Finding Peace in a Difficult Moment

Some years ago, I wrote a parable of sorts to address why God might allow evil:

An alien spaceship came near Earth to observe whether we were worthy of a visit. It focused its surveillance equipment on a random city and peered into a hospital operating room, where doctors were removing a cancerous tumor from a patient. The ship’s captain made the following report back to his superiors:

This planet is to be avoided at all costs. Their most developed creatures exhibit great cruelty, putting other members of their species to sleep so that they cannot defend themselves. Then, they cut them open with blades and remove body parts. Afterwards, they sew them back together and wake them up, only to watch them writhe in pain. This is an evil planet! Stay away!

Obviously, the alien lacked understanding and context. This was not an act of cruelty or violence but of healing. Although it appeared to be an evil undertaking, it was necessary to save the patient. To be sure, the patient suffered as a side effect of the surgery, but suffering was not the point; healing after and through the suffering was the point.

Like many of you I am both mystified and disoriented by the events of the past year: a pandemic, people walking around in masks, fear everywhere, racial strife, protests nearly all year long that frequently turned violent, and finally a contested election and an attack on the Capitol. My own neighborhood currently resembles Belfast more than it does Washington, D.C. Blockades topped with razor wire seem to be everywhere; bridges are blocked; people are warned not to enter the city on Wednesday (Inauguration Day).

I feel as if I’m living in a strange, eerie dream, and I am deeply saddened by the decline of our culture. It has been eroding for decades, but lately there has been a rapid, frightening collapse. We seem only to be able to shout and fight. Those with the power to do so, the tech oligarchs, are making the Internet seem more like a police state; the principle of free speech is being denied to many. Secularization is rapidly expanding. Church attendance is even lower than it was after the shutdown. Even the vaccines, for which we so prayed and which were developed at “warp speed,” are a source of contention. There have, of course, been legitimate moral concerns about the development of vaccines for decades, but Covid-19 has intensified this. Add to this the politicization of who should be vaccinated first, who should be responsible for distribution successes or failures, and whether the current administration should get any credit for the rapid development of vaccines. Nearly everything is a source of bitter division. It feels as if we are living in a cauldron that is near boiling.

The only place I can find peace is to go before the Lord and admit that I am powerless over most of this. I pour out my concerns to the Lord and wonder why these things are happening. Jeremiah’s lament of his own times comes to mind:

Have You rejected Judah completely? Do You despise Zion? Why have You stricken us so that we are beyond healing? We hoped for peace, but no good has come, and for the time of healing, but there was only terror (Jer 14:19).

To my similar lament I get few answers from the Lord. He only admonishes me to do the work I was given to do: to preach the Word prophetically, to pray devoutly, to celebrate the sacraments, and to care for the flock with which He has entrusted me. The rest is “above my pay grade,” and I must leave it to the Lord.

We often think that if only we had the power and control to change things, then we would have peace. But, paradoxically, our peace is most often found in admitting that when it comes to most things, we are powerless and not in control.

As the little parable above tries to illustrate, we do not often have the context to understand what God is doing or allowing. Perhaps this painful period of the past year is but the surgery necessary to cut away what is diseased and to bring forth a healing. Scripture speaks of God’s scalpel:

The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Heb 4:12-14).

Perhaps God has decided to allow our civilization to collapse so that something else may emerge. Perhaps these are the last days! I do not know, and it is not for me to know. All I do know is that God is in charge and is working out His purposes. There’s an old hymn with these lyrics:

Trials dark on every hand
And we cannot understand
All the ways that God would lead us
To that blessed Promised Land
But he guides us with his eye
And we follow till we die.
And we’ll understand it better,
By and By.

In the end, we must stay close to God and endure the suffering allotted to us (cf Rev. 13:10). The only place I find peace is at the feet of Jesus. I do not know what the future holds, but what matters most is that I know that the Lord knows. And I know what He has asked me to do. Stop watching all those news programs and stay close to Jesus, the Lord of history.

The peace of the Lord be with you all!

Welcome to “Ordinary Time”

Welcome to the wearing of the green, green vestments that is. The weeks of the year outside of seasons such as Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter are termed “ordinary time.” It’s a rather dull-sounding description, isn’t it? “Ordinary” time, hmm …

But in this case, the word “ordinary” does not refer to its typical meaning: “common, usual, or unremarkable.” Instead, it comes from the English word “ordinal” meaning “relating to a thing’s position in a series.” Some examples of ordinal numbers are “first,” “second,” and “third.” Thus ordinary time refers to weeks/Sundays that are numbered (e.g., 15th Week/Sunday in Ordinary Time).

The Latin description for this time is Tempus per annum (time through the year). Each week is merely designated as “Hebdomada # x” (Week # x).

