’s spiritual surgery must involve love. If Christ is to enter our souls to purge, cleanse, and wash away our sins, we must not be resentful, angry, or bitter. We are sinners in need of a Savior. We must humbly and meekly acknowledge our limitations and weaknesses. We must shut our mouths and submit to His all healing power with gratitude and love. Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. (Romans xiii 8) This means that we must stop comparing ourselves with others, stop judging others, start loving all others and thus focus ourselves on the business at hand. The night is far spent and the night is at hand. (Idem) Christ the Light is coming to us in this the day of our salvation. Now it is high time to wake out of sleep. (Idem) For they that sleep, sleep in the night. And they that be drunken, are drunken in the night. (1 Thes. V. 7) Alas, for the Day. The day of the Lord is at hand. (Joel i. 15) All sinful things are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light. Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. (Ephesians v. 13,14)
My friends, today we are called to slow down and contemplate our darkness in relation to Christ the Light. Advent is all about waking up, being roused, and becoming conscious of our need for Jesus Christ’s effective healing. We need to admit that this world’s false gods have left us mostly in unhappy darkness. We need to admit that they have corrupted us and left us further removed from Christ the Light. We need to repent. Advent is about anticipating, waiting, and watching for the coming of Christ’s birth at Christmas. With no repentance, there will be no room in the inn of our souls for Christ’s birth. The Advent fire of Christ’s Light can wash, cleanse, purify, and heal us of all our sins only if we allow Him to purge the temple of our souls of all false commerce with darkness. What needs to be alive, zealous, and passionate in us is the willingness to pray more fervently for the purifying fire of Christ’s Light in our hearts. For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light. (Eph. v. 8) And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. (Ibid, 11) Then, we need enduring vigilance and eagerness to remain obedient, docile, and acquiescent to the healing directives of Christ the Light. If we persist in the spiritual healing process and begin to be cured, we shall die to sin and ourselves. Through Him, we shall cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of Light now in the time of this mortal life. (Idem) Then we shall be ready to be born again in Christ at Christmas time because we shall welcome Him, who came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and [the]dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door,
I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
(Rev. iii. 20)
I think that it is probably the case that, more often than not, we do not think of God coming to us. Rather we see ourselves as coming to God. Earnest Christians in all churches come to the Lord with laundry lists of supplications and intercessions. Christians expect to be heard and heeded. We spend so much time talking to God that one wonders if God can ever get His Word in edgewise. We forget that we are called to love God because He first loved us and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins. (1 St. John iv. 19, 10) Jesus says that If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. (St. John xiv.23) Jesus makes it clear that He intends to come to His faithful friends who hear His voice and open the door of their hearts to Him.
The point is that the Christian religion is all about God’s nature. His nature involves always desiring us and coming to us. That desire is expressed in our opening quotation: Behold I stand at the door and knock….(Ibid) And yet it requires a response: if any man hear my voice and open the door….(Ibid) If we don’t open the door, then He will not come in to [us], and sup with [us] so that we can sup with Him. (Ibid) So, you might ask, what is this door that Jesus is speaking about? The ancient commentators say that the door is the soul or the human heart. The soul is not only the seat of reason but of the will also. From the ground of the soul, we either say yes or no to God. Paul Claudel reminds us that most men say no, and so refuse to open the door. He says: we are like a bad tenant allowed to remain through charity in a house that does not belong to us, that we have neither built nor paid for, and who barricade ourselves and refuse to receive the rightful owner even for a minute. (I Believe in God, p. 244) The image is brilliant. We have our lives – our souls and bodies -- on loan from God. We have neither made them nor are we able to sustain them. And God intends that we should occupy them usefully and profitably. What we have comes from God, is preserved by Him on good days and bad, and yet is made for Him. Long before we perceive that Jesus is knocking at the door of the human soul, our Heavenly Father has bestowed upon us the precious gifts of creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. (GT) In and of themselves, these are great gifts which no man can ever repay to his Maker. Through mere existence, nature, and even basic forms of human happiness and joy, God comes to man and lavishes him with spiritual riches that ought to compel all men to deepest thanksgiving.
Human life is a gift from God long before Jesus comes knocking at the door. Yet Jesus Christ comes knocking at the door of the human soul because God’s intention for man is about much more than mere existence and temporal happiness. God loves us so much that He wants to save us. He makes this possible through the forgiveness of sins that He brings to us. Without the forgiveness of our sins, we cannot be saved. In His Son Jesus Christ, God incarnates and reveals the forgiveness of sins. Jesus Christ is the forgiveness of sins. And this forgiveness of sins is from a giver who never stops giving. Some believers maintain that Christ died once for all for the sins of the whole world, and that means that He died for my sins and has forgiven me, and so I’ve got a clean slate, and I am saved. Because we believe this to be true, we convince ourselves that we are saved already. But convincing ourselves of something, doesn’t mean that it will necessarily end up being true! Salvation is about more than what Christ did long ago; it really is about whether the effects and merits of Christ’s gift expressed then are alive and working in our souls now! The forgiveness of sins is more like a journey by which Christ infuses his merits and righteousness into our hearts and souls for the whole of our lives.
What I mean to say is that God’s moving and coming to us, His knocking at the doors of our souls, doesn’t stop once Christ has died, risen, and ascended back to the Father. Our religion had better not be merely fond memories of a historical pastimes. We said earlier that the Father and the Son intend to make their abode with us, pitch their tent within our souls (Idem, 23) and dwell in us through the Holy Spirit. If that is the case, then we had better realize that God’s love, which is His forgiveness of our sins through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, is coming to us always to lay claim upon our hearts. God’s life is His love. His love is always alive and on the move. It approaches us with the promises of the forgiveness of sins and resurrection into new life. God intends that His forgiveness of our sins should find a permanent home in our hearts. Again, as Claudel says, we are …tenants who live in the homes of our bodies and souls by the gift of charity. The lease is extended to us for as long as we live, and yet the quality of life in these earthen vessels that we inhabit can be made all the better only if we continue to pay our dues to the owner and holder of the lease. As God’s lessees, we are called to make a good and honest return on the life that is loaned to us. We are called to keep the property up to snuff. Our calling began with our Baptisms when we were filled with the Grace of great hopes and earnest expectations. Throughout our lives, we have been called to cultivate the good Grace which promised to make us better. Christ has been coming to us to repair and renovate us by applying His atoning Death to our sin-sick lives. His death is the forgiveness of our sins! So when [He] stands at the door and knocks, we [must] hear [His] voice, and open the door. (Idem)
When we open the doors of our souls, [Christ] will come in and sup with [us] and [we] with Him. (Idem) And what is this supping but our feeding? Feeding on what, you ask? Feeding on the forgiveness of sins – which alone can repair and redeem us. This means feeding and even feasting on God’s desire to conquer evil in our souls and to redeem us. Give us this day our daily bread, we pray and, Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. (L.P.) The chief form and substance of our nourishment must be God’s Word. This Word is the forgiveness of our sins. St. Maximus Confessor tells us that when we ask God to forgive us…as we forgive others, [we are summoning] God to be for us, what [we must] be towards our neighbours. (Comm. Lord’s Prayer) His point is that if we would be nourished, strengthened, moved, defined, and informed by the unmerited and undeserved mercy of God, it must be shared with all precisely because it neither begins nor ends with us! God’s nature is to forgive. He shares His nature with us and we must share it with all others.
The idea is taken up in this morning’s Gospel. St. Peter asks Jesus, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? (St. Matthew xviii. 21) Jesus responds with, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. (Ibid, 22) The implication is that St. Peter and all of us should forgive men their trespasses against us an infinite number of times. Jesus goes on to offer a Parable in which one man is forgiven a huge debt that he owes to his master. But then the same man turns around and refuses to cancel a much smaller debt owed to him by another. God forgives us an infinite number of times for sins that are more than the number than the hairs on [our] heads. (Ps. lx. 12) And should we fail to forgive every man his sins against us, we are revealing to the world that God’s forgiveness of sins is dead in us. St. Augustine says: Imagine the vanity of thinking that your enemy can do you more damage than your enmity [and unforgiveness]! Jesus says: If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (St. Matthew vi. 15) We delude ourselves into thinking that our enemy has done more damage to us than we do to ourselves by not forgiving him!
