Today’s gospel teaches us to pray always and not lose heart. This is a gospel about having tenacity in prayer and, even when the results seem discouraging, continuing to beseech the Lord. It is also a gospel about the Lord’s will to extend the gospel to all the nations and to make the Church truly catholic.
Let’s look at this gospel in five stages.
STAGE I. TRAVELS - The text says, At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Thus Jesus goes north of Israel into the territory we know today as Lebanon.
Now Matthew is not just giving us a quick travelogue here. We are not interested merely in Jesus’ physical location but, even more, in what this location signifies. Jesus has gone up north to pagan territory. Other things being equal, this is a rather odd destination for a Jewish preacher. But we need to recall that Jesus is preparing the Church for a mission to all the nations. So it makes sense that He pushes the boundaries of the Jewish world. Jesus interacted with Gentiles and Samaritans as if to say, “The racism of a Jewish-only world must now end. The Gospel must break the boundaries of nation and race and be truly universal, truly catholic.”
This vision of the Gentiles being drawn to the Lord was actually well attested to in the Old Testament. But, just like today, there were texts in the Scriptures that were popular and well known and others that were conveniently “forgotten” or had little effect. Consider a few examples of texts that announced the entry of the Gentiles into the Holy People of God:
- The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, ministering to him, loving the name of the LORD, and becoming his servants–all who keep the sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:6-9).
- I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Is 49:6).
- Babylon and Egypt I will count among those who know me, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia, these will be her children and Zion shall be called “mother” for all shall be her children (Psalm 87:4-5).
- I come to gather nation of every language; they shall come and see my glory. Some of these I will take as priests and Levites says the Lord … All mankind shall come to worship before me says the Lord (Is 66:18; 23).
Hence we can see that the Jewish people’s own Scriptures spoke of a day when Jews and Gentiles together would worship the Lord and be His people.
This introductory note about Jesus’ location is essential to understanding the text that will follow. We must grasp Jesus’ will to reach out to the Gentiles. We do this in order to appreciate that some of the harsh tone He exhibits later can likely be understood as a rhetorical means of questioning racial and national division rather than as an affirmation of such division. In effect He is tweaking His disciples and the Church and giving voice to their fears and hostilities. In so doing He also calls out the Canaanite woman in order to show forth one who is willing to set aside these racist notions for a greater good.
Let’s watch it unfold.
Stage II. TORMENT – The text says, And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
It is a sure fact that Canaanites were despised by Jews. And Canaanites returned the favor and despised them right back. What is it that would make a Canaanite woman reach out to a Jewish Messiah? In a word, desperation. In her torment and desperation this woman no longer cares who helps her daughter as long as someone helps her!
She has likely heard of Jesus’ power to save and heal. She looks past her racial hatred and, risking terrible personal rebuke, calls on Jesus. Her sorrow crosses boundaries. The only enemy she cares about is the demon afflicting her daughter.
It is sad but true that a common enemy can often unite factions. It should not take this, but the Lord will take whatever he can get to unite us.
So torment has lowered the barriers.
Stage III. TEST - The text says, But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”…. “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
It is a shocking and daring thing that Jesus does here. He takes up the voice of sin, oppression, racism, and nationalism. It is a very strange thing to hear come from the mouth of the Lord, who has already journeyed among the Samaritans and Gentiles, healing them and often praising their faith (e.g. Lk 8:26; Mt 8:10; Lk 7:9; Matt 8:11 inter al).
The usual explanation is that He is calling out this woman’s faith and through her is summoning His disciples to repentance. The disciples want the Lord to order her away. In effect, He takes up their voices and the voice of all oppression and utters the hateful sayings of the world, even going so far as to use the term “dog” to refer to her.
Yes, Jesus is testing her, trying to awaken something in her. He is also giving voice to the ugly thoughts of His disciples and likely others, Gentile and Jew, who were standing by and watching with marvel and disdain the interaction of a Gentile, a Gentile woman, and a Jew.
There is a saying, “Things do, by opposition grow.” And thus, through this test, Jesus increases her faith and possibly that of the bystanders. Just as an athlete grows by facing tougher opponents and a musician improves by playing tougher pieces, so does the testing of this woman’s faith cause it to grow.
Remember, God tested Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Job, Esther, Susannah, Judith, Gideon, and countless others. The Canaanite woman, too, is being tested. And like those of old she, too, will grow by the test.
We, too, are tested. For God seems at times to be strangely silent and we are made to feel like no child of God at all. Indeed we may often conclude that even the dogs live better than we.
So the question for us remains. Will we give way during the test or hold out until our change comes? Will our faith grow or wither? Will our love grow stronger or will it change to resentment?
Stage IV. TENACITY – The text says, But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
Note here that the woman is not put off. Whatever anger, grief, or discouragement may move through her, she perseveres.
She is even bold and creative. In a sense, she will not take no for an answer.
- She is like Mother Mary at Cana, who did not pause for a moment when Jesus seemed dubious of her request (Jn 2:5).
- She is like the widow before the Judge in Jesus’ parable, who never stopped pestering the judge for a favorable ruling (Lk 18:1-8).
- She is like the blind man at the side of the road, who still kept calling for Jesus despite the rebuke of the crowds (Lk 18:39).
- She is like the parents who brought their infants to Jesus for a blessing, who withstood rebuke by the disciples and won through to the blessing (Mk 10:13-16).
- She is like Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree to see Jesus despite his short stature (Lk 19:1ff).
- She is like the widow with the hemorrhage, who, though weak and ritually unclean, pressed thorough the crowd and grabbed the hem of Jesus’ garments (Mk 5:28).
- She is like the lepers, who, though forbidden by law to enter the town, sought the Lord at the Gates and fell down before Him (Luke 17).