These terms or titles seem somewhat uninspiring. This is especially the case when we consider that the old calendar (replaced in 1970, but still used in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass) numbered these Sundays and weeks in reference to Epiphany or Pentecost (e.g., Third Sunday after Epiphany, or Fourth Sunday after Pentecost). The pivotal events of Epiphany and Pentecost therefore set the tone for the following weeks e.g., “This is Third Sunday since our Lord was manifested to us,” or “This is the Fourth week since the Holy Spirit was granted to us for our mission.”

Alas, we are not likely to see the current calendar replaced any time soon, so welcome to Ordinary Time, and more specifically to the First Week of the Year!

But maybe there is some inspiration here after all. The faith is not just something reserved for extraordinary moments and seasons. It is meant to be lived in all the ordinary moments of life, too; it is meant to be lived throughout the year.

The liturgical readings and prayers of Ordinary Time emphasize discipleship. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in matters involving money, time, priorities, etc.? How do we encounter the Kingdom of God and perceive it in our daily lives? What are the conditions of discipleship? How will we ultimately be judged? These are some of the themes of Ordinary Time.

So encounter God in the “ordinary,” in the time throughout the year, even when on vacation this coming summer. There is no vacation from our vocation. Do not miss what God is doing, even in the ordinary.

Wading in the Troubled Water Saves You, Not Taking a Bridge Over It – A Homily for the Baptism of the Lord

Today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord provides a moment to reflect not only on the Lord’s baptism, but also on our own. For in an extended sense, when Christ is baptized, so are we, for we are members of His body. As Christ enters the water, He makes holy the water that will baptize us. He enters the water and we follow. And in these waters He acquires gifts to give us, as we shall see below.

Why was Jesus baptized? It has been asked in every generation why Christ sought baptism. The baptism of John surely pointed to sin, of which Christ  had none. The question has been well answered by the Father and many others. In effect, Christ descended into those waters; He troubled those waters, stirring them up to make them holy for our sakes. And by this descent, which points to the Paschal mystery, obtained manifold blessings for us. St. Maximus of Turin speaks of Christ’s baptism this way:

I understand the mystery as this. The column of fire went before the sons of Israel through the Red Sea so that they could follow on their brave journey; the column went first through the waters to prepare a path for those who followed. … But Christ the Lord does all these things: in the column of fire He went through the sea before the sons of Israel; so now in the column of his body he goes through baptism before the Christian people. … At the time of the Exodus the column … made a pathway through the waters; now it strengthens the footsteps of faith in the bath of baptism (de sancta Epiphania 1.3).

So Christ, as it were, opens a way for us by troubling the waters, just as He did at the Red Sea,  and obtains for us victory over our spiritual enemies.  He brings us forth to freedom on the other side. He is baptized for us. Ephesians 5:30 says, we are members of Christ’s body. Thus when Jesus goes into the water, we go with Him. And in going there, He stirs up the water; He troubles the water for us, acquiring gifts on our behalf.

Don’t be afraid of troubled waters; there is a blessing on the other side. A songwriter once spoke of seeking a bridge over troubled waters. Biblically, this is poor advice. For it is only by going through, or wading into, the troubled waters that the blessing is found. More on this in a moment. For now, simply observe that Christ wades in, troubles the water, and obtains blessings for us out of the troubled waters.

And what are the gifts He obtains for us? The texts speak of them somewhat figuratively, but clearly. In effect, there are four gifts spoken of in the Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ baptism:

  1. Access – the heavens are opened. The heavens and paradise had been closed to us after Original Sin. But now, at Jesus’ baptism, the text says that the heavens are opened. Jesus acquires the gift of sanctifying grace for us. And by this grace, the heavens open for us and we have access to the Father and to the heavenly places. Scripture says, Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand (Romans 5:1). It also says, For through Jesus we have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph 2:17). Hence the heavens are also opened at our own baptism and we have access to the Father.
  2. Anointing – the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove. Here, too, Jesus acquires the gift of the Holy Spirit for us. In baptism, we are not just washed of sins, we also become temples of the Holy Spirit. After baptism, there is the anointing with chrism, which signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit. For adults, this is Confirmation. But even for infants, there is an anointing at baptism to recognize that the Spirit of God dwells in the baptized as in a temple. Scripture says, Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16)
  3. Acknowledgment – this is my beloved Son. Jesus receives this acknowledgment from His Father. He allowed this to be heard by some of the bystanders for the sake of their own faith. But He also  acquires this gift for us. In our own baptism, we become the children of God. Since we become members of Christ’s body, we now have the status of sons of God. On the day of your baptism, the heavenly Father acknowledged you as His own dear Child. Scripture says, You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal 3:26).
  4. Approval – I am well pleased. Jesus had always pleased His Father. But now He acquires this gift for you as well. Here, too, is another acknowledgment of the sanctifying grace that the Lord gives us in baptism. Sanctifying grace is the gift to be holy and pleasing to God. Scripture says, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in his sight (Eph 1:1-3).