Behold I stand at the door and knock. (Idem) Jesus comes to us always in order to plant God’s love and forgiveness in our hearts. Jesus’ response to St. Peter’s question illustrates what it looks like to need forgiveness. Our enemy might ask for forgiveness or he might be too bashful and shy, too fearful and cowardly, or too ignorant and foolish to do so. Jesus suggests that he looks a lot like you and me in the presence of God. Jesus intimates also that the same person who needs our forgiveness might not have come to that knowledge. Again, he is a lot like you and me. (R. Knox: Sermons, p. 75) God is patient with us as we slowly discover the details of our sinning against Him and others. The need for the forgiveness of our sins might take time for us to realize.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. (Idem) Jesus longs to come into us and reveal to us how we have been the enemies of God. God is kind even to the unthankful. (C.T., p. 206) The rubber meets the road when we truly appreciate that the nature of God is found in Jesus Christ, who is the Forgiveness of Sins. We must embrace the forgiveness of sins and impart it to all others if we hope to be saved. Christ’s patience with us might wake us up. When we begin to wake up, we had better start conquering all insult and ingratitude with a hardy, boisterous, all-embracing love and forgiveness. (Idem) Only then can we all assist one another in the hard work of perfecting His love in a world that has forgotten Him.
If ye break faith…
Today we celebrate a service that is designed to remember the fallen men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation. At 5:45 am, on November 11, 1918 in Compiegne, France an Armistice was signed between the Allied Nations and the Empire of Germany for the cessation of hostilities and warfare on the Western Front. The Peace Treaty was to take effect at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. In the Allied nations from the time of the final cessation of hostilities with the Treaty of Versailles, November 11 became a Day of national Remembrance. In the British Empire, now the British Commonwealth, the day is called Remembrance Day. On Remembrance Sunday the Monarch and members of the Royal Family attend a service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. In the United States, Armistice Day has become Veterans Day. As with the British, we Americans remember all of our Veterans on this day. Today is meant to be a day of solemn reflection. Initially, this day was celebrated in thanksgiving for victory. For us now, it is a time of thoughtful challenge to render account for the freedom and liberty that others have won and sustained for us and to wonder if we are using the principles of our freedom in the pursuit of virtue and excellence.
We shall end today’s service with two minutes of silence. In that time, I pray that we shall remember our fellowship with those who have fought valiantly to preserve the liberties which we enjoy. Those who died made the greatest sacrifice. They laid down their lives for their friends. Those who fought and survived endured extreme fear, uncertainty, doubt, and terror as they struggled to embrace courage and wisdom on the battlefield or in preparation for the possibility of conflict and war. We remember with gratitude those who have served our country. Also, by extension, today, in the season of All Souls, we remember those near and dear to us and those whom we have not known who have left us, and who now rejoice with us on a distant shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number whose hope was in the Word made flesh and with whom in the Lord we are forever one.
The hope of this day is, of course, in the belief that those who have gone before still live, and while we cannot tell the nature of that life or the condition of those who have died, we are united with them in the life that is in God. Our Lord gives us no knowledge of the state of the dead. He reminds us sternly that many are called but few are chosen. He tells us too that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. He reminds us always that this life is given to us for proving and preparing ourselves as His followers, His friends, and the Sons and Daughters of His Father. Again, Christ teaches us that whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. And so, we well might imagine that the fallen heroes of our post-Christian world would encourage us to keep up the fight, to continue the struggle, and to run the race that is set before us. We may not be fighting the Kaiser, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Ho Chi Min, as they did, but we are nevertheless called to fight those who would destroy human life in the interests of their ideology, who would pervert and twist God’s will and way, and who would deny His Christ in their vicious and vindictive assault on all that is beautiful, good, and true in His creation. We are called to fight the good fight for the unborn, for the children, for the God-given gift of Holy Matrimony, and for those Divine Principles which must move and define any society that hopes to pursue excellence through the great gift of liberty. The fallen soldiers of the Western World died so that we might retain and perfect the spiritual gifts that freedom and liberty afford to all people. Their words to us are:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you with failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though Poppies grow
In Flanders fields…the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…
Today we face enemies and forces of darkness far worse than Hitler, Stalin, Mao and their kind. They are more powerful because they are more subtle. The Devil has taken our freedom and convinced so many that it is nothing more than a license to do as you please, that if it feels good do it, and all because we are nothing more than brute beasts who have no understanding. The Devil has convinced some that they are entitled to have that for which they have neither labored nor fought. The Devil has convinced others that our history is nothing but a record of A never-ending symphony of villainy and infamy, duplicity, deceit, and subterfuge….The Devil teaches us now that we deserve everything since we are the hapless victims of a bygone age ruled by tyrants who have enslaved us forever. The Devil convinces men to despair, to be cynical, and to judge past history as if we are the giants and the great men of old were barbarian dwarfs. The Devil convinces us that we have rights but no obligations, freedoms but no duties, rewards with no service, and a life bereft of any obligation to give back to a wonderful nation that has given so much freedom with so many blessings. The Devil even now moves arrogant malicious liars to tear down our nation’s foundations because of the will to power.
The 12th century monk, Bernard of Chartres spent his life resisting the same Devil and all of these knavish tricks. Like many of our fallen war heroes, he was a Christian. So, he reminded his fellow pilgrims or fellow soldiers in Christ that we are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. Our glance can thus take in more things and reach farther than theirs. It is not because our sight is sharper nor our height greater than theirs; it is that we are carried and elevated by the high stature of the giants. Richard Southern reminds us that Bernard was calling his fellow scholars to humility and meekness, to awe and wonder, and to courage and hope through thanksgiving and gratitude for all that their forefathers had fought for to give to them. Bernard taught his friends that we take so much for granted and forget the faith and courage of those who toiled and fought so that we might live in a free world.
In closing, I would like to pay tribute to one of our own who fought the same good fight with courage and persistence and now has left us for that distant shore. I speak of our dear departed sister, Dame Beryl Windsor. As many of you know, for all practical purposes, Beryl and her brother Allen were orphaned at the beginning of World War II. Beryl was born in Houston, Texas on May 14, 1930 to the late Jack and Dorothy Maine Sykes. She lived in England and Scotland until at the age of 10. In 1940, during WWII, Beryl and her brother Allen were evacuated to the United States as child war refugees on board the Duchess of Athol bound for Montreal, Canada. Together they traveled by train to Texas to reside with friends of the family. During her 5-year refuge in America, Beryl was sent to boarding school at the Washington Seminary for Young Ladies in Atlanta, GA, now Westminster School. After the war, she returned with her brother to England. The remainder of her education was at the Selhurst Grammar School for Girls and Clarks College, Croydon, England. Beryl went on to work for Radio Free Europe in New York from 1953-1956. She returned to London in 1956 where she worked in the Office of Special Investigations for The United States Air Force. Beryl eventually moved to Denver, Colorado between 1959-60 where she resided until 2000. She worked at the Federal Communications Commission, a U.S. Government agency in Denver as a Public Relations and Investigations Officer for nearly 30 years. Beryl, as you know, was very English. But Beryl also was a proud American Patriot. I once asked her if she ever wanted to live in England again. She said, No, it is much better here. Besides, I am a proud Patriot of this country. This country saved the lives of me and my brother for all that I know, and I am so thankful for this great country. Beryl was widowed after only one year of marriage. She reared her daughter on her own. She labored hard the whole of her life. She gave back to our nation through volunteering and mission work. She was a true American soldier and she was a soldier of Christ. She was a member of the Sovereign Order of the St. John of Jerusalem, Knights of Malta, and was invested as a Dame of the Order in 1985. The Knights of Malta were known chiefly for their hospice work and Beryl did her share of that. She fought until the end. She lived with cancer for at least a year before that night on which she was meant to move on. Beryl possessed a very strong faith, had high courage and an overwhelming conviction that she was called to do the Lord’s work in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. And so today I thank God for Beryl, who was one of a kind, a devoted member of this church, a dear friend, and a true soldier. Beryl was brave and she overcame all obstacles in her quest for truth and goodness.
Today we thank God for all men and women who have taken up the struggle to fight the good fight of life for the highest reasons and causes. We thank God for our veterans and their families. We thank God for the soldiers in the Christ-loving Army who give us reason to hope and inspiration to fight for what is right, good, and true. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin…But thanks be to God that giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. To have courage to fight the good fight is not easy. But we have heroes and saints who inspire us to sit on their shoulders and look ahead. With their help we look forward. For the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear the Son of Man’s voice: and shall come forth, they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life…Let us follow our heroes and saints and sacrifice ourselves to the Goodness that alone can lead us to God’s Kingdom. Amen.
After this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could number
Of all nations and kindreds and peoples, and tongues, stood before the
Throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, palms
In their hands, and cried with a loud voice saying, Salvation to our God
Which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.
Today we find ourselves in the Octave of All Saints Day. The Octave is a period of eight days that follows the Feast of All Saints, which we celebrated this past Friday. In the Octave, we are called first to remember with thanksgiving the lives of the Saints. Second, we are called to imitate them, that as Christ moved them, He might stir us now that we might join them in the Kingdom when our journey here on earth is done.
