This marvelous feast is not merely about something that took place two thousand years ago. For, though Christ our head has ascended, we the members of his body are ascending with him. Since he was ascended, we too have ascended. In my own life, as a Christian, I am brought higher every year by the Lord who is drawing me up with him. This is not some mere slogan, but something I am actually experiencing. An old song says, I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained with sin, sinking to rise no more. But he master of the sea, heard my despairing cry. And from the waters lifted me. Now safe am I. Love Lifted me, When nothing else could help. Love lifted me!
Yes, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension is our feast too, if we are faithful. Let’s look at it from three perspectives.
I. The Fact of the Ascension. – The readings today describe a wondrous event that the Apostles witnessed. The Lord, by his own power is taken to heaven. In so doing he opens a path for us too. The gates of paradise swing open again: Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in! (Psalm 24:7). In Christ, man returns to God. Consider three things about the Ascension:
A. The Reality – Imagine the glory of this moment. Scripture says, As they were looking on, he was lifted up and cloud took him from their sight….they were looking intently in the sky as he was going (Acts 1:9). So impressive was the sight that the angels had to beckon them to get along to Jerusalem as the Lord had said, Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven (Acts 1:11). Yes, it was glorious. Jesus had once said as a summons to faith, What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (John 6:62). He had also encouraged them saying: Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1:51) So here is a glorious reality, and a fulfillment of what Jesus had said.
B. The Rescue – In the Ascension, it does not seem that the Lord entered heaven alone. As we have remarked, in his mystical body we also ascend with him. But consider too this remarkable text that affirms that: Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men. In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:8ff). Yes, the Lord had earlier, just after his death, descended to Sheol and awakened the dead and preached the gospel to them (cf 1 Peter 4:6). And now, for those he had justified, came the moment ascend with Jesus as a “host,” as an army of former captives, now set free. Behold the great procession that enters behind Christ through the now opened gates of heaven: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac Jacob, Rachel, Judith, Deborah, David, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, John the Baptist….and one day you! Yes this is a great rescue. Adam and his descendants have not simply been restored to some paradisaical garden, they have entered heaven.
C. The Rejoicing – Consider how, this once captive train, sings exultantly as they follow Christ upward to heaven. The liturgy today puts before us a likely song they sang: God mounts his throne to shouts of Joy! The Lord amid trumpet blasts. All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness, for the Lord the most high, the awesome is the great king over all the earth. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne (Psalm 47:6-7). I also have it on the best of authority that they were singing an old gospel song: I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me! Yes I also have it on the best of authority that they were even singing an old Motown song: Your love is lifting me higher, than I’ve ever been lifted before!
Yes, Here are some glorious facets of the Ascension.
II. The Fellowship of the Ascension – We have already remarked that, when Christ ascends, we ascend. Why and how? Scripture says, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). It also says, All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. By baptism we were buried together with him so that Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might live a new and glorious life. For if we have been united with him by likeness to his death we shall be united with him by likeness to his resurrection (Rom 6:3ff). So, when Christ died we died. When Christ rose, we rose. When He ascends, we ascend.
But you may say, he is in glory, but I am still here, how is it that I am ascended or ascending? Consider a humorous example about our physical bodies. When I get on an elevator and punch the button for the top floor, the crown of my head gets there before the soles of my feet. But the whole body will get there unless some strange loss of integrity or tragic dismemberment takes place. So in an analogous way it is with Jesus’ Jesus mystical body. In Christ our head we are already in glory. Some members of his body have already gotten there. We who come later will get there too, provided we stay a member of the Body. Yes we are already ascended in Christ our head. We are already enthroned in glory with him, if we hold fast and stay a member of his Body. This is the fellowship of the Ascension.
III. The Fruitfulness of the Ascension – Jesus does not return to heaven to abandon us. He is more present to us than we are to ourselves. He is with us always to the end of the age (cf Matt 28:20). But in Ascending, without abandoning us, he goes to procure so very important things. Consider four of them:
A. Holy Ghost power – Jesus teaches very clearly that he is ascending in order to send us the Holy Spirit: Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (Jn 16:7ff) He also says, These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (Jn 14:25ff). And yet again, I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (Jn 16:13-14). So the Lord goes, that he might, with the Father, send the Holy Spirit to live within us as in a temple. In this way, and through the Eucharist, he will dwell with us even more intimately than when he walked this earth.
B. Harvest – Jesus says, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (John 12:32). While the immediate context of this verse is the crucifixion, the wonder of John’s gospel is that is that he often intends double meanings. Clearly Christ’s glorification is his crucifixion, but it also includes his resurrection and ascension. So, from his place in glory, Christ is drawing all people to himself. He is also bestowing grace on us from his Father’s right hand to be his co-workers in the harvest: But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Yes, from his place in glory, Christ is bringing in a great harvest, as he said in Scripture: Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (Jn 4:35-38). Harvest! And it is the Lord’s work from heaven in which we participate.
C. Help – At the Father’s right hand Jesus intercedes for us. Scripture says, Consequently he is able, for all time, to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives always to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25). The Lord links his ascension to an unleashing of special power: Amen, amen, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (Jn 14:12).
It is true, we must not understand asking in the name of Jesus as a mere incantation, for to ask in his Name means to ask in accord with his will. And yet, we must come to experience the power of Jesus to draw us up to great and wondrous things in his sight. Despite the mystery of iniquity all about us, we trust that Christ is conquering, even in the puzzling and apparent victories of this world’s rebellion. We read, In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Though, at present we do not see everything subject to him, yet we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor….so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:8-9; 14-15). Thus, from heaven we have the help of the Lord’s grace which, if we will accept it, is an ever present help unto our salvation.
D. Habitation – Simply put, Jesus indicates that in going to heaven he is preparing a place for us: In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn 14:2ff) Yes, indeed, He has the blueprints out, and a hard hat on. He is overseeing the construction of a mansion for each of us that we may dwell with him, the Father and the Spirit forever.
Here then are the ways that Christ, by his love is lifting us higher, than we’ve ever been lifted before. Yes, love lifted me, when nothing else could help, Love lifted me.
Here’s a modernized version:
Charisms are a type of grace which God gives to individuals for ministry, for service. As such, they are not so much given to the individual for the individual’s sake, but for the sake of others. St. Thomas calls the charisms gratia gratis data. (grace freely given). These graces given “freely” in the sense that they are not given to the individual on account of some merit, or as some personal reward that God bestows. Rather, God bestows these gifts “freely” on certain individuals, for the sake of the wider community, and for that benefit, rather than because the individual receiving the grace particularly deserves it.
Therefore, some receive the gift to preach, some to teach, some receive great musical or artistic skills. Still others have a kind of genius of some technical expertise, some are magnificent problem solvers, others are great counselors, and so forth. Individuals receive gifts such as these for the sake of the Church, and even the wider community. And again, it is fundamentally for the sake of others that God bestows these gifts on individuals.
It is certainly true, that if an individual uses their charisms, their gifts, well and generously, they can be the path to holiness. But frankly, not everyone with charisms does this well. And God does not necessarily remove the gift on account of that. This is because, as we have emphasized, he gives it primarily for the sake of others.
Most of us have had the experience of perhaps being greatly blessed by the gifts that someone had, only to discover later that they were real scoundrels! This does not deny the fact that they had the gift. Only they did not apparently benefit them personally. Just because someone sings well does not mean they are a saint. The same is true for preaching, teaching etc.
Those who have charisms, and we all have them, must be careful not to become egotistical, and arrogant about them. They are given by God freely, not because we are particularly deserving, or somehow better than others. If anything, the presence of a charism should be a source of humility for us. And it should make us realize that we have the gift for the sake of others, not for our own glory.
And realizing this, we must accept the implication of generously using our gifts for the sake of the others, for whom they are ultimately intended. In so doing, we respect the fact that the gift does not belong to us, but ultimately to God. And thus we must use the gift as God intended, namely for others, not for our own glory.
The charisms are distinct from sanctifying grace (gratia gratum faciens) which is given to us for own sake. Sanctifying Grace is the grace that God gives us to make us pleasing to him, to make us holy. But as we have already seen, the charisms and have a rather different intention and purpose.