Thus, at His baptism, Christ acquired these gifts for us, so that at the troubled, stirred up water of our own baptism, we could receive them. Consider well the glorious gift of your baptism. Perhaps you know the exact day. It should be a day as highly celebrated as your birthday. Christ is baptized for our sakes, not His own. All these gifts had always been His. Now, in His baptism, He fulfills God’s righteousness by going into the water to get them for you. It’s alright to say, “Hallelujah!”

This video I put together shows that God has a way of bringing blessings when He troubles the water.

He troubled the waters in the great flood to cleanse the earth,
He troubled the waters at the Red Sea to bring forth victorious escape and freedom from oppression,
He troubled the waters in the desert to satisfy the Israelites,
He troubled the waters of the Jordan so they could enter the promised land,
Jesus troubled the waters at His baptism and obtained many a gift for us,
And from the troubled waters of His pierced side came salvation and the Holy Spirit.

So don’t build a bridge over troubled waters; wade on in! There’s a blessing on the other side.

Does anybody really know what time it is? A meditation on the mystery of time.

 

I began our New Years Eve adoration at 11:00 AM with the observation that we begin this prayer in one year, and end in another. New Years Eve features the mysterious passage from one year to another. In a way I suppose it is no more mysterious than the passage from Tuesday to Wednesday or from 10:00 AM to 10:01 AM.

In one sense, nothing could be simpler than time. What time is it? It is 1:15. Simple! But time has mysteries about it.

What is time? Some say it is merely a measure of change. But that doesn’t really make a lot of sense since change doesn’t happen at a steady pace at all.

Some say it is just another way of clocking distance in the space/time continuum. Time and distance surely are related. To look out at the stars at night is to look into the past, for is has taken sometimes millions of years for the light of many stars to reach us through the vacuum and vast distances of space. Even the light of the sun is eight minutes old before it reaches us.

But there’s just more to time than distance and we all know it. The Greeks had several words for time. Chronos was clock-time. Kairos was a complex notion of time as experienced subjectively. Thus ten minutes can seem like an hour or an hour pass swiftly. Further things can seem fitting at certain times and not at others. Kairos is thus an elastic notion of time. And lastly there is Aeon (eternity, or the fullness of time). More on Aeon below.

Yes, every New Year I ponder the mystery of time, I guess because time is so much on our mind. And as I ponder time, I am mindful that most of us think we know what time is, until we are actually asked to define it in some meaningful way. Something makes me think of what St Augustine once said about another mystery (the Trinity). And thus if someone asks me to define time I am tempted to say with Augustine: If you don’t ask me, I know. If you ask me, I don’t know. So time, while plain at one level is mysterious at other levels.

I cannot list all such mysteries, but consider a few puzzlements about time.

  1. The Mystery of Time’s Elasticity – We like to think that time is unvarying. 10 minutes here, is the same as 10 minutes there. But science has largely disproved that. For example, as an object approaches the speed of light, time slows down. Further, strong gravitational forces also slow down time. On a very large planet with stronger gravitational forces I would age less rapidly than on a smaller planet. Granted, it would take a huge difference in speed or gravity to be able to observe a big difference, but the Law of Relativity does demonstrate that time does not pass equally everywhere. In a way it is almost symbolized by a large, lumbering elephant compared to a tiny little mouse. As the mouse scurries across the floor (pursued by my cat!) the speed is amazing, almost as if the mouse were in a different time frame.
  2. The Mystery of Lifespans – And speaking of animals, why are life spans so different? My cat Daniel is, like me, a mammal. He has heart and lungs, a very similar physiology to me in most respects. Yet his clock is set to 15 years, my clock is set to 80 years. Certain turtles can live up to 150 years, Many types of parrots can live to be over 100. Other birds live only 10 to 15 years. Most fish live only a few years, but Carp (a fish) live up to 100 years. And so on. We all see to have a clock, a designated life span. But that life span seems quite variable even among very similar species. We seem to carry the mystery of time in us. I have never heard a satisfying answer to the wide variability of life spans.
  3. The Mystery of our “inner clock.” Most of our demarcations of time are clearly rooted in the celestial cycle. Thus, a “day” is the cycle of the sun, as is a year. A month (a least originally) is rooted in the cycle of the moon, and “month” is just a mispronunciation of “moonth.” Seasons too follow the Sun’s trajectory in relation to the horizon and length of day. But more mysterious is the 7-day cycle we call the “week.” Where does it come from? Anthropologically most cultures manifest a need to “reset the clock” every seven days. The Genesis account of creation in seven days, surely influenced the Judeo-Christian culture,  but other cultures show a similar tendency of seven days. Where does the seven day week come from? Mysterious. But we seem, as humans to have some inner clock in this regard.
  4. The Mystery of Eternity – Lastly there is the mystery of what we call “eternity.” Most people misunderstand the word eternity simply to mean a long, long, time. But that is not what is meant by the word. When the Greeks coined the word eternity, (Aeon) they meant by it “the fullness of time.” That is to say, Eternity is the past, present and future all being experienced at once. I cannot tell you what this is like, but I can illustrate it. Look at the clock to the upper right. The time is 1:15 in the afternoon. That means that 10:00 AM is in the past and 6:00 pm is in the future. But consider the dot at the center of the clock and see that at that spot 10 AM, 1:15 PM, and 6 PM are all the same, they are equally present to the center. We live our life in serial time, on the outer edge of the clock. But God does not. God lives in eternity. God lives in the fullness of time. For God, past, and future are the same as the present. God is not “waiting” for things to happen. All things just are. God is not waiting and wondering if you or I will get to heaven. He is not watching history unfold like a movie. In eternity, 10,000 years ago is just as present as 10,000 years from now. Scripture hints at God’s eternity in numerous passages. For example, But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. (2 Peter 3:8). Psalm 139 says, Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be. (Ps 139, 15). Psalm 90 says, For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. (Ps 90:4). And then there is simply the God’s name: “I AM” In this Name, there is no past, no future, just an eternal now, the present tense. Jesus declared to the crowds, “Before Abraham ever was, I AM.” (John 8:58). So here is the most awesome mystery of time, the fullness of time, eternity.