Of course, thanking God for the life and witness of the Saints requires that we begin to have a sense of who and what they were. Strictly speaking, our English word Saint comes to us from the Latin, Sanctus, meaning holy, virtuous, confirmed, or set apart. The word in Greek is Hagios, which, in the ancient sense, means full of awe, sacred, hallowed, and devoted to the gods. From our Epistle for All Saints Day, we learn that the Christian Saints are they who came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Rev. 7.14) These are they who suffered, toiled, labored, and endured pain for the sake of the Cross. In a basic way, they suffered through the process of dying to sin and coming alive to righteousness. Their suffering part and parcel of spiritual sanctification. Self-consciously, with all Christians, they were being washed in the blood of the lamb of God, Jesus Christ, and made white as snow as His virtue habitually purified them. So, they are set apart, made sacred, and hallowed by the struggle, toil, and work that leads them into victory over sin. They have come out of great tribulation. This is to say that they plumbed the depths of their being to discover that sin which God’s excellence and goodness alone could overcome. When we thank God for the life and witness of the Saints, we are expressing deepest gratitude for those who allowed Jesus Christ to come alive in their hearts and souls. We thank God the Father that Christ so came alive in them through the Holy Spirit that His victory over sin, death, and Satan was complete. In other words, Christ’s redemption was so effectually worked into their hearts that they were enabled to reflect and reveal His all-atoning power to the world.
This brings us to our second point. We must imitate the Saints. The key to our inspiration will rely upon both need and desire. First then, we must come to discover our need to become Saints. That need can come only when we come from God and have our lives on loan from Him. We are not our own. We belong to God. Our duty to God and His Will. Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners,*and hath not sat in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the Law of the Lord; *and in his law will he exercise himself day and night. (Ps. i. 1,2) The Saint is well aware that all excellence and goodness come from God and that their acquisition is impossible without the gift of His Grace. The Saint knows also that we first come to know ourselves in the light of God’s excellence and goodness through the Law. Because God has revealed His Law to His chosen people the Jews, all men can come to see their sins. St. Paul tells us that the Jewish Law reveals that None is righteous, no not one. There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way. They are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (Romans, iii. 10-12) The Saint knows too that the best of men become the most frustrated when they realize that they are incapable of fulfilling or living up to God’s Law. The Saint is one who has found his own poverty of spirit or his own inability to will the good that he has discovered. The Saint is one who is then overwhelmed by the excellence of God the Father, the goodness of His Word, and the power of His Spirit.
The Saint is a man whose faith hangs always upon God’s Grace. As Archbishop Trench writes, the Saint is:
the wise and happy builder…who counts and discovers that he has not enough, that the work far exceeds any resources at his command, and who thereupon forsakes all that he has, all vain imagination of a spiritual wealth of his own; and therefore proceeds to build, not at his own charges at all, but altogether at the charges of God, waiting upon Him day by day for new supplies of strength. (R. C. Trench)
The Saint in the Old Testament faithfully awaited the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation in the future. The New Testament Saint faithfully embraces God’s promise as fulfilled in Jesus Christ. God promises His wisdom, love, and power to the Old Testament Jew. God reveals and imparts His wisdom, love, and power to the New Testament Jew and Gentile in Jesus Christ. The Saints in every age hear God’s Word. The Christian Saint opens his heart and soul to God’s Word Made Flesh, Jesus Christ.
Yet, if we hope to imitate the Saints, we must embrace more than knowledge of what God has done in Jesus Christ. Knowledge is not virtue. The vision must be translated into action. We must learn to will the good we know. Together All Saints form a Communion or community of individuals who spent their lives trying to embrace the goodness and excellence of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Together All Saints comprise a body of brethren who share the goodness and excellence of God in Jesus Christ with others through the same Spirit. They are the friends of Jesus as members of His Body, friends of one another, and our friends too. But, at first, they don’t see themselves as much of anything. Soren Kierkegaard once said God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.
So what do the Saints’ natures look like? Are they those who have left the world, resorted to the desert, and therein searched out mystical ecstasy? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that they have found a peaceful space and place in which to befriend God personally and individually. No, in that they have not abandoned the world since the world is where they are called to share what they have discovered. True enough, their inward and spiritual vision of God in Jesus Christ is an ecstasy which they find by the Holy Ghost. But it must be shared with others. Their joyous experience must move out into the world to impart Christ’s presence. As we learn in this morning’s Gospel, the Saints are as sheep who have been separated from the goats. (St. Matthew xxv. 32) For joy, Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews xii. 1) The sheep of Christ are those who have done the same. How they do it is reflected in the most basic acts of generosity, kindness, and mercy. Jesus has taken on the burden of the Saints and they must imitate Him. Jesus will say, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (St. Matthew xxv. 34) But they will be welcomed into the Kingdom as saved Saints only if they have fulfilled Christ’s conditions. For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in; Naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in prison and ye visited me. (Ibid, 35, 36) The proof that sinners have been made Saints is found in the simplest acts of liberality and kindness. This is the evidence that reveals that Christ’s all saving mercy is moving sinners out of death and into new life as Saints. They need not die on a cross. They need not perform heroic feats in martyrdom or experience transporting Pentecostal frenzies. They need to die to themselves and come alive to others. They can do this by studying the life of Jesus and imitating Him. There we find the real proof of saintliness. Fulton Sheen says, Show me your hands. Do they have scars from giving? Show me your feet. Are they wounded in service? Show me your heart. Have you left a place for divine love?”
On this Feast of the Solemnity of All Saints, we remember that the Saints are not dead but alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Today we desire that God will do with us what He did in them. We remember them especially in these late, dangerous, and dark days when men have failed to desire God’s excellence and goodness. Their communion and fellowship ought to inspire us to see how God’s Grace can make sinners into Saints by bringing good out of evil. The excellence and goodness that they embraced ought to inspire us with a vision of how God can convert evil into goodness in the hearts of men. In them may we find inspiration for the pursuit and final possession of what God has in store for us.
The Communion of Saints is a fellowship of life and faith that brings men closely together in the bond of the Eternal Spirit which comes from God. It does not depend merely on the Saints’ interest in their fellow men’s welfare, or in our appreciation of their Saintliness. We greet them as the heroes of the world, but our fellowship with them is founded neither on our reverence for their goodness nor on their sympathy with our struggles and failures, but on that Divine Spirit which has made them what they are and would make us fit to be numbered with them in glory everlasting. When we learn to reverence the Saints, we are on the way to become like them. They witness that this is possible for all. Our appreciation of their goodness endorses that testimony. The Saints of God come out of every kindred and tongue and people, and their fellowship is complete and permanent because all live in Him. (The Christian Year in the Times, p. 284)
October 27, 2019
There is none to plead thy cause, that thou mayest be bound up: thou hast no healing medicines. All thy lovers have forgotten thee; they seek thee not; for I have wounded thee with the wound of an enemy, with the chastisement of a cruel one, for the multitude of thine iniquity; because thy sins were increased. (Jeremiah xiii. 13, 14)
Our opening verses come to us from the 30th Chapter of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. What the prophet is describing is the sorry and desperate condition of sinful man. The man whom he describes is not meant to be any man in particular, but one who knows himself to be in dire straits by reason of his sin. He knows his sin. He is treated as a leper, a Samaritan, an alien, and an outcast. Other men avoid him because they find nothing in him worthy of sympathy or identification. They shun him like the plague since they judge him beyond the reach of any lasting forgiveness and mercy. They judge that sin is a disease that God alone can cure, one that everybody has contracted, and whose effects can be, at best, mitigated by ritual and ceremonial purification. As Romano Guardini points out, forgiveness to them is a covering up, a looking away, a gracious ignoring, cessation of anger and punishment. (The Lord, p. 131) And yet, God does promise in this morning’s Old Testament lesson to heal and cure the sinner of his wickedness. For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds, saith the Lord; because they called thee an Outcast, saying, This is Zion, whom no man seeketh after. (Idem) The man who feels himself to be an outcast and alien, who knows and remembers his sin, is the very man whom God promises to visit and restore…at some future date.