And now to the video. As a video opens we see a violinist, in the town square. He seems a bit down on his luck, and begins to play, hoping to get a few coins.
Frankly, his talent is only average, but it is a talent, it is a charism. It is not utterly wrong for those with charisms to in some way benefit financially from them. Scripture says elsewhere, the laborer deserves his wage (1 Tim 5:18). And in that passage, St. Paul with speaking of preachers, and preaching is certainly a charism. So our violinist is using his gift, hoping perhaps for a little extra money.
Things get dark very quickly however. A sinister figure, quite clearly the devil, enters the scene and tempts the man to gravely misunderstand his charism.
In effect, the devil, tempts the man’s vanity (vainglory), tempts the violinist to think that his gift is really only for his glory, for his self aggrandizement. He tempts the violinist to think that his charism exists only for himself, and his own glory, rather than for the good and building up of others.
He offers our average violinist a potion that will make him a great virtuoso, and he will have fame and glory all for his own sake rather than for others. Yes, his charism will become all about him, and him alone.
The violinist eagerly takes the potion and drinks it down. In so doing, he has failed to read the warning on the bottle that says of indulging his fantasy and his egocentric dream: “You will have to pay for it later.”
And as he drinks, suddenly his dream is realized. He is on a stage, all by himself, and he is a virtuoso. His brief playing brings a thunderous applause.
It is interesting, he’s an absolute soloist. He is not even part of a larger Symphony Orchestra with a solo part, he is all alone on stage. His glory is shared with no one. It really is all about him.
Quickly, his sample dream is over, and he is presented again by the devil with a chance for more personal glory. He eagerly grasps the potion, once again ignoring the warning that he will have to pay for it, and eagerly drinks it.
The video ends with the man all alone in the desert with his violin. He can play all he wants, but there is no one to hear him. He’s quite alone, no one will applaud.
And thus the full payment is exacted when we live only for ourselves, and care only for our own glory. And what is the payment? We end up quite alone When we live only for ourselves, we ultimately get what we want, only ourselves. We end up in a lonely, isolated hell. The payment, is to get exactly what we want. And getting what we want, rather than what God wants is hell.
God gives us charisms for the sake of others. If we understand them properly, we will give him the glory, and use them to relate to others, to bless others, to live for and with others also enjoying their charisms. And if we do this, our charisms, given to us not for our sake, can interact with the sanctifying grace that is given to us for our own sake. But if we do not use them this way, they can lead to our downfall.
Quite a little video actually one the powerfully illustrates it in the end, Hell is to get what we want, rather than what God wants. And one path to Hell is to live only for our own glory, and what want we will get. But the only problem is, we will go to a place filled with a lot of other egocentric people. And the “kingdom” we inherit, will be an awfully tiny kingdom, the kingdom of one, the kingdom of our own sorry, selfish self.
The video ends in hell, and this sort of hell is very lonely place.
In the Gospel for the Thursday of this 6 week of Easter, there is a phrase that goes back and forth between Jesus and the apostles 3 times, the phrase says, “
A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later you will see me. (John 16:16)
That this phrase is repeated three times in the short course of eight verses, means it is significant for us, and we ought to ponder it. For, there is a kind of “sacrament” to seeing. Yes, the Lord asks us to ponder what it means to see, and he calls us to move deeper, and to develop a kind of interiority that understands seeing beyond the demands of the flesh, and the merely physical act of seeing.
By “flesh” here, we mean flesh in the biblical sense, not as our physical bodies per se. The flesh, (sarx) is the biblical word for our sinful and fallen nature, a nature that is rebellious, and seeks everything only on its own terms. It is that part of us that is alienated from God, averse to the truth, it is that part of us that does not want to have a thing to do with God or the spiritual life.
As regards to seeing, the flesh demands to see only on his own terms. But the flesh will only regard the physical, and will not see, and thus denies, the metaphysical, the mysterious, the spiritual.
And therefore, the Lord summons us to something far deeper, saying, In a little while you will no longer see me. While some may wish to simply read this mechanistically as a reference to the fact that he would be three days in the tomb, as is always the case with John, and Scripture in general, we must look to deeper meanings, even if the text has an historical fulfillment. This text speaks not only to a situation 2000 years ago, but it also speaks to us.
And thus, the Lord teaches them and us, that we must become accustomed to seeing him no longer according to the flesh, merely, but we must learn to see him, mystically, in the sacraments, and in the deep moments of our prayer. We must also learn to see him in the face of the infant, the poor, our beloved family, even our enemies.
And so the Lord says, In a little while you will no longer see me, That is, you will no longer see me in the way you have been accustomed to see me, according merely to the flesh, according to my physical appearance in the physical world.
And then he says, a little later, you will see me. And here too, while this refers historically, to the resurrection, it must also speak to us. And both to the disciples, 2000 years ago, and to us, this text means more than the resurrection appearances. It means that, but it also means that we will learn to see him, in the Breaking of the Bread, we will learn to experience in the Eucharist, and mystically in our prayer, and throughout our day. Yes, our spirit must come alive with mystical vision, with the seeing beyond the flesh, and according to the spirit.
Again, we must be very sober, realizing that our flesh demands to see him on its own terms. It demands that our retinas be lit up with physical light waves. But God will not be seen simply on our own terms, for, in his Divine nature, He is pure spirit and will not be seen by merely fleshly eyes. His effects in the physical order are clearly seen, to those who have eyes to see it. But even here, many deny the obvious evidence that creation shouts the creator, and design, bespeaks the designer. Indeed, order requires one to order it reasonably and intelligently. But many simply refuse to see this, even though this evidence is plainly available even to our fleshly eyes.
If that be the case with our fleshly seeing, how much more is spiritual seeing difficult for the flesh to accept. But that is what the Lord Jesus is summoning us to in this passage. He is saying to us in effect,
In a little while you will no longer go on seeing me as you have been accustomed to seeing me. I am passing into the mysteries, into the sacraments, and you must learn to see me there, and to experience my power and presence. But I am no less present to you that I have been in your fleshly seeing. In fact, I am more present to you than ever, for I have been glorified in my humanity, and am now more present to you than ever before.
To our flesh, to our fallen sinful and rebellious human nature, to that part of us that only prizes the physical, the material, and the temporal, such an invitation is an insult! Again, as we have already stated, the flesh desires to see on its own terms, and it resents the journey that it must make out of the physical and into the spiritual. It resists this spiritual journey at every step, at every stage. It idolizes the material, and the physical.
And thus, the battle is engaged! The demand of the flesh to see on its own terms versus the desire of the spirit to see on God’s terms, to look beyond the merely physical and to see deeper into the mystical, and the truer meaning of all things.
A few thoughts, on the sacrament of seeing, both physical and spiritual.
1. Our strengths are our struggles. One of the great glories of the human person is our capacity to see. Of all the five senses, vision is the most acute. The animals with which I have associated, mostly dogs and cats, navigate the world more by smell than by sight. This is especially with dogs, which have long olfactory bulbs, but even with cats and most other mammals. Seeing seems quite secondary, it is smell which mostly informs their interaction with the world.
But with we human beings, vision is king. Our acute vision, has enabled us to see out to the stars, and also into the tiniest bits of inner space. Our vision is also given rise to glorious art, and intricate forms of communication involving letters and words, and the picture, which is 1000 words. Yes, for us, the world is lit up with meaning.
But our strength is also our struggle. For faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), and the obedience that accepts what is heard. Scripture says we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). This stabs at the heart of our most precious sense. Too many of us are from Missouri, the “show-me state.” We say “seeing is believing!” But in reality, seeing is only seeing. And when we do in fact see, that in no way guarantees that we will believe at all. I’ve been to many a magic show and watch these illusionists pull off things that seem quite miraculous. I do not conclude that they are gods. I figure they have some way of doing that. Seeing is only seeing, is not believing.
Scripture is right, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. It is only by the hearing of faith, that we learn to see the world as it really is. Though we prize seeing so highly, our eyes easily deceive us. Optical illusions are one of the simplest things to pull off. The Internet is filled with optical illusions, entertainment halls are filled with magicians, etc. Though we glory in our eyes, they are very easily deceived.