Ponder God’s glory and the mystery of His creature, time!

Here’s a remarkable video on the mystery of time.

A Christmas Like No Other

For many this fateful year, Christmas will be like no other. In previous years many of us would be asked, “Are you going somewhere for Christmas? Will you gather with family?” We often had many and rich answers to those questions. This year many of us will answer, “No, I am not going anywhere and will try to connect “virtually” with family. Some are even warned and scorned by public officials not to yield to the natural instinct to gather with family or go to church.

It is in this climate that we do well to meditate this Christmas on the astonishing gift of God’s presence among us. The Book of Hebrews wondrously describes this gift:

In many and in varied ways God spoke unto our fathers by the prophets. But now, in these last days He has spoken unto us through his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things, and by whom also he made the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2)

And St. John says,

The Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:1,14)

In Jesus, the Lord does not simply speak to us through creation or Scripture or the Prophets. No, he comes to us personally and is present to us. In Christ, God is made visible, tangible, and present. In Jesus we can see the face of God, hear his voice and touch him. He is emphatically, physically present to us. There is nothing “virtual” or online here, nothing televised or remote. He is truly present.

Yes, he who the very heavens cannot contain, now becomes a little infant held in the arms of his Mary. From his hands, now the hands of a little infant, the galaxies and the very universe tumbled forth. From his voice, now like that of an infant, reality was commanded into existence. He who looks down upon all creation, now looks up from a cradle. It is a very great mystery and an astonishing humility that we behold. Our God is made visible and approachable; he is present to us. Some lines from old Christmas Carols come to mind that illustrate the tenderness and joy of God’s presence among us:

Angels and archangels, may have gathered there.
Cherubim and Seraphim, thronged the air.
But only his mother, in her maiden bliss,
Could worship the beloved, with a kiss.

Another sing saysm

Alpha et O (Alpha and Omega)
Matris in gremio (is sitting in mommy’s lap).

So, Christ, the Lord, the Eternal Word and Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became physically present at the Annunciation and visible to us at Christmas. Alpha and Omega is indeed sitting in mommy’s lap! It is an astonishing gift that our minds can barely comprehend.

For human beings this gift is important since we, though having spiritual souls, also have physical bodies. We are used to experiencing things through our five senses. The Lord in his mercy extended this gift of his presence in the Nativity and his public ministry. And even now, though he has ascended, we still encounter Him in the Liturgy and the Sacraments, most especially in Holy Communion where he is present: really, truly and substantially.

In this Christmas like no other, some have said, “It’s OK that we can’t all gather at Church, we can watch the live-stream.” Although for some this may be necessary it is not “OK.” It is very sad and unfortunate. This is because we are not disembodied spirits. We all experience disappointment when someone says, “I can’t join you, but I’ll be with you in spirit.” This is disappointing because we all know that physical presence is important and strongly preferred. Truly being together involves a bodily presence. Further, we can’t receive sacraments virtually or over the internet. All of the Sacraments touch our body in some way: by the pouring of water, anointing with sacred oils, the laying on of hands, and most excellently by the reception of Holy Communion where Christ touches and feeds us with his very self. We can’t do this over the Internet. Praying for an end to this pandemic and the return of all of God’s faithful is critically important. While virtual options are helpful, it is not the same as being at Mass.

It is interesting, the word “virtual” has come to mean something we do on the computer. But “virtual” originally meant, “sort of like, but not really,” as in, “He virtually went crazy.” In other words he isn’t crazy but was “sort of” like that for a time. So virtual has its parameters but it lacks the essential metrics  of the real thing.  

Perhaps for Protestants, whose services are less sacramental and resemble a bible study, virtual, online or streamed services make sense, but for Catholics whose faith is incarnational and involve Sacraments and realities meant to touch the body and thereby the soul, virtual cannot long remain an option.

