Today’s Feast of St. Mark (also known as John Mark) reminds us that the Gospel occurs within the human setting and condition. Mark was at the center of the tension between Paul and Barnabas; their differences were so severe that it led to a parting of ways.
Yet St. Mark, despite his less-than-stellar beginning in Church leadership came to prove his worth and was reconciled to St. Paul.
To fill in the back story, let’s begin by St. Barnabas and then turn our attention to St. Paul.
St. Barnabas was a Jew, a native of Cyprus, and of the tribe of Levi. As such he likely served in the Temple as a priest, depending on his age at his conversion to Christianity. His given name was Joseph, but the apostles called him Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement” (cf Acts 4:36).
He was probably a wealthy man, for St. Luke describes him early in Acts as a generous man who sold land to support the growing Church.
Most critically, it was Barnabas who vouched for the new convert, Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul. Paul was viewed with suspicion by those in Jerusalem, including the apostles, who only recently had been targets of his persecutions (cf Acts 9:26).
Talk about one of the most pivotal introductions in history! Indeed, it may be argued that this changed the course of Western history and surely that of the Church. Barnabas smoothed the way for St. Paul, the Church’s most zealous missionary and greatest biblical theologian. After Barnabas’ introduction, Paul was able to move freely around the disciples.
Sometime after this, the apostles in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch, which was home to both Jews and Gentiles. It seems that he was not yet considered to be of the rank of apostle or bishop (Acts 13:1 calls him a teacher). Rather, he went more to observe and be of help. Under the leadership of Barnabas and others, the Church in Antioch thrived and grew quickly.
So, Barnabas sent for Paul to come and join him. They worked together for at least a year, and it was at Antioch that the disciples were called Christians for the first time (Acts 11:26). Barnabas continued to advance and build up Paul’s ministry in the Church. Barnabas gave us a stunning moment in Church history; it is not wrong to call St. Paul his protégé.
At a certain critical point, leaders at Antioch laid hands on Barnabas and Saul. While some debate this, to me it is the clearest moment when it can be said that they were ordained and given the rank of bishop and the title “Apostle.”
Missionaries – Having done this, the Church leaders at Antioch, directed by the Holy Spirit, sent Barnabas and Paul forth on missionary work. This journey is what is now known as Paul’s first missionary journey. It is interesting to note that early in the journey described in Acts, Barnabas is listed first, followed by Paul. By Acts 13:43, however, the order changes and Paul is listed first. This suggests a change in leadership.
They took with them on this first journey the Barnabas’ cousin John, who was called Mark. Somewhat early on the journey, Mark decided that he could no longer go on and turned away from the missionary trip. Later on, this would prove to be significant.
The last major role for Barnabas was in Acts 15 at the Council of Jerusalem, which was convened to decide whether Gentile converts could become full members of the Church without converting to Judaism. Barnabas, along with Paul, provided important testimony to the zeal and conversion of the Gentiles.
A sad moment – After the Council in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch in triumph, their ministry vindicated. They planned another missionary journey together, but then came a critical, sad moment:
Sometime later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left (Acts 15:36-40).
Although it was a sad moment, it illustrates the human situation. Here were two men who had been like brothers. Paul owed his inclusion in leadership largely to Barnabas. They had taught together. They had journeyed hundreds of miles by ship and then by foot into the northern mountains, making converts in effective ministry. More recently they had just returned from Jerusalem, their vision and ministry approved and vindicated against naysayers among the brethren. Yet at this magnificent moment, Paul and Barnabas argued and parted company over Barnabas’ cousin Mark.
One of the things I admire most about the biblical text is that it does not whitewash things like this. Heroes are not perfect men; they are flawed and representative of the human condition. They are gifted and strong but struggle with the same issues and demons that haunt us all.
What is the lesson to be learned? God uses us even in our weakness. Who was right and who was wrong here? It is difficult to say. Two gifted men were unable to overcome an impasse. Alas, that is the fallen human condition. God will continue to work, however. He can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines.
Even sadder, this is the last we hear of Barnabas in any substantial way. He who had been so instrumental in the life of his protégé Paul, and in the early Church now exits the stage in the heat of an argument. The text says that Barnabas and Mark sailed for Cyprus, and then there is silence.
Barnabas is mentioned in Galatians, but given the vague timeline, it is difficult to assume it took place after the disagreement described in Acts. It likely took place earlier and may illustrate that there were already tensions between Paul and Barnabas before the “Mark incident.” In Galatians we see that Barnabas was following Peter’s weak example of not eating with Gentiles, which was clearly upsetting to Paul (cf Gal 2:13).
Healing? It would also seem that Barnabas continued to labor as a missionary for Paul, who makes mention of him to the Corinthians (cf 1 Cor 9:6). Although Paul’s reference to Barnabas is a passing one, it gives no indication of a rift between them. This suggests that there was some healing of the division, even if they did not labor together again.
More healing? Even for John, called Mark (likely the same Mark who became secretary to Peter and authored the Gospel of Mark), it would seem that he and Paul overcame their difficulties. For St Paul wrote to Timothy, likely about the same Mark, Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry (2 Tim 4:11). There is something of a redemption here for Mark and a healing for Paul. The “useless” deserter Mark is now one who is helpful to Paul.
Although the loss and seeming disappearance of St. Barnabas is sad, there is still the story of St. Mark’s growth to greater maturity and to leadership. Though less-than-reliable at first, Mark later proves his worth. It would seem we have St. Peter to thank for that, taking Mark as his secretary and aide. We also owe thanks to St. Barnabas, who did not give up on Mark. In the end, John Mark proves himself helpful in the ministry and St. Peter called him “my son” (1 Peter 5:14).
Yes, God can make a way out of no way. Even in our weakness (and often only because our weakness keeps us humble), God can do great things.
On the Feast of All Saints we celebrate men and women of every place and time who lived with great sanctity. Many of them are known to us and are among our great heroes of the Faith; even more are unknown to us.
