Preparing our Hearts for Mystery in Advent

As we look toward Christmas and ponder the incarnation, we ought to remember that so profound was truth of the incarnation that the early Church fell to her knees at these words: “and He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, from the virgin Mary, and became man.” This act of falling to one’s knees at these words is still practiced in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite; in the ordinary form, we are asked to bow.

These gestures acknowledge the profound mystery of the truth of the Incarnation. How does the infinite enter the finite? How does He, whom the very heavens cannot contain, enter the womb of Mary. How can He, who holds all creation together in Himself, be held in Mary’s arms?

In modern times we tend to trivialize God. In this age of empiricism and science we want to fit Him into our categories. But God is not just one more thing in the universe (even if very big or powerful) — He is existence itself. Our feeble words betray more than bespeak Him. We know Him as unknown. Our words about Him, even if true, say more about what He is not than what He is.

To some degree the ancients grasped this better than we; they remained astounded at things like the Incarnation. We avoid the tension of this deep mystery by sentimentalizing it. We speak of “the baby Jesus” and sing sentimental songs. This is not wrong, but one wonders if we do this to avoid the astounding mystery and the tension that such mysteries and imponderables summon.

In a passage we will read this week in the Office of Readings, St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote of this mystery:

The very Son of God, older than the ages, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the incorporeal, the beginning of beginning, the light of light, the fountain of life and immortality, the image of the archetype, the immovable seal, the perfect likeness, the definition and word of the Father: he it is who comes to his own image and takes our nature for the good of our nature, and unites himself to an intelligent soul for the good of my soul, to purify like by like. He takes to himself all that is human, except for sin …. He who makes rich is made poor; he takes on the poverty of my flesh, that I may gain the riches of his divinity. He who is full is made empty; he is emptied for a brief space of his glory, that I may share in his fullness. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me? (Sermon, Oratio, 49)

We must all fall silent during Advent to ponder such things. There is a place for sentimentality, but wonder and awe — even shock — should also bring us to our knees. The cooing and crying of the little Infant is the same voice, the same Word that summoned creation into existence. It is an ineffable mystery, an unfathomable truth. And this Eternal Word made Flesh brings gifts to us at Christmas’ approach. An old song by St. Ambrose says,

O equal to thy Father, Thou,
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate
.

Hush, fall silent before the mystery; less analysis and more wonder and awe.

Five Advent Reflections

I am away in Florida preaching a retreat at Ave Maria University Parish. Below is a text that served as an outline for my first talk. I promised them I would post these notes for reference. I apologize if you may have read this just last year.

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The Following are “Five Advent Reflections”  I have prepared. If these interest you I have prepared them also in PDF format which you can get by clicking here: The Season of Advent

1. Advent is Witnessed by Creation  – Autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors then fade and fall. The shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. The warmth of summer and vacations seem distant memories and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the child-like excitement a winter storm can cause. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, of longing and of expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreathes and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our on-going commitment to come out of darkness into God’s own marvelous light. (cf 1 Peter 2:9). A Gospel Song says:  Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright.

2. Longing for Salvation – Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a longing and a yearning for this messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so the cry from Israel went up:

O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil…We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity for ever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people. (Is 64:1-7)

In Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come yet we know that sin and injustice still have their terrible effects in our lives and in our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to daily set us free. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us, now we long for him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of his glory and this brings us to the second important meaning of Advent. .

3. Waiting  for His Second Coming – Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. We say in the Creed, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. This truth flows directly from Scripture which teaches clearly two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second we cannot know the day or the hour that he will return. In fact, though some signs will precede his coming, the emphasis of Scripture falls upon the suddenness of the event:

  1. He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27),
  2. with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth (1 Th. 5:3)
  3. in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet (1 Cor 15:52).
  4. It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44),
  5. Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security!” (1 Th. 5:3).

Since this is to be the case we must live lives of readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect of the necessity of our readiness. Here too an Old Gospel Song sasy, Ready!? Are you ready? For the coming of the Lord? Likewise, a spiritual counsels, Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!

4. The Fire Next Time! – Some of the images of the last day, images of judgement and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider for example this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).

Some of the imagery used here reminds us of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation! But notice the complete message of this passage and others like it. The heavens and the earth as we know it will pass away but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heavens and a new earth” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness. An African-American Spiritual summarized the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter by these classic lines, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time. Here too, our first reaction to such phrases might be fear. But in the tradition of the spirituals, this fire was a fire of justice and truth that destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses this, God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days Alleluia! For the slaves, the Day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, a day of vindication and deliverance. And so it will be for us if we are ready. But what does it mean to be ready? To be ready is be living faithfully, holding to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. To be ready is to be living a holy life and a life of repentance. If we do this we have not only have nothing to fear about the Last Day, we eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

5. Remember, Repent, Rehearse – All these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come and that he has called us to the obedience of faith and promised he will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. And we rehearse for his second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom he finds watchful and ready. In a sense every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every mass the following prayer is said, Deliver us Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for his glorious return. Only he can deliver us, free us from our sin and remove anxiety about that day. Only he can give us joy and make us holy. We have but to yield to his saving work.

And this brings us back to where we started, longing and yearning for our savior. To yearn for him is to know how much we need him. To long for him is to constantly seek his face and call upon his name.  Therefore cry out with the Church, “Come Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price… He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)

A Recipe for Readiness – A Homily for the First Sunday of Advent

As we begin the Advent Season, we are immediately drawn into its principal theme of preparation and readiness for the coming of the Lord. His first coming has already been fulfilled at Bethlehem, and while we should prepare spiritually for the coming Christmas Feast, these first weeks of Advent bid us to focus even more on His second coming in glory.