At Christmas we celebrate a savior who actually, physically, comes among us and can be touched, even held! The Catholic Church has combined a wonderful intellectual tradition that is carefully blended with an incarnate worship that touches the soul AND the body. There is incense, candles, an audible word proclaimed, priestly actions, and the actual touching of the body through Sacraments, especially Holy Communion.

Allow me to make this personal. I miss many of you! Knowing that you are out there and seeing our televised Masses is a consolation. But it will not equal the joy of being with you here again where I can see you, hug you, and, above all, offer you the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord. Currently only 30% of our congregation has returned to Church. This is the average, nationwide. I cannot decide for you when it is right to return. Some of you have immune systems and other conditions such as age that make returning now inadvisable. But know this, I love you and miss you and look for the day when I can offer you Jesus once again, in the most Holy and Blessed Sacrament. Some of you have permitted me to come to your homes. Others have indicated that no visitors are permitted. I understand. But never forget that Jesus ultimately wants to feed us with his very Body and Blood. Whatever you think is necessary for you to feel safe, I will comply and come to you, when you are ready. This is very important.

At Christmas we celebrate the actual physical presence of Jesus among us. In the sacraments and the sacred Liturgy he left us his real, true and substantial presence. Nothing compares to this presence. Prudence has its place, but never cease longing for this presence of the Lord available only in the Mass and celebrations of other sacraments. If you have not been able to return, pray and long for the day when you can. Remember too that we take many precautions to keep you safe! Going to Church is not just going to a building or a pew, it is to be drawn into the presence of Him who is born this Christmas to be among us, really, truly, physically and tangibly.

A blessed Christmas to all

Advent Hymn: Rorate Caeli Desuper

On Wednesday of this third week of Advent we read from the scriptures that supply the roots of one of the least well-known, yet most theologically important, Advent hymns is “Rorate Caeli Desuper.” Some congregations know it under its English title: “Drop Down Ye Heavens from Above.” One of the reasons for its lack of popularity is that it is chant-like rather than metrical and thus harder for a congregation to sing. It is in the form of an antiphon and verses. The text of the antiphon is from Isaiah 45:8, and the verses are drawn largely from Isaiah 63-64. The hymn as a whole gives exquisite poetical expression to the longings of patriarchs and prophets, and symbolically of the Church, for the coming of the Messiah. The verses point to the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people. The antiphon plaintively seeks a savior:

Rorate caeli desuper et nubes pluant justum

Drop down dew, you heavens from above, and let the clouds rain down the Just One

An extended version of the antiphon is found in the Divine Office:

Rorate caeli desuper et nubes pluant justum
Aperiatur terra et germinent Salvatorem

Drop down dew, you heavens from above, and let the clouds rain down the Just One
Let the earth be opened and bring forth the Savior.

In this version, there is an echo of Isaiah 55:

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it(Isaiah 55:10-1).

In this post we will focus on the hymn version.As a hymn, it is usually paired with a series of Scripture verses, drawn from a desperate period in Jewish history, which summoned a powerful cry for a savior:

Latin English
Roráte caéli désuper,
et núbes plúant jústum.
Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above,
and let the clouds rain down the Just One.
Ne irascáris Dómine,
ne ultra memíneris iniquitátis:
ecce cívitas Sáncti fácta est desérta:
Síon desérta fácta est, Jerúsalem desoláta est:
dómus sanctificatiónis túæ et glóriæ túæ,
ubi laudavérunt te pátres nóstri. (Is 64:9-10)
Be not angry O Lord,
and longer remember our iniquity:
Behold your holy city is made a wilderness,
Sion is a deserted, Jerusalem is desolate:
The house of your holiness and glory,
where our fathers praised you.
Peccávimus,

et fácti súmus tamquam immúndus nos,
et cecídimus quasi fólium univérsi:
et iniquitátes nóstræ quasi véntus

abstulérunt nos:
abscondísti faciem túam a nóbis,
et allisísti nos in mánu iniquitátis nóstræ. (Is 64:6-7)

We have sinned,

and are as an unclean thing,
and we all fall as a leaf:
and our iniquities, like the wind,

have taken us away:
thou hast hid thy face from us:
and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.

Víde Dómine afflictiónem pópuli túi,
et mítte quem missúrus es:
emítte Agnum dominatórem térræ,
de Pétra desérti ad móntem fíliæ Síon: (Is 16:1)
ut áuferat ípse júgum captivitátis nóstræ.
Behold, O Lord, the affliction of your people,
and send forth him whom you will send;
send forth the Lamb, the ruler of the earth,
from Petra of the desert to the mount of the daughter of Sion: that he may take away the yoke of our captivity.
Consolámini, consolámini, pópule méus:
cito véniet sálus túa:
quare mæróre consúmeris,
quia innovávit te dólor?
Salvábo te, nóli timére,
égo enim sum Dóminus Déus túus,
Sánctus Israël, Redémptor túus.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people;
For your salvation will suddenly come:
why are you consumed with sadness?
why hath sorrow seized you?
I will save you: do not be afraid.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Redeemer.