But because we glory in our ability to see, because our capacity to see is our most powerful of the five senses, our flesh finds it difficult to believe. Our strength, is our struggle. Demanding to see on fleshly terms, we close our minds and hearts to the deeper realities. Our fleshly eyes see only the physical, which is only the surface. But the truer reality and mystery meaning of all things is deeper in the metaphysical world of meaning, of purpose, of formal and final causality. The the flesh scoffs at all this and will only accept the physical, and what is on the surface. Thus, our strength, our glorious capacity to see, becomes our struggle, our weakness.
2. Some biblical illustrations. In recording the saying of Jesus that, “In a little while you will no longer see me. Later you will see me again” the Scriptures themselves give portraits of the necessary transition from merely fleshly, and physical seeing to spiritual insight.
For example, most of the apostles and disciples who saw the risen Lord took some time to recognize him. Mary Magdalene only recognized him, upon hearing his voice call her name. Yes, faith comes by hearing. The disciples on the road to Emmaus also did not recognize the Lord was walking right along with them! Scripture says, their eyes, that is the eyes of the flesh, were downcast. This does not likely mean they were simply sullen, but that their eyes were fleshly, looking down toward the world rather than up toward heaven and glory. But, hearing a word from the Lord, and having their hearts set on fire, they recognize him “in the breaking of the bread.” In this, the Lord teaches them by faith, that they were now no longer see them and merely earthly, and fleshly ways, but they will see him in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, they will experience him in the Word, in the liturgy of the Church, and in other ways.
Regarding the triumph of spiritual seeing over fleshly seeing, the Lord says, For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see, and those who see will become blind (John 9:39). Yet, those of this world prefer the darkness to the light (cf John 3:19).
The biblical verdict of the demand of the flesh to see on its own terms is a rather firm and general refusal. While God does grant occasional visions and miracles, the general insistence is that we believe in obedience to what is heard.
3. Presbyopia– as most of us age, our eyesight declines. Doctors call this presbyopia. The clarity of our youthful vision, gives way to the soft and blurry focus of age. In my own life, at age 40, my eyesight deteriorated rapidly. I needed no eyeglasses at all before 40, now at 52, I am crippled without them. I am incapable of even recognizing faces. At best, I can discern general shapes and contours, but I cannot even read large signs; Presbyopia.
But there is something of a sacrament in this decline in eyesight. For, as our eyesight declines, our glorious certitude in everything that we think, is also humbled a bit. It often pertains to young people to be absolutely certain about what they think. As people age, they come to accept that absolute certitude in many things, (other than revealed truth), in a world filled with mysteries, is prideful. There is a kind of a wisdom that comes with accepting that there is much that we do not know or understand.
Young people claim to know a few things. With the wisdom of age comes the insight that we do know only a very few things, and that things often have deeper meanings and we often first appreciated.
The very word, “insight” describes a capacity of wisdom to see deeper than what is apparent, and what is merely on the surface. To have insight, is “to see in,” to see inwardly, to see more deeply.
In a sense, for most of us, especially those who walk with faith, as our physical eyes decline, our spiritual vision, and the wisdom of insight grows. The world that is passing away becomes blurry to us, we see its apparent certainties less clearly, and we learn a kind of interiority. We see more deeply, and beyond the merely surface and physical, because, in a way we have to! Deeper spiritual vision grows within, as our fleshly eyes begin to fail us.
Allow a humorous example. When I counsel young couples getting ready to get married, they usually come to me youthful, they are sound and sleek. The brides are so pretty and they look with love to their handsome groom. But with glee, at my 52 years of age, I like to remind them that their physical attractiveness is going to head south. They will gain weight, and other less appealing things will manifest! But, I tell them, God has a plan! It is his will, that as our physical attractiveness declines, he also, wills that our eyes grow dim with the presbyopia, the blindness of old age. Thus, we do not notice how physically less attractive we have become! But of course, our problem in the modern world, is it we’ve overruled God and invented eyeglasses. Of course, I say all this in good humor and do not suggest we not wear eyeglasses.
But my point is simply this, that ideally as we age, we are less focused on and obssessed with physical appearances, and more able to see the inner beauty of people. Yes, if we are faithful, we begin to see the magnificent mystery of every human person, that every one of us was known and loved by God before we were ever made or formed in our mother’s womb (cf Jeremiah 1:5). Yes, we begin to see the beauty and the magnificence, the mystery and the glory of human life. Here is the insight, and in a way, it requires that our fleshly sight be dulled and overruled by a deeper spiritual insight which comes from interiority and Spirit of God within us.
4. Contemplative prayer–from the Carmelite tradition of St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross, comes the also biblical teaching that, as prayer deepens, we move beyond images, words and other discursive and mediated forms of prayer, and we moved towards immediate and deeper forms of contemplative prayer.
Contemplative prayer is a manner of relating to God beyond images, words, or any discourse at all, it is an immediate and ineffable union with God, (cor ad cor loquitur), heart speaking to heart, without words being necessary or vision, even imagined vision required. It is a deep union, beyond sight, beyond words.
The idolatry of fleshly seeing is being put to death, as we move toward deep and mystical vision, and insight beyond the senses. Paradoxically, the true contemplative, and true mystic, does not become utterly blind to this world of senses. But now, by this gift, the contemplative and mystic sees everything and everyone in this world more deeply, mystically, and more richly. Now everything is seen to reveal God.
The true mystic does not simply see God on the pages of the Bible, he sees him, beyond fleshly seeing, in the sacraments, in the beauty of the human person, in creation, in the events and moments of daily life.
Here then is mystical vision, not seeing things as they simply and physically appear. Rather it is seeing that everything, everyone has deeper meaning, is caught up in God, caught up in his love, and his will. God is encountered everywhere, in everything, and everyone. The true mystic is able to fulfill Paul’s edict of praying always (Eph 6:18), not by sitting in a chapel, but by being in living, conscious contact with God at every moment of the day. As this begins to happen, insight, the unfolding of mystery, becomes our daily fare and our eyes become truly open to the deeper reality of all things. As the seeing of the flesh dies, seeing of the Spirit, and in a spiritual way comes alive.
And thus Jesus says, in a little while you will no longer see me, but later, he will see me again…and your hearts will rejoice.
Think of these beautiful windows in the video. They are but sand and lead. Yet, having been subjected to the fire (of God’s love) they have been transformed to radiate (by Christ the light of the world) and communicate the deeper reality of the paschal mystery into the interior of a mausoleum, where I took the photos. Light and life shine in the midst of those whose eyes have closed but will reopen, gloriously transformed.
One of the graces of deeper prayer, if we persevere through the years, is that the Lord to turn us upward and outward. And, gradually our prayer turns more toward God and is less anxious about our own aches and pains. For now, it is enough to give them to God and trust his providence. Gradually, we simply prefer to experience the Lord quietly, in increasingly wordless contemplation. God draws us to a kind of silence in prayer as we advance along its ways. But that silence is more than an absence of sound, but instead results from us being turned more toward God. An old monastic tale from, I know not where, says:
Sometimes there would be a rush of noisy visitors and the silence of the monastery would be shattered. This would upset the disciples; but not the Abbot, who seemed just as content with the noise as with the silence. To his protesting disciples he said one day, “Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self.”
Yes, as prayer deepens and becomes more contemplative the human person is turned more to God and a kind of holy silence becomes private prayer’s more common pattern. This does not mean nothing is happening, the soul has communion with God, but it is deeper than words or images. It is heart speaking to heart (cor ad cor loquitur). This is a deep communion with God that results from our being turned outward again to God. And the gift of silence comes from resting in God, from being less focused on ourselves, more and more on God: Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with (holy) fear and trembling stand, ponder nothing earthly minded….. Yes, there is a time for intercessory prayer, but not now. Don’t just do something, stand there. Don’t rush to express, rest to experience. Be still, know that He is God. An old spiritual says, Hush….Somebody’s callin’ my name. Yes, pray for and desire holy silence, praying beyond words and images. Here are the beginnings of contemplative prayer.