As the curtains draw back on the opening scene of Advent, we are warned by the Lord that He will come on the clouds with great power and glory and that we must be prepared. He says, “Beware … Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Today’s Gospel is taken from the Mt. Olivet discourse. The historical context in which the Lord was speaking was not the end of the world, but the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. For those ancient Jews, however, it was the end of the world as they knew it. The destruction of Ancient Jerusalem is also symbolic of the end of the world. The world will end for us either by our own death or by His coming to us in the second coming. Either way, the message is the same: Be ready!

With that in mind we do well to study this Gospel and heed its message, set forth in two stages.

DOUBLE VISION – The Gospel opens with a description of tribulations that are about to come on the land and two different reactions to it.

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.

Many will be frightened, shocked, bewildered, and dismayed when fixed points in this world such as the sun, moon, stars, and sea are shaken,

There is a second reaction that is prescribed:

But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.

Yes, it is a very different reaction, one of expectant joy and serene confidence. So, we see here a kind of double vision.

  • Some cry out with fear and say, “He is wrathful!” Others with faith say, “He is wonderful!”
  • To some He is frightening, to others He is fabulous.
  • To some these events are awful, to others they are awe-inspiring.
  • Some shout, “Horror on every side!” others sing, “Hallelujah to the King of Kings!

In order for us to celebrate on that day when the Lord shall come, there are prerequisites that must be met. That leads us to the next stage of this Gospel.

DIRECTIVE The Lord goes on to instruct us in how to be ready for the great and terrible day of the Lord:

Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.

Notice that the Lord announces the effect (drowsiness) and then the causes (carousing, drunkenness, and anxieties of daily life). This is typical of ancient practice. In modern times, however, it is more common to speak of the causes and then describe the effects. Hence, we will proceed with our study in a slightly different order than that in which it was presented.

Cause 1: DEBAUCHERY The Lord warns of the problem of “carousing.” The Greek word used is κραιπάλῃ (kraipale), meaning most literally the giddiness and headache caused by drinking wine to excess. More generally it means the excessive indulgence of our passions or living life to excess. Other translators render the Greek word as “dissipation,” referring to the general squandering and loss of resources resulting from excessive indulgence.

We, of course, live in times that make it easy to (over)satisfy our every need. At the market there is not merely bread, there are fifty different types of bread. Our oversupply and overindulgence are literally reflected in our bodies: obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease plague us.

It is not just food that is excessive; it is everything. We are excessively busy with the nonessentials of life. There are innumerable ways to occupy our minds. Our minds are so overstimulated that we cannot hear that “still, small voice.” Most people have a very short attention span due to this overstimulation. All day long the noise from the radio, mp3 player, TV, DVD player, CD player, PC, iPad, and cell phone compete for our attention. It jams our mind and breaks our union with Christ and even with our very self. Then there are the 24-hour news channels generating hype about even ordinary events: “Breaking news!” Our e-mail is flooded with junk mail and spam, offering false hopes and products and services we don’t really need. There are endless money-making schemes, lotteries, and sweepstakes. And oh, the sales: Black Friday, Cyber Monday, pre-holiday, post-holiday! It makes me think of the carnival hucksters calling, “Step right up!” It is worse than that, though, because it seems we cannot get away from it.

We spend, spend, spend and then borrow, borrow, borrow to support our spending. We need two incomes and 60-hour work weeks so that we can afford our lifestyle. Once we have acquired “the goods,” we’re never there to enjoy them. We sacrifice family on the altar of pleasure. We have an excess of everything except children, because they cost money and thus impede our ability to consume.

Even our recreation is excessive. Our weekends and vacations often leave us exhausted, disquieted, and unprepared for the coming week. A simple, quiet weekend, spent reflecting on God’s wonders or spending time at home with family? No way! It’s off to watch the myriad activities of our overscheduled children. The weekends meant for rest instead feature distinctly unrestful activities such as shopping, dancing in loud bars, watching football games, and drinking.

Yes, it’s all excess. It weighs us down, wearies us, costs a lot of time and money, and isn’t really all that satisfying anyway. It is dissipation. In the end, we are left with something like that headache and hung-over feeling of which the Greek word kraipale speaks. Up goes the cry anyway: “One more round!” Excess, dissipation, carousing; more, more, more!

Cause 2: DIVISIONS The Lord warns of the “anxieties” of daily life. The Greek word used is μερίμναις (merimnais), meaning more literally “a part separated from the whole,” “that which divides and fractures a person into parts.” The human person, overwhelmed with excess, becomes incapable of distinguishing the urgent from the important, the merely pleasurable from the productive. On account of our overstimulation, our excess, we are pulled in many different directions. We can’t decide; our loyalties are divided and conflicting. We are endlessly distracted by a thousand contrary drives and concerns.

Anxiety is the condition of being overwhelmed and divided by many and contrary drives, demands, and priorities. Anxiety freezes and perplexes us. There is too much at stake and no central governing principle to direct our decisions. All of this overwhelms us and clouds our mind and heart. We are anxious about many things and cannot determine the “one thing necessary” that will order all of the details (cf Luke 10:42). The Lord lists anxiety as among those things that destroy our readiness to stand before Him with joy.

Cause 3: DRUNKENNESS Here the Greek word used is straightforward: μέθῃ (methe), meaning drunk on wine. Why do we drink? We drink to medicate our anxiety. Overwhelmed by the excess that leads to anxiety (inner division and conflict) we drink to medicate our sense of being overwhelmed. Something has to soothe us. Instead of slowing down and seeking God, we drink. We anesthetize our mind. Alcohol is not the only thing we use. We use things, people, power, sex, entertainment, diversions, and distractions; all to soothe our tense, anxious mind.