The most common hymn for this feast day is “For All the Saints.” It is interesting that the name of the tune to which the lyrics are set is “Sine Nomine” (without name). In other words, this feast celebrates those who, although they attained great sanctity, are largely unknown to us. They lived in ordinary circumstances and were fairly hidden from the world at large, but God knows them and has awarded them the crown of righteousness. They, too, are part of the rich tapestry of this feast and the glory of the Communion of Saints.
It is fitting, then, that on the Feast of All Saints, Donald Cardinal Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington released a pastoral letter on racism entitled, “The Challenge of Racism Today.” We are all well aware of recent racial tensions in our country and the Cardinal would have us reflect on this problem as Catholics. This reflection should come from the perspective of our faith more so than from politics and worldly culture.
I’d like to review a number of the Cardinal’s teachings under three headings.
I. God’s Vision – Cardinal Wuerl begins by noting our daily experience here in the Archdiocese of Washington:
The sight from the sanctuary of many a church in our archdiocese offers a glimpse of the face of the world.
Indeed, our parishes are ethnically and racially diverse. The rich beauty of diversity in the unity of our faith is manifest everywhere.
“Catholic” means universal and it could not be more obvious in Washington, D.C. as it is in many other regions. Catholics come from everywhere!
This diversity is from God Himself, who has not only created the rich tapestry of humankind but also delights in uniting us all in His Church.
Babylon and Egypt I will count among those who know me; Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia, these will be her children and Zion shall be called “Mother” for all shall be her children.” It is he, the Lord Most High, who gives each his place. In his register of peoples he writes: “These are her children,” and while they dance they will sing: “In you all find their home.” (Psalm 87:1-7)
It was always God’s plan that people from every nation would find their home in His family. St. Paul spoke eloquently of this plan:
The mystery was made known to me by revelation;…. the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the people of other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. And the mystery is this: that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:3-6)
By God’s grace, by His plan and vision, we are called to be members of the One Body, the Church, through the grace of shared faith.
Jesus sets forth the realization of God’s desire in his great commission:Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).
This is order number one from Jesus: Go everywhere; call everyone; make them disciples by teaching them what I have taught and baptizing them into the one Body of Christ, the Church.
This is God’s vision, His plan, and His command.
II. Sinful Revisions– We human beings are often slow to hear and even slower to do what God commands. When it comes to reaching across racial and ethnic boundaries to make disciples, we often give in to fear and the hostilities that result. We also give in to pride and notions of racial superiority. This has been an ugly tendency throughout human history.
As people of faith, we cannot ignore God’s command to include all in His Kingdom. The Cardinal tells us that we must confront and overcome racism. This challenge is not optional.
Jesus warns us against wrathful disparagement of others: Anyone who says to his brother, “Raca,” will be subject to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be subject to the fire of hell (Matt 5:22). He counsels us, So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matt 5:23-24).
The Cardinal cites the Catechism and bids us to remember this:
This teaching is applied to our day with clarity in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone …” (CCC # 357). … There is no basis to sustain that some are made more in the image of God than others.
Cardinal Wuerl cites the pastoral letter, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” published by the United States bishops in 1979:
Racism is a sin. … [I]t divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.
We have no right or capacity to overrule God or reject the dignity He Himself has established. The Cardinal describes racism as a denial of the goodness of creation.
While some dispute the particulars of racism in this or that specific situation, we cannot simply brush aside the consistent experience of so many of our brothers and sisters. The Cardinal reminds us:
To address racism, we need to recognize two things: that it exists in a variety of forms, some more subtle and others more obvious; and that there is something we can do about it… even if we realize that what we say and the steps we take will not result in an immediate solution to a problem that spans generations.
As we are reminded by St. Paul, There should be no division in the body, but that its members should have mutual concern for one another. If one member suffers, every member suffers with him (1 Cor 12:25-26).
As a Church we have not always lived up to the call that God has given us. The Cardinal writes:
Saint John Paul II in the Great Jubilee Year asked for the recognition of sins committed by members of the Church during its history. He called for a reconciliation through recalling the faults of the past in a spirit of prayerful repentance that leads to healing of the wounds of sin. So acknowledging our sins and seeking to remedy what we can, we turn with sorrow to those we have offended, individually and collectively and also express gratitude for the tenacity of their faith…. We also recognize the enduring faith of immigrants who have not always felt welcome in the communities they now call home.
It is a remarkable testimony that so many who have felt spurned by fellow Christians and Catholics did not reject the faith, but tenaciously held on to it. Even in the midst of great pain, so many stayed in the faith; through forgiveness and great patience they have helped to purify fellow Christians and work for ongoing reform within the Church.
III. Overcoming Divisions – The Cardinal also writes:
Because God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, we have received the ministry of reconciliation. Saint Paul tells us, “God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ … entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
Thus the Cardinal invokes a key dimension of the apostolic office: reconciling us to one another and to God. As a bishop, Cardinal Wuerl urges us to seek reconciliation where it is needed.
Reconciliation requires first that we acknowledge our sins. As Jesus says, we must go and be reconciled to our brother or sister. If we have in any way fostered division, if we have scorned, mocked, excluded, or derided others, we should admit the sin and seek to be reconciled.
While there are often grievances on all sides when it comes to race, this need not stop us from hearing and pondering the consistent and widespread experience of those who feel excluded or scorned. Sometimes it just starts with listening, before rushing to judge whether the experience of others is valid.
There are wounds that go back decades and even centuries. Reconciliation takes time. Recognizing another’s pain and experience is an act of respect. Listening is a very great gift.
Please consider making a careful, spiritual reading of the Cardinal’s pastoral letter. See it as an honest assessment of our need to recognize racism and repent for any cooperation we have had in it, past or present. Consider, too, his call for us to entrust our hearts to the Lord, so that we can, as the Cardinal says, envision the new city of God, not built by human hands, but by the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.
In the weeks ahead, other initiatives and gatherings will be announced in the diocese. Among them is a recognition of the many African-Americans who were enslaved and who were buried in our Catholic cemeteries without any headstones or markers. You might say that they were buried sine nomine, without any recognition of their names.