In our Gospel lesson for this morning we find a similar situation, but that future date, that Jeremiah prophesied seems to have come. One Jesus of Nazareth has come upon the scene of human existence carrying with Him the fulfillment of God’s promise. We read of a man brought to [Jesus], sick of the palsy, [and] lying on a bed. (St. Matthew ix. 2) Any man in Jesus’ time who was sick of the palsy, afflicted with paralysis or any other outward and visible sickness, would have been judged to be suffering the chastisement of a cruel one…because his sins were increased. Yet, in this morning’s lection we find that this man has friends who sympathize with the his inner turmoil, that horrible spiritual sense that must accompany his disease. The man could not move and felt keenly that most of his fellow citizens had shunned him. But he had a few friends who were willing to share in some deep way the pain of this outcast and alien. Unlike those in the Old Testament lesson, who have no compassion for the sick and suffering, here we find a few fast friends who will reach out to Jesus for their friend’s healing. And though St. Matthew doesn’t mention it, both St. Luke and Mark tell us that when Jesus performed this miracle, He was in a house thronged by so many people that the sick man’s friends had to let him down through the roof. (St. Mark ii. 2-4; St. Luke v. 18,19) Archbishop Trench tells us, From them we learn…[of]…a faith that overcame hindrances, and was not to be turned aside by difficulties. (Miracles, p. 157) Both the sick man and his friends see something in Jesus that promises to heal all men of the miseries of this world. And Jesus, who knows what is in [men’s] hearts…and knows their thoughts, brings God’s compassion to the man sick of the palsy. Notice that Jesus speaks first or makes the first move. Son, be of good cheer, (Ibid) He insists. St. John Chrysostom says, O wondrous humility. Despised and weak, all his members enfeebled; yet [Jesus] calls him ‘Son’ whom the priests would not deign to touch. (Catena Aurea, 180) The paralyzed man is treated as one of God’s own sons. And more than that, Jesus even honors him with the best healing that He can offer. Jesus says, thy sins be forgiven thee. (Ibid) Jesus responds always to that faith which persistently seeks to obtain what He has to offer. First and foremost, what faith ought to be seeking is the forgiveness of sins. Jesus sees into the palsied man’s heart. There he finds the sin and corruption that are the root of sickness and death in the creation. Perhaps the man had cursed God for his handicap; maybe he felt too sharply the blow of God’s wrath against his resentment and bitterness. Maybe he was teetering on the verge of despair. No matter what his sin, Jesus sees an inwardly and spiritually wounded, bruised, troubled, confused, and weak man. Archbishop Trench tells us that, In the sufferer’s own conviction there existed so close a connection between his sin and his sickness, that the outward healing would have been scarcely intelligible to him, would hardly have brought home to him the sense of a benefit, till the message of peace had been spoken to his spirit. (Idem, 158) Jesus will offer first to heal the man’s soul.
What follows is remarkable. No sooner does Jesus offer God’s forgiveness to the sick man, than the miracle is interrupted. It would appear that certain members of the crowd, the Scribes, have a real problem with what Jesus has said. What they hear they call blasphemy. Their point is that God alone can forgive and that any man who claims to offer God’s forgiveness is assuming His power. So, they think, who is this man Jesus who presumes to offer God’s forgiveness to another, and not conditionally, but absolutely?Forgiveness, it would seem, is a theoretical ideal to the minds of the Scribes. If it is obtained at all, it is bound up in the repeated sacrificial ritual and offerings of the Jewish priests in the temple. When it comes, again according to Guardini, it is merely God’s covering up or looking away from sin. (Idem) In other words, forgiveness, as the Scribes would have it, is a kind of merciful covering up of God’s eyes that puts sin to one side. For all practical purposes, forgiveness is an ongoing expression of mercy that tolerates sin by ignoring it. Cynically they think, Who can forgive sins but God only? (St. Mark ii. 7)
Now to be fair to the Scribes, if Jesus were only a mere man, His proclamation would be preposterous. But Jesus is always leading men to see that He is not only Man but God’s own Son. And as God’s own Son, part and parcel of His earthly mission is to liberate the forgiveness of sins from the jealous clutches of the Jewish priests and Scribes who hoard it with their Law. The Jewish Scribes, we do well to remember, are not making a theological point only; they also reveal most clearly that the forgiveness of sins is as alien and foreign to them as the poor man sick of the palsy. What one most assuredly misses when one meets the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes on the pages of the New Testament is any hint of mercy, kindness, compassion, pity, or the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? (Ibid, 4) Jesus might have followed up His question to the Scribes with these words: Evil thoughts fill your hearts and paralyze you. You are more paralyzed by your sins than this man whom I have forgiven. But unlike him, who is sorry for his sins and seeks to be forgiven, you persist in your sins and think that you have no need of the forgiveness I bring. For while it is true enough that the forgiveness of sins is God’s alone to give, nevertheless every man must discover his real need for it. Jesus comes to offer it to all men once again. The Scribes cannot forgive because, unlike the paralytic man, they are unwilling to see that the forgiveness of sins is at hand in Jesus and comes with power. Then saith he to the sick of the palsy, Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. (Ibid, 6) Yet, still they would not believe.
Today, my friends, you and I are invited to contemplate the nature of the forgiveness of sins. And I don’t mean to suggest that forgiveness comes naturally. It doesn’t. It comes supernaturally, through Jesus Christ alone. Forgiveness is indeed a hard thing to muster up from the coffers of our own best intentions, benevolence, and good works. Forgiveness is even harder if we subject it to our own calculations, measurements, and judgments. We tend not to forgive because we think that we are owed an apology. So, if we are true to our sinful natures, we shall discover that forgiveness is not something that we can give out naturally, but only what we must receive from Jesus Christ. It is the pure gift of God’s immeasurable love. What the Scribes in this morning’s Gospel lack is the humility to see that they too are sinners, first and foremost, in need of God’s lasting and effective mercy and forgiveness. What they cannot admit is their need for the forgiveness and healing that God brings to men whose consciences are seared by slavery to the tribulations, torments, and trials that sin brings. True healing comes to those like the paralytic and his friends in this morning’s Gospel who have the faith to surrender themselves to the power of God’s love in the heart of Jesus. The forgiveness of our sins and our forgiveness of others’ sins against us are both essential for our salvation.
You see, in the end, the forgiveness of sins is nothing short of the God’s absolute desire for all men’s spiritual healing and salvation. God forgives us for as long as we live because through it he gives us one more chance to repent, believe, and be saved. To repent us of our sins is the necessary first step. Then we must seek out God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the forgiveness of sins. But it does not end here. With the man sick of the palsy, we must cherish this gift so that its power might grow in our hearts. We feed on this forgiveness of sins so that we might take up our beds and walk. We want to walk in the power that forgives all others. The more we need, receive, and cherish this gift in Jesus Christ, the more natural it shall be for us to forgive all others. And with Blake, one day, we shall be able to sing:
Then through all eternity
I forgive you, you forgive me:
As our dear Redeemer said:
This is the Wine and this the Bread.
(Broken Love: William Blake)
October 13, 2019
Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit
at meat with thee. For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth
himself shall be exalted.
(St. Luke xiv. 11)
We open our sermon today with the host at a dinner party asking a guest to go up higher or to sit closer to those who have honored him with their gracious invitation. Initially, the guest had taken a low seat or a place in the back of the banquet hall. The host, however, thinks that the guest ought to sit up higher and closer to himself. The host has been pleasantly surprised and maybe even startled at his guest’s humility and expression of meekness. Jesus uses the parable to exhort his listeners to the virtue of humility before God. Today we are called to study humility so that we might one day be asked to go up higher and take a high seat in the presence of God the Holy Trinity at the Heavenly Banquet Feast.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that humility is a virtue which tempers and restrains the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately…and second to strengthen the mind against despair, and urge it on to the pursuit of great things according to right reason; and this is magnanimity. (S.T. II, ii, 161, i.) So, Saint Thomas tells us that humility must inspire and compel the soul to seek God’s high things, but only with such caution and self-restraint as are consistent with man’s created nature. If a man strives excessively or immoderately after high things in ways beyond his capacity and ability, he will fall flat on his face. Remember the story of the ancient Greek Daedalus, who constructed the Labyrinth so that King Minos of Crete could imprison the Minotaur? Daedalus was a clever master craftsman. He ended up getting himself into trouble when he gave a ball of string to Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, so that she could help her lover Theseus, her father’s enemy, escape the Labyrinth. The King found out and imprisoned Daedalus in the Labyrinth. Daedalus finally escaped and devised wings for himself and his son Icarus so that they could escape from Crete. Daedalus, no doubt cautious about the imperfect nature of technology and of man’s use of it, warned his son to fly in a middle space between the sea and the sky. His thinking was that if he flew too low and close to the water, the sea waves might splash and sink him. If he flew too close to the sun, his wings would melt. In the end Icarus became enamored with the beauty of the sun, forgot himself, and ignored his father’s cautious reason. His wings melted and he fell into the depths of the sea. Man is made to acknowledge that heights and depths are given to him so that he might find a humble mean between the two. If a man pursues things beyond his nature, he will fall into the depths of misery and death. Humility is…a disposition to man’s untrammeled access to spiritual and divine goods. (Idem) Humility alone reveals true self-knowledge. Self-knowledge then leads a man to desire and procure the gifts of God.
Of course, the opposite of humility is selfish pride. There is a sense in which Icarus was full of rash and daring arrogance or pride. Pride is hubris and is found in the man who claims a power that is not his own. The proud man is determined to exceed the limitations of his nature. Since his ego is paramount, he loses all consciousness of his needful dependence upon other people, laws, and God. What he fears most is the loss of himself. Thus, he becomes a god to himself and a lord over others.
