What a wondrous and challenging feast we celebrate at Pentecost. A feast like this challenges us, because it puts to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life. The Lord Jesus had said to Apostles, and still says to us: I have come to cast a fire on the earth! (Luke 12:49). This is a feast about fire, about a transformative, refining, and purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us and in this world.
The Readings today speak to us of the Holy Spirit in three ways: The Portraits of the Spirit, the Proclamation of the Spirit and the Propagation by the Spirit. Let’s look at all three.
I. The Portraits of the Spirit – The Reading today speaks of the Holy Spirit using two images: rushing wind, and tongues of fire. These two images recall Psalm 50 which says, Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest. (Psalm 50:3).
Rushing Wind – Notice how the text from Acts opens: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.
This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word “Spirit.” For “spirit” refers to “breath,” and we have this preserved in our word “respiration,” which means breathing. So, the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai (the Spirit, the breath of God).
Genesis 1:2 speaks of this saying the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And Genesis 2:7 speaks even more remarkably of something God did only for man, not the animals: then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Gen 2:7).
So the very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam! But, as we know, Adam lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned.
Thus we see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person as these first Christians (120 in all) experience the rushing wind of God’s Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does C.P.R. and brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16). It has been said that Christmas is the feast of God with us, Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, but Pentecost is the Feast of God in us.
Tongues of Fire – The text from Acts says, Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
The Bible often speaks of God as fire, or in fiery terms. Moses saw God as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up on to a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was. Psalm 97 says, The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him, and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory. (Ps 97:1-6). Scriptures call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29) and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10; Jer 9:7; Zec 13:9; & Mal 3:3).
And so it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through his Holy Spirit. And as a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).
And he is also preparing us for judgement, for if God is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of his coming or of our going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus we must be set afire by God’s love.
So, in the coming of the Holy Spirit God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, he purifies and prepares us to meet him one, He who is a Holy Fire.
II. The Proclamation of the Spirit. - You will notice that the Spirit Came on them like “tongues” of Fire. And the reference to tongues is no mere accident. For notice how the Holy Spirit moves them to speak, and ultimately to witness. The text says: And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”
So behold how the Holy Spirit moves them to proclaim, not just in the safety of the upper room, but also in holy boldness before the crowds who have gathered.
Notice the transformation! Moments ago these were frightened men who gathered only behind locked doors, in secrecy. They were huddled together in fear. But now they go forth to the crowds and boldly proclaim Christ. They have gone from fear to faith, from cowardice to courage, from terror to testimony!
And how about us? Too many Christians are silent, dominated by fear. Perhaps they fear being called names, or not being popular. Perhaps they are anxious about being laughed at, or resisted, or of being asked questions they don’t feel capable of answering. Some Christians are able to gather in the “upper room” of the parish and be active, even be leaders. But once outside the “upper room” they slip into undercover mode. They become secret agent Christians.
Well, the Holy Spirit wants to change that, and to the degree that we have really met Jesus Christ and experienced his Holy Spirit we are less “able” to keep silent. An old Gospel song says, I thought I wasn’t gonna testify, but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me. The Holy Spirit, if authentically received, wants to give us zeal and joy, and burn away our fear, so that testifying and witnessing are natural to us.
Note also how the Spirit “translates” for the apostles, for the crowd before them spoke different languages, but all heard Peter and the others in their own language. The Spirit therefore assists not only us, but also those who hear us. My testimony is not dependent only on my eloquence, but also on the grace of the Holy Spirit who casts out deafness and opens hearts. Every Christian should remember this. Some of our most doubtful encounters with others can still bear great fruit on account of the work of the Holy Spirit who “translates” for us and overcomes many obstacles that we might think insurmountable.
III. The Propagation by the Spirit – In the great commission the Lord said, Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matt 28:19ff). He also said, as we have noted, I have come to cast a fire on the earth and How I wish the blaze were already ignited (Luke 12:49).
But how is the Lord going to do this?
Perhaps a picture will help. My parish church is dedicated to the Holy Spirit under the title: Holy Comforter. Above the high altar is the Latin inscription: Spiritus Domini, replevit orbem terrarum (The Spirit of the Lord, filled the orb of the earth). (See photo, above right, of our high altar).
And yet, we may wonder how He will do this.
But the walls of my parish Church answer the question. The clerestory walls are painted Spanish Red, and upon this great canvas are also painted the lives of 20 saints, surrounding us like a great cloud of witnesses (cf Heb 12:1). (See also, video below). And over the head of every saint is a tongue of fire.
THIS is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the earth. It is not “magic fairy dust,” it is in the fiery transformation of every Christian, going forth into the world to bring light and warmth to a dark and cold world. THIS is how the Lord casts fire on earth, THIS is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth: in the lives of saints, and, if you are prepared to accept it, in YOU.
In the end, the Great Commission (Matt 28) is “standing order No. 1.” No matter what else, we are supposed to do this. Parishes do not deserve to exist if they do not do this. We as individual Christians are a disgrace, and not worthy of the name, if we fail to win souls for Jesus Christ. The Spirit of the Lord is going to fill the orb of the earth, but only through us. The spread of the Gospel has been placed in your hands (scary isn’t it?).
In the Past two years, my own parish, after a year of training, stepped out into our neighborhood, and went door to door and into the local park. And we announced Jesus Christ, and invited people to discover him in our parish, and in the sacraments. And we were in the local park and the market last week doing sidewalk evangelization.
Before we count even a single convert, this is already success because we are obeying Jesus Christ who said, simply, “Go!” “Go make disciples.” And, truth be told, we ARE seeing an increase in my parish. Our Sunday attendance has grown from about 450 to 520, a 15% increase. We are growing, and our attendance, while average for a downtown city parish, is going in the right direction. God never fails. God is faithful.
Spread the news: it works if you work it, so work it because God is worth it. Go make disciples. Ignore what the pollsters tell you about a declining Church and let the Lord cast a fire on the earth through you! Fires have way of spreading! Why not start one today? The Spirit of God will not disappoint.
I know this, my parish has a future because we are obeying Jesus Christ, we are making disciples. How about you and yours? If parishes do not obey, they do not deserve to exist and can expect to close one day, no matter how big they are today. I, in my short 50 years on this planet, have seen it: parishes once big, booming, and, (frankly), arrogant, are now declining and some are near closure. It happens to the best, if they do not evangelize, if they do not accomplish “Job 1.” The Lord wants to light a fire. Why not become totally fire? Let the Spirit propagate the Church through you (I am not talking about the person next to you, I am talking to you).
Happy feast of Pentecost. But don’t forget that the basic image is very challenging, for it means getting out of the “upper room,” opening the doors, and proclaiming Christ to the world. Let the Holy Spirit light a fire in you, and then, you can’t help but spread light and heat to a cold and dark world.
Let the evangelization of the whole world begin with you.
This video features details from the clerestory (upper window level) of my parish of Holy Comforter here in DC. Notice the tongue of fire above each saint. The paintings show how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth, (see photo above), through the lives of the lives of the saints (this means you). It is not magic, it is grace, working in your life, through your gifts, and your relationships, that the Lord will reach each soul. The cloud of witnesses on the walls of my Church say simply, You are the way he will fill the earth and set it on fire. Let the blaze be ignited in you!
The song says: We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord. Let us stand worthy, and be faithful to God’s call….We must not grow weary…!
Here is another video I put together which has scenes from the Pentecost event and is set to Palestrina’s Dum Complerentur. I like this musical version since it is sung in dance time. The Latin text to the motet is below the video along with its English Translation.
Dum complerentur dies Pentecostes,
erant omnes pariter dicentes, alleluia,
et subito factus est sonus de coelo, alleluia,
tamquam spiritus vehementis,
et replevit totam domum, alleluia.
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come,
they were all with one accord in one place, saying: alleluia.
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, alleluia,
as of a rushing mighty wind,
and it filled the whole house
where they were sitting, alleluia.
We tend to demonize the word “power” in our culture. But of itself, power is simply the capacity to act, a kind of energy to accomplish what must be done. Power in this sense can lead to magnificent and creative solutions to difficulties, wonderful breakthroughs and great progress.
God gives us all a certain degree of power to act. We have capacities, abilities, talents and charisms. And these powers, these capacities interact with our will and freedom. It is here that power can bring about great good or go terribly wrong.
Power gone wrong leads us to dominate and impose our self on others in a self-serving way. And power used in this way can lead to unimaginable human suffering and misery and the wars, conflicts, genocides, killing fields and high death tolls of the last century show. As many as 100 million people were put to death in that bloody century in the name of many secular ideologies, of ushering in secular “utopias” and the quest for raw and dominating power.
In the video below we see power gone wrong. A man comes to apply for the job of “superhero” and he is put through certain tests to discern if he has the temperament to handle power for good.
The first few tests seem to go well. But suddenly his use of power goes to his head and he gratuitously kills someone he is supposed to protect. Things go off the rails quickly and the result is utter destruction.