It is fitting, then, that on this Feast of All Saints, when we acknowledge the many saints whose names we do not know, that we also remember those buried in our cemeteries whose names are known only to God. They were called slaves but were in fact God’s children, possessed of the freedom of Children of God. May they rest now with God in the peace and unity of the Communion of Saints.
Many fine histories exist on the life of St. Francis of Assisi so there is no need to replicate that information in this post. (Here is a recently published one that is particularly good.) As we prepare for the Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4), let’s reflect on a few lessons from his life.
1. On the possibility of radical conversion and the role of affliction and humiliation – The son of a successful cloth merchant, St. Francis enjoyed a very affluent, easy life growing up and partook of the permissiveness of the times. He was a natural leader and drew to himself a crowd of young people who spent their nights in wild parties. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, wrote this of him: “He attracted to himself a whole retinue of young people addicted to evil and accustomed to vice.” Francis had visions of grandeur and became a knight. Perhaps the horrors of battle and a year as a prisoner of war began a gradual conversion in him. The Fourth Crusade was called in 1205 and Francis impulsively bought new armor and sallied forth. He turned back, however, perhaps as a result of his own anxiety, and more surely due to a vision he had in which God rebuked his manner of life. When he returned home, Francis was derided as a coward and suffered the great anger of his father.
This crisis in Francis’ life ultimately led to his conversion—and a dramatic one at that. The Book of Psalms says, Before I was afflicted I strayed. But now I have kept your word, O Lord (Psalms 119:67). We all know people whose conversion seems unlikely, but God may yet humble them and draw them to conversion. Further, we ought never to underestimate the fact that affliction and humiliation may be necessary components of conversion for many of us. At times we may feel as though God has abandoned us or others whom we love. In fact, He may be doing some very important work. Our greatest enemy is pride and our best friend is humility. Humility and affliction may be gifts in strange packages. Learn to trust in God’s ways, painful though they may sometimes be. God may be drawing us to deeper conversion.
2. On the freedom of poverty and simplicity – Francis and his early companions embraced a life of radical poverty. So severe was this poverty that some thought them mad and rebuked them as irrational. To this, St. Francis responded, If we had any possessions we should need weapons and laws to defend them. One hagiographer wrote, Possessing something was the death of love for Francis. Also, Francis reasoned, what could you do to a man who owns nothing? You can’t starve a fasting man, you can’t steal from someone who has no money, you can’t ruin someone who hates prestige. They were truly free . Not all of us may be able to embrace such severe poverty due to our obligations to others. More and more, though, we ought to experience a growing simplicity of life that frees us from the power of this world. Poverty and simplicity are powerful and fruitful gifts of God. They, too, are gifts in strange packages. If we can learn to embrace them, we will discover greater freedom.
3. On the Love of God’s Church and how reform is best accomplished – During St. Francis’ lifetime the Church was in need of reform. Greed, worldliness, and scandal were problems among both the clergy and laity. Heresies were abundant. Some, noting sin in the Church, chose to hate the Church and leave her. Others, like Francis, heard the call of God, who never ceases to love His Church; they intensified their love for the Church and worked for her reform. In a vision, St. Francis sensed this call from God: “Francis, repair my Church.” Gradually he deepened his understanding of the Lord’s call and began that reform by seeing first to his own life.
It is possible for critics of the Church to decry the sins of others yet not see their own. Francis began in the vineyard of his own life and then went forth, gently preaching conversion to his neighbors through personal example. The movement for reform spread. It was a grassroots effort; it was personal. Within ten years there were more than 5,000 men in Francis’ community; the Poor Clares (which he founded with St. Clare of Assisi) were also growing.
True reform begins with us. Simply denouncing the sins of others or of the Church, real though they may be, seldom has lasting effect. The best reform starts with personal conversion. Personal conversion spreads to others and then reform is underway. It works. If we allow God to set us on fire, then we can spread that fire.
4. On unity with all creation and the gift of wonder and awe – St. Francis thought of nature—all of God’s creation—as part of his brotherhood. In some sense, the sparrow was as much his brother as was the Pope.
There is a tendency today among some in the radical environmental movement to see man as the enemy of the natural world rather than an integral part of it, to view man as an outsider with respect to the natural world rather than as a partaker and member of it. For St. Francis, though, there was brotherhood.
In brotherhood there are legitimate needs we satisfy for one another. Nature supplies us and we in turn help to perfect nature. We have done this in our best moments by helping to increase the yield of our fields and bringing far greater bounty to the earth through advances in agriculture and animal husbandry. We also seek to master disease and push back the destructive boundaries of what is unruly in nature (e.g., infestation). Although we have often transgressed through unnecessary pollution, in the end we are not the enemies of nature but companions and brethren to the natural world.
St. Francis can help us to find this balance. He surely exhibited a sense of gratitude for God’s creation and a deep wonder and awe at all that God has given. We, too, ought to develop a deep appreciation for the beauty of God’s work and we should reverence our very selves as a part of that creation.
5. On the Need to Evangelize the Muslim World – We may think that the struggle with the Muslim world is new, but it is not. In his life, St. Francis decided to go to Syria to convert the Moslems (the preferred term until about 1940) while the Fifth Crusade was being fought. In the middle of a battle, Francis decided to do the simplest thing and go directly to the sultan, Melek-el Kamel, in order to make peace. He and his companion were captured and Francis was taken to the sultan. Francis challenged the Moslem scholars to a true test of religion by fire, but they refused. Francis proposed to enter the fire first, under the condition that if he left the fire unharmed, the sultan would have to recognize Christ as true God. Although the sultan turned down the challenge, he was so impressed that he allowed Francis to preach to his subjects. While Francis did not succeed in converting him, the sultan’s last words to Francis were these: Pray for me that God may deign to reveal to me that law and faith which is most pleasing to him. This work of Francis’ and his attempted rapprochement with the Moslem world had far reaching consequences, long past his own death: after the fall of the Crusader Kingdom, it was the Franciscans, of all Catholics, who were allowed to stay on in the Holy Land and were recognized as “Custodians of the Holy Land” on behalf of Christianity .
