Learning the Lessons of Lazarus and the Rich Man

The well-known story of Lazarus and the rich man was read at Mass this morning (Thursday of the Second Week of Lent). On one level the message of the story seems plain enough: neglecting the poor is a damnable sin. However, there are other important teachings: about death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Those teachings are hidden in the details, but the subtlety is part of the story’s beauty. Let’s take a look at some of the teachings, beginning with the obvious one.

1. Neglect of the poor is a damnable sinThere was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.

The vision of Lazarus’ poverty is dramatic indeed. The unnamed rich man (dubbed Dives by some because it means “rich” in Latin) does not so much act in an evil way toward Lazarus as he does commit a sin of neglect and omission. He seems undisturbed by and removed from Lazarus’ suffering. This neglect, this omission, this insensitivity, lands him in Hell. The rich man died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes.

Care for the poor will be a central theme of our judgment, as is made clear in the Gospel of Matthew (25:31 ff), in which Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, the just from the unrighteous, based on whether they cared for the least of their brethren. To those who failed in this regard the Lord Jesus says, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41).

How best to care for the poor is a matter of some dispute, but that we must care for them is clear. Hence, the rich man who neglected Lazarus is now in Hell. This is a call to sobriety about the reality of judgment; we must consider whether our care for the poor is what it should be.

2. Although he is in torment, the rich man has not changed The rich man, in torment, raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, “Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.”

Notice that the rich man still fails to see Lazarus’ dignity. In effect, he still sees Lazarus as an errand boy. Though he has to look up to see him, the rich man still looks down on Lazarus. He does not ask Abraham to send Lazarus to him so that he can apologize for his sinful neglect and seek his forgiveness. Rather he merely wants Lazarus to serve him. Even though he is in torment, the rich man is unrepentant. Although doesn’t like where he is, he does not reconcile with Lazarus or even realize that he should do so. This rich man is hardened in his sin. While Lazarus was alive, the rich man never recognized his dignity, and he remains blind to it.

Over time, sin hardens our heart. The more we remain in sin, the harder our hearts become, and the less likely it is that we will ever change. Why is Hell eternal? Look at the rich man: He cannot and will not change; his decision, character, and demeanor are forever fixed.

There is an old litany that goes like this: Sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny. The mystery of the world to come is that our character is forever fixed. The Fathers of the Church described this mystery as being like clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as the clay is moist and on the wheel, the potter can shape and reshape it, but there comes a time when the clay form is placed in the kiln to be fired, fixing its shape forever. It is this way for us when we come before God, who judges us by fire (cf 1 Cor 3:12-15).

Fire will forever fix our character; this judgment through fire will either purify us or bring us condemnation. The fixed quality of the human person is illustrated in the rich man’s unchanged attitude.

3. The rich man does not ask to come to Heaven – It is very strange that the rich man does not ask that he might come to Heaven; rather, he asks that Lazarus be sent to Hell.

One of the saddest facts about the souls in Hell is that they would not be happy in Heaven anyway. After all, Heaven is about being with God. It is about justice, love of the poor, chastity, the heavenly liturgy, the celebration of the truth, the praise of God. God is at the center rather than us. The fact is, many show by the way that they live that they do not want many of these things. Why would someone who has disliked, even hated, these things will suddenly become enamored of them at the moment of death? Someone who ignores or disdains God and considers His faithful to be hypocrites would hardly be happy in Heaven.

The rich man demonstrates this by the fact that he does not ask to come to Heaven. He surely does not like where he is, but he shows no repentant desire for Heaven, either. The teaching, though subtle, seems clear enough: the souls in Hell have little interest in Heaven despite their dislike of Hell.

4. The Great Reversal – Abraham further indicates to the Rich Man and to us the “great reversal”: My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.

We spend a lot of time trying to be on top in this world. We want comfort, wealth, position, and power. The Lord warns here that we ought to beware the great reversal that is coming. Lazarus, who was poor, is now rich; and the rich man is now poor.

Jesus teaches this elsewhere: But many who are first will be last, and the last first (Mk 10:31). Mary remarked that He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones but lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty (Lk 1:51-53).

This is the great reversal. We so want to be rich and comfortable in this world, running from any suffering or setback. But the Lord warns of riches, How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God (Mk 10:23). Yet still we want to be rich. He also says, Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27) Yet still we run from the cross and suffering. In the great reversal, many who are first in this world will be last in the world to come.

We cannot assert a direct correlation between success here and loss in the world to come, but neither should we ignore the teaching that striving to “make it” in the world and “be somebody” can be a dangerous path. And if we have amounted to something, we’d better humble ourselves through generosity to the poor and associating with the humble. The goal of worldly success is a dangerous one, for the great reversal is coming. Better to be found among the humble and the poor, or at least well-associated with them, than to be mighty and high. Yes, beware the great reversal!

5. Refusing the truth of Revelation is a damnable sin – The rich man does not repent to God, nor does he seek to be reconciled with Lazarus; but he does have some concerns for his brothers, for his family. We need not assume that the souls in Hell have no affections whatsoever. However, their affections are not for God and what He esteems. And so the rich man, still viewing Lazarus only as an errand boy, asks Abraham to dispatch Lazarus to his family carrying a warning. Perhaps a vision from the grave will convince them!

But Abraham indicates quite clearly that they have the clear witness of God through Moses and the prophets. In other words, they have the Scriptures, the very Word of God, to warn them. The rich man insists, “Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” Then Abraham said, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

The last point is dripping with irony, considering the fact that Jesus would rise from the dead. Abraham says clearly that there are many sinners who are so hardened in their sin that no matter what the Scriptures say or what the Church solemnly teaches, they will never be convinced. This is so very true today; many remain hardened in their sins. No amount of Scripture or Church teaching will convince them that they are wrong. This is what happens to us if we remain in unrepented sin: Our hearts are hardened, our minds are closed, and our necks are stiffened. In the end, this story teaches that such hardness is damnable.

These are five basic teachings from a well known parable. We do well to heed these lessons!

This song, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” amounts to a wish that we will find our way to glory. Heeding the lessons of this parable is surely one way to find our rest in God.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Learning the Lessons of Lazarus and the Rich Man

The Mature Christian

As a kind of follow-up to yesterday’s Gospel of the Transfiguration, we do well to reflect a little further on the Lord’s intention in leading Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. The Church teaches us His purpose in the Preface for the Second Sunday of Lent:

For after he had told the disciples of his coming Death, on the holy mountain he manifested to them his glory, to show, even by the testimony of the law and the prophets, that the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection.

In this way, not only was He preparing them for the difficult days ahead but also leading them to a more mature faith, one that could see beyond the Friday of the Passion to the glory of the Resurrection.

I recently attended a diocesan workshop on evangelization and leadership development, at which the moderator, Jim Lundholm-Eades of the Leadership Roundtable, gave an outstanding presentation. In it, he gave a remarkable, concise description of the mature Christian that flows well from the Lord’s intention for his apostles:

“A mature Christian knows that Jesus is risen from the dead and he or she lives out of that knowledge and experience.”

So beautifully said! Permit a brief reflection on this.

As I have pointed out in other posts, “knowing” in the biblical sense is more than an intellectual knowing; it is an experiential knowing. To “know” that Jesus is risen from the dead is to experience that Christ is alive and changing our life, that He is present to us and leading us to a deeper relationship with the Father. It is a relationship of mutual love that is transformative and empowering.

The mature Christian is not a perfect Christian but is living a life of hope, a life of confident expectation of God’s help. He has already seen sins put death and new graces coming alive. As a result, he has come to know that this growth will continue if he cooperates with God’s grace. He has a proper sorrow for his sins and humility on account of them—but not despair or humiliation, as if God would leave him forever beset by his sins. A mature Christian cooperates with God’s grace and mercy knowing that through that grace and mercy he will win in the end.

There are, of course, still sufferings to undergo, but they can be endured with greater trust and a lively hope. The mature Christian knows that God has permitted them for a reason, and He will surely release new blessings if he walks in faith. The mature Christian is not easily unsettled by difficulties or trials; he endures them with the courage that faith has. This is because he has come to know and experience that Jesus is risen from the dead and that the final destination for those of faith is victory and glory.

The mature Christian also knows that there is a battle to engage, both personally and in the world; it is a battle for souls. However, since he knows that Jesus has risen form the dead, he knows that the outcome of the battle has already been decided; he knows which army will ultimately win. Therefore, apparent setbacks or losses are not devastating. On Good Friday all seemed lost, but Jesus rose on Sunday morning. So, too, for the Church and all who battle for the truth and choose the Kingdom of God. We preach the gospel and seek to live it both in season and out of season, whether popular or ridiculed. The mature Christian is serene because he knows that Jesus is risen from the dead and that He has already won the final victory.

Yes, a mature Christian knows that Jesus has risen from the dead and lives out of that experience. How mature are you?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Mature Christian

Five Meanings of the Ashes We Receive Today

As a boy, I remember wondering why so many people liked to rush to Church to get ashes smudged on their foreheads. Frankly, I had some revulsion at the idea. I didn’t like it at all and would secretly rub them off when no one was looking. Today, though I’ll admit I still don’t like it too much, I behave myself and don’t rub them off!

I pray that this doesn’t seem impious, but I still marvel at how many people pack into the church to get ashes on their foreheads. Sadder still, some who come don’t seem to want Holy Communion nearly as much. In fact, in some of the parishes where I served in the past, significant numbers walked out the door after receiving ashes and did not even stay for Communion.

Of course most people who come to Mass are faithful and have their priorities straight, but it still interests me how large the numbers are for something that seems to me so unappealing and challenging.

Indeed, the sign of ashes is quite challenging if understand what it really means. We are saying some pretty powerful stuff and making some extensive promises of a sort.

What do ashes signify? Perhaps a brief tour of Scripture is in order:

Humility Job said, “You [Oh Lord] asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3-6).

Notice that Job does not merely repent in a general sense. Rather, having encountered God, he realizes that God is God, and that he, Jacob, is a creature, mere dust and ashes in the presence of God, who is being itself, who is all in all. Yes, Jacob is a son in the presence of a Father; he is not God’s equal that he might question Him or put Him on trial.

Hence in this case the ashes represent not only repentance but humility as well. The Church’s liturgy echoes this theme of humility in quoting Gen 3:19: “Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return” as the ashes are placed on the individual’s forehead.

A reminder of death and a call to wisdom – After Adam sinned, God told him, By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Gen 3:19).

As he imposes the ashes, the priest usually recites some form of this passage. And memorable though it is, consider an even blunter form: “You are going to die.”

This is a salient and sobering reminder that we often get worked up and anxious about passing things, while at the same time being unmindful of the certain and most important thing, for which we really must be ready. We tend to maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Sadly, like the man in one of the Lord’s parables, we can amass worldly things and forget the final things. To him the Lord said, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:21-22).

Thus, to consider our final end is wise; to fail to do so is foolishness defined.

Ashes are a sacramental that points to the Sacrament – The Old Testament declared, You shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. They shall be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin … For the unclean person, put some ashes from the burned purification offering into a jar and pour fresh water over them. Then a man who is ceremonially clean is to take some hyssop, dip it in the water and sprinkle the tent and all the furnishings and the people who were there (Numbers 19:9, 17).

This text shows ashes obtained from a burned sin offering and mixed with sprinkled water as a cleansing ritual. In the Old Testament, this ritual could not actually take away sin (cf Heb 9:9-13), but it did provide for ritual purity. It also symbolized repentance and a desire to be free from sin.

In the same way, ashes on Ash Wednesday (mixed with holy water) cannot take away sin. They are a sacramental, not a sacrament.

To receive ashes on Ash Wednesday and then not go to confession some time during Lent is really to miss the point. If one really desires to repent and to be cleansed and free of sin, then from the sacramental of ashes one goes to the Sacrament of Confession. Otherwise the ritual of Ash Wednesday is pointless.

A sign of a true change – Scripture says, When the news [of Nineveh’s possible destruction in forty days] reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust (Jonah 3:6).

Here, too, repentance is symbolized, but the symbol alone is not enough—actual repentance is required. The king does not just “get ashes”; he issues a decree calling for fasting, prayer, and true reform: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish (Jonah 3:7-9).

Hence another option for the priest to say as he applies the ashes is, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

It is not enough to get a sooty forehead. True repentance is called for, an actual intent to change. Otherwise the ashes are a false sign.

A summons to faith and a new mind – Jesus said, Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes (Matt 11:21).

Jesus rebukes ancient towns for their lack of faith. It is good to recall that the Greek word translated here as “repented” is μετενόησαν (metenoesan), which more literally means “to come to a new mind or way of thinking.”

There are many ways that we think about things that are more of the world than of God. Our ongoing challenge is to come to a new mind and to think more as God thinks. This is only possible by His grace, working through Scripture and Church teaching.

It is significant that the ashes are smeared on the forehead or sprinkled on the head—we are called to a faith that transforms our mind. We are called to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2).

Hence yet another option for the priest is to say, “Repent and believe the Good News” as he imposes the ashes.

How real are your ashes? Do you intend the things described above as you go forth? Or is it just a ritual, something to do because it’s “sorta neat”? Pray and reflect on the deeper meaning of the ashes.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Five Meanings of the Ashes We Receive Today

The Churching of Women and its Relation to the Feast of the Presentation

On Saturday we celebrated the Feast of the Presentation. I thought it might be appropriate to describe a related liturgy of the Church that has been largely lost: The Churching of Women. To some extent it is subsumed in the modern Rite of Baptism with the blessing of the mother, but it is not what it used to be. We may still celebrate this for women who ask, and I often do so, especially in extraordinary form baptisms.

The Churching of Women is rooted in the Feast of the Presentation. Biblically this feast commemorates the Jewish practice of a woman presenting herself at the temple forty days after the birth of a male child in order to be “purified” and blessed by the priest. As an observant Jew, Mary fulfilled this obligation and it is recorded in Luke’s Gospel:

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord” and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:22-24).

The Jewish practice of “purifying” a woman after childbirth was set forth in the Book of Leviticus:

The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding. When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the LORD to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood. These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean” (Leviticus 12:1-8).

As you can see, there is a fairly negative concept at work here: A woman becomes ritually “unclean” by giving birth due to the flow of blood and other fluids. (Note that ritual impurity is not the same as moral impurity.) And a woman who gave birth to a daughter was considered ritually unclean for even longer! It is well that the Church’s power to bind and loose has freed us from this thinking. Keep in mind that this was ceremonial law, not moral law, so the Church is not setting aside immutable moral law in abrogating this notion of ritual impurity.

Nevertheless, the custom and instinct of blessing women after childbirth was retained in the Church, albeit with an altered understanding from Jewish teaching. The rite came down through the centuries and was largely intact until very recent times. (The official Latin title of the Rite was Benedictio Mulieris Post Partum, the blessing of women after giving birth. The rite was largely discontinued in the 1960s in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The Book of Blessings published in 1984 does contain a “Blessing of a Woman after Childbirth,” but it is seldom used and is significantly altered from the old rite that was use until the mid-1960s. There is also a blessing of the mother at the Rite of Infant Baptism.

There are many reasons for the discontinuance. I remember my mother and other women of her generation saying they had been taught the Jewish history of this rite and rejected it for that reason, but the Catholic Church was clear to distinguish its practice from the Jewish roots. As early as the 6th century, Pope Gregory protested the notion that childbirth caused defilement. Further, the prayers of the old Churching of Women Rite did not mention a need for purification, speaking only of blessing and thanksgiving. So, those who taught women of my mother’s generation against this practice were probably engaged more in polemics than anything else. Another reason for the discontinuance was probably just because so many things were dropped after the Council.

I would like to recommend this beautiful ritual to your attention. In an extended sense it fulfills what Mary did forty days after the birth of Christ. We do not understand it in an Old Testament way, but we rescue and fulfill the tradition with the beauty of Christian faith and the dignity of mothers.

A PDF version of the ritual can be found here: The Churching of Women. Though it has never been required by the Church, it is a beautiful way to welcome back and bless a woman who may have been away for a few weeks after giving birth. She has labored well for her family and this ritual can serve simultaneously as a blessing and thanksgiving extended by the Church to the noble women who are our mothers. The blessing can be given after a baptism or after Mass, collectively to recent mothers or individually. While the current baptismal rite contains a blessing for the mother, this older rite is a more special blessing. Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, which permits the use of the older forms of the sacraments, has made these older rituals more available. Here is the concluding prayer of the rite:

Almighty, everlasting God, through the delivery of the blessed Virgin Mary, Thou hast turned into joy the pains of the faithful in childbirth; look mercifully upon this Thy handmaid, coming in gladness to Thy temple to offer up her thanks: and grant that after this life, by the merits and intercession of the same blessed Mary, she may merit to arrive, together with her offspring, at the joys of everlasting happiness. Through Christ our Lord.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Churching of Women

The Lord Is Eager to Engage the Battle; Are You?

The Gospel for Thursday of the 29th Week of the Year speaks of a great cosmic battle taking place all around us. In it, Jesus speaks of His mission to engage our ancient foe and to gather God’s elect back from the enslaving clutches of Satan, who was a murderer and a liar from the beginning (cf John 8:44).

Jesus is approaching Jerusalem for the final time and describes the battle that is about to unfold. It is a battle He wins at the cross and with His resurrection, but it is one whose parameters extend across time to our own era.

Let’s consider Jesus’ description of the cosmic battle and of His mission as the great Shepherd of the sheep and the Lord of armies.

A Passion to Purify – Jesus begins by saying, I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!

Fire is both powerful and transformative. It gives warmth and makes food palatable, but it also consumes and destroys. Nothing goes away from fire unchanged!

The Lord has come to purify us by the fiery power of His love, His grace, and His Word. He has a passion to set things right.

Purification is seldom easy or painless, though, hence the image of fire. In this great cosmic battle, fire must be cast upon the earth not only to purify but to distinguish. There are things that will be made pure but only if other things are burned away and reduced to ashes.

This image of fire is important because many people today have reduced faith to seeking enrichment and blessings. Faith surely supplies these, but it also demands that we take up our cross and follow Christ without compromise. Many if not most enrichment and blessings come through the fiery purification of God’s grace, which burns away sin and purifies us of our adulterous relationship with this world. Fire incites, demands, and causes change—and change is never easy.

Therefore, Jesus announces the fire by which He will judge and purify this earth and all on it, rescuing us from the power of the evil one.

This is no campfire around which we sit singing songs. Jesus describes it as a blaze that must set the whole world on fire!

How do you get ready for fire? By letting the Lord set you on fire! John the Baptist promised of the Lord, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt 3:11). Indeed, the Lord sent forth His Spirit on the early Church as tongues of fire (cf Acts 2:3) to bring them up to the temperature of glory and to prepare them for the coming judgment of the world by fire.

The battle is engaged. Choose sides. If you think you can remain neutral or stand on some middle ground, I’ve got news for you about which side you’re really on. No third way is given. You’re either on the ark or you’re not. You’re either letting the fire purify you or you’re being reduced to ashes. You’re either on fire by God’s grace (and thereby ready for the coming judgment of the world by fire) or you’re not. The choice is yours. Jesus is passionate to set things right. He has come to cast fire upon the earth.

A Painful Path The text says, There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!

The Lord does not come among us merely come to get us out of trouble but to get into trouble with us. Though sinless, Jesus takes upon Himself the full weight of human sinfulness and manfully carries it to the cross. He accepts a “baptism” in His own blood on our behalf.

In waging war on our behalf against the evil one, Jesus does not sit in some comfortable headquarters behind the front lines; He goes out “on point,” taking the hill of Calvary and leading us over the top to the resurrection glory. He endures every blow, every hardship on our behalf.

Through His wounds we are healed by being baptized in the very blood and water He shed in the great cosmic war.

It is a painful path He trod, and He speaks of His anguish in doing it, but having won the victory He now turns to us and invites us to follow Him through the cross to glory.

The choice to follow is ours. In this sense the cosmic battle continues, as Jesus describes in the verses that follow.

A Piercing Purgation – In words that are nothing less than shocking, the Lord says, Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.

The words shock but they speak a truth that sets aside worldly notions of compromise and coexistence with evil. For there to be true peace, holiness, and victory over Satan, there must be distinction not equivocation, clarity not compromise. Fire and water do not mix; you can hear the conflict when they come together: hissing, popping, searing, and steaming. One must win; the other must lose. Compromise and coexistence are not possible.

The Lord said (in Matthew 10:34) that He came not for peace but for the sword. In this there is a kind of analogy to a surgeon’s scalpel. The surgeon must wield this “sword” to separate out healthy flesh from that which is diseased. Coexistence is not possible; the diseased flesh must go. The moment one talks of “coexisting” with cancer, the disease wins. Were a doctor to take this stance he would be guilty of malpractice. When there is cancer, the battle must be engaged.

Thus, in this great cosmic battle, the Lord cannot and will not tolerate a false peace based on compromise or an accepting coexistence. He has come to wield a sword, to divide. Many moderns do not like it, but Scripture is clear: there are wheat and tares, sheep and goats, those on the Lord’s right and those on His left, the just and wicked, the lowly and the proud, the narrow road to salvation and the wide road to damnation.

These distinctions, these divisions, extend into our very families, into our most intimate relationships. This is the battle. There are two armies, two camps. No third way is given. Jesus says elsewhere, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters (Matt 12:30).

About all this we must be sober and must work for our own salvation and the salvation of all, for while there may not be a season of mercy and patience now, the time is short for us all. The distinction between good and evil, righteousness and sin, will be definitive and the sword must be wielded.

Thus, the Lord speaks to us of a cosmic battle in the valley of decision (cf Joel 3). Jesus has won, and it is time to choose sides. Even if our own family members reject us, we must choose the Lord. The cosmic battle is engaged. The fire is cast, and the sword of the Spirit and God’s Word is being wielded. The Lord has come to divide the good from the wicked, the sheep from the goats. Judgment begins now, with the house of God. Scripture says,

For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)

If this be the case, how do we choose sides, practically speaking? And having chosen sides, how do we join the fight with the Lord in the cosmic battle?

The Case of the Missing Veil

One of the most consistent appeals to tradition is women wearing veils. (I have written more about it here, here and here.) For the record, I love to see women wearing veils and hats at Mass, but as a general notion, nothing says tradition as much as the veil.

But how traditional is it? I have been collecting photographs from Catholic tradition and was surprised to see that in photos prior to 1960 most of the women were not wearing veils. It seems that the period during which veils were worn was short—not more than ten years (early to late 1960s). Rather, women wore hats. Most but not all the photos were taken in the United States, but they consistently show women in hats, not veils prior to 1960.

Do we need to adjust our notion of what type of headwear is traditional for women? I love veils and think that most women today are more likely to wear a veil than a hat. Veils also link more closely to the biblical tradition. However, the photograph evidence is clear that hats predominated prior to about 1960.

The photograph above was taken in my parish in 1954; it shows hats, no veils. The video below contains photos from various places in the U.S. and Europe as well as various times, nearly all from the early 1900s to the late 1960s. I provide some commentary as well. (The video is quite lengthy (more than 12 minutes long), so I have put the pictures into a pdf document and posted it here: Find the Missing Veil.)

Are You Ready For When the Lord Shall Come?

In the Gospel for Tuesday of the 29th Week, Jesus reminds us to be ready, but what does that mean? Let’s consider four ways that the Lord describes.

READY to WORK – Jesus says, gird your loins,which is the ancient equivalent of saying, “roll up your sleeves.” The Lord has a work for us and wants us to get to it. He’s not thinking of a worldly career, but rather things such as raising children in godly fear, pursuing justice, and growing in holiness. The Lord wants us to work in His Kingdom.

We must commit to prayer, Sunday worship, reception of the sacraments, obedience, and holiness. The Lord has a particular work for each of us based on the gifts He has given us. Some can teach, others work well with senior citizens, still others have a good head for business and can provide employment at a just wage. Some are called to priesthood or the religious life. Some are called to suffering and to offer that suffering for the salvation of souls. Some serve in strength, others in weakness. In some way, all are called to serve, to work. So, work with what the Lord gave you to advance His Kingdom. Part of being ready means doing our work.

READ the WORD – The Lord says, light your lamps.” Taken from a literal standpoint, this refers to getting ready as described in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). In another sense a lamp is a symbol for Scripture. For example, Your Word, O Lord, is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps 119:105), We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19).

So, from today’s Gospel we can also understand that an essential part of being ready is being rooted and immersed in Scripture and in the teachings of the Church. In this increasingly secular world, so hostile to the faith, our minds are bound to be sullied unless we read Scripture every day. How can our minds be sober and clear if we are inebriated by the world? Being ready means reading Scripture each day and basing our life on it.

REMAIN WATCHFUL – The Lord says, “and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. … Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

There are different ways to watch and wait. There is the passive watching and waiting such as one might do when waiting for a bus to come, but there are other more active ways such as a waiter might exhibit as he hovers in the background anticipating the needs of the diners. It is this watchful and waiting spirit that the Lord has in mind here. If we have invited guests to our home, we prepare our house and make sure everything is in order as we await their arrival. In a less literal sense, to set our house in order is to sweep clean our soul of sin and all unrighteousness, by God’s grace, and to remove the clutter of worldliness. Regular confession and daily repentance sweep clean the house of our soul; simplifying our life and minimizing worldly attachments de-clutters the house of our soul.

Have you prepared the house of your soul for the Lord’s arrival? If you haven’t, the Lord says that you may experience him as a thief; He is not really a thief, though, because everything belongs to Him. If we have not renounced our worldliness and greed, if we have not de-cluttered our lives worldly attachments, the Lord will come to take back what is His; He will seem a thief to us because we think it is ours. It’s never a good idea to call God, the Lord and owner of all, a thief!

REFLECT on your reWARD – The Lord says, Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants.

The Lord is clear that He has a reward for those who are found ready. It is prefigured in the banquet of the Eucharist, wherein the Lord prepares a meal and feeds us. The Lord says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). And I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:30).

For most of us in the Western world today, food is easy to come by and not given a great deal of thought. In the ancient world this was not so, and one of the pleasures people looked forward to most was a hearty meal in the company of friends and family. The Lord offers us the magnificent blessing of Heaven, where we will be with Him and those whom we love forever in unspeakable joy and peace.

Do you meditate often on Heaven and long for its rewards? It seems strange to me that we speak so little about Heaven. Because it is not a place any one of us has been, it’s hard to fully understand what it will be like, but we should be reflecting often on the joy awaiting us there. Part of being ready to go home to Lord is longing for that day. When we want to do something we eagerly prepare for it; we are motivated and make sacrifices to do it.

Last year a group from my parish traveled to the Holy Land. Many of them saved money for two years through a payment plan to be able to go. In preparation, we gathered together periodically, studying maps and reading Bible stories. On the day of departure many in the group arose early and arrived at the airport hours ahead of time. Eagerly reflecting on Heaven and the joy awaiting us there should be similar. If we desire Heaven we will more naturally get ready and lay aside whatever is necessary to make the passage there.

So, here are four ingredients constituting a recipe for readiness. You’d better set your house in order ’cause he may be comin’ soon!

What Happened to Us When We Were Baptized into Christ Jesus?

The first reading for Monday’s daily Mass, from the Letter to the Ephesians (Eph 2:1-10), gives a concise account of our salvation by Christ Jesus. It begins by describing our absolute need for salvation and then speaks to the gifts that come with it. Let’s take a look.

Dead in our Sins – The text says, You were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you once lived following the age of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the desires of our flesh, following the wishes of the flesh and the impulses.

There is nothing more helpless than a corpse. It cannot do anything but lie there and decompose. This was our condition before baptism. No amount of good works, repentance, or spiritual pushups could accomplish a thing. We were dead, helpless, powerless. We had a debt we could not repay.

We were decomposing by following the prince of this world, the Devil. We had the rigor mortis of stubbornness and the stench of disobedience. Dead in our sins, the desires and pride of our flesh won the day. We indulged our passions and impulses. Even keeping of the law was a matter of pride. We thought that we could be righteous by following certain narrowly understood laws. These were just the illusions of a dying man. Isaiah said of us,

All of us have become like one who is unclean, even our righteous acts are like a polluted garment; we all wither like a leaf, and our iniquities carry us away like the wind (Is 64:6).

Death was all around us and within us.

Destined for Wrath – The text says, And we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest.

Wrath is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the holiness of God. It is like fire and water—they cannot coexist; there is a conflict between them that is heard in the hissing of water when it falls onto a fire.

God is a holy fire and we cannot endure the heat and light of His glory in our sinful state. By grace, we must be brought up to the temperature of glory by the Holy Spirit and must become accustomed to the glorious light of God’s truth. Without these gifts we cannot endure the presence of God.

Yes, this is wrath. It is not that God is angry; it is that we cannot endure Him as He is. It is like being exposed to the light after being used to the darkness. We say that the light is harsh, but the problem is that we’ve become too accustomed to the dark.

Before the grace of Christ, we were children of wrath. Only by the light of His grace and the warmth of His love can we hope to draw close to Him who is the light of truth and blazing charity.

Delivered in Christ – The text says, But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved), raised us up with him, …

On account of His mercy, God the Father sent us Christ Jesus as a glorious gift. Jesus comes to restore us to life, to bring us to the light in stages and bring us up to the temperature of glory!

In His Spirit, who descends like tongues of fire on us, we are set on fire. Through His proclaimed truth, He who is the light of the world accustoms us to the bright light of God’s truth. Yes, we are brought out of the dark, cold dungeon of the tomb and raised up with Christ!

Designated in Honor – The text continues, … and [the Father] seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

In Christ, we are already seated in the heavens—mystically but truly. As Christ has ascended into the heavens, we ascend with Him as members of His body.

One may wonder how it is that he is “up there” while we are “down here.” When I ride the elevator to the tenth floor, although my head arrives before my feet, I get there. In Christ our head, we are already seated at the Father’s right hand. Where the head of the body goes, the members will follow.

Brethren, this is our future and our dignity if we are faithful: seated with Christ at the Father’s right hand in Heaven!

Diligent in Fruitful Faith – The text says, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.

Meanwhile, we walk in fruitful faith. Our faith bears fruit in works. Yet even our works are God’s grace. The text says that God prepared them for us in advance so that we should walk in them. All is grace! St. Augustine says that God’s love extends to this, that His graces should be our merits. Thus, our works are our faith working through love (cf Gal 5:6).

Such is our state in Christ and God’s gift: we who were dead in our sins have been brought to life in Him. Destined for glory, we journey upward in fruitful faith and love.

Thank you, Father, for Jesus and your Spirit, who breathes new life in us. We could nothing to accomplish this; we were dead. By your grace we now live and are destined to be with you. Keep us faithful unto death, lest we lose this precious gift and die in the hardness of our heart. Yes, keep us faithful unto death.