How did this happen? As already stated his power has gone to his head. He has forgotten that he has power for others, not for himself.
It frequently happens in history that those who stage revolutions for the “good of the people” or to end injustice, rise to power and then usher in their own reign of terror. Secular utopian notions of the last Century and their leaders while claiming to be “for the people” often created worse oppression and dictatorships than they claimed to replace. Iron curtains fell and a loss of freedom ensued, as killing on a mass scale was ushered in all “for the sake of the people.” Hitler killed millions, as did Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others.
There is a subtlety to the video as to how the power goes to his head. For on the face of it his turn to darkness is quite sudden. But I would suggest it is not and that we could see it coming.
How? In the fact that our “hero” uses deadly violence to solve every problem presented in his test sequence. It is not enough for him to rescue the victim, he must destroy the threat. Finally a threat sees his prepared response and back down. He has won without destroying. But by now he has a lust to kill. He must get the kill! But the kill has evaded him by retreat. Thus he turns his lust for power, his lust for the kill on the one he is supposed to protect. From there it is all downhill. No one will limit his power, tell him what to do or keep his blood lust in check. Power has corrupted him. He is addicted to it and must use it.
Here is power gone wrong in miniature, in a cartoon that well illustrates the dark side of power. Power is not wrong, but power can go wrong when it interacts with our sinful nature and its use is no longer measured, or its object is no longer helping others but merely serving the self.
One of the terribly destructive philosophies is a false notion of freedom. The sinful world, going all the way back to Satan’s deceit in the garden, thinks of freedom as being able to do whatever I please. In effect those who hold this, flaunt their false notion of freedom saying in effect, “I will do what I want to do, and I will decide if it is right or wrong. No one will tell me what to do.” It is freedom in the abstract, freedom for its own sake, rather than for the sake of being able to do what is right.
That this notion of freedom is false is evident from its fruits. For although many, in modern times, claim to march under the banner of freedom from being told what to do, it becomes clear that many of them end up it a terrible state of increasing slavery and bondage.
For this era when a false notion of freedom is exulted is also an era of increasing addiction to alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex, and a general lack of self control. And with greed and materialism, whatever we have is never enough. There is thus a bondage to things, a kind of incapacity to live without endless numbers of things and creature comforts. Therefore we also see increasing bondage to credit, both personally and nationally. We simply “cannot” stop our runaway spending. There is also an increasing lack of ability to make and keep commitments and many feel “compelled” to divorce, leave the priesthood and religious life.
None of this shouts the freedom that so many boast of. Rather there is evident, bondage, inability, compulsion, addiction, and an out of control quality to modern life.
You will thus know by its fruits that false freedom is not true freedom. It masquerades in the “sheep’s” clothing of liberty, but underneath it is the ravenous wolf of bondage. Many cry “Liberty!” when they really mean “libertine” and “licentious.” They are headed straight for bondage. St. Augustine said,
For of a perverse will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity. (Confessions 8.5)
The Catechism also says,
The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.” (CCC # 1733).
And thus we arrive at the definition of true freedom which is “the capacity to obey God.”
And what are the fruits of true freedom? An increasing liberation from the power of sin, the increasing capacity to do what is right and just by the power of God. True freedom brings greater self control, the ability to moderate one’s desires and have them submitted to right reason. True freedom brings serenity, for one’s life is in greater balance and harmony.
By true freedom, the innumerable sorrows of false freedom listed above are largely avoided and one’s life is simpler, more focused, and one enjoys the results of a disciplined and reasonable life. Sorrows and suffering are not eliminated but are diminished for many of their sources in excess, addiction and compulsion are removed. True freedom ushers in, by God’s power, the life that Jesus Christ died and rose to give us.
So what do you want, the fake freedom of the world, or the glorious freedom of the children of God? (Rom 8:21)
This past week we celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. (And, given my mention of Fatima, you may wonder why I have Our Lady of Guadalupe pictured here, but more on that in a moment). But as for Fatima, with all the emphasis on the magnificent teaching and prophetic fulfillment of that apparition, something that has always intrigued me is that she would appear of all places in a town called Fatima. Why Fatima, a town that recalls the daughter of Mohammed?
Indeed, I have often heard that Muslims hold our Blessed Mother Mary in high regard. This reverence may stop short of our devotion but there is said to be a respect for her in the Muslim tradition.
Now, I first learned this from the great Archbishop, Fulton Sheen in his book, The World’s First Love. I read it 25 years ago and have pondered it ever since. I would like to present excerpts from the chapter entitled “Mary and the Moslems” [sic], reflect on its significance and ask a few questions. Please note that the book was written in 1952 and therefore some of the spellings are not the modern ones. Here are the excerpts:
The Koran, which is the Bible of the Moslems, has many passages concerning the Blessed Virgin. First of all, the Koran believes in her Immaculate Conception, and also, in her Virgin Birth…..The Koran also has verses on the Annunciation, Visitation, and Nativity. Angels are pictured as accompanying the Blessed Mother and saying, Oh Mary, God has chosen you and purified you, and elected you above all the women of the earth. In the 19th chapter of the Koran there are 41 verses on Jesus and Mary. There is such a strong defense of the virginity of Mary here that the Koran in the fourth book, attributes the condemnation of the Jews to their monstrous calumny against the Virgin Mary.
Mary, then, is for the Moslems the true Sayyida, or Lady. The only possible serious rival to her in their creed would be Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed himself. But after the death of Fatima, Mohammed wrote: Thou shalt be the most blessed of women in Paradise, after Mary. In a variant of the text Fatima is made to say; I surpass all the women, except Mary.
This brings us to our second point; namely, why the Blessed Mother, in this 20th Century should have revealed herself in the significant little village of Fatima, so that to all future generations she would be known as “Our Lady of Fatima.” Since nothing ever happens out of Heaven except with a finesse of all details, I believe that the Blessed Virgin chose to be known as “Our Lady of Fatima” as pledge and a sign of hope to the Moslem people, and as an assurance that they, who show her so much respect, will one day accept her divine Son too.
Evidence to support these views is found in the historical fact that the Moslems occupied Portugal for centuries. At the time when they were finally driven out, the last Moslem chief had a beautiful daughter by the name of Fatima. A Catholic boy fell in love with her, and for him she not only stayed behind when the Moslems left, but even embraced the Faith. The young husband was so much in love with her that he changed the name of the town where he lived to Fatima. Thus the very place where our Lady appeared in 1917 bears a historical connection to Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed.
Missionaries, in the future will, more and more, see that their apostolate among the Moslems will be successful in the measure that they preach Our Lady of Fatima. Mary is the advent of Christ, bringing Christ to the people before Christ himself is born. In any apologetic endeavor, it is always best to start with that which the people already accept. Because the Moslems have devotion to Mary, our missionaries should be satisfied merely to expand and develop that devotion, with the full realization that our Blessed Lady will carry the Moslems the rest of the way to her divine Son. She is forever a “traitor,” in the sense that she will not accept any devotion for herself, bit will always bring anyone who is devoted to her to her divine Son.
A beautiful reflection by Archbishop Sheen and one we can surely hope will come to pass. Relations are much more tense however between Christians and Muslims today than in 1952.
This leads to my first question.
Do Muslims today still manifest the reverence to Mary that Sheen described in 1952? I have seen a few people in Muslim garb at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception here in D.C., but I was not sure if they came to pay homage to Mary or just tour. I think we Catholics ought to be careful before we presume too much of what Muslims today think of Mary. The lines in the Quran quoted by Sheen are impressive but that does not mean that Muslims either know them well or interpret them as we would wish? Hence, I am merely posing a question here. If any of you know of good sources that answer the question of the Muslim stance on Mary I would be grateful if you can point it out. The answer to this question has a lot of bearing on my speculations to follow.
Astonishing Fact – I have already noted that it nothing less than astonishing that Mary should appear in a town called “Fatima.” Surely this is no mere coincidence and, as Sheen aptly points out, heaven does nothing without purpose. That we are not to merely pass over this detail, is very clear to me. “Our Lady of Fatima,” has a different ring when we think that Fatima is more that a place, Fatima is the Daughter of Muhammad, and the greatest woman in Islam. “Our Lady of Fatima” sounds and feels so different when it is heard in this context of person not place. It is hugely significant.
Third Secret of Fatima? For many years, before its revelation, I was sure that the Third Secret of Fatima had something to do with the Muslim question. Frankly I figured it likely described a great conflict with the Muslim world that would arise and lead to great suffering for the Church, even a kind of Babylonian captivity, but that ultimately Mary’s Immaculate Heart would triumph by the power of God. Imagine my chagrin when the third secret was finally revealed with a less than worldwide, apocalyptic content. Granted, the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II was a serious and significant matter but it was less than the worldwide conflict I had expected. It is also true that his would-be assassin was Muslim, but the plot was likely more communist and Russian in origin. In the end my theory was rocked back on its heels and fell flat.