Today, with the emergence of extremist forms of Islam, we need more than ever to have the courage of St. Francis to engage the Muslim world and try to bring them to Christ. It may be difficult work and successes may be few at this stage, but God calls us to be faithful, not necessarily successful. Ultimately, success is up to God. We who are Catholics have a special role in this evangelization because the Muslim world shares with us a respect for Mary, Mother of Jesus our Lord. I’ll elaborate more on that point in a future post.
This first video below attempts to capture the magnificence of creation. It is set to the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King,” whose lyrics are based on a poem by St. Francis known as “The Canticle of the Sun” (Canticum Fratris Solis (Canticle of Brother Sun)).
Here is a video of a dog whose owner taught him to pray!
Yesterday’s feast of St. John of the Cross points to a rich vein of teaching from the spiritual master. Among St. John’s teachings is that deep union with God requires a growing purification from the things of this world and from inordinate passions. The path to this is often not easy. In this post I would like to ponder some hard spiritual truths that will set us free.
In calling them “hard truths,” I mean that they are not the comfortable bromides that many seek. They speak bluntly about the more irksome and difficult realities with which we are confronted. But if we accept them, they have a strange way of bringing serenity by getting us focused on the right things instead of chasing after false dreams.
A person can spend his whole life being resentful that life isn’t perfect, forgetting all the while that we are all in exile. We are making a difficult journey to a life in which, one day, every sorrow and difficultly will be removed and death will be no more—but not now.
There is an unexpected serenity in living in the world as it is rather than resenting it for not being the way we want it to be. For now, the journey is hard and we have to be sober about our obtuse desires and destructive tendencies. That is why there is value in calling these insights “hard truths that will set us free.”
In the opening section of his Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross lays out a presumed worldview that the spiritually mature ought to have attained. Because he presumes it of his reader, he states it only briefly.
The soul … has grown aware of her obligations and observed that life is short (Job 14:5), the path leading to eternal life constricted (Mt. 7:14), the just one scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18), the things of the world vain and deceitful (Eccles. 1:2), that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14), and that the time is uncertain, the accounting strict, perdition very easy, and salvation very difficult. She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished, that she must render an account of everything—of the beginning of her life as well as the later part—unto the last penny (Mt. 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12), and that it is already late—and the day far spent (Lk. 24:29)—to remedy so much evil and harm. She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures, Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved …
Let’s examine these hard but freeing spiritual insights one by one. My commentary is in red.
The soul has grown aware of her obligations and observed
that life is short (Job 14:5)
More than in any other age, we today entertain the illusion that death can easily be postponed—it cannot. We are not guaranteed the next beat of our heart, let alone tomorrow! It is true that with advances in medical science, sudden death is relatively uncommon, but this can easily lead us to believe that we can cheat death—we cannot.
Life is short; we do not get to choose when we will die. Both my mother and sister died suddenly, swept away in an instant. They never got to say goodbye. You do not know if you will even finish reading this sentence before death summons you.
This is wisdom. It is a hard truth that gives us an important perspective. Life is short and you have no way of knowing how short.
What are you doing to get ready to meet God? What do you get worked up about? What are you not concerned about? Are your priorities rooted in the truth that life is short? Or are you making wagers in a foolish game in which the house (death and this world) always wins?
There is a strange serenity and freedom in realizing that life is short. If we do so, we tend not to get as worked up about passing things and become more invested in lasting things and the things to come.
[that] the path leading to eternal life [is] constricted ( 7:14)
Another illusion we entertain today is that salvation is a done deal. A great heresy of our times is a belief in almost-universal salvation, which denies the consistently repeated biblical teaching that declares, Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt 7:13-14 inter al).
In parable after parable, in warning after warning, Jesus speaks with sober admonition about the reality of Hell and the finality of judgment. No one loves you more than Jesus does, and yet no one warned you more about Hell and judgment than He did.
Salvation is not easy; it is hard. Jesus said this; I did not. He did not say this because God is mean, but because we are stubborn, obtuse, and prefer darkness to light. We need to sober up about our stubbornness and our tendency to prefer “other arrangements” to what God offers and teaches. In the end, God will respect our choice. The day will come when our choice for or against the Kingdom and its values will be sealed forever.
This is a hard saying but it sets us free from the awful sin of presumption, a sin against hope. It instills in us a proper focus on the work that is necessary to root us in God. Accepting this hard truth will make you more serious about your spiritual life and aware of the need for prayer, the Sacraments, Scripture, and the Church. It will help you to have more well-ordered priorities, ones that are less obsessed with the passing and more rooted in the eternal. It will make you more evangelical and urgent to save souls.
[that] the just one [is] scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18)
This is a further truth that sets aside modern errors about an almost-universal salvation. The fuller context of the quote is this: 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? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:17-18)
And yet despite this and many other quotes and teachings like it, we go one presuming that almost everyone will go to Heaven. We set aside God’s Word and replace it with human error and wishful thinking. We substitute human assurances for God’s warnings. We elevate ourselves over St. Paul, who said that we should work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) and who spoke of disciplining himself lest, after preaching to others, he should be lost (1 Cor 9:27). Are we really better and more enlightened that Jesus? Than Paul? Than Peter?
Salvation is hard. This is not meant to panic us, but to sober us to the need for prayer, the Sacraments, Scripture and the Church. Without these medicines we don’t stand a chance. And we must persevere to the end.
This hard truth sets us free from illusion and sends us running to the Lord, who alone can save us. Smug presumption roots us in the world. Godly fear and sober awareness of our stubborn and unrepentant hearts send us to Jesus, freeing us.