St. Paul speaks of the unspeakable quality of deep prayer as well, though his experience likely goes beyond what we call contemplative prayer:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. (2 Cor 12:2-4)
Yes, it is “un-sayable,” words fail. St. Augustine was said to remark of the Christian mysteries: If you don’t ask me I know. If you ask me, I don’t know.
Another gift that is given to those who are experiencing deeper prayer is a sense of spaciousness and openness. As the soul is less turned inward and increasingly turned outward, it makes sense that one would experience a kind of spaciousness. Those who have attained to deeper prayer often speak of this. Scripture does as well. Consider some of the following passages:
- For the Lord has brought me out to a wide-open place. He rescued me because he was pleased with me. (Ps 18:19)
- I called on the LORD in distress: the LORD answered me, and set me in a large place. (Ps 118:5)
- The Lord brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. (2 Sam 22:20)
- You have not handed me over to the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place. (Psalm 31:8)
- Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness: you have enlarged me when I was in distress; have mercy on me, and hear my prayer (Ps 4:1)
- And I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts. (Psalm 119:45)
- And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth (a Hebrew word which means latitude or width), saying, “For now the LORD has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” (Gen 26:22)
See how consistently this spaciousness is mentioned. As we are turned outward and upward to God we soon enough experience the spaciousness, and latitude of knowing God. No longer pressed and confined by the experience of being turned inward (curvatus in se), the soul has room to breathe. Many people who begin to experience contemplative prayer, though not able to reduce the experience to words, express an experience of the the spaciousness of God. But this spaciousness is more than a physical sense of space. It is a sense of openness, of lightness, of freedom from burden and from being pressed down, it is an experience of relief. But again, all who experience it agree, words cannot really express it well.
Yes, here too is a gift of deepening prayer to be sought: spaciousness, and that openness that comes from being turned outward and upward by God. An old Spiritual says, My God is so high, you can’t get over him, He’s so low, you can’t get under him, he so wide, you can’t get round him. You must come IN, by and through the Lamb.
Two gifts of the deeper prayer we call contemplative prayer, prayer which moves beyond words and images, beyond the self to God Himself.
It is generally presumed, at least among those who believe in God and the afterlife, that everyone naturally wants to go to heaven.
But of course, “Heaven” is usually understood in a sort of self-defined way. In other words heaven is a paradise of my own design, the place is perfect as I think perfect should be. Yes, for most people, their conception of heaven is merely what they think it should be, and this usually includes things like: golf courses, seeing my relatives and friends, there are my own self-selected pleasures, and the absence of struggles such as losing a job or saying farewell.
Thus, the heaven that most people have in mind is a designer heaven it and is built on the rather egocentric notion that whatever makes me happy is what heaven will be.
The problem with this thinking is that heaven is not of our own design, or merely what we think it should be. Heaven is the kingdom of God and all of its fullness. In heaven are fulfilled and realized all the values of the kingdom of God, values such as mercy, justice, truth, love, compassion, chastity, forgiveness, and so forth.
Further, heaven is consistently described in the Scriptures in liturgical terms, as a place, and a reality rooted in praise and worship. It is a place of prayer and adoration. In all of this is our true happiness, the heart of heaven is to be with God forever, and to be caught up in the beauty of his presence and of his truth.
And heaven, is thus a place that is not merely happy in human terms, but is truly happy on God’s terms. Regarding the liturgical vision of heaven, and the values realized, experience and fulfilled there, it will be noted that many things on the list do not at all appeal to many people. Frankly, many people are dead set against things like the love of enemies, forgiveness, and chastity. Many to find the Mass, and all Church liturgy to be boring and irrelevant.
Imagine showing up at the gates of heaven only to discover that its heart is essentially the liturgy, and that is daily fair is not only hymns, candles, incense and praise, but also chastity, love, forgiveness, mercy and compassion, etc.
Many are averse to such things and even find them odious. God will not force such souls to inherit what they hate. Thus they are free to make other arrangements for eternity. Surely God must regret this deeply, but he has made us free and summoned us to love, and thus he respects, even reverences, our freedom.
But all this reflection, reminds us that heaven is something we must learn to love. It is like many of the finer things in life. Its appeal may not be immediate and obvious, but, having been trained in its ways we learn to love it very deeply.
It was this way for me and classical music. Its appeal was not immediately obvious to me, I was more enamored of driving rock beats and toe-tapping dance music. But gradually, through stages, classical music’s subtlety, beauty and intricacy began to speak to my soul, and I became more sensitive and aware of its majestic beauty. I learned to love symphonic music, and the magnificent patrimony of Gregorian Chant and sacred polyphony. And OH how it speaks to my soul now.
And so it is also of my soul with God and the things of God. Early in my life, my rebellious flesh was only averse to God and the parameters of his Kingdom. But now I have grown deeply to love the Lord, and appreciate the beauty and the wisdom of his truth. Yes, I am learning to love heaven. I love God, and the things of God, and the people God loves.
So it must be for us all, that we learn to love heaven. And for this purpose, the Lord left us His Church, like a caring mother, to teach us and lead us to learn to love the things of God, and of heaven. He also left us a sacred liturgy as a great foretaste, and his Word as a kind of blueprint describing what he loves and the architecture of the kingdom of love and truth. The Saints too blaze a trail ahead of us show us the way. In all of this God gives us a kind of pedagogy of the heavenly Kingdom and a healing remedy for our darkened intellects and hardened hearts.
But make no mistake, we must learn to love heaven, to love God and the things of God. And here we speak of the true God and the real heaven not a fake God, not some idol we have constructed for ourselves, but the true God and the true heaven which is his Kingdom and all his fullness. We must avail ourselves of his many helps and learn to love him and his kingdom.
If we think it is only natural to love heaven, we must become more sober. The fact is we have very obtuse spirits. We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. We tend to love that which is destructive and harmful. And even knowing that it is harmful we still tend to be attracted to it. We tend to esteem that which is foolish and passing, and to glamorize evil. We tend to call good or no big deal what God calls sinful. Yes, we are obtuse and up to 180 degrees out of phase with the Kingdom
GK Chesterton observes astonishing facts recorded in Scripture and Tradition:
The point of the story of Satan is not that he revolted against being in hell, but that he revolted against being in heaven. The point about Adam is not that he was discontented with the conditions of this earth, but that he was discontented with the conditions of paradise. (New York American, 12-15-1932)
If Satan revolted against heaven even while still in heaven and Adam preferred something to paradise while still in paradise, how much more should we be sober over the fact that we who have not yet seen paradise or heaven can easily despise or hold of little value the glory of God’s Kingdom.
Add to this that we live in a world that is utterly upside down, a world where we are not rich and what matters to God, a world which obsesses over passing and trivial things and pays little mind to eternal and heavenly things. Learning to love heaven can mean some pretty radical things. It means often being willing to be 180° out of phase with the world’s priorities and preoccupations.
To draw free of this and learn to love heaven requires an often painful journey on our part. And many are simply unwilling to make it, or to live out of phase with the world. Perhaps for this reason the Lord recorded with sadness, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Mat 7:13-14). Perhaps too we can understand why we need a savior: we are not only obtuse, but frankly not all that bright, and we like sheep tend to be wayward. Only with difficulty are we even willing to be shepherded.
Yes, we must make a journey and learn to love heaven,
Perhaps, to conclude, we might ponder a couple brief details from Simon Peter’s life. At the lakeside Jesus asked Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Jesus was seeking an agape love (ἀγαπᾷς με). Peter, with uncharacteristic honesty, at that stage, answered the Lord indicating he had only brotherly love (κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε). The triple dialogue seeking agape love ended with the Lord’s respectful acceptance that Peter had but brotherly love.
But the Lord also promised one day Peter would find agape love, one day Peter would finally learn to love heaven and the Lord above all things, above all people, above his very self. How? He had to make the journey and learn to love heaven.