Yes, she has tenacity. She will hold out until the change (the healing she desires for her daughter) is accomplished. She will not give up or let go of Jesus no matter how unwilling He seems, no matter how politically incorrect her request appears, no matter how much hostility she encounters from the disciples, the crowds, or even Jesus Himself. She will hold out.
Here is a woman with tenacity! How about you?
Stage V. TRIUMPH – The text says, Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.
Here is the victory. She has gone from torment to triumph by a tenacious and tested faith. Jesus now takes away the veil of His role and shows His true self—the merciful, wonder-working Messiah and Lord.
Jesus says to her, “Great is your faith.” But how has it become so? In the crucible of testing, that’s how. We may wonder at God’s delays, at His seeming disinterest or even anger. But in the end it is our faith that is most important to Him.
Our faith is more important to God than our finances, our comfort, or our desired cures. For it is by faith that we are saved. We are not saved by our health, by comforts, by money, or by good fortune. And God is willing to delay; He is willing to test us and try us, if only for the sake of our stronger faith by which He will save us. God saves us, but He does it through our faith.
Why all this delay? Why the suffering? Why the trials? Stronger faith, that’s why! God may not come when you want Him, but He’s always right on time. For His true goal is not to give us what we want, but rather what we need—stronger faith.
Having done this, the Lord gives her the triumph. We, too, must accept that God’s truest blessing for us is not better health or improved finances; it is stronger faith.
Consider well the lesson of this gospel. Though God often seems uninterested, even cruel, He is working His purposes out and seeking to increase our faith. Hard, you say? What parent among you has not had to do the same for your child? For children, untested and untried, who get their every wish, who never have to wait, become spoiled, self-centered, and headed for ultimate ruin. Consider well that God knows exactly what He is doing and consider, too, that most of us are hard cases. God must often work mightily to get our attention and strengthen our faith. Do not give up on God; He is up to something good, very good.
Photo Credit: Goodsalt.com, used with permission.
I have it on the best of authority that as this woman saw Jesus coming up the road she sang this song:
Pass me not O gentle savior
hear my humble cry
while on others thou art calling
do not pass me by
Savior, savior, hear my humble cry
while on others thou art calling
do not pass me by
Let me at a throne of mercy
find a sweet relief
kneeling there in deep contrition
help my unbelief
I’ve raised concerns in the past about the “men are stupid” variety of commercials that proliferate in our culture. The usual approach is to sell a product by showing some total buffoon of a man trying to use a product about which he doesn’t have a clue. And then some wise woman sets him straight—or even worse, the kids come to his rescue. The whole scenario goes something like this: “Gee, Honey, I’m just a stupid man. How does this product work?” And the wise wife responds, “Oh, Dear, that’s not how it’s done. Here, let me show you.”
Maybe some of the complaints are starting to register on Madison Avenue, because I’ve seen some improvement. The Cheerios commercial at the bottom of this post isn’t without its flaws, but at least it presents a normal man—a father even! And guess what? He actually seems to know what he’s doing and commands a little respect from his wife and kids. And they actually appear to like him! I know this doesn’t seem possible. After all, aren’t all men oversexed buffoons and even worse than children when it comes to having a clue? Isn’t beer and football all they know about?
Well at least this one commercial shows another side. It is a bit over the top in its cinematic technique, but it is drawing on a technique first used in the TV series “St. Elsewhere” and perfected in “West Wing,” which features the main characters moving quickly through a set of many rooms and navigating numerous conversations and situations in a rapid-fire way. The effect is stimulating and provides a vigorous study of the main characters and a vivid portrait of their lives.
The commercial is just quirky enough to escape the critique of the highly “un-PC” notion that most men and dads are decent guys, who are not stupid, and who exert a good influence on their kids through both support and admonishment. Without its cool quirkiness it would not likely have escaped the “PC-enforcers,” who would never brook the notion of supporting Scripture, which says, The Lord sets a father in honor over his children (Sirach 3:2). My favorite line in the commercial is, “Now, dad-ability isn’t always easy. When a rule is broken we’re the enforcement. But when a heart is broken we’re the reinforcement.”
I’m sure you’ve noticed the playful practice in modern times of “verbing,” wherein a noun, or less commonly an adjective, is turned into a verb: “Your verbing weirds me out.” The title of the commercial below is “How to Dad,” in which “Dad,” a noun, is used as a verb. I have mixed feelings about the practice but here it is done in fun.
Enjoy the commercial!
I. Explained – To be “assumed” means to be taken up by God bodily into Heaven. As far back as the Church can remember we have celebrated the fact that Mary was taken up into Heaven. We do not just acknowledge that her soul was taken to Heaven as is the case with all the rest of the faithful who are taken there (likely after purgation). Rather, Mary was taken up soul AND body into Heaven after her sojourn on this earth was complete. There is no earthly tomb containing her body; neither are there relics of her body to be found among the Christian faithful. This is our ancient memory and what we celebrate today: Mary was taken up body and soul into Heaven.
II. Exemplified - The actual event of Mary’s Assumption is not described in Scripture. However, there are other assumptions recorded in the Scriptures, thus the concept itself is biblical.
- It happened to Enoch in the Old Testament. The Book of Genesis records: Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away (Gen. 5:24). Hebrews 11:5 elaborates: By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God.
- It also happened to Elijah as he walked with Elisha: And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven … And he was seen no more. (2 Kings 2:11 ).
- Some say that Moses, too, was taken up since his grave is not known: He was buried in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is (Dt. 34:6). The text of course does not say that his body was taken up, and even if it was, it occurred after death and burial. Jude 1:9 hints at that fact when it says, But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses … (Jude 1:9). Some further credibility is lent to the view of Moses being assumed by the fact that he appears alongside Elijah in the Transfiguration account. Some of the Church Fathers held this view and there is also a Jewish work from the 6th Century AD entitled The Assumption of Moses that represents the tradition of Moses’ assumption. But in the end the assumption of Moses is a view held only by some, and it not officially held by the Church.