[that] the things of the world [are] vain and deceitful ( 1:2)
Such a freeing truth! First, that the things of this world are vain. That is to say, they are empty, passing, and vapid. We so highly value power, popularity, and worldly glories, but they are gone in a moment. Who was Miss America in 1974? Who won the Heisman Trophy in that same year? And if you happen to know, do you really care? Does it really matter? It’s empty show, glitter, fool’s gold.
And though we should fight for justice, for the sake of the kingdom, even here the Scriptures counsel some perspective: I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, spreading himself like a green laurel tree. But he passed away, and behold, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found. (Ps 37:35-36).
And how deceitful is this passing world! The main deceit of this world is to say, I am what you exist for. I am what matters. I am what satisfies.” These are lies and deceptions on all fronts. The form of this world is passing away; it cannot fulfill our infinite desires. Our hearts were made for God and only being with Him one day will satisfy us.
Yet so easily do we listen to the world’s seduction and lies! Too often we want to be lied to. We prefer to chase illusions and indulge vanity and deceit.
How freeing this truth is! We learn to make use of what we need and begin to lose our obsession with vain and passing things and with our insatiable desire for more. Yes, perhaps you can survive without that granite countertop.
This is a very freeing truth if we can accept its hard reality. And, becoming more free, a deeper serenity finds us.
that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14)
The world is passing away. It can’t secure your future. The world’s cruel lie that it can fulfill you is on display in every graveyard. So much for the world’s empty promise: “You can have it all!” Yes, and then you die.
Meditate on death frequently. Indeed, the Church bids us to rehearse our death every night in prayer by reciting the Nunc Dimittis.
Scripture says,For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb 13:14). Do you have your sights fixed where true joys are? Or are you like Lot’s wife?
Let this truth free you to have the proper perspective: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Col 3:1).
that the time is uncertain
Do you have plans for tomorrow? Great, so do I. The only problem is that tomorrow is not promised or certain, neither is the next beat of your heart. This is another hard but freeing truth.
[that] the accounting [is] strict
Jesus warns, But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). St. Paul says, He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart (1 Cor 4:5). And he adds, So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:9-10). And James chillingly says, So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:12-13). What James says is particularly chilling because so many today are without mercy.
If God judges us with the same strict justice we often dish out to others, we don’t stand a chance. The accounting will be strict anyway, so don’t pile on unnecessary severity and wrath. This is another freeing truth that helps us take heed of the coming judgment.
[that] perdition [is] very easy
I wonder why he repeated this. I just wonder!
[that] salvation [is] very difficult
And look, he repeated this, too! I wonder why. Maybe repetition is the mother of studies.
[that we are often and strangely ungrateful and unmoved] She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished
This is a sober truth that calls us to remember. What does it mean to remember? It means to have present in your mind and heart what the Lord has done for you so that you are grateful and different.
We live so many years and so many hours of each day in ingratitude. We get all worked up and resentful about the smallest setbacks while almost completely ignoring the countless blessings we receive each day.
Our ingratitude is particularly obnoxious because of the easy manner in which we mindlessly discount our incredibly numerous blessings, while magnifying every suffering, setback, and trial. We spend so much of our life in the “complaint department.” We are often stingy with even a simple “Thank you, Lord, for all your obvious and hidden blessings. Thank you, Lord, for creating, sustaining, and loving me to the end, and for inviting me to know, love, and serve you.”
that she must render an account of everything—of the beginning of her life as well as the later part—unto the last penny ( 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12)
Did he repeat himself again? Now why do you suppose he does that? You don’t think he considers us stubborn, do you?
[that] it is already late—and the day far spent ( 24:29)—to remedy so much evil and harm Repetitio mater studiorum.
[that the unrepentant will experience the wrath to come] She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures
The wrath of God is really in us, not in God. It is our experience of discomfort before the holiness of God. It is like being accustomed to a dark room and suddenly being brought into the bright afternoon sunlight. We protest and claim that the light is harsh, but that is not so. We are incapable of tolerating the light due to our preference for and acclimation to the darkness. In the same way, God is not “angry.” He is not moody or harsh. He is God and God does not change.
St. John teaches here the hard but freeing truth that God is holy; no one is going to walk into His presence unprepared. If we prefer the world and its creatures to the Creator, we thereby prefer the darkness and cannot tolerate the light. Heaven is simply not possible for those who prefer the darkness. And thus Jesus says, And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19). That’s right,this occurs just three verses after the famous and oft-quoted John 3:16.
And while the sinful soul may “feel” that God is angry and is hiding Himself, the problem is in the sinful soul, not God.
The freedom of this hard saying comes in reminding us and urging us to get ready to meet God. God is not going to change; He can’t change. So we must change, and by His grace, become the light of His holiness.
[that we need to call on the Savior] Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved.
Here is the real point of all of these hard truths: to make us love our Savior more, to learn to depend on Him and run to Him as fast as we can. Only when we know the hard truths are we really going to get serious.
After all, who is it that goes to the doctor? Is it the one who thinks he doesn’t have cancer (even though he does)? Or is it the one who knows he’s sick?
Sadly, the answer is not clear enough to us in modern times, times in which even within the Church there are many who don’t want to discuss any of the hard truths we need to lay hold of before we can get serious.
A steady diet of “God loves you and all is well no matter what” has emptied our pews. Why? Well, who goes to the spiritual hospital if all he hears is that nothing is wrong and that his salvation is secure, almost no matter what?
The good news of the Gospel has little impact when the bad news is no longer understood. What does salvation mean if there is no sin and nothing from which to be saved? Now of course the bad news should not be preached without pointing to the good news as well; the point is that both are needed.
Thus, St. John’s hard truths are not meant to discourage. They are meant to sober us and send us running to the doctor.
Now look, you’ve got it bad and that ain’t good. The good news is that there’s a doctor in the house. Run to Him now; He’s calling you!
November 22nd is the feast day of St. Cecilia. She is the patron saint of musicians, especially church musicians, of which I am one. Prior to my ordination I was at various times a Cantor, a choir director, and an organist.
St. Cecilia was born into a wealthy family in Rome in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Her parents promised her in marriage to a pagan nobleman named Valerian, even though she had vowed her virginity to God.