And indeed, the Lord prophesied: When you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will lead you where you do not want to go. Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God (Jn 21:18-19)
But in order for that to happen, the world would have to be turned upside down for Peter. Peter would have to learn to see the world 180° differently than he did that day at the Lakeside. Of this we need to turn our lives over 180° GK Chesterton again writes very beautifully as he meditates that Peter was crucified upside down:
I’ve often fancied that [Peter's] humility was rewarded was rewarded by seeing in death the beautiful vision of the landscape as it really is: with the stars like flowers, and the clouds like hills and all men hanging on the mercy of God. (The Poet and the Lunatics Sheed and Ward p. 22)
Yes, learning to love heaven means learning to see the world as it really its, and to seem to the world to be upside down. But God’s ways are not our ways, his priorities are not our priorities. We have a lot of learning to do. At the end of the day heaven will not change to suit us (if it did it wouldn’t be heaven any more). So we must be changed for it, we must learn to love it even if that means being crucified upside down.
Help us Lord to desire heaven, to learn its ways, to learn of you and love you above all things.
N.B. The Chesterton insights came to me from a a fine book called The Complete Thinker by Dale Ahlquist.
A priest friend of mine moved to this country when he was in high school, and English was not his first language. It took him time to get the slang expressions right. A big expression at the time was “What’s up.” And it took him a while not to look up when people said this to him. And another expression was “Say what?” And when someone said this to him, it took him a while not to respond by saying “what.”
Language is a funny thing. It obviously has a precision that is necessary. Without the basic framework of grammar and vocabulary, communication could not happen.
However, language is also a very creative endeavor which makes it quite a moving target.
I was surprised to learn how different English sounded back in the 13th Century which I discovered when I was required to memorize the prologue of the Canterbury Tales. To this day I can still recite most of it by memory:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
But wait a minute, thought I, if English used to look and sound like this, a mere 600 years ago, then spelling and grammar, even vocabulary must have changed by lots of little misspellings and malapropisms down through the years. If that is so, then why did my teacher always return my essays with red ink marking my errors? Wasn’t I just helping to move the language to the next stage? “Not so” said my teacher, “You don’t have that much power. Now make your corrections and turn the paper back in.” Oh well, I tried.
And yet it would seem that language is a moving target and that there is an on-going battle between the purists (the language police and grammarians) and the creative wordsmiths who push the envelope with language.
But the fact is, our language is rife with inconsistencies, crazy spellings and words that have outright reversed their meaning. Language is more art than science, if you ask me, and even if you don’t ask me. Consider some oddities:
1. We often use words to mean the exact opposite of their original meaning. We park in driveways and drive on parkways. Manufacture used to mean “hand made” (manu (hand) + facere (to make or do). Now it means just the opposite of handmade. Awful used to mean “full of awe,” “wonderful,” now it means bad or terrible. And so forth.
2. Language is riddled with oxymorons (words that combine two opposite notions): Old news, even odds, pretty ugly, small fortune, growing small, industrial park, baby grand, standard deviation, civil war, original copy, student teacher, recorded live, etc.
3. Some words have more than one meaning and can even mean something totally opposite. Thus we clip something to attach it to something, or clip something (like a coupon) to detach it. We also bolt things in place or bolt in the sense of getting away fast. We can hold up things, in the sense of impeding traffic, or hold up things in the sense of advancing them, such as holding up values. Oversight can mean to carefully attend to something by over seeing it, or it can mean to neglect something by not attending to it. Certain can refer to something of a very definite quality, or it can mean just the opposite referring to something vague and difficult to specify, as in, “I have certain concerns about your plans.” And so on…
3. And then there are the heteronymns that must drive non-native English speakers crazy. These are words with the same spelling but different meanings and often different pronunciations. “Refuse,” the noun meaning trash, and “refuse,” the verb meaning to be against. Read the book (present tense) and read the book (past tense). Primer (base coat of paint) and primer (a beginner’s book). I am now resorting to resorting the papers. The entrance leads to a display that will entrance you. I am certainly content with the content of this offer. At present he is not present. As the altitude peaked, he began to look peaked. He lead a procession to the lead mine.
4. And then, so many of our expressions really don’t make any sense:
A hot cup of coffee – when what we really mean is a cup of hot coffee. It’s the coffee we want hot not the cup.
A one night stand – but we don’t stand at night, if you get my drift.
Head over heels in love – But our head is almost always over our heels. Don’t we really mean heels over head, as in upside down?
Preplan, preboard, preheat - but what people are actually doing is simply planning, boarding and heating.
Put on your shoes and socks – the order is wrong. Socks need to come first.
Back and forth – but it does not pertain to physical objects to go back and forth. Rather they must go forth before they can come back. It should be forth and back.
Watch your head – but that is impossible.
Behind my back – but isn’t this redundant? As if someone could do something in front of your back?
5. And then there is a wholly inconsistent matter of how we handle verbs in English: Today we speak, yesterday we spoke, faucets leak but never loke. Today I teach yesterday I taught, Today I preach but never praught. I win and I won, I also sin but never son.
What a mess huh? By the way if you want to read more of these twists and turns of our Language, read Crazy English by Richard Lederer.
Two thoughts occur to me based on this craziness.
First there is the remarkable capacity for us to navigate the complex and inconsistent landscape of language. Our minds are magnificent and able to grasp the subtleties of language and also also to apply experience and context. Frankly our ability to speak and communicate is nothing short of a miracle.
And it is unique to us. None of the animals have such a profound system of communication wherein reality is literally symbolized and even metaphysical concepts are conveyed by a series of sounds, and/or written symbols (letters) in combinations (words and sentences). It is nothing short of astonishing that we can understand one another at all, especially given the rampant inconsistencies of our languages.
I suspect there is and must be something of soul power at work for us in communication. It is not that we simply have the ability to talk, but also that we have something to say. And having something to say we thus make communication happen. I suspect that if two people who had no language in common were put in a room, soon enough they we would be communicating, even if it meant inventing a language whole-cloth.
Our capacity to speak starts in our soul’s desire to understand and be understood. We have something to say and so we must say it, even using the crude and inconsistent too we call language.
Secondly, as a Catholic and lover of Scripture, I DO wish that people would take some of the same sophistication that they have in everyday conversation and apply some of it to scripture. Too many people read scripture in a mechanistic way, missing basic human contexts like history, and language tools and genres such as metaphor, hyperbole, poetry, allusion, word play, paradox, irony, and so forth.
Frankly it is our opponents the atheists who are most guilty of a fundamentalist and reductionist reading Scripture. They love to pull quotes out of thin air and and say, “See your God is a blood-thirsty genocidal despot.” Yet in pulling these quotes they have no respect for context, or later development within the Biblical framework. Neither do they seem to have any respect for the various genres at work or that history can be told in different ways.
That God’s Word conveys absolute and clear truth is certain, but it does this in a variety of ways, sometimes telling epic sagas, other times getting deep into the details of genealogies, and very precise delineations on places and persons. Sometimes the bible portrays grave sin, but not as approval but to set the stage for and the need of grace and mercy. Some earlier provisions and rules gave way as God led us deeper into his will in stages. Yet other rules and commands remain unchanged and are operative at every stage of Biblical revelation.
So, like any use of language those who read the scriptures must bring a significant degree of sophistication and appreciation for the subtleties of the text. Frankly, trying to read the Scriptures outside of the ecclesial context in which they were experienced, written shared and understood is to engage in an interpretation that is dubious at best, and deeply flawed at worse. The Bible is a Church book and must be read with and in the Church. The Catholic Church provides not only a context for the sacred text, but also the authoritative capacity to interpret the limits and meanings of the text.
Ah Language! Such a magnificent gift, and one so fraught with complexity. Handle it with great care and appreciation. And if this be so with human speech how much more so with the Sacred Text.
The scene is Pentecost Sunday and Simon Peter has just received the Holy Spirit along with 120 others. A crowd has gathered, intrigued by the manifestation of the Spirit in the upper room. The door opens and out steps Simon Peter. and he begins to boldly proclaim Christ. After an initial summary of Jesus’ life and actions, and a doxology, Peter strikes home and says to those gathered:
Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. (Acts 2:36)
A few days later Peter preached even more acutely:
You handed Jesus over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this….“Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.…Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out... (Acts 3:14-20)
Apparently Peter never got the memo that we preachers are not supposed to mention unpleasant things like sin and certainly not accuse our listeners of having sinned. He apparently didn’t understand that we who preach are supposed to issue the usual bromides of affirmation and speak only in abstractions and generalities. Imagine, he calls them killers, co-conspirators in handing over God to be crucified. Yes, he does: You killed the author of life!