The plaintive verses come from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which was written in a terrible period of Israel’s history.Isaiah lived between two tumultuous events: the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyrians in 721 B.C. and the destruction of the Southern Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. Though Isaiah died long before the fateful events of 587 B.C., the third part of his book prophesies it (though some scholars argue that the third section was appended by a later author). Let’s review this calamitous event.

The conquest of Judah and the siege of Jerusalemwas a military campaign carried out by Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon in 587 B.C. He had defeated Egyptian forces in 595 B.C. and subsequently invaded Judah. King Jehoiakim of Judah resisted Babylonian rule, but to avoid the destruction of Jerusalem he shifted allegiance from Egypt to Babylon and paid tribute from the treasury in Jerusalem. In 591 B.C., during the fourth year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar suffered military losses against the Egyptians and this perceived weakness led to numerous rebellions among the states of the Levant, which owed allegiance to Babylon, including Judah. King Jehoiakim stopped paying tribute to Nebuchadnezzar and adopted a pro-Egyptian position.

Nebuchadnezzar dealt severely with this rebellion,laying siege to Jerusalem. King Jehoiakim died during the siege, possibly on December 10 588 B.C., and the city eventually fell on 2 Adar (March 16) 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar pillaged the city and the Temple. Much of the surviving Jewish population of Judah, numbering about 10,000, was deported to Babylon. None remained except the very poorest (who eventually became the Samaritans). Also taken to Babylon were the treasures and furnishings of the Temple, including golden vessels dedicated by King Solomon. Jerusalem lay a burning ruin.

According to the Book of Second Kings,

Surely this happened to Judah at the LORD’s command, to remove them from His presence because of the sins of Manasseh and all that he had done, and also for the innocent blood he had shed. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the LORD was unwilling to forgive(2 Kings 24:3-4).

Jeremiah had warned,

From the thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah until this very day—twenty-three years—the word of the LORD has come to me, and I have spoken to you again and again, but you have not listened. And the LORD has sent all His servants the prophets to you again and again but you have not listened or inclined your ear to hear. The prophets told you, ‘Turn now, each of you, from your evil ways and evil deeds, and you can dwell in the land that the LORD has given to you and your fathers forever and ever. Do not follow other gods to serve and worship them, and do not provoke Me to anger with the works of your hands. Then I will do you no harm. But to your own harm, you have not listened to Me,’ declares the LORD, ‘so you have provoked Me to anger with the works of your hands.’ Therefore this is what the LORD of Hosts says: ‘Because you have not obeyed My words, behold, I will summon all the families of the north,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will send for My servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, whom I will bring against this land, against its residents.’

These verses of this hymn are no less than a cry of desperation. The Jews had staggered hundreds of miles to Babylon and now had to live apart from the land, the Temple, and the culture God had given them. Weeping and lamenting, they said, By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors requested a song; our tormentors demanded songs of joy “Sing us a song of Zion.” How can we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand cease to function(Ps 137:1-5).

It was dreadful. Most people had lost a substantial number of family members as well as everything they owned; as they were driven into exile, the last thing they saw was the destroyed city and the smoldering ruin of the Temple. Isaiah 63and 64, along with the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet, capture well this devastating moment for the Jewish people.

Hence, perhaps as no other Advent Hymn, Rorate Caeli Desuper powerfully illustrates the desperate need that ancient Judah had for a savior to rend the heavens and come down. The plaintive verses, drawn mainly from Isaiah’s prophetic lament, draw us into the desperate situation of God’s people, who have lost everything due to their sin and now seek salvation through repentance.

Advent has rather lost its penitential character today, but as this song illustrates, there was once a more somber and sober sense of the ancient need for a savior and our ongoing need for His graces. As the first three verses indicate, we tend to stray and thus are afflicted by the weight and destruction of our sins. Our passions blow us about like leaves in the wind and we lose our way. Up goes the cry in the third verse:

Behold, O Lord, the affliction of your people,
and send forth him whom you will send;
send forth the Lamb, the ruler of the earth,
from Petra of the desert to the mount of the daughter of Sion:
that he may take away the yoke of our captivity.

In the final verse comes the Lord’s merciful answer:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people;
For your salvation will suddenly come:
why are you consumed with sadness?
why hath sorrow seized you?
I will save you: do not be afraid.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Redeemer.

Therefore, let the Advent cry go up:

Rorate caeli desuper et nubes pluant justum
Aperiatur terra et germinent Salvatorem

Heavens drop dew from above and the clouds rain down the Just One
The earth shall be opened and bring forth the Savior.

Here is the hymn sung in Latin Chant; its sober tones capture well a time that was cloudy and dark and when the cry for a Savior pierced the clouds:

And here is a beautiful polyphonic rendering of the Ne Irascaris(verse 1) by William Byrd, who wrote it in lament for the destruction of the Catholic Church in England of the 16thcentury:

 

Nearly Indecipherable! Exploring a Gospel Passage that is Difficult but Rich in Blessings

There is a passage read at yesterday’s Mass (Thursday of the Second Week of Advent) that is complex, to say the least. A footnote in the Ignatius Study Bible calls a phrase in it, “nearly indecipherable.” So, let’s wade into the text and see what we find. 