It is said that as the musicians played at her wedding, she “sang in her heart to God.” This story led to her being named the patron saint of (church) musicians, who should themselves sing to God rather than in order to impress human beings.
Prior to the consummation of her marriage, Cecilia told her husband Valerian that she had taken a vow of virginity and that an angel was watching over her to guard her purity. Valerian was skeptical and asked to see the angel as proof. Cecilia told him that he needed faith in order to do so and that he should journey to be baptized by Pope Urban, who was living near the third milestone along the Appian Way. Amazingly, Valerian made the journey.
Following his baptism, Valerian returned to his wife and found the angel by her side. The angel crowned Cecilia with a chaplet of roses and lilies. Shortly thereafter Valerian’s brother, Tibertius, was also baptized. The two brothers made it their mission to bury Christian martyrs who were put to death by the prefect of the city, Turcius Almachius.
Both brothers were eventually arrested and brought to trial before the prefect. They were executed when they refused to offer a sacrifice to the gods.
Meanwhile, the courageous Cecilia went about evangelizing. During her lifetime she was able to convert over four hundred people, most of whom were baptized by Pope Urban.
Cecilia was later arrested and condemned to be suffocated and scalded in the baths. The bathhouse doors were shut and the fires were stoked to an intense heat, but it is said that Cecilia did not even sweat. The prefect then sent an executioner to behead her, and although he struck her three times with the sword, was unable to decapitate her. He left her bleeding, and she clung to life for three days, preaching all the while. After her death, she was buried by Pope Urban and his deacons.
When Cecilia’s body was exhumed in 1599 it was found to be incorrupt; she was the first of the incorrupt saints. She was buried draped in a silk veil and wore a gold embroidered dress.
Give thanks to God for this heroic martyr and fruitful evangelizer!
I often go to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington D.C. in order to celebrate Mass. On one occasion when I was in the crypt church, I took a series of photographs of the beautiful mosaics of the women of the Scriptures and the early Church. Among the women depicted there are Agatha, Agnes, Anastasia, Anne, Brigid, Catherine, Cecilia, Lucy, Margarita, Perpetua, Felicity, and Susanna.
At right is a mosaic of St. Cecilia.
The mosaics date back to 1927 and were designed and installed by Ravenna Mosaic Co. of St. Louis. They are the backdrops for the 14 side altars that ring the apse and side galleries of the crypt. Inspiring Latin inscriptions are integral to each mosaic. I could spend hours reading the inscriptions and studying them!
Below is a video I created several years ago of some of the images. The music you hear was composed by Francisco Guerrero. The Latin text of the music is from the Song of Songs: Ego flos campi, et lilium convallium. Sicut lilium inter spinas, sic amica mea inter filias (I am the flower of the field, and the lily of the valleys. As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters).
Here at Holy Comforter-St Cyprian Parish in Washington, D.C., we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi with the blessing of the animals. Although most folks bring dogs to be blessed, there are usually some who bring cats and a few other animals like ferrets. Once, someone even brought a snake!
Over the years, I have shared with the dog owners a list of “Things we can learn from dogs.” When I was growing up, we always had a dog, so although I did not personally compose the list below, I can vouch for its accuracy.
But over my years of city living I have grown accustomed to having cats (they are great mousers in old rectories). So I set my thoughts toward composing a similar list of what I have learned from cats. They are such independent and self-assured animals! They really let you know who’s boss, but mitigate their arrogance somewhat with clownish play and affectionate “head-butts.”
God speaks to us in all of creation, including our pets, to whom we are often so close. What is God saying? Many things!
So here is my list of what I have heard God say through the cats I have adopted and loved over the years: Tupac, Katy Bell, Jenny June, Gracie Girl, Rita Hayworth, Ellen Bayne, Jerry McGuire, Benedict (Benny), Daniel, and Jewel. (That’s Jewel’s picture at the upper right.) Some of them have lived in the alley, a few in the house, but they have all taught me things. Here are a few pearls of wisdom they have conveyed:
If you can’t get your way, lie across the keyboard until you do. (Be persistent.)
Keep them guessing with meows and long looks to keep their attention. (Mystery attracts.)
When you’re hungry, meow loudly so they feed you just to shut you up. (Get your needs met.)
Always find a good patch of sun to lie in. (Simple pleasures have their place.)
Life is hard and then you nap. (Be well-rested.)
Climb your way to the top; that’s why the curtains are there. (Be resourceful and creative.)
We are Siamese if you please. We are Siamese if you don’t please. (Be yourself.)
Purr often and use head-butts judiciously. (Express gratitude.)
Sleep on their clothes and personal items so as to leave your scent. (Forget-me-nots have their place.)
Use your litter box. (Be clean and polite.)
Be a mouser. (Earn your keep.)
Clown around and do silly stuff. (Be humble.)
Run around wildly for no apparent reason; chase toys and laser pointers. (Exercise often.)
Rest in hidden places. (Solitude has its place.)
The following list of things we can learn from dogs has been making the rounds on the Internet for years, but it really is rather instructive. Dogs do have a lot to teach us, and I thank God for the dogs to whom I have been close over the years: Prince, Missy, Molly, Taco, Salsa, Chili, Kaila, Lucy, Clancy, and many others. And again, although others compiled this second list, I can affirm through much experience how true it is!
Fifteen things we can learn from dogs:
Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joy ride.
Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy.
When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
Let others know when they’ve invaded your territory.
Take naps and stretch before rising.
Run, romp, and play daily.
Eat with gusto and enthusiasm.
If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
When someone is having a bad day, be silent. Sit close by and nuzzle them gently.
Thrive on attention and let people touch you.
Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.
When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body.
No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout. Instead, run right back and make friends.
Delight in the simple joys of a long walk.
Happy Feast of St. Francis!
All creatures of our God and king Lift up your voice and with us sing, Alleluia! Alleluia!