St. Anthony Abbott, the Founder of Monasticism, has his own version of Icarus’ fate. He writes that because of pride of heart, the heavens were bowed down, the foundations of the earth were shaken…angels were cast down from glory, and became demons because of their pride of heart…Because of this, the Almighty was angered, and caused fire to come forth from the abyss…made Hell, and its torments…. (On Humility and Deceit, Anthony Abbott) Pride is an intellectual vice that finds its origin in Lucifer’s first rebellion against God. Imagine it. Prior to God’s creation of any other thing, angels were made to exist alongside God. In the beginning God made angels. They were made to experience His glory by gratefully receiving His Grace alone. There was nothing to disturb or distract them! They had God and themselves. They were made to reflect and exchange God’s goodness. Then, suddenly, one of them and a few of his friends wanted more. They were no longer content to receive the gift and share it with one another. Rather, they wanted to be God. So, daring to try to use God’s power to overcome Him, they fell into the distant alienation and exile in Hell. Looking to themselves and not to the Giver and His Gifts, their pride stirred them to take God’s power and to think that they could fly too close to God and not be burned.
At first, Pride is deceived and then deceives itself. The proud man is deceived into thinking that he is the source of his own being and maker of his own meaning. The proud takes a gift and hoards it to pursue his own will to power. The proud man exceeds his limitations and treats himself like a god. He even thinks that he can lord it over others. Always, he refuses to subject his decision making to God’s rule and governance. But as St. Anthony says, The deceitful man deceives only his own soul; for [as the Psalmist says]: His sorrow shall be turned on his own head: and his iniquity shall come down upon his crown. (Ps. vii. 17; Idem)The proud man is left quite alone with his own lies about himself in relation to God.
This brings us to God’s response to man’s proud and deceitful misuse of himself and the world around him. The bad angels are destined to live forever in the depths of Hell. Man sins later, is given a second chance, and can find reconciliation with God only through the method and mediation of Jesus Christ. Man must be humbled before the high and mighty Crucified Son of God before he can find salvation. Christ insists that if we would become His friends [who] might come up higher, (St. Luke xiv. 10) we must take our place in the lowest seat. But what is this lowest seat? Is it not the spiritual disposition that humbles him under the mighty hand of God (1 Peter v. 6)?
We must take time today to pray for humility. There doesn’t seem to be much of it evident in our contemporary world. G.K. Chesterton tells us that the problem with modern man is that he has become humble about truth and not humble about himself. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason. (Orthodoxy) Contemporary man denies absolute truth. He claims this because he speaks from false pride or intellectual laziness. Were he to be humble about himself, he might become courageous enough to seek out the truth that enables him to understand his predicament to begin with! He would be moved by temperance. Temperance moderates the overzealous passion and unstable confidence that asserts that there is no God. In restraining the impetuosity of soul, humility enables a man to find God and to serve Him with all meekness. It also prepares a man for the surprises that accompany God’s gracious invitation to come up higher.
Taking the lowest seat is essential for all of us if we hope to find God and the salvation he brings. St. Paul, in this morning’s Epistle, provides us with a picture of what it looks like to take the lowest seat.This means that we, like him, must become prisoners of the Lord…with all lowliness, meekness, with long suffering….(Eph. iv. 1) Being a prisoner of the Lord means that we know ourselves and our limitations. It means that God’s rule and governance alone can save us. It means that we can discover this power in the liberating death and resurrection of His own Son, Jesus Christ. For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.(2 Cor. v. 14, 15) God’s humbling of Himself in Jesus Christ will strengthen our minds against despair, and urge us on to the pursuit of great things…. (St. Thomas, Idem)
The vision of God’s humility in His Son will overwhelm us. Therefore is my spirit vexed within me, and my heart within me is desolate.(Ps. cxliii. 4). Christ’s weakness, suffering, and death should destroy our pride.…I remember the time past; I muse upon all thy works; yea, I exercise myself in the works of thy hands. (Ibid, 5) God’s work is the humility of Jesus Christ who stretches out His hands on the Cross to lift us out of our own spiritual deaths into the life of His Resurrection. The strength of God is found in the weakness of His Son. His Son becomes weak so that we might be made strong. St. Augustine asks, He who throws a stone at heaven, does it fall on heaven or on himself? (Meditation on the Humility of Christ) We throw stones up at God’s Son…who has come down. Because Jesus makes the lowest seat of the Cross the first place of ascent back to God, man can become His friend and asked [to] come up higher. (Idem)
Dear friends, let us enter into Christ’s humility today. Let us confess our true nature and true need. Through it, we can accept God’s mercy with deep gratitude. In and through it, we leave the futility of the exaggerated ego and its soaring pride and embrace what we need most. With the poet we can be touched by Grace. Then,
That fair lamp, which useth to inflame
The hearts of men with self-consuming fire
Thenceforth seems foul, and full of sinful blame;
And all that pomp to which proud minds aspire
By name of honour, and so much desire,
Seems to them baseness, and all riches dross,
And all mirth sadness, and all lucre loss.
So full their eyes are of that glorious sight,
And senses fraught with such satiety,
That in nought else on earth they can delight,
But in th' aspect of that felicity,
Which they have written in their inward eye;
On which they feed, and in their fastened mind
All happy joy and full contentment find.
(Hymn to Heavenly Beauty, E. Spenser)
Jesus did not come to explain away
suffering, or to remove it.
He came to fill it with His presence.
Trinity tide is full of examples taken from Scripture that bring Jesus Christ into direct contact with human suffering. Most of the miracles that Jesus performs are in response to human suffering. We have examples of those who suffer because they are blind, and Jesus makes them to see. We have instances of those who are deaf and dumb, whom Jesus makes to hear and speak. There are also the lame, the halt, the handicapped, all of whom Jesus brings into healing. There are also instances of those who suffer as outcasts because of their suffering. Remember the ten lepers? Or the publicans and prostitutes who are banished and shunned? All in all, Jesus spends most of His earthly mission with those who are suffering in one form or another. Suffering is not alien to the Son of Man. Suffering, actually, can even take on a quality that is not only positive but absolutely therapeutic and salvific, in God’s eternal scheme of things.
To find just one example of how Jesus comes into our suffering and sadness, we need look no further than today’s Gospel lesson. So, let us travel back in time, and find ourselves with Jesus in about the year 30 A.D.. We are moving about with Him and His disciples and we come upon the city of Nain. Nain is a place barren of any civil society. Dean Stanley tells us that on a rugged and barren ridge, in an isolated place sits the ruined village of Endor. No convent, no tradition marks the spot. (Trench: Miracles) Endor is near to or perhaps identifiable with Nain. The place, to this day, is a little town with a very small Arab population. It is built on the ruins of an ancient Roman village. Its economy is primitive and mostly agricultural. Aside from the Muslim population, there is the Franciscan Church of the Resurrection of the Widow of Nain’s Son. One family protects it and allows tourists to view it for a few shekels. The Roman Catholic Church has been attempting to restore it in recent years, but the local Muslim population is violently resisting their every effort. A barren and empty church, simple but beautifully decorated, awaits the resuscitation and resurrection that Jesus alone can bring.
Today, we read: Now when Jesus came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. (St. Luke vii. 12) Nature has been robbed of any sign of life. This widow been deprived of her only pride and joy. The widow is weeping, her tears the only sign that nature still retains some small hope for the future. Her pain and suffering are not abnormal. We all know someone who has suffered the tragedy of losing a child. There is no pain like it, and many have lost their faith crying out with the feeling that God has forsaken them. For the widow, however, there seems only the inner pain that must endure the final separation from the only family that she had left. She dwells in a barren place and now she has been made barren. With the psalmist this morning, she mourns as the sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. (Psalm cxvi. 3) Into this pain and agony of soul, Christ comes, with much people.
And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. (St. Luke vii. 13-15) The men that carry the dead boy stop abruptly. She who is weeping is told that she may cease for now. When Jesus approaches, the slowly moving experience of death’s sharp sting is brought to a halt. With St. Paul this morning, Jesus says, I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. (Galatians vi. 11) Christ comes to take on our suffering and to overcome it if only we will allow Him to bear our burdens. His words may be simple and sparse but His power and might are great. The extension of kindly compassion and care have their way, and the dead man is brought back to life. The Word is spoken, and the spirit of the dead revives the body. The only words that emerge out of this situation come from the resuscitated youth. We do not know what they were. With the psalmist, perhaps he sings in his heart: The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me. Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee. For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I believed, therefore have I spoken…(Psalm cxvi 6-10) The young man speaks, and lifts the spirit of his mother’s heart into the new life he has been given. The Word made Flesh has given him words- words for new life, words from healing, words of joy that come from the Word. And only then do the others react. And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people. (St. Luke vii. 16)
The point of this morning’s Gospel runs far deeper than the surface-level specifics of an historical event. Surface level experiences and historical events must find their significance in the movement of the Spirit. Think about a mother who recently lost her daughter to death that came on too quickly and without any warning. Think about the man who is told he has three months to live because of inoperable cancer. Think about the widow of Nain. Each of these people is confronted with a spiritual problem; on the one hand they can mourn, despair, give up on life because there is no spiritual meaning now, or, on the other hand, they can believe that there was goodness and there was joy that can be remembered with gratitude and passed along. The point is this: suffering and loss on a human and earthly level always provide opportunities and occasions for deeper awareness and appreciation of God’s love and God’s goodness. Sometimes Jesus surprises us with God’s Grace and heals us of earthly disease or even resuscitates the dead. The widow of Nain found that He did. Most are not blessed in this way. But, still, they may find it when, through their suffering, they seek to find the spiritual gain to be gleaned from the evidence and effects of a limited and fragile, uncertain, and unpredictable earthly existence. A mother can be thankful for the blessings that came to her daughter in the last few years of her life. Her daughter was delivered from darkness and addiction. Her daughter found a few friends and began to heal by God’s good grace. Her daughter found the faith and hope to move on and was raised up by Jesus into a better kind of life.