For the record, the brief passage is, as follows: 

Jesus said to the crowds:
“Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
From the days of John the Baptist until now,
the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence,
and the violent are taking it by force.
All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John.
And if you are willing to accept it,
he is Elijah, the one who is to come.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.” (Matt 11:11-14) 

At the center of this reading is St. John the Baptist and the setting forth of his role by Jesus. The first difficulty in the text is most easily overcome, namely that Jesus seems to offer faint praise for John the Baptist. On the one hand he says no one born of woman was greater than John. But then, he indicates that the least born into the Kingdom is greater than John. There are several explanations that can be taken together to explain this remark. 

  1. While St. John the Baptist possessed every sort of human and natural virtue to the most excellent degree, the baptized Christian acquires supernatural virtues such as Faith, Hope and Charity. Even the natural virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude are perfected by grace and attain to a kind of supernatural quality to the degree that we cooperate with God’s work. 
  2. The Christian acquires sanctifying grace, a supernatural virtue that makes us pleasing to God. Prior to this we were dead in our sins (Col 2:13) and subject to the wrath to come (1 Thes 1:10). In other words, we were incapable of approaching God since the light of his truth is too bright and the fire of his love too much to endure. Only by Sanctifying Grace and on-going purification can we hope to enter God’s glory. 
  3. The Christian acquires all the blessings of God and heaven. Before Christ and his sanctifying and redeeming work, no one could enter heaven. St. Augustine hints at this: ..The kingdom of heaven is something which we had not yet received, [but] of which [Jesus] speaks, Come, ye blessed of my Father, receive the kingdom, (Mat. 25:34). (Quoted in the Catena Aurea) 
  4. St. John Chrysostom says, That the abundance of the praise [of St. John the Baptist] might not beget a wrong inclination in the Jews to set John above Christ, he corrects this, saying, He that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Quoted in the Catena Aurea) 

Hence, many blessings accrue to those baptized into Christ Jesus that even the greatest and most virtuous apart from Him could never receive except by grace. Some argue that St. John the Baptist was sanctified in his mother’s womb (when he leaped with joy). But St. John received this gift antecedently on account of Christ and hence the teaching on grace must hold. John’s truest is greatness is not what he received being born of woman, but what he received being born of grace. 

However the next difficulty is harder to resolve. Jesus says, 

From the days of John the Baptist until now,
the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence,
and the violent are taking it by force.

What is this violence? Most ordinary readers think it refers simply to persecution endured by the Church. But this is not likely the case. The text does say that the Kingdom of Heaven “suffers violence.” The Greek verb is, βιάζεται (biazetai) meaning to forcibly seize, or lay hold of something with aggressiveness. It is in the passive voice (though some argue for the middle voice). And thus the widely held translation is that the Kingdom suffers violence or aggressiveness. 

However, the next verse says that the violent take it by force. But those who persecute the Church seek not to possess it, but to destroy it. 

So our surface interpretation of persecution needs some reconsideration. These antagonists seem to want the Kingdom, but want it by force or to aggressively lay hold of it. Who are they? Two theories emerge: 

  1. They are the perpetrators of pseudo-messianism, the many false messiahs of First Century and their followers who sought to usher in the Kingdom by initiating a violent uprising and war against the Roman oppressors. Jesus warned elsewhere of false Messiahs (e.g. Mat 24:24) and not to follow them. He sought rather a way of peace and desired the Church to convert the Romans, not kill them. 
  2. A second theory sees this group as the large and often aggressive crowds that sought and demanded Jesus’ attention. They are “violent” in the sense of being eager and filled with impetuous zeal. They grasp at the spoils of the kingdom of heaven— i.e. the physical healings of Jesus, his pardon and preaching, with a zeal that is intense but not deep. They like to hear of healings and experience them but ignore the demands of the gospel such as the cross, or the moral life. 

Speaking for myself, I prefer this second theory for its pastoral application. Jesus was often assailed by crowds. That is good in itself. But what did they (we) seek? Was it repentance and the new life of grace, or merely free bread and fish, healings and good sermons. Jesus did not trust large crowds. Whenever there is a mention of a large crowd, let the reader beware, a hard saying is coming —  teachings about the Cross, teachings the absolute primacy of Jesus, teachings against divorce, teachings about the Eucharist. Hence Jesus was often battling those who sought to grab at the Kingdom on their own terms and murmured or went away when Jesus did not meet their expectations (c.f. John 6:60ff; John 8:30ff) 

St. Jerome echoes this view: 

Because John the Baptist was the first who preached repentance to the people, saying, Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand: rightly therefore from that day forth it may be said, that the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For great indeed is the violence, when we who are born of earth, seek an abode in heaven, and to obtain …what we have not by nature. (Quoted in the Catena Aurea) 

As a final clue, in this mysterious and difficult text, Jesus links St. John the Baptist mission to that of the Elijah figure who would appear before the day of the Lord: And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Note the following description of the work of this Elijah figure: 

Lo, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome  Day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with doom.” (Malachi 4:5-6) 

Note, therefore, that to those who would seek merely the blessings of the Kingdom such as miracles and healings, and who even forcefully insist on the Kingdom on their own terms, Jesus points to John’s (Elijah’s) message: repentance and mutual forgiveness. We do not take the Kingdom of Heaven by force or on our terms, we take it by grace granted through repentance and mutual love. 