Today’s Feast of Saints Peter and Paul honors two pillars of the early Church. While all the Apostles form the foundation, Peter and Paul stand out profoundly in terms of their influence and their work. And while some suggest a division between them, the Church insists that they must been seen together; hence their feast is set forth in this way.
Indeed, those who see division between them base it on only one text (Galatians 2:11), in which St. Paul withstood Peter so as to correct him. Peter had taught rightly concerning the inclusion of the Gentiles, but (at least according to St. Paul) he struggled to associate with them more freely and was fearful of the Judaizers. Yes, even popes are not beyond reproach. We hold that popes are prevented from formally teaching error in faith or morals, not that they are sinless.
The same St. Paul had gone to visit St. Peter in order to get to know him (Gal 1:18) and later submitted his teachings to Peter and others in Jerusalem for scrutiny (Gal 2:1-10). And at the Council of Jerusalem, Paul and Peter were allies (Acts 15).
Thus we ought not to exaggerate differences beyond the evidence. The Church today bids us to celebrate them together.
There are many different approaches that could be taken to today’s first reading. But since the chief work of the Church and the apostles is to draw us to faith, it behooves us to look at it in detail and see in it a kind of roadmap to growing in faith. Peter’s story and experience were not just for him; they were for us as well. Let’s see what we can learn as we focus on five facts of faith from the story of St. Peter in today’s first reading (Acts 12:1-11).
I. The Persecution of Faith – Peter is in jail. A persecution, driven by Herod, had broken out in Jerusalem. In this persecution, James (of “Peter, James, and John” fame) was killed. Peter was also rounded up and slated for death. Thus we see him sitting in prison awaiting his fate.
Persecution is the normal state of affairs for a Christian. Not every Christian suffers equally at every stage and place in history, but Jesus spoke often about the need to be willing to endure persecution for His sake. He said, A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (Jn 15:20). He added, If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (Jn 15:19). He said elsewhere, In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). He also warns, Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).
II. The Prayer of Faith – In the midst of this, we note that the Church is described as praying fervently to God. The Greek word translated here as fervent is ἐκτενῶς (ektenos), which means fully stretched. The image of a taught rope comes to mind. This is prayer that is stretched out, that is costly, that involves more than a brief moment. This is praying that is persevering. This sort of prayer involves more than an honorable mention in the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass. This is the sort of prayer that involves long hours. Time is invested; effort is expended; energy is invested. It is the sort of prayer that nags God until the solution is at hand.
A popular expression in the African-American community is “by and by.” It refers to the need to be patient and persevering in prayer while waiting for God to answer. In other words, God will answer in His own time; it is for us to keep praying. This is prayer without ceasing; it does not give way to discouragement, but just keeps on praying.
III. The Prescription of Faith – In the midst of this fervent prayer of the Church, a hidden process begins. An angel is dispatched from Heaven, enters the jail, and comes to Peter. His instructions to Peter amount to a kind a prescription for a life of faith, and we note it in five stages:
Rise–The angel says, “Get up”. This is a call to rise from death, to rise from despairing and doubt, to stand up! Every Christian must die to sin and rise to new life; he must die to slavery and despair and rise as a free and active agent, ready to walk with God.
Restrain –The angel then tells Paul to put on his belt (cincture), which is traditionally a sign of chastity and continence. The Christian life cannot be riddled with unchasteness or other excesses of this world (e.g., greed, gluttony, intemperance). These hinder the journey; they weigh us down. And thus the instruction to tighten our belt.
Ready – Peter is also told to put on his sandals. This is a symbol of readiness to make a journey. When I was a child, my mother would often signal me by saying, “Put on your shoes and get ready to go.” Christians must be ready to make the journey with their feet shod with the gospel of peace, with their shoes on and ready to set out on the great pilgrimage with Jesus to Heaven. The pilgrimage goes up over the hill of Calvary and into glory. Put on your shoes and get ready to go!
Righteous –Peter is then told to put on his cloak. In Scripture, the robe is often equated with righteousness. For example, the book of Revelation says that it was given to the bride to be clothed in fine linen. The text goes on to say that the linen robe is the righteousness of the saints (Rev 19:8). There is also the parable of the wedding guests, one of whom was not properly clothed, and was therefore thrown out (Mat 22:11). At a baptism, the priest points to the white garment worn by the infant and tells everyone to see in this white garment the outward sign of his or her Christian dignity, and says that the child is to bring this garment unstained to the great judgment seat of Christ. Thus the instruction of the angel reminds us that every Christian is to be clothed in righteousness, and is to be careful to keep this robe, given by God, unsoiled by the things of this world.
Run – Finally, the angel commands, “Follow me.” In other words, run the race of faith. Toward the end of his life, St. Paul said, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). Jesus told His disciples, simply, “Follow me.”
IV. The Procession of Faith – Following this there comes a series of instructions from the angel to Peter. These instructions amount to a type of direction to make the procession of faith. We see three things:
Not easy –The text says that they passed the first guard, then a second, and finally came to an iron gate. In our journey, there are always obstacles and dangers. We must recall that we live in paradise lost. Life is not easy; it is hard. There are hurdles and perils. We are called not to avoid them, but to face them with courage. God allows these obstacles in our life in order to test us, to see if we will follow Peter’s example and move past the one guard, then the second, and then the apparently locked gate (which God opens for us). Life is not easy, but if we only trust Him, God’s grace conquers the challenge.
Narrow–The text describes a narrow alley through which Peter and the angel pass. Jesus spoke of the way that leads to salvation as a narrow way (e.g., Mat 7:14). Why is this so? Because the narrow way is the cross! Most are not interested in this difficult path, the one that is steep and narrow. Most look for the broad highway through the valley, the easy way. The world still insists that we live in paradise (which Adam rejected) and that life should be easy. It is a lie; the path now is over the hill of Calvary. It is a narrow and steep path, but it is the only way to glory. Avoid preachers who never mention sin, who never speak of repentance, who never speak of struggles and difficulties. Avoid them! The tuning fork, the A440 of the Gospel is the cross. There are glories and joys in this life to be sure, but the fundamental path to Heaven and glory is through the cross; it cannot be avoided. Walk the narrow way, the way of the cross. Do not listen to “prosperity preachers,” who exaggerate one truth and exclude all others.