But still we are left with Fatima. Why Fatima? Why a town bearing the namesake of Muhammad’s daughter? It seems clear that Mary will play an important role in the years ahead as the Muslim/Christian conflict likely grows sharper. Perhaps, as Sheen notes, she will be the bridge that connects two vastly different cultures, the common mother who keeps her children talking. Right now this connection seems little pursued, even, as far as I can tell, by the Vatican. But here too allow a question from me. Are there any of you who know if Our Lady of Fatima has any role in Vatican-Muslim dialogue?
The Guadalupe connection – I wonder too if the history of Our Lady of Guadalupe presents some historical parallels to our current struggle with the Muslim world. In the early 16th Century in Mexico, missionaries had made only meager progress in bringing the Aztec people to Christ. It was a combination of the sometimes rude and cruel treatment of the indigenous people by the Spanish soldiers, and also of the fearful superstition surrounding the Aztec gods. These gods required horrific human sacrifices and kept the people locked in with this fear that, unless they fed these gods, their greatest god, the sun, would no longer shine.
Into this fearful and suspicious setting entered Mother Mary. The miraculous image she left in 1531 was richly symbolic: Her face is a mother’s face, gentle and compassionate, unlike the frightful Aztec gods who wore fierce masks. Her features seem to be both an Aztec and European, two cultures are combined in kindness and peace. Her attitude is one of humble prayer, so she is clearly not a god. She is a merciful mother who consoles and prays for us. She is to be honored but not adored. The black band around her waist means that she is with child and offers Jesus to the people. Her message is about him. The sun was the greatest of the Aztec gods and, by standing in front of the sun, Mary shows that she is greater than all their gods. The moon represented to them the god of darkness and death. That she is standing on the moon is a sign that these powers too have been defeated by the son she bears.
Mary brought the breakthrough. Within ten years over 12 million Mexicans came to Christ and entered the Catholic Church.
This history is paralleled in many ways today in the current tensions with the Muslim World. In many Muslim lands today conversions are few. Part of the reason for this is a strong aversion for the western culture from which Catholicism comes. Another reason includes many alleged grievances that Muslims have of American and Western “mistreatment.” Finally, a large factor is fear. Leaving the Muslim faith is likely to get you killed in many parts of the Muslim world. So, it is a combination of a wide cultural gulf, alleged grievances, and fear, that keep conversions low. All not unlike 16th Century Mexico.
Is Mary key? It took Mary to bridge all these similar gaps between the Aztecs and the Christian Missionaries. Might Mary also be that bridge today when similar gaps divide? Time will tell, but one of her greatest Modern titles is Our Lady of Fatima. And then, there is the crescent moon upon which Mary stands in the image of Guadalupe. In modern times the crescent moon is the symbol of Islam. Mother Mary of Guadalupe, by God’s grace, was victorious and overcame the false religion of the Aztecs with love and humility.
Might this crescent moon on which Our Lady of Guadalupe stands also point to our times, and the crescent moon of Islam? Might it indicate that her victories, by God’s grace, are not at an end. Perhaps we can hope that what our Lady of Guadalupe was to the Aztec people of Mexico, Our Lady of Fatima will be to the Muslim people of the world.
As always, I invite your comments and answers to my questions.
I also want to invite any of you who would like to accompany me and some other folks from my Parish and Washington DC as we go to Gaudalupe in in October 8-15. For more info contact my parishioner, Deborah Vanzego at email@example.com or 202-408-4641. We’d love to have you come and still have space available.
Here is “Immaculate Mary” sung in Arabic
Michelangelo was asked the question how he could make a beautiful sculpture like his “Moses” out of a large block of marble. He famously answered that he simply began and chipped away everything that wasn’t Moses.
And this is a paradigm for us, into senses.
Clearly for us, the Lord must chip away everything in us which is not Jesus. Yes, everything that is not of the Lord must go. St. Paul said, “I live, no not I, Christ lives in me! (Gal 2:20). And thus, the Lord chips away at all in us that is not of him that we may become the image of God in Christ.
And yet, there is also very personal sense too, in which not only must we become Christ, but we must also authentically become our very selves. Each of us is called to reflect Christ, but the Lord has made us, as individuals, to reflect something particular about him in a unique way. You and I therefore must become the man or the woman that God made us to be.
Every now and again I might think, as do you, “Would that I were more like St. John Vianney, or St. Francis Xavier, and so forth.” But to this lament, the Lord may likely respond, “I already have a St. John Vianney, I have a Francis Xavier, what I need is you.
And thus, for me, the Lord must chip away me everything that is not Charles Pope. For He made me, and you as well, to be a particular reflection of his glory. Yes, ultimately, we are all called to reflect Christ, but in the particular way that only we can.
Part of our journey is to discover our true self, as God has made us to be, and become that true self. We must allow the Lord to Chip away everything that is is not of God, or of our very selves as he is made us to be.
This is not an invitation to strange idiosyncrasies, or a hyper-individualized version of the truth. No, God does not speak out of both sides of his mouth, and the truth about us will ultimately always be subsumed into the fundamental truth of who Jesus is, who he has created the human person to be in his likeness. And thus, as the Lord sculpts, he is not doing abstract art. Rather, he is working in the context of his revealed truth, but also realizing it in a very particular way in each one of us, with particular some particular reference to the whole truth.
A few final thoughts about carving and chipping away.
First, it is slow and painstaking. Great care and thoughtfulness is required of the artist. And so it is with us who are being sculpted by the Lord. We must learn to be patient and allow him to do his work carefully and creatively. Too often we are impatient. But true art requires that the artist step back and look, work and then reflect. Give the Lord the time and authority he needs.
Secondly, there is a kind of pain in sculpting and it is bewildering. Sculpting and shipping away is difficult, even painful. At the time we may not know or appreciate what the Lord is doing and we all may also worry as to what our final appearance will actually be. But no more than the stone can claim greater wisdom than the sculptor, should we claim a greater wisdom than God who sculpts us.
The Lord admonishes,
Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’? Woe to the one who says to a father, ‘What have you begotten?’ or to a mother, ‘What have you brought to birth? “This is what the Lord says—the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Concerning things to come, do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands? It is I who made the earth and created mankind on it. (Isaiah 45:9-12)
Somewhere, and somehow we must allow the Lord to do his work. In the end, everything that is not Jesus must be chipped away, and everything that is not our very self which God has made us to be must be chipped away.
In the end, God must be able to say to you I simply chipped away everything that was not of my Son, and everything that was not of you, as I made you to be from all eternity.
Let him work.
One of the darker passages in the Scriptures comes just after the Fall of Adam and Eve. God is announcing the consequences they have ushered in, and, having spoken to Adam of the arduous quality of work and the hostility of the natural world, God turns to Eve and says,
I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in sorrow you shall bring forth children; yet your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you. (Gen 3:16)
The Hebrew word מָשַׁל (mashal) means variously, “to have dominion, reign, or have ruling power over another.” The New Jerusalem Bible Says, “He will dominate you.”
While the text is not absolutely clear, the “rule” spoke of here does not seem to be a mere benign rule of headship by the husband, but rather, a headship marked by tension, domination and easily open to abuse.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of this passage:
The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination.(# 400).
Every man experiences evil around him and within himself. This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character.
According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust…Nevertheless, the order of creation persists, though seriously disturbed. To heal the wounds of sin, man and woman need the help of the grace that God in his infinite mercy never refuses them. (#s 1606-1608)
In calling this a “dark passage” I merely call to attention the concern and critique by some that God seems to speak of this domination by way of approval, that Eve is somehow deserving of this, and that abuse and exploitation by men is to be her lot, by God’s will.
I do not agree with this concern since, as is the case with many of the dark passages of Scripture, we must be careful to distinguish that not everything the Bible reports or describes, means it is reported with approval. Eve’s experience is the result of Original Sin and the poisonous climate it has introduced. And, while God reports the effect, and even connects himself to it by way of primary causality, it is this sin and its poisonous climate that God spends the rest of scripture addressing and healing.
Thus the thought that this passage gives even tacit approval to the abuse of women cannot stand. Yet, some in the past may have invoked it as such, and some today, mainly feminists, critique it for such a possible misinterpretation.
That said, I have seen this passage strangely and sadly fulfilled in a small number of women who struggle with on-going issues of physical and emotional abuse by husbands and “boyfriends.” The vast majority of women are able to break free from physical abuse, unless and until the abusive man gets help to assuredly end his sinful behavior.
But there are a certain number of women I have met and counseled who habitually return to men who abuse them. In this, there is a kind of literal fulfillment of the text that her desire will be for her man, but he will (abusively) dominate her. There are, of course, many factors, such as low self esteem, poor family modeling, financial pressures and so forth.
Yet, one of the stranger and darker reasons I have gleaned from the women who return to abusers is caught up in the phrase, “your desire shall be to your husband.” There is something of a fine line between anger and passion, between a man who is virile and a “go-getter” and one who, on a dime, turns to anger and abuse. Powerful men are attractive to some women. Yet many (not all) powerful men are also aggressive and possessed of a temper. Their strength and their struggle are closely related. Many women intuitively know this, even if they have not consciously worked it all out. What they like in their man is closely related to what they hate and suffer from.