A difficult passage indeed, notoriously obscure! And yet, with a couple of premises accepted, the pastoral message is clear and helpful: Accept the Kingdom of Heaven on God’s terms, do not demand a kingdom of your own imagining. God is found in his real Kingdom, not a fake or imaginary one. 

Jesus concludes: “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

Of Preludes, Postludes, and Appreciation for Sacred Liturgy

In the first video below there is a scene, not exceedingly rare today, of a piano placed in an airport or shopping mall. A person approaches the piano and begins to play, meekly at first, but then displaying virtuoso talent. Soon a crowd assembles in appreciation of the remarkable gift before them, both the man and the music.

Sadly, I have not noticed a similar appreciation expressed by Catholics at Sunday Mass, weddings, or other similar moments when virtuosity was displayed by the church organist. For example, a few years ago I was at a large Mass of the faithful at a large church in Washington, D.C. where very talented organists are known to play. For the postlude, the organist played the Symphonia from Cantata 29 by J.S. Bach, a phenomenal and difficult piece (see the second video also below). Only two of us out of the entire congregation showed enough appreciation to stay and listen, lifting our hearts to this piece that so glorifies God, and seeing His grace shining through mortal talent and the king of instruments, the pipe organ. The rest of the congregation began chattering and moving toward the exits. I wondered if they had any idea of the glory and the gifts that were unfolding all about them. It seemed that they did not. Rather, they appeared to treat it as background noise that forced them to them talk to one another even louder. Once the piece ended, the two of us approached the organ area and thanked the organist profusely. I lamented that so few seemed to appreciate what he had just done. He shrugged, and with a philosophical attitude said simply, “I played this for God.” Yes, Amen. The whole liturgy is for God.

To some extent, though, we Catholics have lost our way when it comes to the conclusion of Mass. Whether there is a recessional hymn or not, as the clergy and servers depart, one is invited to stay for a few moments to personally thank the Lord for the gift that has unfolded. Sometimes this is done in silence for a moment or two. Some organists, especially those who are particularly gifted, choose to assist this act of worthy and joyful thanks with a postlude. Either way, a brief time of even just a few moments is commendable for the faithful. To be sure, some people have valid reasons to leave at once, but most can stay just a bit and linger in the afterglow of the inestimable gift of the Sacred Liturgy. Instead, most parishes erupt into a cafeteria-like setting, in which loud greetings and conversations dominate. In the past, such activities took place in the vestibule or just outside the church. Fellowship is commendable and to be encouraged, but so is the concept of a sacred place reserved for prayer and praise of God. Currently things are out of balance.

Many pastors seek to admonish the faithful to respectful silence within the church interior, but their request is  usually forgotten within weeks. The prevailing culture of informality is pervasive. There is also something of a generational quality to it. Surprisingly, I have found that masses predominantly attended by young adults feature silence in the church prior to and after the Mass. Paradoxically, it is the elder generation, who were raised with the notion that is a “sin” to talk in church, who have most set aside the idea of silence in church. 

Returning to music for a moment, most great composers created preludes and postludes to be played at Masses and religious services. Bach composed dozens of them along with meditative pieces based on sacred hymns and themes. As one entered and left the church, one heard the music of Heaven, signaling that the ordinary world was left outside the doors of the church. Most organists I know don’t even try to play preludes anymore, especially at weddings, where so many enter the church as if it were merely a reception center sans bar and hors d’oeuvres. Churches used to resound with the sounds of Jesu Joy and Ave Maria as people assembled quietly and respectfully, recognizing that they were in a sacred place. Many of the guests at weddings are unchurched and simply have not learned the proper behavior; I do not believe they are being intentionally disrespectful. It is more the result of a secular culture that almost never engages in formalities anymore. We seldom dress up, endure a formal silence, or even understand its meaning.

Recently, preludes and postludes (usually played by organists) seem to be making a bit of a comeback. They help to remind the faithful that a sacred place is being entered or a sacred event is being ended with joy and solemnity. They are like bookends or boundaries. If you’re blessed to have a good or even a decent organist, encourage him or her to play preludes and postludes. Ask the clergy and musical leaders to teach the congregation about their significance. They are not merely background music to chat over; they are a summons to what is heavenly and edifying.