This, of course, only deepens the central problem. All these things only add to the very problem that has disturbed us in the first place: the kraipale that is excess and dissipation. The solution is to get clear about our priorities, to seek God and allow Him to order our life. Instead of seeking a clear mind, however, we do the opposite and tune out. A little wine is a gift from God (cf Psalm 104:15) to cheer our hearts, but with excess, we go beyond cheer to dull our mind.

To be sober is to have a clear mind, one that knows and is in touch with reality and final ends. To be sober is to be alert, honest, and reasonable; to act in a way that bespeaks thoughtful and deliberate movement toward a rational and worthy goal. The sober person acts consciously and with purpose toward a unifying goal: being with God. St. Paul says, But this one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14).

Lacking the one unifying thing, torn apart within, and anxious on account of our excesses, we dull our mind with alcohol. The Lord calls us to clarity, but we retreat into insobriety. We are, in effect, “hung over” from indulging in the excesses of this world and then “medicating” the resulting inner divisions. Our minds go dull and we tune out.

The Effect: DROWSINESS The Lord says, Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy. The Greek word used here is βαρηθῶσιν (barethosin), meaning “burdened, heavily laden, overcome, or weighted down.” Thus, we see that the effect that all the above things have is to weigh us down, to burden our heart. Laden with excess, divided by contrary demands, and medicating the stress with insobriety, our heart becomes tired and burdened. Our heart is no longer inflamed and animated with love. It has become weary, distracted, bored, and tired of holy things and of the Lord. Instead of being watchful in prayer, our heart sleeps on, weighed down in sin, excess, division, and insobriety. It no longer keeps watch for the Lord, whom it is called to love.

Yes, the world, and our sinful preoccupation with it weighs our hearts down. It captures our love and attention and we become drowsy toward spiritual things.

In the garden, the Lord asked the apostles to pray, but they had spent their energy that evening arguing with Jesus and debating among themselves about who was greatest. Divided within, they wanted Jesus, but they also wanted the world and its fame and power. Struck by the conflict and tension that Jesus’ words about suffering and dying brought, they were divided and anxious. So, they medicated themselves and tuned out. They likely had more than a few drinks of wine that night. Weighed down and exhausted by worldly preoccupations and priorities, their burdened hearts were too drowsy to pray; and so they slept. (Satan, however, did not sleep that night.)

Consider the words of Jesus to the Church at Ephesus: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place (Rev 2:5-6). Jesus also warns, Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold (Mat 24:12). Yes, sinful indulgence divides and stresses us. Because it is too much, we tune out and dull our mind; thus, our heart grows cold, burdened, and heavy with sin. Heavy and weary, our heart goes to sleep, and we lose our first love. Jesus described the pattern: Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. This is the cycle.

What to do about this awful cycle?

The Directive: DUE DILIGENCE The Lord says, Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.

The Lord does not describe this terrible cycle of debauchery (excess), division (anxiety), drunkenness (self-medication), and drowsiness (heavy hearts) merely to define the problem. Having diagnosed our condition, He prescribes the remedy of prayerful vigilance.

To be vigilantly prayerful is to be in living, conscious contact with God. It is to have our heart and mind focused on the one thing necessary (cf Luke 10:42), and thus to have our life ordered. With this order properly established, our excesses fall away, and the many associated anxieties and divisions depart. Once they are gone, we no longer need to medicate and soothe our anxious mind. This lightens our heart; its heaviness goes away. It is free to love and desire with well-ordered love.

Once we have set our sights on God through vigilant prayer, everything else in our life becomes ordered. Then, when Christ comes, He will not disrupt our world but confirm what we are already used to: Jesus Christ as the center and meaning of our life.

Through prayerful vigilance we can stand erect and raise [our] head because [our] redemption is at hand. Why? Because we are used to seeing Him and experiencing His authority. He thus comes not to destroy and usurp our disordered life, but to confirm and fulfill what has always been true for us: that Jesus is the center of our life.

True Thanksgiving Isn’t Just Something We Do; It’s Something That Happens to Us

One of the dangers in presenting New Testament moral teaching is reducing the gospel to a bunch of rules to follow using the power of one’s own flesh. This is an incorrect notion because for a Christian the moral life is not merely achieved; it is received. The moral life is not an imposition; it is a gift from God.

The Gospel chosen for Thanksgiving Day features the familiar story of the ten lepers who are healed by Jesus, but only one of whom returns to thank Him. The ingratitude of the other nine prompts an irritable response from Jesus, who more than suggests that they also should have returned to give thanks. Reading this Gospel on the surface, it is easy to conclude that it is a moral directive about being thankful to God and others. Well, that’s all well and good, but simply reminding people of a rule of polite society isn’t really the gospel message.

True thankfulness is receiving from God a deeply grateful heart so that we do not merely say thank you in a perfunctory way, but are deeply moved with gratitude. We are not merely being polite or justly rendering a debt of obligation; we actually are grateful from the heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift from God, which proceeds from a humble and transformed heart. We do not render thanks merely because it is polite or expected, but because it naturally flows from a profound experience of gratitude. This is the gospel message. It is not a moral platitude but rather a truth of a transformed heart.

An anointing that we should seek from God is the powerful transformation of our intellect and heart such that we become deeply aware of the remarkable gift that is everything we have. As this awareness deepens so does our gratitude and joy at the “magnificent munificence” of our God. Everything—literally everything—is a gift from God.

Permit me a few thoughts on the basis for a deepening awareness of gratitude. Ultimately, gratitude is a grace, but having a deeper awareness of the intellectual basis for it can help to open us more fully to this gift.