- And while it is true that the historical event of Mary’s Assumption is not recorded in Scripture nor are there historical accounts of the event, there may be one other scriptural account that evidences Mary’s whereabouts, body and soul. The Church presents for our consideration in today’s second reading a passage from the Book of Revelation wherein John records his sighting of the Ark of God:
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm. A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads … The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter (Rev 11:19 – 12:5).
The woman is clearly Mary since the child is clearly Jesus. And where is Mary seen? In Heaven. Now some may argue that this passage does not necessarily indicate that her body is in Heaven but rather may only be referring to her soul. However, the physical description of her in the text is rather strong. Some also argue that Mary is linked to John’s sighting of the Ark of the Convenant, which is seen by John in Heaven. He mentions the Ark and goes on to describe the woman clothed with the sun (Mary) and there is a possibility that he is still describing the Ark. (I have written on this elsewhere: Mary: The Ark of the New Covenant.) If Mary is the Ark described, then she is in Heaven, since the Ark is clearly described as being in Heaven.
So the biblical record, while not recording the event of the Assumption of Mary, does set forth other assumptions and thus shows that assumption itself is a biblical concept. Further, Mary’s physical presence in Heaven seems to be hinted at by John and some would argue that the passage actually attests to her physical presence there.
But remember, the Church does not rely solely on Scripture. In this case what we celebrate is most fundamentally taught to us by Sacred Tradition in that the memory of Mary’s Assumption goes back as long as we can remember.
III. Extended - The Feast of the Assumption may be of theological interest to some and may provide for interesting biblical reflection, but eventually the question is bound to arise: “So what? How does what happened to Mary affect my life and what does it mean for me?” The answer to this question is bound up in nearly every Marian doctrine. Simply put, what happened to Mary, in a profound and preliminary way, will also happen to us in the end. As Mary bore Christ into the world, we too bear him there in the Holy Communion we receive and in the witness of his indwelling presence in our life. As Mary is (and always was) sinless, so too will we one day be sinless (immaculate) with God in Heaven. As Mary cared for Christ in His need, so do we care for Him in the poor, the suffering, the needy, and the afflicted. And as Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven, so too will we be there one day, both body and soul.
For now, our soul goes to Heaven (once purified) but our body lies in a tomb. But one day when the trumpet shall sound, on that “great gettin’ up morning,” our body will rise and be joined to our soul:
For we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” … Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:51-57).
So our body shall be assumed, shall rise and be joined to our soul.
Improved model! An older woman once said to me (upon hearing that her body would rise): “Father if this old body has to rise, I’m hoping for an improved model!” Yes indeed! Me too! I want my hair back, my slender figure to return, and I want knees that work! I want to upgrade from a general issue version to a luxury model. And God will in fact do that. Scripture says,
- He will take these lowly bodies of ours and transform them to be like his own glorified body (Phil 3:21).
- But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body … So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; … And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven (1 Cor 15:35-49).
- Yes, we shall also be taken up—assumed—and then shall be fulfilled for us the saying of Job, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another ‘s (Job 19:25-27).
The assumption of our bodies, prefigured by Christ in His own power and also in Mary by the gift of God, will one day be our gift, too. For now, though, it waits till that “great gettin’ up morning.” Until that day and on that day, fare you well; fare you well!
This song is an African-American Spiritual and speaks of that “great gettin’ up morning” when our bodies will rise. And if we have been faithful they will rise to glory!
I’m gonna tell you about the coming of the judgment (Fare you well) There’s a better day a coming … In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well! Oh preacher fold your Bible, For the last soul’s converted … Blow your trumpet Gabriel … Lord, how loud shall I blow it? Blow it right calm and easy Do not alarm all my people … Tell them to come to the judgment … In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well. Do you see them coffins bursting? Do you see them folks is rising? Do you see the world on fire? Do you see the stars a falling? Do you see that smoke and lightning? Do you hear the rumbling thunder? Oh Fare you well poor sinner. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well.
The word family had a wider meaning in both Aramaic and Hebrew than it does in English today. The Hebrew ah and the Aramaic aha could be used to refer to those who were brothers, half-brothers, cousins, and even other near relations. Extended family networks were both insisted upon and essential for survival. To have these ties and be dependent upon them was every Jewish person’s duty, and an absolute necessity for survival.
Marriage – Of course marriage is the heart of family. The very first order that God gave Adam and Eve was that a man should leave his father and mother cling to his wife, that the two of them should become one, and that they should increase and multiply. Ancient rabbis said a man really wasn’t a man at all until he did so. However, especially by the time of Christ, there were some men and women who lived celibate lives so as to be particularly free to serve God, whether by studying the Torah, teaching, or engaging in some great work for God’s people. Jesus and Paul seem to have been in this category. Jesus praised those who did so in Matthew 19 as did Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.
In the earliest years of Israel there seems to have been some tolerance for polygamy even though it was a departure from what God had set forth. Many overlooked it given the urgent need to grow the family of God, the chosen people. Men were often killed in war and this led to an abundance of women who need husbands. Generally, only wealthier men could afford to have more than one wife. And although the Bible does not explicitly condemn the polygamists, it does show that polygamy led to intractable troubles, not necessarily between the different women involved, but between the sons over inheritance rights, etc. By the time of Jesus, polygamy among the Jews had greatly diminished if not altogether vanished. There is simply no mention of the practice in the New Testament. Jesus also summoned each man to love his wife and He prohibited other Mosaic leniencies in marriage. He re-proposed God’s original plan of one man and one woman till death do them part.