So, I am not so sure that every woman who returns to an abuser is simply lacking in self esteem or financially trapped etc. Some return knowing exactly what they are doing, despite counsel to the contrary. Their reasons are caught up in the complicated intersections of desire described above.
Please note dear reader that I am not reporting this with approval, I am simply observing it and trying to understand it. I, like most of you, would counsel a woman who is being physically abused to stay away unless and until the problem can be resolved. But some do not, and I cannot merely write them off as foolish for it.
But let us be clear, what ever the choice of the woman ultimately is, we cannot forget that the one who abuses is guilty of a great sin and in no way can the scriptures be seen to grant any approval whatsoever.
All of this makes me mindful of a very popular but dark song from the 1970s when I was in High School. It was by Jackson Brown and was called “You Love the Thunder.” My understanding of the words, in effect, have the man who is singing say to the woman, “You really like my anger (thunder) and my abuse (rain) and they’re really worth it, given what else you get with me.”
I remember being quite alarmed by the words and also troubled that no one else seem bothered. (Frankly, most of my High School peers never paid much attention to the words of songs, they just like the melodies. But I have always been very sensitive to the words). I also understand that the words can be interpreted differently by others. But I remain alarmed by the words seem at best arrogant, and at worse celebrating of anger and abuse.
Consider the darkness of these words:
You love the thunder and you love the rain
What you see revealed within the anger is worth the pain
And before the lightning fades and you surrender
You’ve got a second to look at the dark side of the man ….
You love the thunder, you love the rain
You know your hunger, like you know your name
I know you wonder how you ever came
To be a woman in love with a man in search of the flame
Draw the shades and light the fire
For the night, it holds you and it calls your name
And just like your lover knows your desire
And the crazy longing that time will never tame…
These words are, to me, an “affirmation” of Genesis 3:16, but a Genesis 3:16 that is frozen there, having made no progress out of the climate of sin that caused it. Yet Jesus came to heal that and restore God’s original plan for marriage where a man clings to his wife in love and out of his delight says “She is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Loving the thunder and lightning (i.e. what they represent) is not the way forward, it is backward.
So, no, God does not approve or affirm the abuse of women, or of men for that matter. God points to it, only to set about healing it.
How say you?
In The Second Chapter of Exodus, we have presented the Story of Moses and how he was prepared by God for the great mission he would one day take up, by God grace, that of delivering and leading the Jewish people to freedom and toward the Promised Land. But as we shall see, Moses’ preparation is anything but uneventful. God must prepare him in a crucible of sorts and also lead him to a greater humility prior to his great mission. It is not an easy preparation. Let’s look to the purposeful preparation of the Man named Moses.
I. Family situation - At the Chapter opens, we read: Now a man from the house of Levi went and took to wife a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. And when she could hide him no longer she took for him a basket made of bulrushes, and daubed it with bitumen and pitch; and she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds at the river’s brink. And his sister stood at a distance, to know what would be done to him. (Ex 2:1-4)
Thus we have the dramatic opening of the birth of Moses with a death sentence over his head. Pharaoh has ordered the death of every Hebrew boy saying to the midwives, When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live (Exodus 1:16). Moses is thus slated to die on account of murderous greed, royal injustice, and the fearful assent of others.
But look again! And see the focus on women and their initiative in this chapter. Moses’ mother, his sister and Pharaoh’s daughter are all mentioned as standing in the gap against the injustice of their day. It is interesting that men are not mentioned!
This provides a key insight into the ways of God. In situations of oppression it is often the weakest who show themselves most powerful, and that, in weakness, power often reaches perfection. Perhaps this is because the weak and powerless have the least to lose and are the least invested in the “way things are.” And thus Scripture teaches of how our weakness opens the door to God’s strength:
- But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:27 )
- Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:8 )
As we shall see, this insight will be important for Moses in years to come when he is forty years of age. For in his strength he will be too “strong” to be used by God. God will first need to humble and age him, weaken his human power, to make him useful.
But for now simply note the strong stock from which Moses comes. His mother and aunt make a daring and risky move, and prove themselves resourceful in the midst of a depraved and wicked situation. They will resist evil, but not by adopting evil’s tactics, rather by making what will amount to a daring raid, a stealthy incursion, in to the very source of evil, Pharaoh’s own household.
It would seem that Moses’ mother must have informed him of his Hebrew origins at some point for Scripture says elsewhere:
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. (Heb 11:24-27)
And while it involves some conjecture, we can almost imagine his mother, serving as his caretaker in pharaoh’s palace teaching him: Son, this is who you really are and don’t you forget it. Don’t be fooled by all this power and money, by all these trappings. Remember your people and consider that God has saved you for a reason and has a plan for your life.
Yes, we ought to know that Moses came from strong stock, and even if we have to read between the lines, it is clear that Moses had a strong and daring mother and family.
Lets read on.
II. Fantastic Sovereignty - Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, and her maidens walked beside the river; she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to fetch it. When she opened it she saw the child; and lo, the babe was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away, and
nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. 10 And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son; and she named him Moses, for she said, “Because I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2:5-10)
In some ways the action of these women shows both desperation and decisiveness. Floating Moses downstream is quite chancy but notice the mother and daughter monitor the situation to see what will come, and be able to respond to whatever occurs. Hence they remain actors in the drama not merely hapless victims of the situation.
Note too, the similarities to the story of Noah and the Ark and also the Cross cannot be overlooked:
- A wooden ark covered with pitch
- Moses floats to salvation on the very waters that meant death for others.
- God is sovereign in that he works his purposes out despite human sinfulness and stubbornness. In fact, he even uses human sin to accomplish his purposes.
- Human sin becomes the launching pad for divine action.
Note the list of ironies and divine sovereignty we can observe in this short
- Pharaoh’s chosen instrument of destruction (the Nile) is the means for saving Moses.
- The women who are “allowed to live” sonce Pharaoh’s death sentence did not include them, (presumably because they as less a threat) now proceed to oppose Pharaoh and deal a serious blow to his plans of suppression
- The mother of Moses saves him by following Pharaoh’s order (with a twist). Moses is cast into the water as ordered, but on the wood of a kind of ark or cross.
- A member of Pharaoh’s own family undermines his policies and saves the very person who will ultimately defeat Pharaoh.
- Egyptian royalty (through Pharaoh’s daughter) heeds a Hebrew girl’s advice and receives the seed of it’s own destruction
- Moses’ mother gets paid from Pharaoh’s own budget to do what she most wants to do (nurture her son).
- Moses is educated to be an Israelite leader within the very court of Pharaoh.
- Pharaoh’s daughter gives Moses a name that is prophetic: true she drew from the water, but Moses would draw Israel out of the water too!
Yes, God has initiated through these women, a daring raid on the lair of evil, Pharaoh’s palace, and placed and agent, a savior there who will be prepared by Pharaoh’s own court for its eventual downfall. Indeed, though we know little of these years from the Exodus account, Scripture later tells us, through St. Stephen’s speech in Acts of the glory of Moses’ upbringing in the Court of Pharaoh:
At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for by his family.When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son.Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action. (Acts 7:20-22)
Yes, Pharaoh was teaching and preparing his own nemesis. He was preparing his own downfall. You might call this the “fantastic sovereignty” of God.
III. False Start - So things are well underway for deliverance for the Hebrews. But then comes a twist, a kind of development in the plot that warns us not to get out ahead of God. The text says, One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together; and he said to the man that did the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow?” He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh, and stayed in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well. (Ex. 2:11-15)
The problem here is that Moses appoints himself. The Hebrew man may be rude and in the wrong but he speaks rightly, asking, Who made you a prince and a judge over us? And of course the answer is, “no one has.” God has not yet spoken to Moses as he will later do. Moses is out ahead of God. Moses tries to save his people without God. This is pride and presumption.
This is at the heart of the matter. God needs to work with Moses for forty
more years before he is ready.
We cannot avoid the clear indictment that Moses is a murderer. Despite feeling righteousness indignation well up within him, he has no right to kill.
It remains a truth that our most of our Biblical heroes have “pasts” and struggled with sin and weakness in their lives. We are dealing with human beings here, not epic heroes. We see in Genesis with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rachel, Leah, et al., all of them had “issues.” Looking ahead, we shall see other examples, David. Elijah, Jonah, Peter, Paul, just to name a few. Regarding Moses, Imagine God making a past murderer the great leader of his people!
And thus, God will use whom he will use, even those with a past and those who have had great struggles.
But as for now, Moses has gotten out ahead of God, and in his pride commits the sin of murder. Scripture says elsewhere of Moses’ error: [Moses] supposed that his brethren understood that God was granting them deliverance through him, but they did not understand (Acts 7:25). And indeed, why should they? God has revealed no such thing to them yet, and has not yet sent Moses to them.