We are contingent beings who depend upon God for our very existence. He holds together every fiber of our being: every cell, every part of every cell, every molecule, every part of every molecule, every atom, every part of every atom. God facilitates every function of our body: every beat of our heart, every movement of our body. God sustains every detail of the universe: the perfectly designed orbit of Earth so that we do not overheat or freeze, the magnetic shield around Earth protecting us from the harmful aspects of solar radiation, and every process (visible and hidden) of everything on our planet, in our solar system, and in our galaxy. All of this, and us, are contingent; we are sustained by God and provided for by Him. The magnitude of what God does is simply astonishing—and He does it all free of charge! Pondering such goodness and providence helps us to be more grateful.

Every good thing we do is a gift from God. St. Paul said, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you glory as though you had achieved? (1 Cor 4:7) Elsewhere, he wrote, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:8-10). Hence even our good works are not our gift to God; they are His gift to us. On judgment day we cannot say to God, “Look what I’ve done; you owe me Heaven.” All we can say on that day is “Thank you!”

Gifts sometimes come in strange packages. There are some gifts of God that do not seem like gifts at all. There are sudden losses, tragedies, natural disasters, and the like. In such moments we can feel forsaken by God; gratitude is the last thing on our mind. But Scripture bids us to look again: And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God and who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). We don’t always know how, but even in difficult moments God is making a way unto something good, something better. He is paving a path to glory—perhaps through the cross—but unto glory. We may have questions, but remember that Jesus said, But I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. On that day you will have no more questions to ask me (Jn 16:22-23). Yes, even in our difficulties we are more than conquerors (Rm 8:37) because the Lord can write straight with crooked lines, and make a way out of no way.

All is gift. Absolutely everything is gift. Even our failures are gifts, provided we are in Christ and learn humility from them. For what shall we give thanks? Everything! There is an old saying, “Justice is when you get what you deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve. Grace is when you get what you don’t deserve.” Like you, I am asked many times a day, “How are you doing?” I’ve trained myself to respond, “More blessed than I deserve.”

The word “thanks” in English is unfortunately abstract. In Latin and the Romance languages, the words for thanks are more closely related to the concepts of grace and gift. In Latin, one says thank you by saying, “Gratias ago tibi,” or simply, “Gratias.” And although gratias is translated as “thanks,” it is really the same root word as that of “grace” and “gift,” which in Latin are rendered as “gratia.” Hence in saying this, one is exclaiming, “Grace!” or “Gifts!” It is the same in Spanish (Gracias) and Italian (Grazie). French has a slightly different approach: Merci comes from the Latin merces, which refers to something that has been paid for or given freely. So all of these languages recognize that the things for which we are grateful are really gifts. The English word “thanks” does not quite make the connection. About the closest we get in English are the words “gratitude” and “grateful.” All of these words (gratias, gracias, grazie, merci, gratitude) teach us that everything is gift!

Gratitude is a gift to be received from God and should be asked for humbly. One can dispose oneself to it by reflecting on some of the things described above, but ultimately gratitude comes from a humble, contrite, and transformed heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift that springs from a heart moved, astonished, and deeply aware of the fact that all is gift.

Is Jesus Really your King? A Homily for Christ the King

 On the feast of Christ the King, we are called to acknowledge that Jesus is in fact our King. It is one thing to say that He is our King because the song in Church says so, or the preacher says so, or the Bible says so (yes, faith does come by hearing), but it is quite another for us to personally say that Jesus is our King. There comes a time when we must personally affirm what the Church has always announced: “Jesus is Lord, and He is King. He is my King. He has authority in my life.” This must become more than just lip service; it must become a daily, increasing reality in our life.

Kings take care of us, but they also have the authority to command us. Do we allow Christ to command us or are we more like the typical modern person who doesn’t like to be told what to do? Perhaps we suffer from the milder form of this attitude in which we reduce Jesus to a “harmless hippie” who just says pleasant things but would never rebuke us or insist upon our repentance.

Again, consider this question: “Is Jesus Christ your King?”

That brings us to today’s Gospel. The Gospels aren’t theater; we’re not in the audience watching an ancient story unfold. No, we are in the story. We are not supposed to just sit back and observe what Peter, or Pontius Pilate, or James, or Mary Magdalene does. They are we and we are they.

This means that when Jesus asks one of them a question, we cannot merely wait to see how he or she will answer. No, we have to answer the question.

In today’s Gospel the spotlight is on Pontius Pilate. The Lord asks the critical question of him. We cannot simply wait to see how he answers; we have to answer. Let’s consider this Gospel in three stages.

I. INDECISION – In a remarkable display of literary artistry, John and the Holy Spirit vividly depict the vacillation of Pontius Pilate. In this Gospel passage of the trial of Jesus, Pilate goes in and out of the praetorium (the governor’s palace) more than a bellhop through the revolving door of a hotel! Indeed, he goes in and out seven times. Here is the text, with the portions describing his motions highlighted in bold:

So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” …. Pilate [re]entered the praetorium and called Jesus …. After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again, and told them, “I find no crime in him….” Then Pilate took Jesus [back into the praetorium] and scourged him …. Pilate went out again, and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you, that you may know that I find no crime in him ….” When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; he re-entered the praetorium and [spoke] to Jesus …. Upon this Pilate [went back out] and sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend ….” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judgment seat (John 18-19, selected verses).

Did you count them? Seven times Pilate goes into or out of the praetorium! Such a picture of indecision and vacillation! He’s trying to please the crowds. He’s trying to please his wife (who had warned him to have nothing to do with that innocent man (Mat 27:19)). He’s trying to help Jesus. He can’t decide, so in and out he goes!

Pilate is just like us. We say that we love God, but we also love the world. We want to please others and we want to please God, but we cannot do both. We have to decide, but instead we vacillate; we are Pilate. We are often locked in indecision, trying to please the world and God.