Need an angel –As soon as Peter emerges from the prison and out into the openness of freedom, the angel disappears. Up until this point he needed an angel—and so do we. Though demons are roaming and patrolling this earth, so are God’s angels. We all have an angel assigned to us as well as many other angels along the way to help us. Never forget this. We do not journey alone. For every demon, there are two angels (Rev 9:15). Stop fearing demons and call on God’s angels, trusting in God’s grace.
V. The Product of Faith – Finally comes the product of faith: Peter is able to assert confidently, Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me (Acts 12:11). Do you know this yourself, or is it only true because others have said so? Do you experience God’s saving glory? Have you experienced him rescue you? How? Do you have a testimony? The normal Christian life is to know and experience that our God can and does rescue us from this hell-bound, sin-soaked world. We have a God who can make a way out of no way, and can, as St. Paul says, rescue us from this present evil age (Gal 1:4). Do you know this? Have you experienced this? If so, then tell someone; it is the product of faith!
As November winds down and Advent approaches, the traditional meditation we make on the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell) is still operative. A classic writing by St. Cyprian comes to mind. It is a meditation on the fundamental human struggle to be free of undue attachment to this world and to have God (and the things awaiting us in Heaven) as our highest priority.
In writing this meditation, St. Cyprian had in mind the Book of James and the Epistle of St. John. Yes, surely these dramatic texts were present in his mind as he wrote. Hence, before pondering St. Cyprian’s writing, it may be good to reference these forceful and uncompromising texts:
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God … Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded (James 4:4, 8).
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).
And remember the words of the Lord Jesus:
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Matt 6:24).
Nothing is perhaps more difficult to imagine, especially for us moderns, than being wholly free of the enticements of the world. These texts, so adamant and uncompromising, shock us with their sweeping condemnation of “the world.” For who can really say that he has no love for the world?
We may, however, be able to find temporary refuge in making a distinction. The adulterous love of attachment and the preference for the world over its creator is certainly to be condemned. Yet surely the love for what is good, true, and beautiful in the world is proper. St. Paul speaks of those things “which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:3-5).
This distinction, though proper, cannot provide most of us with full cover, since we also know that the adulterous love of this world is still aplenty in our soul, however much noble love we also have. And the lust of the world is more than willing to sacrifice the good, the true, and the beautiful (not to mention God Himself) for baser pleasures.
Only God can free us. And while some are gifted to achieve remarkable poverty of spirit before departing this life, most of us are not ultimately freed from the lust of this world until God uses the dying process itself to free us. Slowly, we die to this world as we see our appearance, skills, and strengths begin to fade with age. As old age sets in we say farewell to friends, perhaps our spouse, and maybe our home as well. Our eyesight, hearing, and general health begin to suffer many and lasting assaults; complications begin to set in.
For those who are faithful (and I have made this journey with many an older parishioner as well as some of my family members), it begins to become clear that what matters most is not here in this world, that our true treasure is in Heaven with God. A gentle longing for what is above grows. For those who are faithful, the lust of this world slowly dies as we let God do His work.
Yet too many, even among those who believe, resist this work of God’s. While a natural fear of death is to be expected, too many live in open denial of and resistance to what is inevitable. Our many medicines and creature comforts help maintain the illusion that we can hold on to this world, and some people try to tighten their grip on it. A natural fear of death is supplanted by a grasping, clinging fear, rooted in a lack of faith and desire for God.
And this is where we pick up with St. Cyprian:
How unreasonable it is to pray that God’s will be done, and then not promptly obey it when he calls us from this world!
Instead we struggle and resist [death] like self-willed slaves and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity.
And yet we expect to be rewarded with heavenly honors by him to whom we come against our will! Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? What is the point of praying so often for its early arrival if we should rather serve the devil here, than reign with Christ?
The world hates Christians, so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you?
John is most urgent in his epistle when he tells us not to love the world by yielding to sensual desires. Never give your love to the world, he warns, or to anything in it. A man cannot love the Father and love the world at the same time. All that the world offers is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and earthly ambition. The world and its allurements will pass away, but the man who has done the will of God shall live forever.
Our part, my dear brothers, is to be single-minded, firm in faith, and steadfast in courage, ready for God’s will, whatever it may be.
Banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows. That will show people that we really live our faith.
We ought never to forget, beloved, that we have renounced the world. We are living here now as aliens and only for a time. When the day of our homecoming puts an end to our exile, frees us from the bonds of the world, and restores us to paradise and to a kingdom, we should welcome it.
What man, stationed in a foreign land, would not want to return to his own country as soon as possible? Well, we look upon paradise as our country, and a great crowd of our loved ones awaits us there, a countless throng of parents, brothers and children longs for us to join them. Assured though they are of their own salvation, they are still concerned about ours. What joy both for them and for us to see one another and embrace! O the delight of that heavenly kingdom where there is no fear of death! O the supreme and endless bliss of everlasting life!
There is the glorious band of apostles, there, the exultant assembly of prophets, there, the innumerable host of martyrs, crowned for their glorious victory in combat and in death. There, in triumph, are the virgins who subdued their passions by the strength of continence. There the merciful are rewarded, those who fulfilled the demands of justice by providing for the poor. In obedience to the Lord’s command, they turned their earthly patrimony into heavenly treasure.
My dear brothers, let all our longing be to join them as soon as we may. May God see our desire, may Christ see this resolve that springs from faith, for he will give the rewards of his love more abundantly to those who have longed for him more fervently (Treatise on Mortality: Cap 18:24, 26: CSEL 3, 308, 312-314).
As November ends and Advent begins, remember the four last things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Prepare to meet God eagerly. Run toward Him with joy and confidence, calling on Him who made you for Himself. Death will surely come. Why not let it find you joyful, victorious, and confident—eager to meet God?