But, you ask, and rightly so, how do I find this faith today? Well, we might begin by identifying with the dead, only child of his mourning mother. What do I mean? The dead man is a sign and symbol of the kind of person that we are meant to become. Yet, you protest, I am not dead but alive. Yes, you are physically alive, and that is quite clear! You are alive to the physical happiness, creature comforts, good food, fine wine, the economy, and otherwise superficial accoutrements to what we called last week, mammon. But are you spiritually alive? Are you conscious that you possess a soul that alone enjoys the limited forms of happiness that define your life? Are you conscious of a soul that experiences joy, happiness, pleasure and then sadness, grief and pain? Are you aware that your soul seems to be immersed in things and situations that are uncertain, unpredictable, unstable, impermanent, and quite frankly perishable- be they human or inanimate? And if you are conscious and aware, have you ever thought of pursuing something better, nobler, truer, and surer, whose stability will transcend this world of decay and death? And while we are at it, if you have been alerted to the call of the spiritual, have remembered that God is always with us and for us, as Jesus offers to suffer with us and bear our burdens?
Claudel, again, has said, Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it. He came to fill it with His presence. For the Christian, Jesus Christ comes into a suffering and sad human condition, in order to wash and cleanse, purify and fit for its eternal destiny. The only condition is faith. Jesus says, be not afraid, only believe. (St. Mark v. 36) Faith is the key that unlocks the door and alone leads a man through suffering, from spiritual death and into new life.
Jesus says also, Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted (St. Matthew v. 4). St. Paul says, Therefore I ask that you do not lose heart at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. (Eph. iii. 13) Both Jesus and Paul mourn over and suffer for those who are spiritually dead. To love is to suffer. The love that suffers all manner of human weakness, rejection, cruelty, torture, and even death confronts us this morning. That love is with us and for us in Jesus Christ, longing still and ever for faith to be conceived and come alive in our souls. In one way, for certain, it will have touched us, if with St. Paul, we embrace it and share it, as we look out into the world, towards our neighbors, and say, For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height, to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. iii. 14-19) St. Paul has died and come alive in Jesus Christ. With the son of the Widow of Nain, we too must be dead, if the healing touch of Christ is to bring us alive.
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that
exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
(St. Luke xviii. 14)
Trinity tide invites us on to the road that leads to salvation, in the name and nature of the One alone whose offering and sacrifice redeem and reconcile us unto God the Father. No human being is denied this offer of redemption and reconciliation with Almighty God, the Father of lights, the Creator and Mover of all things. Either every human being can come to see and know the way that leads to eternal death and destruction or he can come to see and know the way that leads to eternal life and salvation. The road or way that a man takes is, of course, his spiritual choice. The spiritual path can be trodden only by them that open up to true prayer.
And in this morning’s Gospel Parable, Our Lord teaches us of the kind of prayer that leads to death and the kind that leads to life. Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a Publican. (St. Luke xviii. 10) The first man, the Pharisee, who went up was a member of the religious establishment of his day. From him, Christian common sense expects to learn the right way or correct form of prayer. He was, after all, a religious expert in Jewish Law. The other man who went up to pray was a Publican - a Jew who was despised and hated by the Jewish people for being a traitor because he collected taxes for the Roman Empire. From him we might expect to find only a wrong-headed and misdirected manner of praying since his life was compromised and his loyalties were divided. But what we find actually is quite the opposite. For the Pharisee’s religion ends up being narcissistically empty and vacuous, while the Publican’s path is full of spiritual substance and meaning.
So we read, The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed thus.... (Ibid, 11; Archbishop Trench’s translation) Before we even encounter the substance of what the Pharisee has to say, we find him isolated, standing off by himself, safely removed from the common sort of men, perhaps intending that others should notice his piety and his earnest intention to steer clear of unclean worshipers (Parables, p. 381).Jesus describes the way that he prays. God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. (Ibid, 11) Speaking thus with himself,the Pharisee reminds God that he is wholly unlike most other men since he is no notorious sinner. God forbid that he should identify with such people – all other men, for then God might mistake him for a sinner! He is, evidently, spiritually pure, religiously holy, and, clearly very, very good in his own eyes. His prayer to God is a litany of his good works. As he lifts himself up, up and away, in what he thinks is a soaring flight into God’s divine presence, his demeaning, belittling, and lowering of all others casts them away into the forgotten ditches of despair reserved for the wicked. He proclaims that he is so very, very good because all other men are so very, very bad! He even bolsters his credentials with his claim to suffering and sacrifice: I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. (Ibid, 12) He is at least as good as he is because he is not as bad as all other men are. So, it would seem, he needs to be no better. To be religious, as Cardinal Newman points out, was for him to keep peace towards others, to take his share in the burdens of the poor, to abstain from gross vice, and to set a good example. His alms and fasting were done not in penance, but because the Law demanded it; penance would have implied consciousness of sin; whereas it was only the Publicans and their sort, who had real sins in need of forgiveness.(10th Sunday after Pentecost, 1856) So he thanks God that he has managed to make himself so very, very good. In the end, he thanks God for himself, and crowns his pride and arrogance in gratitude for being spared the condition of this Publican (Ibid, 11), whom he sees standing off at a distance.The arrogance of our Pharisee reveals something more. We discern that he has a disdainful contempt for the Publican’s audacity in even approaching this place of prayer.
And yet, as we read what comes next, we cannot help but be stilled and humbled by what transpires before our very eyes. We read thata Publican, standing, afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Ibid, 13) Here we find a man, rejected, and despised by his own people, alienated and shunned by his own kith and kin for his compromised loyalty and divided fidelity…standing afar off. (Ibid)His inner honesty and self-conscious conviction prevent him from drawing nearer to the wall of prayer with any self-confidence or self-assurance. So he stands at a distance, so painfully conscious of his own unworthiness and sin. The inner spiritual inventory which he has taken has revealed a great distance between the man that he is and the one whom God would have him to be. He is poor in spirit and is fearful of supplicating the mercy of the Almighty. He reminds us of Mephibosheth, the handicapped and disabled son of Jonathan, who responds to King David’s mercy with the words of the unworthy: What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am? (2 Sam. 8) He beats his breast, revealing most forcefully the inner turmoil and intolerable warfare that he knows only God can relieve. He says, neither loudly nor pridefully, but diligently and insistently, God be merciful to me a sinner.(Ibid) This man knows who he is and what he has become. He knows, too, that the all-seeing God knows the secrets of [his] heart. (Ps. xliv. 21) And so he comes as close as he is able to the table of God’s mercy,knowing that he [could] not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven (Ibid, 13), regarding them as unworthy of the celestial vision: because they had preferred to look upon earthly things, and seek for them (Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 358), as St. Theophylactus has said.
Unlike the Pharisee, for whom he can say or do nothing, the Publicanstands before the heart-searching God. He does not walk by his own light, but brings his darkness into God’s light. In God’s light, he sees himself clearly and truly, and he sees also what God’s mercy alone can do for him, the chief of all sinners.Unlike the Pharisee, he is not his own teacher, as Cardinal Newman writes, pacing round and round in the small circle of his own thoughts and judgments, careless to know what God says to him, fearless of being condemned by Him, standing approved in his own sight. (Ibid) Rather he has heard the words of the Lord, addressed to him about himself: Be still and know that I am God.(Psalm 46.10) He has seen himself in the light of God’s truth and mercy. He knows that he has need of God, and that God alone can save him from his spiritual wretchedness, misery, and poverty, giving to him that healing cure that will surely begin to work its effects. He knows himself. He sees the way. He seeks pardon for wrong done, and power to do better. And thus he beats his breast, and so drives out the presence of darkness within to make room for the power of God’s liberating light.