Of course in referring to “the memo,” I speak of the unwritten rule among many priests and deacons today, especially of of the older generation 55 and up, which said, in effect: never offend anyone, ever, under any circumstances. Say nothing of controversy, or anything that might upset anyone, ever. And by all means do not mention, sin, hell, judgment or purgatory. Don’t mention specific moral topics either like abortion, fornication, contraception, divorce, gay anything, and don’t you dare mention that missing Mass is a mortal sin, or even let the phrase “mortal sin” escape your lips.
Well you get the point. And yet here is Peter saying, “You killed the author of life!” And he’s not talking to the person next to you, dear reader, he’s talking to you. That’s right you did that. And so did I. Yes we are sinners. And if we don’t repent and receive his mercy were going to be lost, we’re going to go to Hell. (Oops, did I say “Hell?”)
Now of course the usual logic is that if we talk plainly like this we’ll offend people and that they’ll stop coming. Now, never mind that our churches have largely emptied in the aftermath of the widespread application of the “say nothing of sin” memo. No indeed, it must be honey and no vinegar, ever.
It is interesting that Simon Peter, though clear and bold about sin, did not seem to cause this angry alienation feared by many modern priests. In his Acts 2 sermon we read not of alienation but of mass conversion:
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:37-41)
Wow, this is not the predicted results of some of the fearful and dovish “do-no-harm-ever” preachers and liturgists of today. Peter’s nets were nearly breaking with 3,000 converts even after telling them they had crucified Jesus, and further warning them and calling them to repentance and baptism in no uncertain terms.
And after Peter’s ever sterner words of Acts 3 telling us “You killed the Author of life” the numbers grew even more: But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand. (Acts 4:4)
Story - Back in the late 60s or early 70s, a Protestant evangelist named David Wilkerson wrote a book called The Cross and the Switchblade, which described his ministry among the hardened gang members of the inner city. And his ministry was quite abundant in those years, not by a sort of cheesy, sentimental self esteem approach, but by a frank laying out of the issues at hand. In effect he’d appeal to the gang members by telling them that their problem wasn’t that they had enemies, or didn’t have enough weapons. No their problem was that they were sinning, and that their only hope was to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ, or they were going be forever lost. Jail, or an untimely death was the least of their problems.
Now you’d think he’d get killed talking like that to gang members. Be he didn’t. They knew, deep down, that he was right. And even those who weren’t ready to convert had a respect for him that he spoke the truth, and was bold enough to make it plain.
Somewhere along the line modern preachers, (many, but not all) lost their edge. The Gospel, the good news of salvation, really doesn’t make a lot of sense without reference to sin. To say that we are saved, points to the question, “Saved from what?” And without a vigorous understanding of the sin, and ultimate Hell we have been saved from, the Gospel starts to seem peripheral, optional, a nice story, but not really all that crucial or urgent. The good news is highlighted by and makes sense in the light of the bad news. Only if I know that “I got it bad and that aint good” does the news of a cure dawn as wonderful and even fabulous news.
It is true that we live in dainty times, where people are easily offended, and thin-skinned. But I must also say that I have found that speaking clearly about sin, the need for repentance, and the glory of mercy is experienced by most people as refreshing. Good preaching needs an edge to be compelling. Abstractions, generalities, and hallmark greeting sentiments don’t really win the day or seal the deal. Chatty sermons, dumb jokes, beige Catholicism, and soft tones offer little that is compelling. Our empty churches say that loud and clear.
Some will inevitably take offense, but that has always been the case. A good preacher, it seems, who is worth his salt needs to be willing to get killed, or at least to get it with both barrels. Timid preachers are only a little better than useless. They are, as Gregory the Great said, “Dumb dogs that cannot bark.”
So Peter never got the memo, and thank God. As his fruitful example shows, vigorous biblical preaching includes an edgy quality, dealing with sin, setting it forth plainly, but also in a way that highlights the glory of grace and mercy.
Bottom line, “You killed the author of life!” (I’m talking to you, not the person next to you). And we’ve done it in a thousand ways. But even now, know that Jesus Christ loves you and has mercy on you in abundance, and you can lay hold of this if you will repent and run to him for healing and mercy.
Sinner, don’t let this harvest pass! And die and lose your soul at last.
The Gospel for today has a number of “sayings” of the Lord Jesus which all amount to a kind of litany of love and setting forth of the gifts that He by his grace is and will accomplish in us. Lets get right to work and consider the wonderful gifts of grace.
I. Power - Jesus said to his disciples: “Whoever loves me will keep my word
Here is a fundamental theology of grace: that the keeping of the commandments and mandates of the Lord’s word is the fruit of his Love. Let us state it plainly: the keeping of the Commandments is the fruit of Love, not the cause of it. “Yes,” says the Lord, “If you love me, the keeping of the commandments is sure to follow.” And note this too, we do not initiate this Love, God does. Scripture says, We love because he first Loved us (1 John 4:19).
Pay attention. No one can give what they do not have, and no one can possess what they have not received. God is the author and initiator of Love. Thus Love ALWAYS starts with him. The Lord is not setting up some sort of loyalty test here as if he were saying “If you love me, prove it by keeping the commandments.” That is not he gospel! The Gospel is that God has loved us, before we were ever born, before we could do anything to merit it. He loved us when we were dead in our sins. And HE took the initiative and loved us, when we hated him and crucified him.
And if we will accept this love, it will enable us to love God with the same love with which he has loved us. And with his love in us we will begin to love what he loves and who he loves. We will love holiness, forgiveness, mercy, justice, compassion, chastity, generosity and so forth. And we will love our brethren and even our enemies. Why? Because God loves them and when his love is in our heart, so is his love for them, and for all the things he loves besides.
Do you get this? Love enables us to keep his word, to live it and love it. When I was young I dated a girl who liked square dancing. At the time I had no love for square dancing and thought it silly. But my love for her meant I started to love what she loved, and her family too. Do you see it? Love changes our heart and our desires if we let it have its way.
So let Love have its way, and you will keep the commandments. The keeping of the commandments is the fruit of love, not its cause. Love is the power of grace at work in us to love what and who God loves. Jesus says, If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).
II. Presence - [Jesus says] and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
One of the great desires of Jesus was to restore us to unity with the Father. Jesus was crazy about his Father and earnestly desired to have us know Him and love Him more deeply.
If we will but accept the Father’s love and shalom offered through Jesus, we will have a tender and joyful relationship with our Abba, our Father who loves us! Jesus often spoke of his Father almost as a doting Father. He was like a shepherd who left 99 in search of one, He was like someone who lost a coin and swept diligently to find it and, having found it, throws a party more costly that the value of the coin to celebrate. He is like a father whose son told him to drop dead but when His son finally returned, ran to meet him and threw a celebratory party.
Do you grasp this? The Father loves you and Jesus has reconciled you to him (cf 5:10). Now run to him, run to Abba, God. If you take one step, he’ll take two, and start running to embrace you!
This is the Gospel: Jesus Christ has reconciled us to the Father, by the Father’s own request. He loves you. Now run to him and watch him run to you. He wants not distance, but intimate presence, love and embrace.
III. Perfection - “I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.
We all know that the Christian journey is not accomplished in an instant. But rather, we make this journey with God, the Holy Spirit, who teaches us and makes us mindful of all that Jesus has done for us, and taught us. Little by little we are given a new mind, a new heart, a new walk, and new priority, a new and better life. May God who has begun a good work in bring it to perfection (cf Phil 1:6).
And if we are open, he is faithful and he WILL do it. The process may be slow, but that is because we have foreheads of brass and necks of iron (cf Is 48:4). But God is faithful and patient. I am a witness; and if he can change me, he can change you too. He has promised and will do it.
We will be transformed by the renewal of our minds (cf Rom 12:2), for the Holy Spirit will bring to our mind all that the Lord IS and all that he taught. Let the Lord change your mind and heart. And if he does that, the rest will follow: sow a thought, reap a deed, sow a deed reap a habit, sow a habit reap and character, sow a character reap a destiny. And it all begins with the mind.