Are we really so different from Pilate? Faced with a crucial decision, Pilate weighs the consequences that choosing Jesus will have on his career, his family, his loyalty to country and Caesar, and his access to power. While we may rightly criticize Pilate for his choice, don’t we make compromises with the world for the sake of similar things? How often does Jesus our King take a back seat to career, politics, convenience, and so forth? So easily do we stay rooted in vacillation, compromise, and indecision.

II. INQUIRY – In the midst of all this indecision, comes the question.

Pilate begins with his own question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33) Although it is Jesus who is on trial, He turns the tables on Pilate. Jesus effectively puts Pilate on trial by asking him a crucial question: Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” (John 18:34).

It’s a remarkable question! Guess what … You have to answer it. Each of us has to answer it. Don’t wait for Pilate; he already gave his answer and faced judgment long ago. How do we answer it?

Notice what the Lord is getting at with his question. He is asking us if we call him a King merely because we’ve heard others say it or because we personally know him to be a King. Is he really our King, or this just a slogan we’ve heard in church before? Do we believe that He is King or do we merely parrot what we’ve heard others say?

There is an old gospel song that says, “Yes, I know Jesus for myself.” Is that really the case with us? Too many of us are satisfied with a kind of inferential faith. Inferential faith is based merely on what others have said: we think or suppose that Jesus is Lord because our parents said so, or our pastor said so. This is a good beginning, for after all, faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), but there comes a moment when we have to say so. It is not enough that our parents say so or our pastor says so. Thus, Jesus is asking us right now, Are you saying [I am King] on your own or merely because others have said so?

Answer Him! It’s a crucial question, isn’t it? The faith of the Church is essential, normative, and determinative, but at some point we have to step up and say that we personally affirm that the faith of the Church is true and is ours, and then declare, “Jesus is Lord and King.”

What does it mean that Jesus is King? A king has authority, doesn’t he? Does Jesus have authority in our life? Do we have the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5) and base our life upon His will?

A king also takes care of his people and protects them. Do we allow the Lord to feed us with the Holy Eucharist? Do we allow Him to protect us from the poison of sin by the Sacrament of Confession and the medicine of His Holy Word? Are we willing to live within the protection of the walled city of His Church?

Is the Lord really our King? How do we answer? Is it just a slogan or is His Kingship real? Let the Lord ask one more time, Are you saying [I am King] on your own or have others been telling you about me?

III. INDICATION – Jesus says,  I came into this world to testify to the truth and everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me. So do you qualify? There are many who pay lip service to Jesus. They praise him for some of his teachings but not all. Many too, make up a false Jesus and say that he would never say what he is clearly recorded as saying in the Gospels and Epistles. But he fake Jesus cannot save you; only the real one. We all sin and fall short, but at least call it what it is, Sin. The defiance that is too common today is very dangerous and does not lead the defiant to the Kingdom.

IV. IMPLICATION – We must answer. To refuse to answer is to answer.

A fascinating and wondrous literary device is used by John and the Holy Spirit in this Gospel passage. We have already seen how Jesus, who was Himself on trial, has turned the tables and effectively put Pilate on trial. Pilate, who has the duty to question Jesus, is now being questioned by Him. It is Pilate who must now make a decision, not so much about Jesus, but about himself. He has been asked a question that he cannot ultimately avoid, and now it is time to answer. Here is where the ingenious literary device comes into play. Look carefully at this passage from John’s Gospel and see if you notice anything strange about it.

Upon this [the shouting of “Crucify him!”] Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; everyone who makes himself a King sets himself against Caesar.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and he sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, and in Hebrew, Gabbatha (John 19:12-13).

What is strange here? Well, notice that when Pilate has Jesus brought out, it says that “he” sat down on the judgment seat. Who exactly is sitting on the judgment seat? One might think, Pilate, of course! Historically, that might be true, but the text is ambiguous as to exactly who “he” is. Most Scripture scholars argue that the line is supposed to be ambiguous.

From the standpoint of historical facts, it was likely Pilate who took that seat, but from the standpoint of divine justice, it is Jesus who takes it.

Jesus has turned the tables on Pilate. Pilate is now on trial and the verdict is about to be revealed. Pilate seals his own fate when he hands Jesus over to be crucified; his vacillation is over. Pilate has made his choice; he has answered the question.

In this context it is Jesus who sits silently upon the judgment seat. The verdict is in. In deciding to hand Jesus over, in deciding to favor himself and the crowds over Jesus, Pilate has brought judgment on himself.

Too many of us have cartoonish notions about our final judgment: a benign Jesus giving us a great big hug, or an angry one gleefully passing judgment on His “enemies.” Perhaps there is also some notion of a review of our deeds, both good and bad, and then the pronouncing of some sort of verdict while we cringe and wait. Jesus is not a King who imposes His Kingdom. He invites us to enter into His Kingdom. Ultimately, judgment is about our choice, not His.

Judgment is finally this: The Lord, who suffered for us, quietly and respectfully sits on the judgment seat and accepts our final choice, a choice that is the accumulation all the choices we made in life, a choice that is now and forever fixed. Isn’t that what really happens?

The Lord has asked the question of Pilate, as he does of us. The choice is for Pilate to make and the judgement is one he brings on himself. His choice is either to accept the Lord’s Kingship or to reject it and watch Jesus led away while he (Pilate himself) stands alone, the judgment having been rendered by virtue of his own choice.

Yes, there are implications to whether we accept the Lord as our King or not. Today, the Lord asks us all if we will let Him be our King. To those of us who say yes, the Lord has this further question: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” Is He really our King? Think hard about it. There are implications.

The question that we must answer has now been answered by Pilate. What is your answer?

 

The Meanest Thing Jesus Ever Said


The Gospel from this Wednesday’s Mass (Wed. of the 33rd Week – Luke 19:11-27) is known as the “Parable of the Ten Gold Coins.” It has an ending so shocking that, when I read it at Mass some years ago, a young child said audibly to her mother, “Wow, that’s mean!”

I’d like to look at it and ponder its shocking ending.

Today’s parable is like Matthew’s “Parable of the Talents,” but with some significant differences. In today’s parable, ten people each receive one gold coin. We only hear the reports of three of them (as in the Matthean account): two who show a profit and one who shows none.

Another difference is the interweaving of another parable (let’s call it the “Parable of the Rejected King”) within the story. Here is a shortened version, including the shocking ending:

A nobleman went off to a distant country to obtain the kingship for himself and then to return. His fellow citizens, however, despised him and sent a delegation after him to announce, “We do not want this man to be our king.” But when he returned after obtaining the kingship … [he said] “Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me” (Luke 19:12,14, 27-28).

In analyzing a text like this I must say that I was disappointed at the silence of most commentaries with respect to this ending. The shocking phrase “slay them before me” goes largely unremarked.

The Church Fathers seem to say little about it. I was, however, able to find two references in St. Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea. St. Augustine said of this verse, Whereby He describes the ungodliness of the Jews who refused to be converted to Him. Theophilus wrote, Whom he will deliver to death, casting them into the outer fire. But even in this world they were most miserably slain by the Roman army.

Hence both Fathers take the verse at face value, even declaring it historically fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Josephus indicated in his work that 1.2 million Jews were killed in that dreadful war.

Historically fulfilled or not, Jesus’s triumphal and vengeful tone still puzzles me. If this verse does refer to the destruction of 70 A.D., then how do we account for Jesus’s tone here when just a few verses later He wept over Jerusalem?

As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Lk 19:41-44).

Certainly a variety of emotions can sweep over even the God-man Jesus, but let me also suggest some other contextual and cultural considerations that frame Jesus’s startling and “mean” words (Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me).

1. Jesus was speaking in the prophetic tradition – Prophets often spoke this way, using startling and often biting imagery and characterizations. Though many today try to “tame” Jesus, the real Jesus spoke vividly, in the prophetic tradition. He often used shocking and paradoxical images. He spoke bluntly, as prophets do, calling his hostile interlocutors hypocrites, vipers, children of the devil, whitewashed tombs, evil, foolish, blind guides, and sons of those who murdered the prophets. He warned them that they would be sentenced to Hell unless they repented; He laid them out for their inconsistency and hardness of heart. This is the way prophets speak.

In speaking in this “mean” way, Jesus was firmly in the tradition of the prophets, who spoke similarly. Thus, in understanding these harsh words of Jesus’s, we cannot overlook the prophetic context. His words, which seem to us to be angry and even vengeful, were expected in the prophetic tradition from which He spoke; they were intentionally shocking. Their purpose was to provoke a response.

Prophets used hyperbole and shock to convey and frame their call to repentance. And while we ought not to simply dismiss Jesus’s words as exaggeration, we should not fail to see them in the traditional context of prophetic speech.

Hence Jesus’s words were not evidence of vengeance in His heart, but rather a prophecy directed at those who refused to repent: they will die in their sins. Indeed, their refusal to reconcile with God and their neighbors (in this case the Romans) led to a terrible war during which they were slain.

2. The Jewish culture and language often used hyperbole – Even beyond the prophetic tradition, the ancient Jews often used all-or-nothing language in their speech. Although I am no Hebrew scholar, I have been taught that the Hebrew language contains far fewer comparative words (e.g., more, less, greatest, fewest) than does English (and many other languages). If an ancient Jew were asked if he liked chocolate or vanilla ice cream more, he might reply, “I like chocolate and I hate vanilla.” By this he really meant “I like chocolate more than I like vanilla.” When Jesus said elsewhere that we must love Him and hate our parents, spouse, and children (e.g., Lk 14:26), He did not mean that we should hate them vengefully. Rather, this was a Jewish way of saying that we must love Him more.

This background explains the ancient Jewish tendency to use hyperbole. It is not that they did not comprehend nuances; they just did not speak in that manner, instead allowing the context to supply that “hate” did not mean literal hate.

This linguistic background helps to explain how the more extremist elements of prophetic language take shape.

We ought to be careful, however, not to simply dismiss things as hyperbole. We who speak English may love that our language allows for greater nuance, but sometimes we are so nuanced in our speech that we say very little. At some point we must say either yes or no; we must be with God or against Him. In the end (even if Purgatory intervenes) there is only Heaven or Hell.

The ancient Jewish way of speaking in a rather all-or-nothing manner was not primitive per se. It has a refreshing and honest way of insisting that we decide for or against God, that we decide what is right and just.

Thus, though Jesus’s words were harsh they did make an important point. For either we choose God and live, or we choose sin and die spiritually. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

3. Jesus was speaking to hardened sinners – The audience here is important as well. As Jesus drew near to Jerusalem, He was entering hostile territory. The sinners and unbelievers He encountered were very rigid and had hardened their hearts against Him. Hence, Jesus’s words must be understood as strong medicine.

One can imagine a doctor saying to a stubborn patient, “If you don’t change your ways, you’ll die soon and I’ll see you at your funeral.” While some may consider this to be poor “bedside manner,” there are some patients for whom such language is both necessary and appropriate.

Because Jesus was dealing with hardened sinners, He spoke bluntly. They were headed for death and Hell and He told them so.

Perhaps we, who live in these “dainty” times, who are so easily offended and so afraid of giving offense, could learn from such an approach. There are some who need to hear from priests, parents, and others, “If you do not change your ways, I do not see how you can avoid being sentenced to Hell.”

4. A final thought—a theory really—that some have advanced – According to this theory, Jesus was referring to an actual historical incident and using it to disabuse His listeners of their fond thoughts of a new king. After the death of Herod the Great, his son Archelaus went to Rome to request the title of king. A group of Jews also appeared before Caesar Augustus, opposing Archelaus’s request. Although not given the title of king, Archelaus was made ruler over Judea and Samaria; he later had those Jews who opposed him killed.

Kings are often despots – Because many Jews thought that the Messiah (when he came) would be a king, some were hoping that Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem in order to take up the role of an earthly king. According to this theory, because the people were pining for a king, Jesus used this fearsome parable as a reminder that earthly kings are usually despotic. Jesus was thus trying to disabuse them of the idea that He or anyone else should be their earthly king.

While this theory has a lot to recommend it, especially historical precedent, it seems unlikely that the Gospel text would use such an historically localized event to make the point. Jesus was not just speaking to the people of that time and place; He is also speaking to us. Even if this explanation has partial historical context, the meaning needs to be extended beyond one ancient incident.

Well, there you have it. I am interested in your thoughts. Because the commentaries I consulted seemed rather silent on this, I am hoping that some of you have read commentaries worth sharing. Likewise, perhaps you know of some other quotes of the Fathers that I was unable to find.

Is Jesus being mean here? No. Is He being blunt and painfully clear? Yes. And frankly, some of us need it. In these thin-skinned times we may bristle at such talk, but that’s our problem. Honesty and a clear diagnosis are far more important than our precious feelings.

Multitudes in the Valley of Decision! A Meditation on the Dramatic Battle in Which We Live

A grave deficiency of modern times is the loss of the sense that our lives are caught up in a tremendous, epic battle. Yet here we are living in the midst of a great drama—in the greatest story ever told.

Behind the scenes is a deadly enemy, one of whom many rarely speak: Satan. Yet, he is active and involved, manipulating both the world and the flesh (our sinful nature). We are on the front lines of a fierce spiritual war, a war that is to blame for most of the casualties you see around you. Yes, fellow Christians, there is a dragon, a roaring lion—Satan—who seeks to devour our souls.

Ah! But there is also a Son, a Savior, who is born to us and whom we call Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (cf Is 9:6). He shall reign forever. His hand is outstretched, first on the cross, but now outstretched to you to save you and to draw you up out of the raging waters, to deliver you from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light!

Will you take hold of His hand, or not? This is the decision—your decision—is the great drama of your life and of every life; it is your chapter in the greatest story ever told.

Yes, the battle rages all around us, and we are swept up in it! It’s happening in our world, our culture, our families, and in our hearts. The sequence hymn from Easter says dramatically of it, Mors et vita duello; Conflixere Mirando (death and life at battle in a stupendous conflict).

The Book of Joel vividly describes the great drama. It is not merely an eschatological battle but a battle that is already around us in the decision we must make, in the war we must wage (with God’s grace) against the evil that is in and around us. It is a vivid and dramatic war, and we must choose sides. Our decision will one day be revealed in the great judgment that is coming on this world.

Prepare war, stir up the mighty men! Let all the men of war draw near, let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, ‘I am a warrior.’ Hasten and come, all you nations round about, gather yourselves there. Bring down thy warriors, O LORD. Let the nations bestir themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the nations round about. Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the wine press is full. The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great.  Multitudes! Multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision (Joel 3:9-14).

Text after text in the Bible describes the awesome drama and the great decision we must make, a decision on which hinges our very destiny. Here are just a few:

    • I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you (Deut 30:19-20).
    • Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against  (and a sword will pierce through your own heart also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-36).
    • Jesus said to the unbelieving Jews, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I have told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I AM” (John 8:23-24).
    • Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation (Matt 26:41).
    • And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:15).
    • For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (Eph 6:12-14).
    • I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed! (Gal 1:4)
    • Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith (1 Peter 1:8).
    • A great sign appeared in the heavens, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heavens; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne … And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth … Rejoice then, O heaven and you that dwell therein! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child … The dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus (Rev 12, selected verses).
    • “Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is awake, keeping his garments that he may not go naked and be seen exposed!” And they assembled them at the place which is called in Hebrew Armageddon (Rev 16:15-16).

So here we are in the Valley of Decision (in Hebrew, the Valley of Armageddon). Here is the drama of our life! Multitudes in the Valley of Decision! All of us have a decision to make, an army to join, a direction to choose! Tertium non datur (No third way is given). There are only two armies on the field of battle; there are no demilitarized zones, no sidelines. Choose an army! What will it be, light or darkness, grace or sin, Jesus or Beelzebub?

Yes, here is the immense drama in the greatest story ever told; it is our drama and our story.

Yet this drama is rarely discussed today. In the very times in which the contrast between the two ways has never been clearer or starker, there is near silence. If anything, our times are marked by boredom and a lack of awareness of the battle that is raging around us.  We have “spiritual ADHD”: endlessly fidgeting but never focusing on what matters. There is also a kind of “spiritual myopia,” in which the two armies are lost in the blur of perceived (but not real) pluralism.

Put plainly, if you don’t think that this drama is real and that a choice between the two sides is required, if you think that the biblical texts cited above are histrionic and hysterical, you have been deceived. You have been lulled to sleep by the spirit of this age.  You’ve been deceived by Satan, as was Eve long ago when he said to her, “You surely will not die.”

All of us must wake up to the battle raging around us, to the great drama in our life, a drama that is unfolding before our eyes. If you insist on sleeping through the drama or ignoring the summons to wake up, beware! For Scripture says of such dreamers that there will come upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thess 2:11-13).

Awaken to the drama! Choose the Lord! Be a soldier in His army! Only Jesus can save us from this “present evil age.” His grace and mercy are there for us in abundance, but His respect for our freedom means that our choices matter; they build in one direction or the other. This is the drama of our life, and it is also our dignity. Scripture pronounces a great blessing on those who choose the Lord:

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen  (Gal 1:1-2).

The Word of the Lord Remains Forever! A Homily for the 33rd Sunday of the Year

As winter approaches and the end of the liturgical year draws near, we ponder the passing quality of this world and the fading of its glories. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading must surely have shocked, even horrified, His apostles. Let’s look at His stunning words and seek to apply them in our own life.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is at the top of the Mount of Olives with His apostles. From this vantage point, they look across the Kidron Valley to the magnificent Temple and all of Jerusalem spread out before them. The apostles marvel at the glorious beauty of the Temple. Its large, perfectly-carved, white, gilded, ashlar stones gleam like the sun. Indeed, it was one of the wonders of the ancient world, so beautiful and majestic.

Jesus challenges their admiration. He shocks them with the admonition that all the glory they see is soon to be destroyed, that not one stone will be left on another, that it will all be thrown down (Mk 13:2). Shocked, the apostles ask Him when this will happen and what signs will precede this awful event.

Jesus teaches them that all the glory they see is about to be taken away. The Temple, with all its rituals, its liturgical cycles, and its endless slaughter of animals in sacrifice for sin, is about to be replaced. These ancient rituals merely pointed to Jesus and all that He would do. Jesus is now the Temple; He is also the Lamb Sacrifice. All that the Temple pointed to is fulfilled in Jesus. Thus, the Temple is at an end. Jesus is ushering in a New Covenant. Sure enough, 40 years later (in A.D. 70), the Roman Army, after having surrounded Jerusalem for a period of 3 ½ months, breached the walls, poured into the city, and destroyed the Temple and all of Jerusalem. In this epic battle, according to Josephus, 1.2 million Jewish people lost their lives. As Jesus prophesied, not one stone was left on another. According to Josephus, so complete was the destruction of Jerusalem, that when the Romans had finished their work it was not clear that the city had ever existed.

In 2000 years, despite several attempts, the Jewish Temple has never been rebuilt. Everything Jesus predicted came to pass. This is the historical place and context of today’s Gospel.

What does this mean for us, some 2000 years later? Let’s consider three basic themes.

1. The Perspective of Passing – Toward the end of the Gospel passage, the Lord says, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Note the definitiveness of this statement: this world will pass away. All of the things that impress us: the might of the powerful, the influence of the popular, the glory of all the glitterati—all of this will pass away.

Indeed, even now it is passing away, its destruction is at hand. Scripture says,

        • The world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:31).
        • We have here, no lasting city (Heb 13:14).
        • Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no hope. Take their breath, they return to clay, and their plans that day come to nothing (Psalm 146:3-4).

Yes, all of the glory, even what seems beautiful and fair, is passing away. Don’t be so impressed by this world’s offerings. All of it—no matter how powerful, influential, or sturdy it may seem—is slated for destruction. It is already passing away.

Painful though this perspective may be, it is important and healing. It brings with it a strong kind of serenity. Like every truth, the truth that all things are passing sets us free.  We are reminded not to set down too many roots here so that we are not resentful when this world passes away.

2. The Permanence Proclaimed – The Lord tells us that His words will not pass away. Although the world will pass away, the truth and the Word of God will remain forever.

Too many people root their lives in passing things. The challenge for us is to root our lives in the Word of God, which remains forever. Worldly glories, power, access, and wealth—all these things fade and disappear, but God’s wisdom and His plan remain forever.

Consider, for a moment, the Church. The Lord has said that the forces of Hell would strive to prevail, overpower, and destroy the Church, but He promised that such attempts would never be successful (Matt 16:18). The Church is indefectible, by God’s Word, by His promise. No weapons, no war waged against the Church, will prevail.

In all of this the Lord has been proven correct. The Church has seen the Roman Empire, the Carolingian Empire, the British Empire, the Soviet Socialist Republic, and many others rise to power only to fade and disappear. Heresies and all sorts of foolishness have come and gone, and here we still are proclaiming the eternal Gospel, the Word of the Lord. Though the world will pass away, the Word of the Lord will remain forever!

3. The Priority Prescribed – If this world as we know it is passing away, and the Lord, His Kingdom, His Church, and His Word will remain forever, what should be our priority? The Lord says, in effect, that we know very well what our priority should be, but we willfully ignore it.

Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates (Matt 24:32-33).

Yes, we know very well that the Day of Judgment is coming. Too easily, though, we dream on and do not follow the prescribed priority. Wealth, fame, and glory are all uncertain and  passing, but death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell are certain and remain forever. We too easy fiddle on with things that are uncertain and passing while neglecting what is certain and eternal. Ridiculous!

It would be foolish to book passage on a sinking ship. Similarly, it is imprudent to make this world and its demands our fundamental priority. It is wise to set our sights on, and lay hold of, the Kingdom that lasts forever. It is sad that so many spend people their time “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” of this world. 

What are our priorities? Frankly, most of our priorities are not things that matter to God. Even if we attain the passing things for which we strive, they will all ultimately slip through our fingers. We obsess over passing things like our physical health while neglecting enduring things like our spiritual health. We should care for our bodies, but even more should we care for our souls. If we would expend as much effort looking for a time and place to pray as we do searching for a restaurant for dinner, we would be spiritual heavyweights rather than physically overweight.

In today’s Gospel the Lord stands before the Temple: an impressive building, a symbol of power and of worldly glories. Impressed by it though the Apostles are, the Lord is not impressed with passing things. He counsels us to get our priorities straight and to focus on things that last: His Word, which never passes away, and our ultimate destiny, where we will spend eternity.

We find time for everything else, why not for prayer, Scripture, fellowship in the Church, and the sacraments?

What are your priorities? Be honest, now, be honest.