The Publican and his prayer, which the Pharisee can neither see nor understand, comprise the best human model for approach to God’s presence and nearness. The Publican does not postpone the inevitable encounter with God. Rather he sees himself, with all men, in the way that all men should see themselves in the presence of God. He knows that he and all men stand before God as those who need urgently salvation and deliverance. He is one with all men, whether a returning prodigal, a loyal and faithful John, a despair-ridden addict, or a conscientious Mother Theresa. He can identify with all men, because, as Cardinal Newman reminds us, created natures, high and low, are all on a level and one in the sight and comparison of the Creator, and so all of them have one speech, and one only, whether it be the thief on the cross, Magdalen at the feast, of St. Paul before martyrdom. One and all have nothing but what comes from Him, and are as nothing before Him, who is all in all. (Ibid) The Publican’sprayer is the true prayer of all men. From his heart we find the truth of our own. From his words we find that spiritual expression that must emerge from every man’s heart when he comes to God for redemption and salvation.
Let us this day, my brothers and sisters, repeat the words of the Publican and through self-examination, prayer, and confession apprehend our utter need of the Almighty’s mercy. Not needing the Almighty’s mercy and God’s redemption is a sure sign of spiritual insecurity and immaturity. Men who are proud like the Pharisee are really inwardly weak and mostly fearful. They are too fragile and cowardly to claim and confess who they truly are. They fear that their confession and honesty will bring on other men’s censure, derision, and rejection. The strong man is the honest man. The honest man is the courageous man. The courageous man is the man whom God seeks because he is after God’s own heart. (1 Samuel xiii. 14) This man is humble and yet in his humility he can be asked to lift up his head and see the Giver whose gift it is to raise men up, wash, cleanse, heal, and save. This man is our Publican. He knows that the Almighty is like no other; He reproveth, and nurtureth, and teacheth and bringeth again, as a Shepherd his flock. He hath mercy on them that receive discipline, and that diligently seek after His judgments. (Ecclus. xviii. 13, 14) And unlike any other, He can and will save us if we open our mouths with one voice and one accord, joining all others, and especially the Publican, who have the honesty and self-knowledge to plead and to pray, God be merciful to me a sinner.
He dwelleth with you and shall be in you.
(St. John xiv. 17)
Today we celebrate the feast of the Pentecost. In the Church of England, it is called Whitsunday - White Sunday, because of the white garments worn by those who were traditionally baptized on this day. Pentecostderives from the Latin that means the fiftieth day. For the ancientJews, it marked the day on which God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, fifty daysafter Exodus from Egypt. It was also a day of thanksgiving for harvest, falling often in May when, given the temperate climate, the Israelites ingathered wheat, oats, peas, vetch, lentils, and barley. The early Jewish-Christians retained its character of thanksgiving but focused now on the Holy Ghost’s harvesting of souls for God. For on the first Pentecost, the Holy Ghost descended down from the Ascended Christ and into the hearts of the Apostles, vesting and mantling them with the spiritual gifts that would generate new communion with God the Father.
So, today we are bidden to contemplate this newmovement of the Holy Ghost at the time of the Church’s first Pentecost.Yet we should not think that the Holy Ghost had been dormant and inactive prior to the coming of Christ. The Old Testament is full of references to the Holy Ghost’s role in creation and Jewish man’s hope for salvation. In the Creed we say, I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son…. We believe that the Spirit’s lordly rule and governance are essential for animating all created life. The Spirit is that Third Person of the Blessed Trinity without whom creation would not be. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Gen. i. 2)The man who fails to grasp this is like the one who knew not his Maker, and him that inspired into him an active soul, and breathed in a living spirit. (Wisdom xv. 11) This is the Spiritwho comes upon warriors, priests, kings, and prophets to strengthen and fortify them physically and spiritually against their enemies. King David tell us that The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and His word was in my tongue. (2 Sam. Xxiii. 2) He spake by the prophets. Beyond creating and sustaining, we know that the Holy Spirit carried warnings, admonitions, prophecies, and counsels to men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, and others. Monsignor Knox tells us that by the Holy Spirit they were moved to say various things, much of which it is difficult to understand, and some of which they probably didn’t understand themselves. They were carried away by the impetus of the Holy Spirit, and the great point is that many of the things which they said, or rather which He said through them, were prophecies about the coming of Jesus Christ. (The Creed in Slow Motion: p. 143) The Holy Spirit, in other words, was hard at work leading the Jewish people to prepare them for a fuller revelation of God’s promised salvation and redemption. He prepared them for the day when the Word would be made fleshin Jesus Christ and then for that time when the same Word would come alive in the hearts and souls of all believers. And lest we think that He works by a kind-of Divine possession that violates human nature, we must remember that He comes only to those who welcome Him with yearning, longing, groaning, desiring, hungering and thirsting.
For it is the work that He invites men into that is of uttermost importance to the Holy Ghost. It comes about only through relationship with Jesus Christ. Christ has ascended to the Father, and from there He desires to continue His work of salvation in the hearts and souls of His friends the Apostles –indeed out of the raw materials of any human life that will forsake all and followHim. For Christians, Pentecostis the moment where earthly life begins to blend with heavenly desire and communion with God begins afresh through divine rapture. It is the fulfillment of the promise offered by Jesus to his friends: If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him: but ye know Him; for He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. (St. John xiv. 15-17) Again, the offer is not forced. God in Jesus respects man’s power of free will. If…then..., he says. The invitation is conditional. The Holy Ghost comes only to those who desire Him. The ongoing work of God hinges upon desire and love.
Our first encounter of it is found in today’s Epistle reading taken from Acts. And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts ii. 1-4) To so many who read this text, the event seems alien and foreign. Many a Christian is embarrassed to admit that he is really more like the unbelieving bystanders who at the first Pentecostwere in doubt, or,mocking said, these men are full of new wine. (Ibid, 12, 13) We tend then to think that whatever happened to the Apostles long ago is wholly paranormal and thus beyond what can happen to you and me in our present age. And yet we do well to remember that the first receivers of this heavenly impulse were men who were neither extraordinarily creative nor intellectually brave. They were pious and industrious middle-class Jews who were genuinely interested in everything that Jesus of Nazareth said and did. Their last days with Him began in sadness, fear, and shame. Later they were filled with wonder and astonishment. Finally, they would obey, follow, and trust with deepest desire and longing. They were what used to be called normalhuman beings.The transformation in their relation to Jesus all happened, mostly, in one place –the upper room or cenacle. This is where we first find them today. In it, they had learned of an impending betrayal that He foretold. To its safety, they had fled in fear and cowardice when He was dying on the Cross. Into it again, they were found when the Risen Christ entered miraculously with loving forgiveness to invite them into fellowship with His Resurrected being. Into the same cenaclenow, we find that He has sent the Holy Ghost. And while these men and women are not any different from you or me, one thing is significant: as before, in the same place, they were watching and waiting for what would come next. They were gathered together in unity of purpose. (Ibid, AV, Knox, ii. 1) Jesus had said, Tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high. (St. Luke xxiv. 49) Because they had faith in Him and waited for one more thing, the Holy Ghost came upon them, and they began the work of spreading the Good News to all nations.
But how can we be shaken and stirred, defined, and moved by the same work that the Holy Spirit began in the lives of the Apostles? The Holy Ghost intends that we should be involved in this work and yet it seems in our own time that men’s hearts have grown cold to the Gospel. Jesus says to us today, If ye love me, keep my commandments. If…then. So, we must ask ourselves this: Do we love Jesus enough to keep His commandments?If not, or, if we hesitate [to obey Jesus], it is because we love something else in competition with Him, i.e. ourselves. (My Utmost…, p. 307) But we believe that Jesus is God’s own Word and Wisdom. Through this Wisdom, in tandem with the Holy Spirit, we are made, sustained, and quickened. Through this Wisdom made Flesh in union with the Holy Spirit, we believe that our sins have been destroyed and our salvation won. Is it such a long step to embrace the same Holy Spirit as the Person of the Trinity who will infuse Christ’s gifts into our hearts and souls so that this salvation might effectively transform us day by day? His love cannot sanctify and save us without our willingness to accept the conditions of His rule in our lives. His presence was overwhelmingly effectual at the First Pentecost because the Apostles’ watching and waiting were characterized by keeping Christ’s commandments as a foundation for their deeper incorporation into His life by the Holy Ghost. If our watching and waiting are tempered by the same obedient love, the Holy Ghost, even the Spirit of Truth, will abide with us forever. (St. John xiv. 16)
So today, we must pray that the infinite and eternal Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who workest all in all…will pardon all our resistance to His motions…and will fan the flames which He ever enkindles in our breasts. We pray that He may…enlighten our minds and purify our hearts that we may be fit to receive and entertain Him, as the Guide and Comforter of our souls, working mightily upon our hearts, fitting and suiting our souls to that glory which is unspeakable and everlasting. (B. Jenks, 354) At the first Pentecost the irresistible force [of the Holy Spirit]…was compressed into a single narrow compass; and the result was a kind of flood, a kind of explosion. (Sermons, Knox, Ign. Press, p. 477) That flood or that explosionis the rushing mighty wind of Christ’s Spirit who still longs to catch us up in the wind of His love as He carries us into that work that will bear both us and others to His Kingdom. With the poet let us pray that the work of His love will ravish us.