One of the gifts of grace is the renewing our minds, leading to total transformation.
IV. Peace - Jesus says, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe.“
What is the gift of peace? Peace is shalom, it is more than an absence of conflict. It is the presence in the relationship of everything that should be there. Peace is the experience that everything is alright.
For us peace is access once again to the Father. It is to be able to walk with him once again in Love, in and through Jesus Christ. And we don’t just walk with him in some earthly garden paradise, as Adam and Eve did (but lost). Rather we walk with him in heaven. In Jesus we are seated with the Father in honor at his right hand.
So, what does it mean when the same Jesus who said, “The Father and I are One” (Jn 10:30), also says, “The Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28)?
Theologically it means that the Father is the source in the Trinity. All the members are co-eternal, co-equal, equally divine, but the Father is the Principium Deitatis (“the Principle of the Deity”).
Jesus proceeds from the Father from all eternity. In effect Jesus is saying, “I delight that the Father is the principle of my being, even though I have no origin.”
Devotionally, Jesus is saying I always do what pleases my Father. Jesus loves his Father, is crazy about him, is always talking about him and pointing to him. In effect, he says, by calling the Father greater, “I look to my Father for everything and I do what I see him doing (Jn 5:19) and what I know pleases him (Jn 5:30). His will and mine are one, and what I will to do proceeds from him and I do what I know accords with his will, Whom I love.”
And here then is the source of our peace, that we, with Jesus love the Father and always do what pleases him. And Jesus “goes to the Father” but he takes us with him, for we are members of his mystical Body. In Jesus, we enter the holy of holies, and sit next to the Father in love and intimacy.
Here then are some important gifts of grace. It is for us to lay hold of them and live out of them. The Lord promises them to us, so they are ours. And if at times they seem distant, reach out and take back what the devil stole from you. These are gifts of the Lord’s resurrected grace.
Here’s a song that speaks of peace and presence, not to mention power.
There is a line from scripture that says, Woe to the solitary man. If he falls he has no one to lift him up. (Ecclesiastes 4:10)
Scripture also says, And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25). The teaching is clear, we must come together each week for Mass and learn to live in deep communion with one another. We are not meant to make this journey alone. We need encouragement and exhortation, food for the journey, company and protection.
In the days of Jesus its was almost unthinkable for a person to make a lengthy journey alone. Once a person left the relative safety of the town the journey got dangerous. There were robbers lying in wait along the roads just looking for vulnerable targets. For this reason people almost always made journeys in groups.
This is a good image for the spiritual journey we must all make. Alone we are easy targets. We are vulnerable and without help when spiritual demons attack.
Yet another insight says, Feuding brothers reconcile when there is a maniac at the the door.
Somehow I thought of all this when I saw these two videos. They are cleaver and make the point of partnership or perish, teamwork or terror, love or lose, hang together or hang separately. Yes, woe to the solitary man! How necessary the protection of the flock. How necessary for the herd to stay together.
First, I have served in African American Parishes most of my priesthood. And in this context, I have often wondered why there are not more African American Parishes named for this North African Saint. So many black parishes are named for Augustine or Cyprian, both of whom, while denizen’s of North Africa, were likely of Berber stock, and looked more European than African. Athanasius, on the other hand, while certainly not a sub-Saharan African, is described as having dark, even blackish skin. Yet almost no African American Catholic commentary claims him, and I have never heard a Black Parish named for him.
Just a curiosity on my part. I once wrote a rather prominent historian who has written on African American Catholicism to ask why this was so, but I never heard back.
My favorite description of Athanasius comes from Robert Payne’s The Holy Fire. The Book is out of print now but I just love Payne’s style. He is at his best in describing St. Athanasius. Enjoy this vivid excerpt:
There are times when the dark heavy syllables of his name fill us with dread. In the history of the early Church no one was ever so implacable, so urgent in his demands upon himself or so derisive of his enemies. There was something in him of the temper of the modern dogmatic revolutionary: nothing stopped him. The Emperor Julian called him “hardly a man, only a little manikin.” Gregory Nazianzen said he was “angelic in appearance, and still more angelic in mind.” In a sense both were speaking the truth. The small dauntless man who saved the Church from a profound heresy, staying the disease almost single handed, was as astonishing in his appearance as he was in his courage. He was so small that his enemies called him a dwarf. He had a hook nose, a small mouth, short reddish beard which turned up at the ends in the Egyptian fashion, and his skin was blackish. His eyes were very small and he walked with a slight stoop, though gracefully as befitted a prince of the Church. He was less than thirty when he was made Bishop of Alexandria. He was a hammer wielded by God against heresy.
There were other Fathers of the Eastern Church who wrote more profoundly or more beautifully, but none wrote with such a sense of authority or were so little plagued with doubts….He wrote Greek as though those flowing syllables were lead pellets….His wit was mordant. He did not often employ the weapon of sarcasm, but when he did, no one ever forgot it. When Arius, his great enemy died, he chuckled with glee and wrote off a letter to Serapion giving all the details of Arius’ death, how the heretic had talked wildly in church and was suddenly “compelled by a necessity of nature to withdraw to a privy where he fell, headlong, dying as he lay there.” As for the Arians, Athanasius hated them them with too great a fury to give them their proper names. He called them dogs, lions, hares, chameleons, hydras, eels, cuttlefish, gnats and beetles, and he was always resourceful in making them appear ridiculous….At least twice Athanasius was threatened with death, and he was five times exiled. He was perfectly capable of riding up to the Emperor and holding the emperor’s horse by the bridle while he argued a thesis.
In the end he had the supreme joy of outliving all his enemies and four great emperors who had stood in his path, and must of known, as he lay dying, that he had preserved the Church….It was a long triumph of one man against the world – Athanasius contra mundum! pp. 67-68
Here’s a video that shows a softer side to St. Athanasius.
I was doing some sidewalk evangelizing with a group of fellow Catholics in my neighborhood last Sunday and a very angry African American Man confronted me with the accusation that we were unjust and lying because the Image of Jesus on our banner looked European. He explained to me that everyone knew Jesus was Black and African and that we were therefore lying and misrepresenting Jesus.
For the record, the image we had on our banner was an icon, generally with Eastern European features, but like most Icons, of darker complexion and ambiguous as to nationality.
But never mind, He saw it as white because it wasn’t clearly black or possessed of African features. I told him that we really don’t know exactly how Jesus looked and that it was fine to see him with African features, or eastern or really anyway. I also asked him to notice that many of us there on the sidewalk were African American and that in our parish, which I pastor, we had an African Christ on our processional cross etc. We made no real claim that our banner was what Jesus looked like exactly.
But at the end of the day he wasn’t really looking for a conversation, he wanted a confrontation. My own training tells me to end such dialogues quickly and look for more fertile ground. I assured him that we meant no offense and was sorry that he experienced offense, asked his prayers and politely disengaged from the conversation.
The very question, “What Did Jesus Look Like?” and our debates as to his features, says a lot about our modern age. And the silence of the Bible as to the physical appearance of most of its principal characters says a lot too.
We live in a very image driven culture. Ever since the invention of photography and especially television, the physical appearance of people has become quite significant. Perhaps the first real discernment of how important this had become was in the Nixon-Kennedy debate. Those who listened on radio generally thought Nixon won the debate. Those who saw it on TV thought Kennedy had won. And thus it was that physical appearance seems to have been greatly magnified as an assent or liability. It is surely true that physical appearance had importance before, but now it was magnified. Prior to the invention of photography, films and TV very few people had access to the physical appearance of influential people before they formed an opinion of them.
The fact that the Bible has so little to say about the physical appearance of Jesus or most of the main figures gives an indication that such facts were of less significance to the people of that time. It may also say something of God the Holy Spirit who chose not to inspire the recording of such information as a general rule. It would seem that physical attractiveness (or lack thereof) matters little to God? (I am hopeful in this department for my handsomeness has taken a serious hit in recent decades). Perhaps too the Holy Spirit draws back from such descriptions so that we would be encouraged to see ourselves in the narrative of Holy Scripture.
We get occasional references to physical traits. There are the some references to attractiveness. David is said to have a ruddy appearance, Leah seems to have been less attractive than her sister Rachael. Bathsheba surely drew David’s eye. There is also some mentioning of more specific traits. For example the beloved woman in the Song of Songs describes herself as “black” and “beautiful.” Sampson is said to have long hair. Zacheus is said to be of short stature. Herod was an Edomite, a name which refers to the reddish skin of that race of people. You will perhaps want to add to this list in the comments section. But overall the Scriptures are remarkably silent about any extensive physical description of the main protagonists. Who was tall, who was short, what color their skin or hair, or eyes? How long was the hair? Did the person have a beard?
And thus as we consider Jesus we are left with little from the scriptures themselves. It does seem clear that Jesus must have had a vigorous constitution given the extensive journeys he made throughout the mountainous region of the Holy Land. Lengthy walks of 60 miles or more back and forth from Jerusalem to Galilee and then well north to Tyre and Sidon. Climbs up steep hills and mountains such as Tabor were not for the weak or feeble. I have spoken more of the physical stamina of Christ here: On the Human Stature of Christ. But as for his hair color, relative height, skin tone etc. we have little or nothing.
I would like to speculate however based on a a few criteria of certain possible traits of Jesus’ physical appearance. Again, these are mere speculations. I encourage you to remark on them and to add or subtract as you see fit. These speculations are somewhat random and given here in no particular order.
1. The length of his hair. It is common since the renaissance to see Jesus depicted with long and straight or wavy locks of flowing hair. I have often wondered if ancient Jewish men ever wore their hair this long. I say this because St. Paul says, Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him? (1 Cor 11:14). He goes on to speak of long hair as a “glory” to a woman. I wonder if Paul would have said such a thing if Jesus had the log hair he is often depicted with today? What exactly Paul meant by “long” is a matter for debate. It does not necessarily mean that Jesus went about with hair as short as some men wear it today. The Shroud of Turin, if it is authentic, shows the hair length to be at just about the length of the upper shoulder. I also doubt that Jesus’ hair would be as straight as many post renaissance artists depict it. If Jesus was a Semite, his hair was probably far more coarse and wiry than European hair. It is also interesting that some of the earliest images we have of Jesus on the Catacomb walls depicts him as clean shaven with short hair. But this may simply be a projection of Mediterranean standards upon him. Again, all these ponderings of mine are speculative.
2. What of Jesus’ complexion? If Jesus was of Semitic stock (a point which some debate) it would follow that his skin was not as dark as that of a sub-Saharan African but neither was it as light as a northern European. Many Scholars think that the ancient Semites had something of an olive tone to their skin, generally dark colored hair that was thick and often wiry or curly. The picture at left was developed by scholars recently using forensic techniques on a skull found from the first century AD. While the skin tone and hair are more speculative, the appearance of the face is based on the techniques of forensic reconstruction (cf HERE and HERE ). The image is not without controversy. Indeed there seem to be significant differences among scholars as to both the origin, appearance and general anthropology of the Semites who likely descended from Noah’s son Shem according to the Scriptures. Here again, I present these aspects of appearance to you only as speculative.
3. The Shroud of Turin - You have likely read much on the shroud. There is wide consensus today that the shroud comes from a period far earlier than the Middle Ages as was held in the 1980s when some questionable studies were conducted on it. Even if it dates from the time of Christ, this still does not prove it is his image. However the seemingly miraculous manner of the imprinting of the image is strong evidence not to be lightly set aside that this is in fact Christ’s image. Even if it is we have to be careful to remember that he had been savagely beaten and that this may have marred his appearance left on the shroud. Nevertheless, if this is Jesus’ image then we can see that he was 5-feet-10 to almost 6 feet tall and weighed about 180 pounds, had a fairly strong muscular build and a long nose seemingly typical with the Jews of his day. We have already remarked on the length of the hair and, despite Paul’s remark, his hair as depicted on the Shroud was worn a bit longer than most men of today.
Perhaps we do well to end where we began and question our own modern preoccupation with the physical appearance of Jesus and other biblical figures. It is true we are visual and will always prefer to see the face of those we love. But the Bible’s silence on these matters may be instructive and we do well to consider that the Scriptures invite us to look deeper than appearance, deeper than race or ethnicity. The Word became flesh in Jesus, but the Word must also become flesh in us and we must learn to find Christ in the Sacraments (cf Luke 24:31,35), in the poor, in our neighbor, our enemy, our very selves.
This video is one of the most extraordinary I’ve seen using a fascinating technology to show the many ways Jesus has been depicted down through the centuries. The images melt and morph into one another!
While some dioceses in the US have been closing and consolidating seminaries, here in Washington DC we recently opened a new one: The Blessed John Paul II Seminary. And things are going so well, we are now adding a new three-floor wing to accommodate more men. (See a wonderful video below on the Seminary)
Currently 30 men are in formation at Blessed John Paul II. Altogether Washington has just over 70 men studying for the priesthood.
This new seminary is unique in that it enrolls men who are still in college, or need to do pre-theology studies, prior to undertaking post-Graduate Theology studies. It was the concern of Cardinal Wuerl that in the years prior to entering Major Seminary and theological studies it was important to form the men and let them live in community in the Washington area where they will serve in future years.
Back in 2005 we also opened a Missionary Seminary for thirty seminarians of this Archdiocese in the Neocatechumenal Way to study. We also send men to the North American College in Rome, Mount St. Marys Seminary in Emmitsburg MD, Theological College in Washington, and Blessed John XXIII in Boston.
The Lord is turning out some very good men. I remain impressed with the caliber, devotion and orthodoxy of the men who are in our seminaries. I recently preached a retreat for 30 of them at Blessed John Paul II here in DC. I also work with them in both summer assignments here in the parish and have at least three at a time working here throughout the academic year. They are prayerful and intelligent men who have a heart for the Church, and a love and reverence for God.
Internationally the number of seminarians has increased an astonishing 86.3% since 1978. in 2010 there 118,990 seminarians worldwide, whereas in 1978 there were just 63,882 major seminarians. All this according to the Annuario Pontificio
U.S. Catholic seminary enrollment in theology this past year year (2012) is the highest in almost a quarter-century, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Last year’s total of 3,723 is the highest enrollment since the 3,788 reported for 1988-89.
The average rate of retention for seminarians entering theology to being ordained has remained consistent at about 75 percent.
Younger trend -Slightly more than a quarter of today’s major seminarians are 35 or older, and more than half are under 30, representing a possibly significant shift back toward youth after a couple of decades in which newly ordained priests tended to be much older.
So, there is a lot to be grateful for. It is true we must work harder, and there is much about which to be sober. The reported growth in seminarians does not match what we need to fill the gaps. Ordinations are still only about a third of the number that are needed to compensate for those priests who are retiring, or dying.
Yet still we have more than bottomed out and are now heading in the right direction. Continue to pray for many vocations.
Great Laity too - Pray too for continued reform and zeal among the lay faithful. So many good signs exist there too, I meet so many dedicated and zealous laity every day. A growing remnant of clergy and laity are getting clearer and more focused, day by day.
Take this to heart, beloved readers. I think it is easy for us to get discouraged today and we see so much confusion and decay in our culture. But God is raising up a faithful remnant. He is purifying the Church in so may ways, with good vocations, but also many wonderful lay movements and Catholics in fire for the Lord.
Yes, He has been pruning his Church, to be sure, and our overall numbers at Mass may continue to go down for a while. But pruning has a purpose, and the Church that remains may be overall smaller, but she is going to need to be strong to endure and overcome the days that get ever darker. Like Gideon’s army that was too large, God is thinning but purifying his ranks. A smaller but clearer army that is united will win the day.
Like Noah’s Ark! It may take time but it is clear that God is preparing, pruning and purifying the Church for something very great. It may well be that the Church will once again have to be a kind of Noah’s ark which will preserve the vestiges of life from a dying culture, only to replant them when the flood waters subside. And thus, the Lord is strengthening the Ark, the Barque of Peter. In the Words of an old spiritual: Get on board Children, there’s room for many-a-more.
Yes! Take heart and be of good courage. Jesus says, In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:33)
Here’s a video of our newest Seminary at which we are needing to add a new wing to accommodate “many-a-more.”