Let us be clear, Moses, at age 40, in his prime, is too strong and too proud for God to use. God seeks the weak and humble, those who will depend on him. Thus Moses needs purification and preparation in the desert, where he must now flee. For forty years, God will work with him, and when Moses is finally weak and humble enough, not trusting in his own power, then God will finally call him. For now, he must stand down.
Pay attention dear reader. Too many of us also get out ahead of God. Too many of us also undertake tasks that God has not given or has said, “not yet” to. Troubles and burdens, even grave sins can come when we get out of or ahead of God’s will.
IV. Formative Sojourning - And Thus Moses flees to the desert where God will purify and prepare him for something he cannot handle right now. The text says, Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters; and they came and drew
water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. The shepherds came and drove them away; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock. When they came to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come so soon today?” They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “And where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.” And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. She bore a son, and he called his name Gershom; for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” (Exodus 2:16-22)
Moses will now live humbly. He will have a desert experience. He will learn to
shepherd. He will raise a family. He will learn patience and, with age, his own limits.
The paradox of all this is that God seeks us in our humility more than our strength. Without humility we are dangerous and God cannot use us. Finally in forty years, when Moses is 80, leaning on a cane, and of stammering speech, God will finally say, “Now I can use you, for now you will rely on my power, not yours.”
V. Foreseeing Strategy - The text of Exodus 2 concludes: In the course of those many days the king of Egypt died. And the people of Israel groaned under their bondage, and cried out for help, and their cry under bondage came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the people of Israel, and God knew their condition. (Ex 2:22-25)
In a strange way God has almost been in the background up to this point. Now
finally he is disclosed and described as one who hears, remembers, sees and knows the condition of his people.
We know from what follows and also from what we have already discussed, God
is not a passive observer here. He has been laying the groundwork for the deliverance of his people and is working his purposes out. All this time God has been silently at work.
Moses the deliverer was snatched from the waters, educated and prepared in Pharaoh’s own courts, by Pharaoh’s finest. Moses has had his pride humbled, and his human strength replaced by divine dependance through a forty year purification in the desert. And now the deliverer of Israel is finally ready.
Chapter three will show some need to grow in trust, But Moses is now ready and the deliverance shall commence.
And as for Moses, there was operative for him those forty years in the desert the words of an old Gospel Song:
God is preparing me.
He’s preparing me for something
I cannot handle right now;
He’s making me ready just because He cares.
He’s providing me with what I need
to carry out the next matter in my life.
He’s maturing me
He’s arranging me
He is training me
He is tuning me
He is purging me
He is pruning me
That comes in my life
That’s Moses’ Story. How about yours?
This marvelous feast is not merely about something that took place two thousand years ago. For, though Christ our head has ascended, we the members of his body are ascending with him. Since he was ascended, we too have ascended. In my own life, as a Christian, I am brought higher every year by the Lord who is drawing me up with him. This is not some mere slogan, but something I am actually experiencing. An old song says, I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained with sin, sinking to rise no more. But he master of the sea, heard my despairing cry. And from the waters lifted me. Now safe am I. Love Lifted me, When nothing else could help. Love lifted me!
Yes, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension is our feast too, if we are faithful. Let’s look at it from three perspectives.
I. The Fact of the Ascension. – The readings today describe a wondrous event that the Apostles witnessed. The Lord, by his own power is taken to heaven. In so doing he opens a path for us too. The gates of paradise swing open again: Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in! (Psalm 24:7). In Christ, man returns to God. Consider three things about the Ascension:
A. The Reality – Imagine the glory of this moment. Scripture says, As they were looking on, he was lifted up and cloud took him from their sight….they were looking intently in the sky as he was going (Acts 1:9). So impressive was the sight that the angels had to beckon them to get along to Jerusalem as the Lord had said, Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven (Acts 1:11). Yes, it was glorious. Jesus had once said as a summons to faith, What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (John 6:62). He had also encouraged them saying: Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1:51) So here is a glorious reality, and a fulfillment of what Jesus had said.
B. The Rescue – In the Ascension, it does not seem that the Lord entered heaven alone. As we have remarked, in his mystical body we also ascend with him. But consider too this remarkable text that affirms that: Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men. In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:8ff). Yes, the Lord had earlier, just after his death, descended to Sheol and awakened the dead and preached the gospel to them (cf 1 Peter 4:6). And now, for those he had justified, came the moment ascend with Jesus as a “host,” as an army of former captives, now set free. Behold the great procession that enters behind Christ through the now opened gates of heaven: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac Jacob, Rachel, Judith, Deborah, David, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, John the Baptist….and one day you! Yes this is a great rescue. Adam and his descendants have not simply been restored to some paradisaical garden, they have entered heaven.
C. The Rejoicing – Consider how, this once captive train, sings exultantly as they follow Christ upward to heaven. The liturgy today puts before us a likely song they sang: God mounts his throne to shouts of Joy! The Lord amid trumpet blasts. All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness, for the Lord the most high, the awesome is the great king over all the earth. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne (Psalm 47:6-7). I also have it on the best of authority that they were singing an old gospel song: I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me! Yes I also have it on the best of authority that they were even singing an old Motown song: Your love is lifting me higher, than I’ve ever been lifted before!
Yes, Here are some glorious facets of the Ascension.
II. The Fellowship of the Ascension – We have already remarked that, when Christ ascends, we ascend. Why and how? Scripture says, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). It also says, All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. By baptism we were buried together with him so that Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might live a new and glorious life. For if we have been united with him by likeness to his death we shall be united with him by likeness to his resurrection (Rom 6:3ff). So, when Christ died we died. When Christ rose, we rose. When He ascends, we ascend.
But you may say, he is in glory, but I am still here, how is it that I am ascended or ascending? Consider a humorous example about our physical bodies. When I get on an elevator and punch the button for the top floor, the crown of my head gets there before the soles of my feet. But the whole body will get there unless some strange loss of integrity or tragic dismemberment takes place. So in an analogous way it is with Jesus’ Jesus mystical body. In Christ our head we are already in glory. Some members of his body have already gotten there. We who come later will get there too, provided we stay a member of the Body. Yes we are already ascended in Christ our head. We are already enthroned in glory with him, if we hold fast and stay a member of his Body. This is the fellowship of the Ascension.
III. The Fruitfulness of the Ascension – Jesus does not return to heaven to abandon us. He is more present to us than we are to ourselves. He is with us always to the end of the age (cf Matt 28:20). But in Ascending, without abandoning us, he goes to procure so very important things. Consider four of them:
A. Holy Ghost power – Jesus teaches very clearly that he is ascending in order to send us the Holy Spirit: Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (Jn 16:7ff) He also says, These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (Jn 14:25ff). And yet again, I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (Jn 16:13-14). So the Lord goes, that he might, with the Father, send the Holy Spirit to live within us as in a temple. In this way, and through the Eucharist, he will dwell with us even more intimately than when he walked this earth.
B. Harvest – Jesus says, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (John 12:32). While the immediate context of this verse is the crucifixion, the wonder of John’s gospel is that is that he often intends double meanings. Clearly Christ’s glorification is his crucifixion, but it also includes his resurrection and ascension. So, from his place in glory, Christ is drawing all people to himself. He is also bestowing grace on us from his Father’s right hand to be his co-workers in the harvest: But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Yes, from his place in glory, Christ is bringing in a great harvest, as he said in Scripture: Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (Jn 4:35-38). Harvest! And it is the Lord’s work from heaven in which we participate.
C. Help – At the Father’s right hand Jesus intercedes for us. Scripture says, Consequently he is able, for all time, to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives always to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25). The Lord links his ascension to an unleashing of special power: Amen, amen, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (Jn 14:12).
It is true, we must not understand asking in the name of Jesus as a mere incantation, for to ask in his Name means to ask in accord with his will. And yet, we must come to experience the power of Jesus to draw us up to great and wondrous things in his sight. Despite the mystery of iniquity all about us, we trust that Christ is conquering, even in the puzzling and apparent victories of this world’s rebellion. We read, In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Though, at present we do not see everything subject to him, yet we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor….so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:8-9; 14-15). Thus, from heaven we have the help of the Lord’s grace which, if we will accept it, is an ever present help unto our salvation.
D. Habitation – Simply put, Jesus indicates that in going to heaven he is preparing a place for us: In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn 14:2ff) Yes, indeed, He has the blueprints out, and a hard hat on. He is overseeing the construction of a mansion for each of us that we may dwell with him, the Father and the Spirit forever.
Here then are the ways that Christ, by his love is lifting us higher, than we’ve ever been lifted before. Yes, love lifted me, when nothing else could help, Love lifted me.
Here’s a modernized version:
Charisms are a type of grace which God gives to individuals for ministry, for service. As such, they are not so much given to the individual for the individual’s sake, but for the sake of others. St. Thomas calls the charisms gratia gratis data. (grace freely given). These graces given “freely” in the sense that they are not given to the individual on account of some merit, or as some personal reward that God bestows. Rather, God bestows these gifts “freely” on certain individuals, for the sake of the wider community, and for that benefit, rather than because the individual receiving the grace particularly deserves it.
Therefore, some receive the gift to preach, some to teach, some receive great musical or artistic skills. Still others have a kind of genius of some technical expertise, some are magnificent problem solvers, others are great counselors, and so forth. Individuals receive gifts such as these for the sake of the Church, and even the wider community. And again, it is fundamentally for the sake of others that God bestows these gifts on individuals.
It is certainly true, that if an individual uses their charisms, their gifts, well and generously, they can be the path to holiness. But frankly, not everyone with charisms does this well. And God does not necessarily remove the gift on account of that. This is because, as we have emphasized, he gives it primarily for the sake of others.
Most of us have had the experience of perhaps being greatly blessed by the gifts that someone had, only to discover later that they were real scoundrels! This does not deny the fact that they had the gift. Only they did not apparently benefit them personally. Just because someone sings well does not mean they are a saint. The same is true for preaching, teaching etc.
Those who have charisms, and we all have them, must be careful not to become egotistical, and arrogant about them. They are given by God freely, not because we are particularly deserving, or somehow better than others. If anything, the presence of a charism should be a source of humility for us. And it should make us realize that we have the gift for the sake of others, not for our own glory.
And realizing this, we must accept the implication of generously using our gifts for the sake of the others, for whom they are ultimately intended. In so doing, we respect the fact that the gift does not belong to us, but ultimately to God. And thus we must use the gift as God intended, namely for others, not for our own glory.
The charisms are distinct from sanctifying grace (gratia gratum faciens) which is given to us for own sake. Sanctifying Grace is the grace that God gives us to make us pleasing to him, to make us holy. But as we have already seen, the charisms and have a rather different intention and purpose.
And now to the video. As a video opens we see a violinist, in the town square. He seems a bit down on his luck, and begins to play, hoping to get a few coins.
Frankly, his talent is only average, but it is a talent, it is a charism. It is not utterly wrong for those with charisms to in some way benefit financially from them. Scripture says elsewhere, the laborer deserves his wage (1 Tim 5:18). And in that passage, St. Paul with speaking of preachers, and preaching is certainly a charism. So our violinist is using his gift, hoping perhaps for a little extra money.
Things get dark very quickly however. A sinister figure, quite clearly the devil, enters the scene and tempts the man to gravely misunderstand his charism.
In effect, the devil, tempts the man’s vanity (vainglory), tempts the violinist to think that his gift is really only for his glory, for his self aggrandizement. He tempts the violinist to think that his charism exists only for himself, and his own glory, rather than for the good and building up of others.
He offers our average violinist a potion that will make him a great virtuoso, and he will have fame and glory all for his own sake rather than for others. Yes, his charism will become all about him, and him alone.
The violinist eagerly takes the potion and drinks it down. In so doing, he has failed to read the warning on the bottle that says of indulging his fantasy and his egocentric dream: “You will have to pay for it later.”
And as he drinks, suddenly his dream is realized. He is on a stage, all by himself, and he is a virtuoso. His brief playing brings a thunderous applause.
It is interesting, he’s an absolute soloist. He is not even part of a larger Symphony Orchestra with a solo part, he is all alone on stage. His glory is shared with no one. It really is all about him.
Quickly, his sample dream is over, and he is presented again by the devil with a chance for more personal glory. He eagerly grasps the potion, once again ignoring the warning that he will have to pay for it, and eagerly drinks it.
The video ends with the man all alone in the desert with his violin. He can play all he wants, but there is no one to hear him. He’s quite alone, no one will applaud.
And thus the full payment is exacted when we live only for ourselves, and care only for our own glory. And what is the payment? We end up quite alone When we live only for ourselves, we ultimately get what we want, only ourselves. We end up in a lonely, isolated hell. The payment, is to get exactly what we want. And getting what we want, rather than what God wants is hell.
God gives us charisms for the sake of others. If we understand them properly, we will give him the glory, and use them to relate to others, to bless others, to live for and with others also enjoying their charisms. And if we do this, our charisms, given to us not for our sake, can interact with the sanctifying grace that is given to us for our own sake. But if we do not use them this way, they can lead to our downfall.
Quite a little video actually one the powerfully illustrates it in the end, Hell is to get what we want, rather than what God wants. And one path to Hell is to live only for our own glory, and what want we will get. But the only problem is, we will go to a place filled with a lot of other egocentric people. And the “kingdom” we inherit, will be an awfully tiny kingdom, the kingdom of one, the kingdom of our own sorry, selfish self.
The video ends in hell, and this sort of hell is very lonely place.
In the Gospel for the Thursday of this 6 week of Easter, there is a phrase that goes back and forth between Jesus and the apostles 3 times, the phrase says, “
A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later you will see me. (John 16:16)
That this phrase is repeated three times in the short course of eight verses, means it is significant for us, and we ought to ponder it. For, there is a kind of “sacrament” to seeing. Yes, the Lord asks us to ponder what it means to see, and he calls us to move deeper, and to develop a kind of interiority that understands seeing beyond the demands of the flesh, and the merely physical act of seeing.
By “flesh” here, we mean flesh in the biblical sense, not as our physical bodies per se. The flesh, (sarx) is the biblical word for our sinful and fallen nature, a nature that is rebellious, and seeks everything only on its own terms. It is that part of us that is alienated from God, averse to the truth, it is that part of us that does not want to have a thing to do with God or the spiritual life.
As regards to seeing, the flesh demands to see only on his own terms. But the flesh will only regard the physical, and will not see, and thus denies, the metaphysical, the mysterious, the spiritual.
And therefore, the Lord summons us to something far deeper, saying, In a little while you will no longer see me. While some may wish to simply read this mechanistically as a reference to the fact that he would be three days in the tomb, as is always the case with John, and Scripture in general, we must look to deeper meanings, even if the text has an historical fulfillment. This text speaks not only to a situation 2000 years ago, but it also speaks to us.
And thus, the Lord teaches them and us, that we must become accustomed to seeing him no longer according to the flesh, merely, but we must learn to see him, mystically, in the sacraments, and in the deep moments of our prayer. We must also learn to see him in the face of the infant, the poor, our beloved family, even our enemies.
And so the Lord says, In a little while you will no longer see me, That is, you will no longer see me in the way you have been accustomed to see me, according merely to the flesh, according to my physical appearance in the physical world.
And then he says, a little later, you will see me. And here too, while this refers historically, to the resurrection, it must also speak to us. And both to the disciples, 2000 years ago, and to us, this text means more than the resurrection appearances. It means that, but it also means that we will learn to see him, in the Breaking of the Bread, we will learn to experience in the Eucharist, and mystically in our prayer, and throughout our day. Yes, our spirit must come alive with mystical vision, with the seeing beyond the flesh, and according to the spirit.
Again, we must be very sober, realizing that our flesh demands to see him on its own terms. It demands that our retinas be lit up with physical light waves. But God will not be seen simply on our own terms, for, in his Divine nature, He is pure spirit and will not be seen by merely fleshly eyes. His effects in the physical order are clearly seen, to those who have eyes to see it. But even here, many deny the obvious evidence that creation shouts the creator, and design, bespeaks the designer. Indeed, order requires one to order it reasonably and intelligently. But many simply refuse to see this, even though this evidence is plainly available even to our fleshly eyes.
If that be the case with our fleshly seeing, how much more is spiritual seeing difficult for the flesh to accept. But that is what the Lord Jesus is summoning us to in this passage. He is saying to us in effect,
In a little while you will no longer go on seeing me as you have been accustomed to seeing me. I am passing into the mysteries, into the sacraments, and you must learn to see me there, and to experience my power and presence. But I am no less present to you that I have been in your fleshly seeing. In fact, I am more present to you than ever, for I have been glorified in my humanity, and am now more present to you than ever before.
To our flesh, to our fallen sinful and rebellious human nature, to that part of us that only prizes the physical, the material, and the temporal, such an invitation is an insult! Again, as we have already stated, the flesh desires to see on its own terms, and it resents the journey that it must make out of the physical and into the spiritual. It resists this spiritual journey at every step, at every stage. It idolizes the material, and the physical.
And thus, the battle is engaged! The demand of the flesh to see on its own terms versus the desire of the spirit to see on God’s terms, to look beyond the merely physical and to see deeper into the mystical, and the truer meaning of all things.
A few thoughts, on the sacrament of seeing, both physical and spiritual.
1. Our strengths are our struggles. One of the great glories of the human person is our capacity to see. Of all the five senses, vision is the most acute. The animals with which I have associated, mostly dogs and cats, navigate the world more by smell than by sight. This is especially with dogs, which have long olfactory bulbs, but even with cats and most other mammals. Seeing seems quite secondary, it is smell which mostly informs their interaction with the world.
But with we human beings, vision is king. Our acute vision, has enabled us to see out to the stars, and also into the tiniest bits of inner space. Our vision is also given rise to glorious art, and intricate forms of communication involving letters and words, and the picture, which is 1000 words. Yes, for us, the world is lit up with meaning.
But our strength is also our struggle. For faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), and the obedience that accepts what is heard. Scripture says we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). This stabs at the heart of our most precious sense. Too many of us are from Missouri, the “show-me state.” We say “seeing is believing!” But in reality, seeing is only seeing. And when we do in fact see, that in no way guarantees that we will believe at all. I’ve been to many a magic show and watch these illusionists pull off things that seem quite miraculous. I do not conclude that they are gods. I figure they have some way of doing that. Seeing is only seeing, is not believing.
Scripture is right, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. It is only by the hearing of faith, that we learn to see the world as it really is. Though we prize seeing so highly, our eyes easily deceive us. Optical illusions are one of the simplest things to pull off. The Internet is filled with optical illusions, entertainment halls are filled with magicians, etc. Though we glory in our eyes, they are very easily deceived.
But because we glory in our ability to see, because our capacity to see is our most powerful of the five senses, our flesh finds it difficult to believe. Our strength, is our struggle. Demanding to see on fleshly terms, we close our minds and hearts to the deeper realities. Our fleshly eyes see only the physical, which is only the surface. But the truer reality and mystery meaning of all things is deeper in the metaphysical world of meaning, of purpose, of formal and final causality. The the flesh scoffs at all this and will only accept the physical, and what is on the surface. Thus, our strength, our glorious capacity to see, becomes our struggle, our weakness.
2. Some biblical illustrations. In recording the saying of Jesus that, “In a little while you will no longer see me. Later you will see me again” the Scriptures themselves give portraits of the necessary transition from merely fleshly, and physical seeing to spiritual insight.
For example, most of the apostles and disciples who saw the risen Lord took some time to recognize him. Mary Magdalene only recognized him, upon hearing his voice call her name. Yes, faith comes by hearing. The disciples on the road to Emmaus also did not recognize the Lord was walking right along with them! Scripture says, their eyes, that is the eyes of the flesh, were downcast. This does not likely mean they were simply sullen, but that their eyes were fleshly, looking down toward the world rather than up toward heaven and glory. But, hearing a word from the Lord, and having their hearts set on fire, they recognize him “in the breaking of the bread.” In this, the Lord teaches them by faith, that they were now no longer see them and merely earthly, and fleshly ways, but they will see him in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, they will experience him in the Word, in the liturgy of the Church, and in other ways.
Regarding the triumph of spiritual seeing over fleshly seeing, the Lord says, For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see, and those who see will become blind (John 9:39). Yet, those of this world prefer the darkness to the light (cf John 3:19).
The biblical verdict of the demand of the flesh to see on its own terms is a rather firm and general refusal. While God does grant occasional visions and miracles, the general insistence is that we believe in obedience to what is heard.
3. Presbyopia– as most of us age, our eyesight declines. Doctors call this presbyopia. The clarity of our youthful vision, gives way to the soft and blurry focus of age. In my own life, at age 40, my eyesight deteriorated rapidly. I needed no eyeglasses at all before 40, now at 52, I am crippled without them. I am incapable of even recognizing faces. At best, I can discern general shapes and contours, but I cannot even read large signs; Presbyopia.
But there is something of a sacrament in this decline in eyesight. For, as our eyesight declines, our glorious certitude in everything that we think, is also humbled a bit. It often pertains to young people to be absolutely certain about what they think. As people age, they come to accept that absolute certitude in many things, (other than revealed truth), in a world filled with mysteries, is prideful. There is a kind of a wisdom that comes with accepting that there is much that we do not know or understand.
Young people claim to know a few things. With the wisdom of age comes the insight that we do know only a very few things, and that things often have deeper meanings and we often first appreciated.
The very word, “insight” describes a capacity of wisdom to see deeper than what is apparent, and what is merely on the surface. To have insight, is “to see in,” to see inwardly, to see more deeply.
In a sense, for most of us, especially those who walk with faith, as our physical eyes decline, our spiritual vision, and the wisdom of insight grows. The world that is passing away becomes blurry to us, we see its apparent certainties less clearly, and we learn a kind of interiority. We see more deeply, and beyond the merely surface and physical, because, in a way we have to! Deeper spiritual vision grows within, as our fleshly eyes begin to fail us.
Allow a humorous example. When I counsel young couples getting ready to get married, they usually come to me youthful, they are sound and sleek. The brides are so pretty and they look with love to their handsome groom. But with glee, at my 52 years of age, I like to remind them that their physical attractiveness is going to head south. They will gain weight, and other less appealing things will manifest! But, I tell them, God has a plan! It is his will, that as our physical attractiveness declines, he also, wills that our eyes grow dim with the presbyopia, the blindness of old age. Thus, we do not notice how physically less attractive we have become! But of course, our problem in the modern world, is it we’ve overruled God and invented eyeglasses. Of course, I say all this in good humor and do not suggest we not wear eyeglasses.
But my point is simply this, that ideally as we age, we are less focused on and obssessed with physical appearances, and more able to see the inner beauty of people. Yes, if we are faithful, we begin to see the magnificent mystery of every human person, that every one of us was known and loved by God before we were ever made or formed in our mother’s womb (cf Jeremiah 1:5). Yes, we begin to see the beauty and the magnificence, the mystery and the glory of human life. Here is the insight, and in a way, it requires that our fleshly sight be dulled and overruled by a deeper spiritual insight which comes from interiority and Spirit of God within us.
4. Contemplative prayer–from the Carmelite tradition of St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross, comes the also biblical teaching that, as prayer deepens, we move beyond images, words and other discursive and mediated forms of prayer, and we moved towards immediate and deeper forms of contemplative prayer.
Contemplative prayer is a manner of relating to God beyond images, words, or any discourse at all, it is an immediate and ineffable union with God, (cor ad cor loquitur), heart speaking to heart, without words being necessary or vision, even imagined vision required. It is a deep union, beyond sight, beyond words.
The idolatry of fleshly seeing is being put to death, as we move toward deep and mystical vision, and insight beyond the senses. Paradoxically, the true contemplative, and true mystic, does not become utterly blind to this world of senses. But now, by this gift, the contemplative and mystic sees everything and everyone in this world more deeply, mystically, and more richly. Now everything is seen to reveal God.
The true mystic does not simply see God on the pages of the Bible, he sees him, beyond fleshly seeing, in the sacraments, in the beauty of the human person, in creation, in the events and moments of daily life.
Here then is mystical vision, not seeing things as they simply and physically appear. Rather it is seeing that everything, everyone has deeper meaning, is caught up in God, caught up in his love, and his will. God is encountered everywhere, in everything, and everyone. The true mystic is able to fulfill Paul’s edict of praying always (Eph 6:18), not by sitting in a chapel, but by being in living, conscious contact with God at every moment of the day. As this begins to happen, insight, the unfolding of mystery, becomes our daily fare and our eyes become truly open to the deeper reality of all things. As the seeing of the flesh dies, seeing of the Spirit, and in a spiritual way comes alive.
And thus Jesus says, in a little while you will no longer see me, but later, he will see me again…and your hearts will rejoice.
Think of these beautiful windows in the video. They are but sand and lead. Yet, having been subjected to the fire (of God’s love) they have been transformed to radiate (by Christ the light of the world) and communicate the deeper reality of the paschal mystery into the interior of a mausoleum, where I took the photos. Light and life shine in the midst of those whose eyes have closed but will reopen, gloriously transformed.
One of the graces of deeper prayer, if we persevere through the years, is that the Lord to turn us upward and outward. And, gradually our prayer turns more toward God and is less anxious about our own aches and pains. For now, it is enough to give them to God and trust his providence. Gradually, we simply prefer to experience the Lord quietly, in increasingly wordless contemplation. God draws us to a kind of silence in prayer as we advance along its ways. But that silence is more than an absence of sound, but instead results from us being turned more toward God. An old monastic tale from, I know not where, says:
Sometimes there would be a rush of noisy visitors and the silence of the monastery would be shattered. This would upset the disciples; but not the Abbot, who seemed just as content with the noise as with the silence. To his protesting disciples he said one day, “Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self.”
Yes, as prayer deepens and becomes more contemplative the human person is turned more to God and a kind of holy silence becomes private prayer’s more common pattern. This does not mean nothing is happening, the soul has communion with God, but it is deeper than words or images. It is heart speaking to heart (cor ad cor loquitur). This is a deep communion with God that results from our being turned outward again to God. And the gift of silence comes from resting in God, from being less focused on ourselves, more and more on God: Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with (holy) fear and trembling stand, ponder nothing earthly minded….. Yes, there is a time for intercessory prayer, but not now. Don’t just do something, stand there. Don’t rush to express, rest to experience. Be still, know that He is God. An old spiritual says, Hush….Somebody’s callin’ my name. Yes, pray for and desire holy silence, praying beyond words and images. Here are the beginnings of contemplative prayer.
St. Paul speaks of the unspeakable quality of deep prayer as well, though his experience likely goes beyond what we call contemplative prayer:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. (2 Cor 12:2-4)
Yes, it is “un-sayable,” words fail. St. Augustine was said to remark of the Christian mysteries: If you don’t ask me I know. If you ask me, I don’t know.
Another gift that is given to those who are experiencing deeper prayer is a sense of spaciousness and openness. As the soul is less turned inward and increasingly turned outward, it makes sense that one would experience a kind of spaciousness. Those who have attained to deeper prayer often speak of this. Scripture does as well. Consider some of the following passages:
- For the Lord has brought me out to a wide-open place. He rescued me because he was pleased with me. (Ps 18:19)
- I called on the LORD in distress: the LORD answered me, and set me in a large place. (Ps 118:5)
- The Lord brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. (2 Sam 22:20)
- You have not handed me over to the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place. (Psalm 31:8)
- Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness: you have enlarged me when I was in distress; have mercy on me, and hear my prayer (Ps 4:1)
- And I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts. (Psalm 119:45)
- And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth (a Hebrew word which means latitude or width), saying, “For now the LORD has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” (Gen 26:22)
See how consistently this spaciousness is mentioned. As we are turned outward and upward to God we soon enough experience the spaciousness, and latitude of knowing God. No longer pressed and confined by the experience of being turned inward (curvatus in se), the soul has room to breathe. Many people who begin to experience contemplative prayer, though not able to reduce the experience to words, express an experience of the the spaciousness of God. But this spaciousness is more than a physical sense of space. It is a sense of openness, of lightness, of freedom from burden and from being pressed down, it is an experience of relief. But again, all who experience it agree, words cannot really express it well.
Yes, here too is a gift of deepening prayer to be sought: spaciousness, and that openness that comes from being turned outward and upward by God. An old Spiritual says, My God is so high, you can’t get over him, He’s so low, you can’t get under him, he so wide, you can’t get round him. You must come IN, by and through the Lamb.
Two gifts of the deeper prayer we call contemplative prayer, prayer which moves beyond words and images, beyond the self to God Himself.
It is generally presumed, at least among those who believe in God and the afterlife, that everyone naturally wants to go to heaven.
But of course, “Heaven” is usually understood in a sort of self-defined way. In other words heaven is a paradise of my own design, the place is perfect as I think perfect should be. Yes, for most people, their conception of heaven is merely what they think it should be, and this usually includes things like: golf courses, seeing my relatives and friends, there are my own self-selected pleasures, and the absence of struggles such as losing a job or saying farewell.
Thus, the heaven that most people have in mind is a designer heaven it and is built on the rather egocentric notion that whatever makes me happy is what heaven will be.
The problem with this thinking is that heaven is not of our own design, or merely what we think it should be. Heaven is the kingdom of God and all of its fullness. In heaven are fulfilled and realized all the values of the kingdom of God, values such as mercy, justice, truth, love, compassion, chastity, forgiveness, and so forth.
Further, heaven is consistently described in the Scriptures in liturgical terms, as a place, and a reality rooted in praise and worship. It is a place of prayer and adoration. In all of this is our true happiness, the heart of heaven is to be with God forever, and to be caught up in the beauty of his presence and of his truth.
And heaven, is thus a place that is not merely happy in human terms, but is truly happy on God’s terms. Regarding the liturgical vision of heaven, and the values realized, experience and fulfilled there, it will be noted that many things on the list do not at all appeal to many people. Frankly, many people are dead set against things like the love of enemies, forgiveness, and chastity. Many to find the Mass, and all Church liturgy to be boring and irrelevant.
Imagine showing up at the gates of heaven only to discover that its heart is essentially the liturgy, and that is daily fair is not only hymns, candles, incense and praise, but also chastity, love, forgiveness, mercy and compassion, etc.
Many are averse to such things and even find them odious. God will not force such souls to inherit what they hate. Thus they are free to make other arrangements for eternity. Surely God must regret this deeply, but he has made us free and summoned us to love, and thus he respects, even reverences, our freedom.
But all this reflection, reminds us that heaven is something we must learn to love. It is like many of the finer things in life. Its appeal may not be immediate and obvious, but, having been trained in its ways we learn to love it very deeply.
It was this way for me and classical music. Its appeal was not immediately obvious to me, I was more enamored of driving rock beats and toe-tapping dance music. But gradually, through stages, classical music’s subtlety, beauty and intricacy began to speak to my soul, and I became more sensitive and aware of its majestic beauty. I learned to love symphonic music, and the magnificent patrimony of Gregorian Chant and sacred polyphony. And OH how it speaks to my soul now.
And so it is also of my soul with God and the things of God. Early in my life, my rebellious flesh was only averse to God and the parameters of his Kingdom. But now I have grown deeply to love the Lord, and appreciate the beauty and the wisdom of his truth. Yes, I am learning to love heaven. I love God, and the things of God, and the people God loves.
So it must be for us all, that we learn to love heaven. And for this purpose, the Lord left us His Church, like a caring mother, to teach us and lead us to learn to love the things of God, and of heaven. He also left us a sacred liturgy as a great foretaste, and his Word as a kind of blueprint describing what he loves and the architecture of the kingdom of love and truth. The Saints too blaze a trail ahead of us show us the way. In all of this God gives us a kind of pedagogy of the heavenly Kingdom and a healing remedy for our darkened intellects and hardened hearts.
But make no mistake, we must learn to love heaven, to love God and the things of God. And here we speak of the true God and the real heaven not a fake God, not some idol we have constructed for ourselves, but the true God and the true heaven which is his Kingdom and all his fullness. We must avail ourselves of his many helps and learn to love him and his kingdom.
If we think it is only natural to love heaven, we must become more sober. The fact is we have very obtuse spirits. We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. We tend to love that which is destructive and harmful. And even knowing that it is harmful we still tend to be attracted to it. We tend to esteem that which is foolish and passing, and to glamorize evil. We tend to call good or no big deal what God calls sinful. Yes, we are obtuse and up to 180 degrees out of phase with the Kingdom
GK Chesterton observes astonishing facts recorded in Scripture and Tradition:
The point of the story of Satan is not that he revolted against being in hell, but that he revolted against being in heaven. The point about Adam is not that he was discontented with the conditions of this earth, but that he was discontented with the conditions of paradise. (New York American, 12-15-1932)
If Satan revolted against heaven even while still in heaven and Adam preferred something to paradise while still in paradise, how much more should we be sober over the fact that we who have not yet seen paradise or heaven can easily despise or hold of little value the glory of God’s Kingdom.
Add to this that we live in a world that is utterly upside down, a world where we are not rich and what matters to God, a world which obsesses over passing and trivial things and pays little mind to eternal and heavenly things. Learning to love heaven can mean some pretty radical things. It means often being willing to be 180° out of phase with the world’s priorities and preoccupations.
To draw free of this and learn to love heaven requires an often painful journey on our part. And many are simply unwilling to make it, or to live out of phase with the world. Perhaps for this reason the Lord recorded with sadness, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Mat 7:13-14). Perhaps too we can understand why we need a savior: we are not only obtuse, but frankly not all that bright, and we like sheep tend to be wayward. Only with difficulty are we even willing to be shepherded.
Yes, we must make a journey and learn to love heaven,
Perhaps, to conclude, we might ponder a couple brief details from Simon Peter’s life. At the lakeside Jesus asked Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Jesus was seeking an agape love (ἀγαπᾷς με). Peter, with uncharacteristic honesty, at that stage, answered the Lord indicating he had only brotherly love (κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε). The triple dialogue seeking agape love ended with the Lord’s respectful acceptance that Peter had but brotherly love.
But the Lord also promised one day Peter would find agape love, one day Peter would finally learn to love heaven and the Lord above all things, above all people, above his very self. How? He had to make the journey and learn to love heaven.
And indeed, the Lord prophesied: When you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will lead you where you do not want to go. Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God (Jn 21:18-19)
But in order for that to happen, the world would have to be turned upside down for Peter. Peter would have to learn to see the world 180° differently than he did that day at the Lakeside. Of this we need to turn our lives over 180° GK Chesterton again writes very beautifully as he meditates that Peter was crucified upside down:
I’ve often fancied that [Peter's] humility was rewarded was rewarded by seeing in death the beautiful vision of the landscape as it really is: with the stars like flowers, and the clouds like hills and all men hanging on the mercy of God. (The Poet and the Lunatics Sheed and Ward p. 22)
Yes, learning to love heaven means learning to see the world as it really its, and to seem to the world to be upside down. But God’s ways are not our ways, his priorities are not our priorities. We have a lot of learning to do. At the end of the day heaven will not change to suit us (if it did it wouldn’t be heaven any more). So we must be changed for it, we must learn to love it even if that means being crucified upside down.
Help us Lord to desire heaven, to learn its ways, to learn of you and love you above all things.
N.B. The Chesterton insights came to me from a a fine book called The Complete Thinker by Dale Ahlquist.