With all thy Heart, with all thy Soul and Mind,
Thou must him love, and his Beheasts embrace:
All other Loves, with which the World doth blind
Weak Fancies, and stir up Affections base,
Thou must renownce, and utterly displace;
And give thyself unto him full and free,
That full and freely gave himself for thee.
Then shalt thou feel thy Spirit so possest,
And ravisht with devouring great Desire
Of his dear self, that shall thy feeble Breast
Inflame with Love and set thee all on fire
With burning Zeal, through every part entire;
That in no earthly things thou shalt delight,
But in his sweet and amiable Sight.
As the briefest liturgical season in the Church Year, Ascension-tide lasts only ten days. We believe that on the fortieth day after Easter Christ ascended to the Father. Ten days later the Holy Spirit was sent into the womb of the nascent Church on the feast of the Pentecost or Whitsunday. So we have but a few days to examine the significance and meaning of the Ascension for us.
The Ascension is Jesus Christ’s return to the eternal state that He shares, as Son, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In the Ascension, Christ restores human nature back to the origin of its being and meaning, so that with Christ as the Head the Holy Spirit might come down from heaven and rebirth all men who believe as Christ’s new Body. In the simplest of terms, Christ the Son of God, in a Resurrected and Glorified state, returns human life to communion with God the Father. Each word, thought, and deed that constitutes man’s return to God in Christ will now be shared from Heaven with all men through the ever-descending and transforming Holy Spirit.
Faithful man had been yearning to ascend back to God since the time of Israel’s primordial Fall. But he found himself in the midst of a godless and idolatrous people. There is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities. (Is. lxiv. 7) Sin had enslaved the ancient Jews; God seemed concealed and unconcerned. But the prophet confesses his sin in order to be lifted up above it. But now, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. Be not wroth very sore, O Lord, neither remember iniquity forever: behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people. (Ibid, 8,9) Acknowledging his sin, and the collective wickedness of his people, the prophet faithfully cries out to God for deliverance and salvation. Israel may have unmade herself, but God can and will fashion her anew if only she lifts up her eyes unto the hills from whence cometh her help.
With Psalmist, he is powerless to fight against spiritual powers that have the advantage over him. O help us against the enemy, for vain is the help is man. (Ps. lxiv. 12) And so his heart ascends up passionately within as he soars up to sing the song of faith. O GOD, my heart is ready, my heart is ready; I will sing, and give praise with the best member that I have. Awake, thou lute and harp; I myself will awake right early. I will give thanks unto thee, O LORD, among the peoples; I will sing praises unto thee among the nations. (Ps. cviii. 1-3) From the ground of his soul the fire of faith envelops, informs, and consumes his heart. The music of the spiritual lute and harp call him up into the song of praise and thanksgiving. He thanks God anticipatorily for what he believes and trusts shall shortly come to pass. For thy mercy is greater than the heavens, and thy truth reacheth unto the clouds. Set up thyself, O God, above the heavens, and thy glory above all the earth; That thy beloved may be delivered: let thy right hand save them, and hear thou me. (Ibid, 4-6) Deliverance comes only from above. The glory that saves must come down from above from the one who is God’s right hand.
Christians believe that what Isaiah reached out and hoped for was the Incarnation of God’s right-hand Man, even His own Son. What was desired from above has come down to the earth in the Mission and Ministry of Jesus Christ, God with us and for us. The Word of God’s promise that was held in faith and embraced in hope then was made flesh and dwelt among us. (St. John i. 14) And yet the chief purpose of His Incarnation was that man’s human nature might once again become a living sacrifice, wholly acceptable unto God. (Romans xii. 1)Man was made to live above Himself, conformed to God’s will, and always to become clay in the hand of the potter.
But in Christ, we are not only called to become clay in the hand of the potterbut also placed into his kiln. We are called not only to being refashioned but also to reanimated and regenerated. This cannot be done until Christ takes us into the fire of His sacrifice, the fire that destroys all sin and death. His suffering and death constitute the necessary first moments in the salvific process of our new birth. His suffering and death are the kiln in which the Potter is firing upthe clayfor new life through a Sacrifice that will begin on earth and ascend up into Heaven. As Paul Claudel writes, Jesus Christ, the Man-God, the highest expression of creation, rises from the depths of matter where the Word was born by uniting with woman’s obedience, toward that throne which was predestined for Him at the right hand of the Father. From this place He continues to exercise his magnetic power on all creatures; all feel deep within them that summons, that injunction, to ascend. (I Believe…159)God’s Son was always called by the Father into Ascending Sacrifice. Throughout the whole of His life, He suffered and died to Himself as He mounted and ascended in heart and soul back to God. Since the time of His Ascension, He has called all men to do the same through the Sacrifice that He shares with us. When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of me. (St. John xv. 26) From His Ascension seat in Heaven, the Son of God sends His Spirit into our hearts so that we mightfeel deep within [ourselves] that summons, that injunction, to ascend.
But before the Holy Spirit’s descending fiery love begins to enable us to ascend back to the Father in Jesus Christ, we must first focus on Christ’s ascent back to the Father. Our eyes must follow persistently and diligently the flame of fiery love that lifts and carries Christ back to the Father. Bishop Westcott reminds us that we are meant to penetrate the passion of the ascending Jesus. We are encouraged to work beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things, all of us, capable of consecration. Then it is, that the last element in our confession as to Christ’s work speaks to our hearts. He is not only present with us as Ascended: He is active for us. (Sermons…) Christ’s Ascension must work its way into our hearts. True Sacrifice mounts up and ascends back to God. True Sacrifice bears our griefs and carries our sorrows. (Is. liii. 4)Austin Farrer describes the movement nicely:
WE are told in an Old Testament tale, how an angel of God having appeared to man disappeared again by going up in the flame from the altar. And in the same way Elijah, when he could no more be found, was believed to have gone up on the crests of flaming horses. The flame which carried Christ to heaven was the flame of his own sacrifice. Flame tends always upwards. All his life long Christ's love burnt towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire, until he was wholly consumed in it, and went up in that fire to God. The fire is kindled on our altars, here Christ ascends in fire; the fire is kindled in the Christian heart, and we ascend. He says to us, Lift up your hearts; and we reply, We lift them up unto the Lord.
Christ’s desire for our reconciliation with the Father ascends in fire. Christ is consumed by us in this Holy Eucharist and He longs to become like a fire kindled in our hearts. We pray that the flame of our own sacrifice might become one with the flame of Christ’s desire for our salvation. We pray that in faith we shall lift our hearts up unto the Lord because in the blazing fire of Heaven’s light we are beginning to see that only through Christ’s ever-ascending sacrifice can we find true return to our Heavenly Father. Thus, old earth-bound habits, customs, and ideals must be burnt up and left behind. Christ who now sits at God’s right hand, interceding and pleading for us, longs for us to rise up into His Ascended union with the Father that our love might burn towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire, and be wholly consumed in it.
St. Peter tells us this morning that the end of all things is at hand because Christ has ascended to offer His Sacrifice for us to the Father. We must betherefore sober, and watchful unto prayer. (1 St. Peter iv. 7) Our spiritual faculties must be exercised in the movement of Ascending love. Trusting that Christ now reigns in the greatness of His power and majesty at God’s right hand, we must have our conversation with Him in Heaven, to love His appearing, and to be dissolved into His love. (Jenks, 352)
We must pray that the Holy Spirit will descend into our hearts and bring us to a forthright confession of our sins and our ongoing need for the surpassing power of His Ascended glory.We must pray that the power of Christ’s Sacrifice will generate in us steadfast courage to persist in the battle against Satan. We must pray that we may feel the powerful attraction of Christ’s Grace and Holy Spirit, to draw up our minds and desires from the poor perishing enjoyments here below, to those most glorious and everlasting attainments above where Christ sits at the right hand of God. (Idem, Jenks)Christ’s power to attract, absorb, and asphyxiate our hearts will consume our hearts as we come alive to Christ’s perpetual Sacrifice to the Father can be concluded effectively in the words of the poet:
Lord, when the sense of thy sweet grace
Sends up my soul to seek thy face.
Thy blessed eyes breed such desire,
I die in love's delicious Fire.
O love, I am thy Sacrifice.
Be still triumphant, blessed eyes.
Still shine on me, fair suns! that I
Still may behold, though still I die.
Though still I die, I live again;
Still longing so to be still slain,
So gainfull is such losse of breath.
I die even in desire of death.
Still live in me this loving strife
Of living Death and dying Life.
For while thou sweetly slayest me
Dead to my selfe, I live in Thee.
(A Song: Richard Crashaw)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons