In times like these, consider well this text from Hebrews:
Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15).
In the past I have written on these verses allegorically, pointing out that “the fear of death” can be understood more broadly as anything that diminishes us, that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter or more popular that we are. Perhaps we do not feel attractive enough; we’re too tall or too short, too fat or too thin. Maybe we resent the fact that others are richer or more powerful. Perhaps we wish we were younger, stronger, and more energetic. Maybe we wish we were older, wiser, and more settled. Perhaps we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, a nicer home, or more accomplished children. Maybe we compare ourselves unfavorably to a sibling who has done better financially or socially than we have. Advertisers tap into this wider understanding of the fear of death (diminishment) to create anguish over our inadequacy, selflessly offering us their product, which will remedy the problem for just $19.95 plus shipping and handling.
But in the face of this most recent global panic about a relatively strong virus, we need also to ponder the literal meaning of this text. Whether you are of the view that this is an extreme threat that requires dramatic measures or you think the matter is exaggerated and the measures are too severe, it is clear that the fear of death has seized large numbers throughout the world. The text from Hebrews above should make us ponder the satanic origins of this gripping fear.
What makes the worldwide fear suspiciously satanic is that it is almost wholly focused on physical death and worldly setbacks. Would that we had such fears about our spiritual and moral well-being. There are innumerable threats to our very salvation in the temptations and seductions all about us. These can kill our soul through mortal sin. There are many drives of sin that fester in us like a cancer, hardening our hearts or giving us a “spiritual Alzheimer’s” wherein we forget why we were made and who is our Heavenly Father.
You see, I have a dream that we, as a world, recognize the gravity of our collective spiritual condition. In this dream, the heads of governments insist that we all follow strict protocols to avoid temptation as well as seducing others into sin. There would be 24/7 coverage, with updates on our progress, interviews with priests and religious, proclamation of scripture by moral and biblical experts, and stories of recovery and courage from the lives of the saints related by hagiographers. I dream of many rushing to prepare the test kits of examinations of conscience and an army of priests and bishops deployed to hear confessions around the clock. Well, you get the point.
It is certainly not wrong to look for a cure for the latest virus. I only wish we were as concerned for our spiritual and moral well-being. Jesus says, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28). We do face physical threats in this world, but they are not our worst enemy. Moral plagues and sinful viruses can damage us eternally.
In times like these, when the temptation to fear death is so strong, resist the devil and run to God. Dwell in the shelter of the Most High. Be sheltered by Him from the scourge that lays waste at noon and the plague that prowls in the darkness (cf Ps 91). Make your first goal to stay spiritually alive and flee anything that might lead to mortal sin. If you do this, then even if you were to die, by dying in faith you would receive a maximum promotion (likely through Purgatory) to the heavenly realms. Be strong! Fear not!The devil is a liar; he wants us to fear lesser things so that we ignore the more serious. Wash your hands, but don’t forget the spiritual version: Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you (James 4:8).
At Mass on Sunday for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, we read a text from Hebrews that describes our most basic and primal fear. Our inordinate fear of what people think of us is rooted in an even deeper fear, one that is at the very core of our being. The Hebrews text both names it and describes it as being the source of our bondage. In order to unlock the secret of the text, I want to suggest to you an interpretation that will allow its powerful diagnosis to have a wider and deeper effect.
Consider, then, this text from Hebrews:
Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:14-15).
This passage is clear in saying that the devil is the origin of our bondage to sin, but also that hold on us is through the fear of death. This is what he exploits in order to keep us in bondage.
When I have explored this teaching with people, I have found that many have difficulty understanding it at first. Especially for the young, death is almost a theoretical concept; it is not something they consciously fear. This is particularly true in the modern age, when medical advances have so successfully pushed back the boundary between life and death. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency (perhaps a brush with death), but in general death does not dominate our thoughts. So, then, what is meant by the fear of death and how does it hold us in bondage?
Well, what if we were to replace the word “death” with “diminishment”? To be sure, this is an adaption of the text (the Greek text (φόβῳ θανάτου – phobo thanatou) is accurately translated as “fear of death”), but doing so can help us to see what the text is getting at in a wider sense. It doesn’t take long to realize that each diminishment we experience is a kind of “little death.” Diminishments make us feel smaller, less powerful, less glorious.
What are some examples of diminishments we might experience? On one level, a diminishment is anything that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter or more popular. Perhaps we do not feel attractive enough; we’re too tall, too short, too fat, or too thin. Maybe we resent the fact that others are richer or more powerful. Perhaps we wish we were younger, stronger, and more energetic. Maybe we wish we were older, wiser, and more settled. Perhaps we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, a nicer home, or more accomplished children. Maybe we compare ourselves unfavorably to a sibling who has done better financially or socially than we have.
Can you see how this fear of diminishment sets up many sins? It plugs right into envy and jealousy. Pride comes along for the ride, too, because we try to compensate for our fear of inadequacy by finding people to whom we feel superior. We thus indulge our pride or seek to build up our ego in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we run to the cosmetic surgeon or torture ourselves with unhealthy diets. Maybe we ignore our own gifts and try to be someone we really aren’t. Perhaps we spend money we don’t have trying to impress others so that we feel less inadequate.
Think of the countless sins we commit trying to be popular and to fit in. We give in to peer pressure and sometimes do terrible things. Young people will join gangs, use drugs, skip school, have sex before marriage, pierce and tattoo their bodies, use foul language, etc. Adults also have many of these things on their list. All of these things are done in a quest to be popular and to fit in. This desire to fit in is all about not wanting to feel diminished, and diminishment is about the fear of death, because every experience of diminishment is like a small death.
Advertisers know how to exploit the fear of diminishment in marketing their products. I remember studying this topic in business school at George Mason University. The logic goes something like this: You’re not pretty enough, happy enough, adequate enough, or comfortable enough; you don’t look young enough; you have some chronic illness (e.g., depression, asthma, diabetes)—but just buy our product and you will be “enough”; you won’t be so pathetic, incomplete, and, basically, diminished. If you drink this beer, you’ll be happy, have good times, and be surrounded by friends. If you use this toothpaste, soap, or cosmetic product, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful people and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car, people will turn their heads and be impressed with you. The message is that you don’t measure up now (you’re diminished) but our product will get you there. Just buy it and you’ll be happier, healthier, and more alive!
Perhaps you can see how such advertising appeals to greed, pride, materialism, and worldliness; it puts forth the lie that these material things will solve our problems. In fact, appeals like this actually increase our fear of diminishment (and death) because they feed the notion that we have to measure up to these false and/or unrealistic standards.
It is my hope that you can see how very deep this drive is and how it enslaves us in countless ways.
This demon (fear of death, of diminishment) must be named. Once named and brought to light, we must learn its moves and begin to rebuke it in the name of Jesus. As we start to recognize the thought patterns emerging from this most primal of fears, we can gradually, by God’s grace, replace this distorted thinking with proper, sober, and humble thinking—thinking rooted in God’s love for us and the availability of His grace and mercy.
The text from Hebrews above is clear in saying that this deep and highly negative drive is an essential way in which Satan keeps us in bondage. It also says that Jesus Christ died to save us and free us from this bondage. Allow the Lord to give you a penetrating and sober vision of this deep drive, this deep fear of diminishment and death. Allow the light of God’s grace and His Word to both expose and heal this deepest of wounds.
This song pokes fun at our fad-centered culture, which is always trying to make us feel inadequate.
A word we hear frequently these days is relevance, or the related relevant. There is great insistence today that whatever is said, taught, or presented should be relevant. Often what this means is that it should be applicable, reasonable, easily understood, and, above all, modern.
This is the most problematic aspect of the modern meaning of the word. Relevance today means being in agreement, or in step, with modern times; with the thinking, leanings, customs, and mores of people here and now.
And not only are our ideas, teachings, and views expected to be relevant, so are our institutions, such as the Church. We often hear the demand that the Church should be relevant; that her teachings, structure, methods, and views should be up-to-date and should speak to the issues modern people deem important.
With proper distinctions, relevance does have its place. It is important for the Church to speak to issues that are of current concern. An extended sermon on a text from Leviticus detailing how to slaughter animals properly during the Temple sacrifice might well be critiqued as irrelevant to the average Christian today. In addition, we moderns face many issues that were unknown to the ancients, such as the morality of in vitro fertilization.
Therefore, the Church must make some adjustments with respect to culture and era, and it is reasonable for people to expect that.
However, as with many concepts that are in themselves good and proper, the demands for relevance are often taken too far. What many today want when they demand that the Church be relevant is that she reflect the culture around her, that she be more of a thermometer recording the temperature rather than a thermostat seeking to set it. For many, relevance means that the Church should reflect the views of her members rather than those of her founder and Head, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and whose Word endures forever. Relevance, to many, also means that the Church should cast aside a large number of her basic teachings and practices.
As a result, there is a lot of tension around the words relevant and relevance. It is necessary to distinguish authentic concerns for relevance from inauthentic ones.
Part of the problem in determining the proper degree of relevance is that the word itself has lost much of its original meaning. In a certain sense, many use the word to mean the opposite of its original sense.
The Latin etymology isre (again) + levare (to lift). Hence, the literal meaning is “to lift up something again.” And because re can describe a repetitive action, the word can also mean “to lift up something again and again.”
The original connotation of the word is that something has been dropped or cast aside, and then someone picks it up again. It is as though something that has fallen away or fallen into disuse is then picked up and presented anew or freshly. It could even theoretically be applied to something that was cast aside as old-fashioned or out-of-date and then taken up again or presented anew.
In a way, then, from its Latin roots, relevant means rather the opposite of its current usage. Something relevant was brought back from the dustbin, not something brand new and popular!
This examination of the Latin roots suggests a possible way forward in recapturing the word relevant and using it with proper balance.
The re in the word demands that the Church ever lift up her unchanging truths, especially when they have been carelessly cast aside. However, this does not simply mean rehashing ideas in the same way. The idea or truth is still valid, but the way we express it may need adapting; it may need re-presenting. Obviously, as the Church encounters new languages, translations need to be made. As cultures change or new situations and circumstances arise, some of the analogies and images used to express unchanging truths may need adjustment. The Latin roots capture the notion that although things sometimes do fall away or are dropped, they need to be picked up again and often re-presented, that is, presented in new and fresh ways.
In addition, the levare in the Latin root shows that if something significant has been dropped, it is important to pick it up again. Certain things cannot be allowed to drop or fall away; they must be picked up again and again.
Therefore, despite demands that the Church let some of her teachings drop or that we make them go away, the notion of relevance from its Latin roots says just the opposite. To be relevant we must re+ levare; we must insist on picking them up again and again, presenting them freshly. Even if the culture is hostile, we must continue to present, to re-present, to lift up again and again the truths that God has given us, which can never die.
In this sense we can respond to a world that demands we be relevant, “Amen!” We must pick up again and again the perennial truths that God has given us, but at times we must also accept the challenge to present them freshly and in a manner that is understandable, even infectious, to our listeners.
This song says, “Everything old is new again. … Don’t throw the past away, you might need it some rainy day.”
When we think of the word “adoration,” we think of a high form of love, perhaps the highest. Theologically, we equate adoration with latria, the worship and love due to God alone. In the vernacular, to say “I adore you” is to indicate an intense and elevated form of love.
Liturgically, adoration of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament indicates a period during which one enters into the experience of loving God and gazing upon Him in that love. The Lord, too, extends a gaze of love to us. This is beautifully stated in the Song of Songs: Behold, he is standing behind our wall, He is looking through the window, peering through the lattice (Song 2:9).
In these examples there is an intense yet resting love expressed, a love that is tender and deep, quiet and fixed.
However, the greatest act of adoration the world has ever known exhibited little of this quietude or restfulness. Indeed, one might call it quite stormy; though intense, it was certainly not restful. You might not consider it adoration at all, but consider this reflection by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.:
Adoration of infinite value was offered to God by Christ in Gethsemane when he prostrated himself saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as though wilt.” Christ’s adoration of the Father recognized in a practical and profound manner the sovereign excellence of God … The Savior’s adoration continued on the cross (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol 2, p. 251).
At the root of this most perfect act of adoration was obedience. Not only did Jesus love God, but he wanted only what His Father wanted. True adoration of God includes both a loving acknowledgment of His excellence and a submission of our will to His in loving obedience. Out of love we offer our whole life to God.
Thus, adoration is more than mere feeling, no matter how intense. It is sacrifice; it is the willing offering of one’s very self as an act of love to God, who has so loved us. No greater love is there than to lay down one’s life for God and for those we love in Him.
Is obedience and sacrifice what you and I mean when we say that we are going to Eucharistic adoration or when we say that we adore God? The most perfect act of adoration was love expressed as obedience and sacrifice.
The first reading for daily Mass on Monday (18th week of the year) was taken from the Book of Numbers. It features the Israelites grumbling about the manna in the wilderness:
Would that we had meat for food! We remember the fish we used to eat without cost in Egypt, and the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now we are famished; we see nothing before us but this manna (Numbers 11:4-5).
While it is easy to be astonished at their insolence and ingratitude, the scene presented depicts very common human tendencies; it is not unique to these people once in the desert. Their complaints are too easily our own.
Let’s look at some of the issues raised and note that many of us today struggle in the same way.
I. They prefer the abundance of food and creature comforts that come along with slavery in Egypt, to the freedom of children of God and the chance to journey to the Promised Land.Too easily, this is our struggle as well. Jesus points to the cross, but we prefer the pillow. Heaven is a nice thought, but it is in the future and the journey is a long one.
It is easy for us to prefer our own version of “melons and leeks.” Perhaps it is possessions, or power, or popularity. Never mind that the price we pay for them is a kind of bondage to the world and its demands. When the world grants its blessings, we become enslaved by the fact that we have too much to lose. We are willing to compromise our freedom, which Christ died to purchase for us, and enter into bondage to sin. We will buy into lies, commit any number of sins, or perhaps suppress the truth—all in an attempt to stay popular and well-connected. Why? Because we have become so desperate for the world’s blessings that we will compromise our integrity or hurt other people just to get those things we think we can’t live without.
We don’t like to call it bondage, though. Instead, we call it being “relevant,” “modern,” “tolerant,” and “compassionate.” Yes, as we descend into deeper darkness and greater bondage to sin and our passions, we are pressured to call it “enlightenment,” “choice,” and “freedom.” Although we use different terminology, it is still bondage for the many who are afraid to break free from it.
We are in bondage to Egypt, enslaved to Pharaoh. We prefer that to the freedom of the desert, with its difficult journey to a Promised Land (Heaven) that we have not yet fully seen. The pleasures of the world, its melons and leeks, are displayed to us in the present and available for immediate enjoyment.
The cry still goes up: Give us melons; give us leeks; give us cucumbers and fleshpots! Away with the desert. Away with the cross. Away with the Promised Land, if it exists at all. It is too far off and too hard to reach. Melons and leeks, please. Give us meat; we are tired of manna!
II. They are bored with the manna.While its exact composition is not known, it would seem that manna could be collected, kneaded like dough, and baked like bread. As such, it was a fairly plain substance, meant more to sustain than to be enjoyed.
Remembering the melons, leeks, and fleshpots of Egypt, they were bored with this plain manna. Never mind that it was miraculously provided every day by God in just the right quantity. Even miracles can seem boring after a while. The Lord may show us miracles today but too easily do we demand even more tomorrow.
We are also somewhat like children who prefer brownies and cupcakes to more wholesome foods. Indeed, the Israelites’ boredom with and even repulsion to the miracle food from Heaven does not sound so different from the complaint of many Catholics today that Mass is boring.
While it is certainly true that we can work to ensure that the liturgy reflects the glory it offers, it is also true that God has a fairly stable and consistent diet for us. He exhorts us to stay faithful to the manna: the wholesome food of prayer, Scripture, the sacraments, and stable, faithful fellowship in union with the Church.
In our fickleness, many of us pursue the latest fads and movements. Many Catholics wonder why we can’t we be more like the mega-churches that have all the latest bells and whistles: a Starbucks, contemporary music, and a rock-star-like pastor delivering a sensitive, toned-down, multimedia sermon with many promises and few demands.
As an old spiritual says, “Some go to church for to sing and shout, before six months, they’s all turned out!” Yes, some will leave the Catholic Church and other traditional forms that feature the more routine but stable and steady manner, in favor of the latest and greatest. They often find that within six months they’re bored again.
While the Church is always in need of reform, there is a lot to be said for the slow and steady pace as she journeys through the desert relying on the less glamorous but more stable and sensible food: the manna of the Eucharist, the Word of God, the Sacred Liturgy, prayer, and fellowship.
III. Who feeds you?Beyond these liturgical preferences of many for melons and leeks over manna, there is also a manifest preference for the food of this world. There is a tragic tendency for many Catholics—even regular church-goers—to get most of their food not from the Lord, Scripture, and the Church, but from the Egypt of this world.
Most dine regularly at the banquet table of popular entertainment, secular news media, and talk radio. They seem to eat this food quite uncritically! The manna is complained about, but the melons and leeks are praised without qualification.
While Christians cannot wholly avoid all contact with the world or eschew all its food, when do the melons and leeks ever come up for criticism? When do Christians finally look closely and say, “That is not the mind of God!” When do they ever conclude that this food is inferior to what God offers? When do parents finally walk into the living room, turn off the television, and tell their children that what they have just seen and heard is not the mind of God?
Tragically, this is rare. The food of this world is eaten in amounts far surpassing the consumption of the food of God. The melons and leeks of the world are praised, while the manna of God is put on trial for not being like the food of this world.
For a Christian, of course, this is backwards. The world should be on trial based on the Word of God. Instead, even for most Catholics, the Word of God and the teachings of the Church are put on trial by the standards of the world.
The question is this: who is it that feeds you? Is it the world or the Lord? What proportion of your food comes from the world and what from the Lord? Which is more influential in your daily life and your thinking: the world or the Lord? Who is really feeding you, informing you, and influencing you? Is it the melons and leeks of this world or is it the faithful, stable, even miraculous manna of the Lord and His Church?
These are some probing questions for all of us, drawn from an ancient wilderness. Tired of the manna, God’s people harmed themselves and others. It is easy to blame others for the mess we’re in today, but there are too many Catholics who prefer the melons and leeks of this world and have failed to summon others to the manna given by the Lord.
Have mercy on us, Lord our God. Give us a deep desire for the manna you offer. And having given it to us in abundance, help us to share it as well!
Balanced spiritualties seek to find a middle ground between fascination and holy fear, a kind of reverent bowing before the Holy One Who draws me close. We saw it in yesterday’s reading in which Moses was fascinated by the burning bush and went nearer to investigate it. He was cautioned to revere this mystery:
An angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in fire flaming out of a bush. As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed. So Moses decided, “I must go over to look at this remarkable sight and see why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw him coming over to look at it more closely, God called out to him from the bush, “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” God said, “Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:2-6).
In Latin the words fascinosum and tremendum were often used to evoke this needed balance between attraction and holy fear:
Fascinosum is the source of the word “fascinating.” It refers to something that calls to me, draws me, piques my interest; it is something that strongly attracts and is deeply satisfying.
Tremendum is the source of the word “tremendous.” It refers to something awesome, too big to comprehend or grasp. In response, we draw back in a kind of reverential fear mixed with bewilderment. We feel small before the tremendous.
The human person before God is drawn by His inexorable beauty yet compelled to fall prostrate before His awesome majesty. Scripture speaks of this experience in many places. Here are but a few:
I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!” they cried one to the other. “All the earth is filled with his glory!” At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook, and the house was filled with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me. I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the Seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged” (Isaiah 6:1-5).
And Jesus was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid” (Matt 17:1-6).
I [John] saw seven gold lampstands and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest. The hair of his head was as white as white wool or as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame. His feet were like polished brass refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing water. In his right hand he held seven stars. A sharp two-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face shone like the sun at its brightest. When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead. He touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives” (Rev 1:15-17).
Note the pattern of these theophanies: They are drawn by God and behold His beauty (fascinosum), and yet they instinctively fall prostrate and need to be reassured by Him (tremendum).
It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living God (Heb 10:31). The most interesting passage to me is the third one, involving John the Beloved. This is the same John who, at the Last Supper, felt perfectly comfortable leaning back on the Lord’s shoulder and asking Him a question. Yet now as he beholds the full glory of Christ in the heavenly realm, John falls prostrate before Him. The Lord’s glory is fully unveiled here, and John, who appreciates the beauty and describes it to us, is ultimately compelled to fall down.
We are living in an era in which God has been trivialized in many ways. Perhaps it was an overcorrection to a more severe time when any misstep could result in a quick trip to Hell if we didn’t get to confession immediately. Fear was a strong motivator for many people in those days.
By the 1970s the common feeling was that God didn’t seem to care what we did; His main purpose seemed to be to affirm us. As for Jesus, gone was the unrelenting and uncompromising prophet of the Scriptures, only to be replaced by a kind of “Mr. Rogers” or “Buddy Jesus” who just went around saying nice things. The Jesus who cleansed the Temple, rebuked unbelief, demanded primacy in our life, insisted on the cross, warned of coming judgment and the possibility of Hell, and spoke with such authority that even the guards sent to arrest Him came back empty handed saying “No one has ever spoken like that man”—this Jesus was nowhere to be found.
We need a return to the balance of fascinosum and tremendum. We all sense a deep desire for God. We are drawn to Him in all His beauty and glory, but we are mere creatures and it is appropriate for us to have a reverential fear of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It may well be that God will reassure us, but our instinct to tremendum is a proper and biblical one. The biblical saints knew both fascinosum and tremendum, and they show us what a true encounter with God includes.
This does not mean that our liturgies need be somber, for reverence and joy can occupy the same heart. In the end, it is God whom we worship, and falling to our knees is wholly fitting. Seeking the necessary purification and striving for the holiness without which no one will see God (Heb 12:14) is appropriate. I wish you plenty of fascinosum and equal doses of tremendum!
In this week’s Office of Readings comes a crucial question from Elijah. It came at a time of widespread apostasy among the Jewish people. Elijah summoned a multitude to Mt. Carmel in the far north of Israel:
Elijah appealed to all the people and said, “How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.” The people, however, did not answer him (1 Kings 18:21).
The Baals were the gods of the Canaanites. It had become expedient and popular to worship them because the ruling political leaders, the apostate King Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel, had set forth the worship of the Baals by erecting altars and sacred columns. All who wished their life to go well and to have access to the levers of prosperity were surely “encouraged” to comply. Jezebel funded hundreds of prophets of Baal and the goddess Asherah. She also had many of the prophets of Israel killed and forced others into hiding. Through a policy of favoritism and fear, the true faith was being suppressed and false ideologies were being promoted.
At a critical moment Elijah thus asked his question. In effect he told them that they needed to decide whether to serve the Lord God out of courageous fidelity or the Baals out of cowardly fear.
We, too, must decide. In our times, the true faith has been undermined in the hearts of many by plausible liars, cultural war, and political correctness. Those who strive to hold to the true faith are called hateful, bigoted, and intolerant. A legal framework is growing that seeks to compel compliance to the moral revolution and abandonment of the biblical worldview. Social pressures are at work as well, seeking to force compliance through political correctness, through suppression of speech and ideas, and through the influence of music, cinema, and art.
The same question must be asked of us:
How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him (whatever the cost). If Baal is your god, follow him! If you prefer what is popular, trendy, politically correct, and safe, go for it. But understand that if you do so, your decision is increasingly for Baal, not the Lord. In a culture that insists you celebrate fornication, homosexual acts, transgenderism, abortion, euthanasia, and all sorts of intemperance, realize that your decision to comply amounts to a choice for Baal.
Some claim that they are not really making a fundamental choice against God and for the modern Baals. Rather, they prefer to think that they are being “tolerant,” that they are pleasant moderates seeking to build bridges and keep the faith “mainstream.”
Today the lines are starkly drawn. The choices required of us are clear. The ancient maxim has never been more true: tertium non datur (no third way is given). Jesus says, You cannot serve God and mammon (Mat 6:24). James adds, Adulterers! Do you not realize that a friendship with the world is enmity at God? (James 4:4) Elijah’s question cannot be watered down. There are two sides in the moral battle of our times: choose a side.
In Elijah’s time, the people did not want to answer. The text says that they just stood there, silent. But silence does not make the question or the choice go away. Indeed, prolonged silence to so fundamental a question becomes an answer in itself. Silence and fence-sitting are not valid answers when the lines are so clearly drawn.
To the fence-sitters is directed this warning in the form of an old story:
A man once refused to take sides in the critical and disputed matters of his day, nobly declaring that he was tolerant of all views. Taking his seat on the fence he congratulated himself for his moderation and openness; others did too. One day the devil came and said, “Come along now, you’re with me.” The man protested, “I don’t belong to you. I’m on the fence!” The devil simply replied: “Oh, but you do belong to me. I own the fence.”
“How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.”
One of God’s stranger affections is the special love He had for Jacob of the Old Testament. We are reading through this story in daily Mass this week.
According to some, the name Jacob means “grabber” or “usurper.” Even while still in his mother Rebekah’s womb, Jacob wrestled with his twin brother, Esau. Although Esau was born first, Jacob came forth grabbing his brother’s heel, hence his name.
Although he was a “mama’s boy,” Jacob was also a schemer, a trickster, and an outright liar. Rebekah favored Jacob and schemed with him to steal the birthright from Esau by lying to his blind father Isaac and obtaining the blessing under false pretenses.
Esau sought to kill him for this, leading Jacob to flee north to live with Laban, an uncle who was an even greater trickster and schemer than he. For fourteen years Jacob labored for Laban, in the hopes of winning his beloved Rachel, Laban’s daughter. In a wonderful payback, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Rachel’s “less attractive” sister, Leah, by hiding her appearance at the wedding. Jacob had thought he was marrying Rachel, but when the veil was pulled back … surprise! It would be seven years before Jacob would finally secure Rachel from Laban.
Frankly, Jacob deserved it. He was a schemer and was himself out-schemed by someone more devious than he.
Yet God still seemed to have a heart for Jacob. God loves sinners like you and me as well. In the story of Jacob—a hard case to say the least—God demonstrates that His love is not based on human merit. God knows and loves us long before we are born (cf Jer 1:5). His love is not the result of our merit, but the cause of it.
There came a critical moment in Jacob’s life when God’s love reached down and worked a transformation:
It was a dark and sleepless night in the desert. For reasons too lengthy to describe here, Jacob had reached a point in his life when he realized that he had to try to reconcile with his brother Esau. He understood that this would be risky and that Esau might try to kill him (he did not; they were later to be reconciled beautifully).
Perhaps this was the reason for Jacob’s troubled sleep. Perhaps, too, his desire to reconcile with his brother pleased God. Whatever the reason, though, God reached down to touch Jacob.
We pick up the story at Genesis 32:21
I. DISTRESSED man – So the [peace] offering [to Esau] passed on before him; and he himself lodged that night in the camp. The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day (Gen 32:21-24).
Jacob is distressed and has difficulty sleeping. He has, somewhat willingly, sued for peace with his brother Esau so as to be able to return to his homeland. How his brother will react is unknown to him.
Our sins have a way of catching up with us. If we indulge them, sooner or later we are no longer able to sleep the sleep of the just, and all the promises of sin now become like overdue bills to be paid.
Now that Jacob has come to this distressed and critical place in his life, God goes to work on him, to purify and test him. On a dark and lonely night in the desert, Jacob finds himself alone and afraid, and God will meet him. Note three things about the way God works:
1. God brings Jacob to a place of isolation– This is difficult for God to do. Oh, how we all love distraction, noise, and company. We surround ourselves with so many diversions, usually in an attempt to avoid considering who we are, what we are doing, where we are going, and who God is. So God brings Jacob to a kind of isolation on this dark and sleepless night in the desert. The text says, And Jacob was left alone. It’s time for Jacob to think, time for him to pray and look to deeper issues.
2. God brings Jacob to a place of confrontation– Verse 24 says, and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.
Who is this “man”? The Book of Hosea answers the question and also supplies other details of the event. He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with him—the LORD the God of hosts, the LORD is his name (Hos 12:4-5).
Yes, it is the Lord who wrestles with, who strives with Jacob. God “mixes it up” with Jacob and shakes him up. Here is an image for the spiritual life. Too many today think that God only exists to affirm and console us. He can and does do this, but God has a way of afflicting the comfortable as well as comforting the afflicted. Yes, God needs to wrestle us to the ground at times, to throw us off balance in order to get us to think, to try new things, and to discover strengths we did not know we had.
3. God brings Jacob to a place of desperation– The text says, When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him (Gen 32:25).
It is interesting to consider that God “cannot prevail” over Jacob. Though omnipotent, God will not simply overrule our human will. Thus in striving with Jacob, God can only bring him so far. But God will leave him with a lingering memory of this night and with the lesson that he must learn to lean and to trust.
Jacob is a hard case, so God disables him. By knocking out Jacob’s sciatic muscle, God leaves him in a state in which he must lean on a cane and limp for the rest of his life. Jacob must learn to lean. He will never forget this lesson because he must physically lean from now on.
Thus Jacob, a distressed man on a dark desert night, wrestles with God and learns that the answer to his distress is to strive with God, to walk with Him, to wrestle with the issues in his life. Up until this point, Jacob has not trusted and walked with God. He has schemed, manipulated, and maneuvered his way through life. Now he has learned to lean and to trust.
II. DEPENDENT man – The text next records, Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
If “the man” is God, as the text of Hosea teaches, then it seems odd that God would ask Jacob to let him go and for Jacob respond, “I will not let you go.” As if a mere man could prevent God from doing anything!
But the request of “the man” may also be understood as a rhetorical device, drawing from Jacob the required response. So the man says, “Let me go!” God wants Jacob (and us) to come to the point at which he (and we) say, “I will not let you go.”
In saying, “I will not let you go,” Jacob is finally saying, in effect, “Don’t go; I need your blessing! Lord, you’re my only hope. I need you; without you I’m sunk!”
God needs to get all of us to this place.
This critical moment has brought Jacob to the insight that he must have God’s blessing, that he wholly depends upon God.
III. DIFFERENT man – The text then says, And the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:27-28).
Here is the critical moment: Jacob finally owns his name. When his blind father Isaac had asked him his name, Jacob had lied, saying, “I am Esau.”
But after this encounter with God, Jacob finally speaks the truth: “My name is Jacob.” In this response is a kind of confession: “My name is Jacob. My name is deceiver, grabber, usurper, con artist, and shyster”
Thus Jacob makes a confession, acknowledging that all that his name implies of him has been true.
Having received this confession, God wipes the slate clean and gives Jacob a new name, Israel, a name that means, “He who wrestles or strives with God.”
Renamed, Jacob becomes a new man. He is different now; he is dependent. He will walk a new path and walk in a new way: with a humble limp, leaning on the Lord, and striving with Him rather against Him.
And thus Jacob (Israel) wins by losing! God had to break him in order to bless him, to cripple him in order to crown him. Jacob would never be the same again. He would limp for life, always remembering how God blessed him in his brokenness. Scripture says, A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Ps 51:17).
Postscript – In the Book of Hebrews, there is a kind of picture of the “new man” Jacob has become: By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph and bowed in worship, leaning on the top of his staff (Heb 11:21). Jacob limped for the rest of his life. He needed a staff to support him. He learned to lean.
Have you learned to lean?
There is a battle you can’t afford to win: the battle with God. Learn to lean and to delight in depending upon God. This is the story of Jacob’s conversion. How about yours?