Call to marriage and engagement – Marriage took place at a very young age for the ancient Jews. Most rabbis proposed age 18 as most appropriate for men, though often a bit younger especially when war was less common. Young women married almost as soon as they were physically ready for marriage, approximately age 13 or 14.
In most cases, marriages were arranged by the parents for their children. However, there were exceptions to this and arranged marriages were seldom forced on young people who had absolutely no attraction to, or interest in, each other. Nevertheless, the insight in the ancient world, and even in many places today, was that marriage was not so much about love and romance as it was about survival. Further, it was not merely individuals who married but families that came together in mutual support. Beauty and romance, while considered pleasant things, were also known to be passing, and life and survival had to be based on sturdier foundations—so they were.
When a future bride had been chosen for a young man, either by his parents or more rarely by himself, there followed a period of one year called “betrothal.” During this time the couple still lived apart while delicate, often protracted negotiations went back-and-forth between the families as to questions of dowries, etc. The groom or his family paid the dowry to the father of the bride. The payment was made in recognition of the loss incurred by the bride’s family as a working member of the household went forth. It was also understood that some money should be set aside for the woman in case her husband were to die prematurely.
Marriage ceremonies – After the period of the betrothal was finished and all the agreements were at last reached and signed, the wedding could take place. Weddings typically extended over a period of five to seven days. Autumn was the best time for marriages: the harvest was in, the vintage over, minds were free, and hearts were at rest. It was a season when the evenings were cool and delightful and it was agreeable to sit up late at night. Usually the entire village gathered for a wedding.
At the beginning of the wedding feast, in the evening, the bridegroom, accompanied by his friends, went to fetch his betrothed from her father’s house. He would wear particularly splendid clothing and sometimes even a crown. A procession was formed under the direction of one of the bridegroom’s friends, who acted as the master of ceremonies and remained by his side throughout the rejoicing.
The bride was carried in a litter and in procession. She was beautifully dressed and along the way people sang wedding songs that were traditionally known and largely drawn from the Song of Songs in the Bible: Who is this coming up from the wilderness like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and incense made from all the spices of the merchant? (Song of Songs 3:6) When the procession reached the bridegroom’s house, his parents bestowed a traditional blessing drawn from scripture and other sources. After the prayers, the evening was passed in games and dancing and the bridegroom took part in the festivities. But the bride withdrew with her bridesmaids and friends to another room assigned for her.
The next day was the wedding feast and once again there was general rejoicing and a sort of holiday in the village. There was a meal toward the end of the day at which the men and women were served separately. This was a time for the giving of presents, etc. The bride, all dressed in white, was surrounded by her bridesmaids, usually ten of them. She sat under a canopy while traditional songs and blessings were sung and recited. During this time, in the evening, the groom arrived. And while the exact ritual words are not certain, there seems to have been a dialogue between bride and groom recorded in the Song of Songs. The bride says, Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth— for your love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the young women love you! Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers (Song 1:2-4). And the groom responds, Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me. My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside, show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely (Song 2:13-14).
Now that the couple was together, all the other men and women also came together. It would seem that synagogue or other religious leaders imparted blessings to the couple, now together under the canopy. The words of these blessings and rituals are not definitively known and seem to have varied. After these came the evening feast.
Later on that first evening the couple vanished and the marriage was consummated. The celebrations often went on for several more days. The couple did not going on a “honeymoon,” but remained for the rest of the celebration, sharing in the merriment, the songs, and the dancing under the star-strewn sky.
Here is Palestrina’s composition of Surge Amica Mea (Arise my beloved, my beautiful one and come). There is a wonderful musical onomatopoeia (a word that sounds like what it describes) in the opening word, “surge” (arise), as the notes run up the scale. Enjoy!
Back in my seminary days, we would often study the question of authorship when it came to the books of the Bible. Especially in modern times there are extensive debates about such things. I remember being annoyed at the question since in most cases I didn’t really care to whom the Holy Spirit had given the text. In the end, God was the author.
I was also annoyed at some of the premises used to reject authorship. For example, it was widely held by modern scholars that St. Paul couldn’t possibly be the author of the the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) since the description of the Church was “far too developed” to have been written prior to 65 AD. Never mind that the Acts of the Apostles describes many of the “dubious” hierarchal elements (presbyters (e.g., Acts 14:23), deacons (e.g., Acts 6:3), and apostles (bishops)). Never mind any of that. For us moderns there is the tendency to consider earlier eras as “primitive.” So Paul’s authorship was questioned by many in those days.
John’s gospel was also considered far too lofty by modern scholars to have been written by a “simple fisherman.” Where could this “unlettered” man have gotten such profound and mystical insights? Again, never mind that he may have been as old as 90 when he authored the gospel and may have pondered it for some 60 years. Never mind that he lived for at least part of that time with the sinless Virgin Mary, who knew her son as no one knew Him and saw Him with sinless eyes. No, never mind the power of grace and infused vision. No, it was too much for many modern and rationalistic scholars to accept that a simple fisherman could have pulled it off. It must have been by some other more lettered man like John the Elder. Or it must have been other, smarter types in the Johanine community or school that authored this.
Although I was just a simple 25-year-old seminarian, it seemed to me that far too many modern interpreters stressed only the human dimension of Revelation. Something more mystical was missing from their view. That God could somehow give a profound vision and an infused mysticism to the early Apostles was almost wholly absent in their analysis. Even as a 25-year-old young man I knew better than to exclude that. Although I was young I had already experienced aspects of the charismatic movement in which inspiration and gifts were to be sought and expected.
And had not Jesus himself said to the Apostles, But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you (Jn 14:26)?
I recently came across a quote from Origen (the early 3rd century theologian), whose insight into John struck me as profound and telling, deeply faithful, and challenging for every Christian. Pondering where John “got all this,” Origen says,
We may therefore make bold to say that the Gospels are the first fruits of all the Scriptures, but that of the Gospels that of John is the first fruits. No one can apprehend the meaning of it except he have lain on Jesus’ breast and received from Jesus Mary to be his mother also (Origen, Commentary on John, 6).
There it was, the lynchpin, the truest answer. John had mystical vision and saw the Lord in the loftiest way because he knew and experienced the heart of the Lord, and had Mary for his Mother. John was a brilliant theologian and possessed deep insight, less because he knew books than because he knew the Lord, heart to heart.
And how surely and truly Mary’s role in this cannot be overlooked. Think of the conversations she and John must have had, the mystical prayer she must have enjoyed and shared with John, the memories and the things that only the heart of a sinless mother could see and know. How John must have marveled at the gift of her! And how he, too, who had known the heart of the Lord and rested at his heart at the Last Supper, must have been able to pray and converse with her.
“Speculation,” you say? Perhaps. But it is a vision I share with the great theologian, Origen. It was love that gave John insight; it was through his relationship with Jesus and with Mother Mary, by Jesus’ own gift, that his mystical gospel took flight.
And what of you and me? How will we gain insight into the Lord and the truth of His Gospel? Books and learning? Studying Greek? Reading commentaries? Sure, all well and good. But these things are best at telling you what the text is saying. It takes a deep relationship with the Lord to see Scripture’s mystical meaning.
Study? Sure. But don’t forget to pray! Scripture comes from the heart of the Lord. And it is only there, by entering the heart of the Lord and living there through prayer, that Scripture’s truest meaning will ever be grasped.
Having trouble getting there? No one loves and understands Jesus as does his Mother Mary. Ask her intercession and help; she will show you the heart of her Son.
Jesus gave John two gifts: the gift of His heart, and the gift of His mother. And John soared to such places that people could ask, “How did he get all this?” But you know how.
He offers you and me the same. Do you want vision? Do you want to appreciate the depths of Scripture and all God’s truth? Do you want the eyes of your heart opened to new mysteries and mystical experience? Then accept the gifts Jesus offers: the gift of His heart and the gift of His mother.
Consider well the admonition of one of the most learned men who ever lived: No one can apprehend the meaning of it except he have lain on Jesus’ breast and received from Jesus Mary to be his mother also.
Here is Fr. Thomas Luis de Victoria at his most mystical: O Magnum Mysterium (O Great mystery and wondrous sacrament, that animals would witness the birth of Christ. O Blessed Virgin whose womb merited to carry the Lord Jesus Christ, Alleluia!)
The modern person, especially in the West, thinks of time in a very mechanistic way. We watch the clock, which is in itself a mechanical device without intrinsic meaning. We look to the clock rather than watch the sun, or watch our children grow, or we look to the crops, or even more broadly to the rise and fall of nations. For most of us time is not the unfolding of eternity or the cycle of life; time is simply a neutral span to be reckoned by its length, by the number of ticks on a device we have invented. We also tend to reckon time by what we can do with it. If we have a lot of time we can get a lot done; if we don’t have much time we can’t get things done.
Further, the modern, Western mind controls by measuring. And we love to measure time. And having measured it, we somehow think we control it. We assign monetary value to it (time is money!) and hang many expectations on it as in, “You’re taking too long to do that,” or “The deadline has passed.”
For ancient peoples, including the ancient Jews, such precision about time was unknown and to some degree impossible. Surely, for them, the measurement of time was of divine origin. God set forth the sun to rule the day, the moon and the stars the night (cf Ps 135:8-9).
The cycle of the sun set forth the day. Another lengthier cycle of the sun, its rising and falling in the horizon, marked the year. So, too, “seasons” could be noted by this cycle. There was the longest and shortest day of the year known as the solstices. And then twice more in the year there were the equinoxes when the night and the day were almost exactly the same length.
As for the months, the moon declared these. The very name “month” in English is actually a mispronunciation of the word moon, as in, “What moonth are we in?”
There were different systems among the ancient peoples to demarcate time, some of them solar calendars, others lunar. At the time of Jesus, it is clear that there was a lunar year (354 days) in use. The lunar year has the serious disadvantage of being some 11 days behind the solar year, which quickly causes a discrepancy between the months and the seasons. Thus, from time to time, these differences had to be “caught up,” otherwise the declared summer months would eventually have opened in mid-winter, etc.
The Jewish people, generally speaking, waited until the error of the lunar calendar amounted to about a full month and then inserted an extra month, called Veadar, between the months of Adar and Nisan. A year with this extra month amounted to almost 400 days instead of the usual 354 days of the Jewish lunar calendars.
The decision as to when exactly to insert this extra month was made in a very empirical manner. Thus farmers might note to Rabbinic official that “The lambs are still too young,” or “The grain is not yet ripe.” When consensus built that the Veadar month needed to be inserted, it was ordered to be done. Decisions of this sort were usually made by a Beth Din, a legal council of Rabbis, following a complex procedure. Witnesses were examined as to the problem of the lagging clock in relation to the season. Chosen observers of the sun and moon were asked to testify in great detail as to where they had seen the moon, the size of its crescent, and its height above the horizon. And when the necessary evidence was collected, the Veadar month was declared. This would happen approximately every three years.
Generally, a month was said to begin in the evening of the 29th day, at the moment when the thin sliver of the new moon appeared in the sky. When all seven Beth Din court members agreed to the new month, it legally began, and fires were lit on the hilltops to announce it.
In ordinary years (without a Veadar) there were 12 months. But, frankly, the Anceint Jews told time more by their feasts than by the name of the month. Thus, the Jews thought of yearly time in this manner:
|Jewish Month||Corresponding Western Equivalent||Cycle of Feasts|
|Menachem Av||July–August||Tisha B’Av|
|Tishrei||September–October||Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succoth, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah|
|Tevet||December–January||Conclusion of Chanukah|
Months (the moon cycle) and festivals were the essential divisions of the year. The four seasons, which have a lot of important for us, were less significant for the ancient Jews, who lived in a climate that did not really fall into four distinct periods. For them there was only the cool and wet period of October to March and the hot and dry period of April to September. The intermediate stages between these two seasons were very brief. But, as noted, the chief points of the year were known in relation to the feasts. For ancient Jews, to hear of the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Day of Atonement gave them very clear time references.
But despite all these reference points, the honest truth about telling time in Jesus’ day was that it was murky. Frankly, there were any number of different calendars used in Palestine at the time. The Jews had an official calendar, but were divided even among themselves as to its details. This difference finds its way into the Scriptures, wherein the three synoptic gospels seem to date Passover one day, but John’s Gospel another. The reason is likely rooted in the two different calendars in use among the Jews of Jesus’ day. There is strong evidence that the Essene community used a calendar from the Book of Jubilees, which was a solar calendar of 364 days rather than the lunar calendar of many other Jews. So even in the significant feasts like Passover, different groups of Jews sometimes had strong differences as to how to enumerate the exact days of Passover. And add to this complexity the fact that the Romans had a completely different calendar from the Jews, as did the Samaritans. The Greek cities of the Decapolis used the Macedonian calendar, and others made reference to as many as four calendars: the Jewish, the Syrian, the Egyptian, and the Roman.
We who live with more certain parameters about time will wonder how anyone knew what time to show up anywhere! Yet from day to day it must be said that the ancient Jews lived in greater conformity with the natural cycles of the day. They got up when the sun rose and generally followed the cycle of the day, finishing work before dusk and then enjoying a few evening hours perhaps around oil lamps or by moonlight. But generally their lives were synchronized with the sun and the seasons, while our notions of the day are often artificial and in some ways unhealthy.
One of the greater mysteries in terms of telling time is the seven-day week. Most of the other increments make sense based on the cycles of the moon and the sun. But there seems to be no obvious reference in the natural order to explain a week being seven days. Surely the book of Genesis is the theological source for this practice. God worked for six days and creating the heavens and the earth, and rested on the seventh. Thus man, made in God’s image, did the same. And yet it seems clear that most cultures throughout human history seem to “reset the clock” every seven days. Where exactly this comes from naturally is not clear. It is possible that the influence of the Jewish scriptures had some role. Yet the seven-day cycle seems common even where Jewish faith could not have had much influence. Perhaps there is some inner circadian rhythm in the human person; it’s not clear. But for the Jews of Jesus’ time, it is clear enough that God had set this forth and thus it was to be followed.
Weeks lasted from one sabbath to the next; there is no evidence that the Jews named each day. Of course the Sabbath was named, and the day before the Sabbath was called Preparation Day (e.g., Mk 15:42). However other days were simply called the first day of the week (e.g., Mk 16:2), the second day of the week, and so forth. Romans and Greeks named each day off after a god or a planet, but there is no evidence that the Jews did this.
For the ancient Jews the day began at sundown. In larger towns, and especially in Jerusalem, the end of the day was marked with the sound of trumpets. This pattern is of course very different for us, who mark the beginning of the new day literally at midnight but practically at sunrise. We begin the day with work and then rest; they rested and then worked.
The division of the day and the hours was a comparatively recent phenomenon in Jesus’ time. The very word “hour” is not even found in the Old Testament, except perhaps once in the book of Daniel. But by the time of Jesus, the division of the day into 12 hours was commonly accepted. This fact is referenced in many places in the New Testament. For example there is a parable of the laborers who were hired at the 11th hour (Mt 20:9). There are references to Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well at the sixth hour (Jn 4:6). St. Mark says that Jesus was let out for crucifixion at the third hour and died at the ninth hour (Mk 15:25,33). Jesus admonished the disciples when they were unable watch and pray even for one hour.
Exactly how an hour was reckoned was obviously less precise than it is today. There was a general sense of the position of the sun and there were sundials in use, especially among the Greeks. But there was a general vagueness surrounding it and in determining the exact time of the day in Israel back in Jesus’ day. As already noted, our modern mania for promptness and exactness with time was utterly unknown at the time of Jesus, and even in many places in the world today. Time was a much more flexible phenomenon. In Jesus’ day it would’ve been meaningless to set an appointment for 10:30 AM or 6:00 PM. One would have had to be content to speak of meeting in the early evening, or in mid-afternoon, etc. To us moderns this would seem infuriating. But life was slower then and people were rarely in a hurry.
As for the night hours, things are even more vague. For those who were up at night (and cared), the night was divided into watches. It would seem there were four of them. St. Matthew, for example, states that it was in the fourth watch of the night when Jesus walked on the water to join his disciples (Mat 14:25). The last watch of the night would also feature the cockcrow as dawn neared.
Imagine how lost many of us moderns would be in a world where time was not of the essence, where it was on the periphery. For us who are ruled by the clock, the whole experience might be quite disorienting. On the other hand it might also be liberating to look, not slavishly to some artificial, unrelenting timepiece, but to the gentler, cyclical rhythms of God’s design. We might actually slow down to the pace of life He intended for us. As for most of us now, we could well say, “I’m so busy I met myself coming back!” But somewhere, even in the world today, there are still those who, by the glow of gentle oil lamps, wait patiently until the day dawns and the morning star rises (2 Peter 1:19).
Here is a brief reflection by Fr. Francis Martin on time in the Bible. (Please pray for Fr. Martin, who has had recent setback in his health.)
I’ve pondered with you before on this blog (HERE) the disappearance of something we used to call “dating,” wherein a young man would summon the courage to ask a young lady out to dinner or perhaps to the movies. He would do something called getting “dressed up,” go to the young woman’s house, often meet her parents, take her out for the evening, and then return her home at a respectable hour.
Dating was something that one did beginning in late high school or in college. Youth too young to date were often encouraged by adults to meet one another, and so the adults often sponsored dances and other social activities for young men and women to meet, learn to dance, and interact socially. All this was in service of something we used to call “marriage,” a term that has lost any real meaning in the general culture over the past fifty years. It used to mean (and still does in the Church) the lifelong, stable union of one man and one woman for the purposes of having a family and raising children. In the general culture today it really means little more than two (and soon to be two or more) adults consorting for as long as they please, for whatever purposes they please, until it makes them happier to no longer do so.
With the demise of marriage also came the demise of dating, which existed to serve marriage and to provide opportunities for younger men and women to meet and eventually marry.
As I pondered the disappearance of dating with you some months back, I was surprised at the the sad and sometimes bitter or cynical remarks that came in the comments box. Clearly there is a significant undercurrent of bitterness, cynicism, and lack of trust between the sexes. So many young men wrote in, with great anger at times, about how they are treated by young women, who seem to see them as predators and as somehow beneath them. Many young women confirmed this by describing men as immature and not interested in anything but sex. The overall climate seems to be deeply imbued with a poisonous cynicism and even an open hostility between the sexes.
In a certain sense we see today an age of lost innocence. Gone are the days of idealistic young men and women venturing out to find a spouse, excited at the prospect of marriage, family, and future. Now, because of divorce rates unimaginable fifty years ago, idealism has been replaced by cynicism. And with the explosion of easily accessible pornography, sexual innocence is lost very, very early. Almost no young people these days think ahead to a blissful wedding night and having their first experience of sexual intimacy there.
Yes, it is an age of lost innocence. The word “innocence” is from the Latin in (not) + nocens (harmful or noxious). Thus in seeing someone as innocent, we presume that they mean no harm. But in cynical and jaded times like these, fewer and fewer people presume innocence on the part of anyone. A young man can barely take notice of a woman’s beauty, let alone tell her she’s beautiful, without being suspected of predatory sexual advances. He might even get sued or lose his job if he does so in the workplace. A woman cannot be even subtly flirtatious without fearing significant pressure to go very far, very fast with someone she might just like to get to know slowly.
Almost no one presumes innocence anymore and to do so is scoffed at as naïve. So cynical and jaded have we become, that we even ridicule the notion that there ever was an innocent time when men and women generally observed chastity, and within those safer boundaries, were able to speak more freely of their interest in one another and relate at more subtle levels than all-or-nothing sex.
The loss of innocence and the rise of cynicism have rendered the relationships between men and women hostile, fearful, and fraught with posturing and negotiation.
To be fair, men and women have struggled to get along since the time of the book of Genesis. Many women are in fact very different from most men. Men think differently, often have different priorities, and behave rather differently. But, Holy Matrimony had traditionally been an important way that we bridged the wide gap between men and women, getting them to focus on a shared vision of family and children. The differences might well remain, but with a common goal those differences could become a diversity that added strength to the shared work of family.
In terms of continuing the discussion on the disappearance of dating and on the tension between the sexes, I’d like to share the insights of Anthony Esolen, who has made some very poignant observations. I would encourage you to read his book Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, which is one of the finest analyses of the demise of marriage that I have seen.
Throughout the book, Esolen (a professor of English at Providence College) gives many examples of poetry and art from the last thousand years that emphasized romance, beauty, and a love that sought union in marriage and family. He writes,
But this tradition is in its death rattle … Why should we have expected otherwise? When men and women [since the sexual revolution of the late 60s] are taught to use other people as objects of sexual excitement … as if they were toys or robots, do we really expect that they should all at once see the beauty and the nobility of the other sex? … Today popular musicians do not sing lyrically about a woman’s beauty or man’s courage. Instead they whine and grunt like animals … and have almost nothing kind to say to one another …
The sexual revolution is essentially a lonely one … The sexual revolution isolates. The man says to himself, “I will have this woman now, because it is convenient, but I’ll make sure she doesn’t press things further.” The woman says to herself, “I’ll let this man have his way, because he’s weak and I can manipulate him.” Each one says, “We must make sure that no third person [i.e., a baby] intrudes upon this arrangement”… And if that third person does intrude, he may well be dispatched with cold steel … and his remains be deposited in a bag labeled “biohazard.”
[Young people] also see a world that is vile at every turn—one in which, even before puberty, most children will have pored over things which people of past generations not only had not seen, but could not have imagined, for their squalor and perversity. [It is] a horrible world in which children are precocious and adults childish and selfish. This is the world of the sexual revolution. [Young people] see it … and feel powerless to do anything about it. So the corruption spreads …
Boys now in high school and college do not ask girls out for dates. They can’t. There’s no “language” for them to use … If he says, “I’d like to take you to a movie,” what does that imply? In a more innocent time, it meant that he’d take the girl to a movie, and he might be brave enough to put an arm around her shoulder, or even steal a kiss. In a more innocent time, the kiss itself would be a delight. To walk home with the girl he likes best, holding her hand, would thrill him to the core of his being. A blushing kiss at the front door might’ve been the stuff of dreams; sweeter by far than anything that the bored addict can glean from a hundred pages of body parts.
The bad language has driven out the good. So the boy … dare not kiss her with any passion or hold her hand or give her a warm embrace. All those actions have now lost their old meanings, and have become mere preludes to sexual congress. Therefore we hardly ever see them. Boys do not give girls flowers, or write poems for them. They do not court them. Girls do not present themselves to be courted. If they tease boys, it isn’t [seen] as innocent flirtation. [Things] that were supposed to bring people together, have wrought mass alienation. The evidence is there for all to see, or rather not to see … I do not see boys and girls flirting in a childlike way, or kissing, or holding hands, or bowling at the alley, or dressing up for one another, or giving valentines to one another. At Yale, Valentine’s Day is “celebrated” by “Sex Week,” complete with the sale of sex toys and “how-to” presentations by prostitutes. [A certain play which I won't mention by name on this blog] features spoiled and corrupted college women who cry out for their independence from predatory males by shouting the vulgar name for their private parts. Anger, resentment, self-promotion, immodesty, cruelty, callousness, perversion; try now asking that girl over there what her name is and whether she will go with you to the ice cream social.
The whole of the sexual revolution has been a colossal failure and has brought untold human misery (Excerpts from Chapter 4).
This is a powerful analysis and I have found its truth more and more in my discussions with younger adults today. Even those who do not want to adopt these attitudes find them so pervasive that they don’t know how to break out of the stifling, lonely system and find love again. I am in the perplexing position of knowing many remarkably beautiful women—ones whom I’d have asked out on a date in a minute back in my youth—who are almost never approached for a date. Many young women today are also, frankly, not all that interested in marriage or family. They have careers, etc. and live in a culture that no longer looks askance at having children without marriage. So who needs men (at least as husbands)? Or so the thinking in the wider culture goes.
Our culture has gotten very sick, very quickly. And the sexual revolution and radical feminism have been the poisons we’ve swallowed.
Esolen makes the following observation about our culture:
No culture is perfect—far from it. But all healthy cultures reward virtue and punish vice, encourage what is noble and beautiful and discourage what is base and tawdry, promote liberty, and restrain license. [Every young man] must now dwell in a perverse anti-culture in which his attempt to practice the demanding virtue of purity meets less than approval. It meets snorts of disdain and ridicule. In a healthy culture he would not be alone, and it would not be hard for him to meet a young lady of similar mind. Married men and women, in a healthy culture, would take upon themselves the cheerful task of bringing such boys and girls together in those innocent and lively pastimes that are the seedbed of sexual attraction and love; in dances and concerts, and parties attended by everyone from toddlers to grandparents hobbling on their canes (p. 54).
Again, this is all so true. And we in the Church have also gotten out of the work of uniting the next generation. We have to do better.
Here’s a cynical song on marriage from the anti-culture.
The Gospel today is about faith and focus. It teaches that though storms and struggles inevitably arise, we have a choice as to whether we focus on them or on Jesus. The admonition of this Gospel is clear: keep your eyes on the prize … hold on!
Let’s look at this Gospel in four stages: Perceived Distance, Produced Distress, Point of Decision, and Process of Development.
I. PERCEIVED DISTANCE – The text tells us that Jesus drew back from the disciples and sent them to make the crossing of the lake on their own, intending to join them again later. During their crossing they encountered a storm. After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone.
In this brief text we encounter the mystery of God apparently hiding His face. Jesus, in drawing back from his disciples, exhibits the mysterious truth that God sometimes seems to hide His face. Scripture speaks elsewhere, elegantly, of this human experience:
- Ps 13:1 How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
- Ps 30:7 By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; then you hid your face, and I was dismayed.
- Ps 44:24 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our body cleaves to the ground. Rise up, come to our help! Deliver us for the sake of your steadfast love!
- Psalm 22: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.
And thus Scripture attests to the human experience that God hides His face from us.
But does He actually do so? Certainly to us it seems that He hides His face. But does He actually do so in such a way that He forgets about us?
Note that Jesus is not away on vacation. Neither is He out on the golf course. Rather, He is praying. As such, He is in communion with His Father, but surely also with His disciples. And while the storm grows, He makes His way toward them in stages.
At first they cannot see Him. Be He surely sees and knows them. Later, even when they do see Him, they cannot understand at first that it is He. They even mistake Him for a ghost, for someone or something that means them harm.
And so it is with us. For it often happens that we, too, conclude that God has hidden His face, that He is not mindful of the troubles we face. It seems to us that He is distant, perhaps unconcerned, and surely not visible to us.
But it is not always that God has simply hidden His face. It is often that we simply cannot see Him for any number of reasons. Sometimes it is simply that our minds are too weak and easily distracted. Sometimes it is our flesh, which demands to see everything in a physical manner and refuses to accept the reality of spiritual sight. Sometimes it is our prejudice, which demands to see and understand only in ways acceptable and pleasing to us, as if God could not possibly speak through our enemy, or through a child, or through a painful circumstance. God is there; He is not likely hiding but we struggle to see Him for these and other reasons.
So if God is hiding it is usually in plain sight. For in the end how can we possibly run away from God? Where could we go that He is not already there? Scripture says,
- Psalm 139: O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar … You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths of hell, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, and settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
- Jeremiah 23:24 Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD.
God permits us to experience His apparent distance and our experience of the hiding of His face is clearly attested to in Scripture. But this hiddenness is mysterious, for though God seems hidden, He is in fact more present to us than we are to our very selves.
What God offers us in this Gospel is a faith that grows to understand this and to see God always, a faith that permits us to be in living, conscious contact with God at every moment of the day. This is the normal Christian life that Christ died to give us. If we will be open to receive it, our faith will grow. And as our faith grows, so does our ability to experience this presence beyond what our senses can perceive. Yes as our faith grows, even in the midst of storms, we can still know He is near and draw strength and courage.
And this leads us to the next stage.
II. PRODUCED DISTRESS - Added to the disciples experience of distance from the Lord is the distress of the storm that assails them. The text says, Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
To the degree that we do not see the Lord we will be anxious about many things. In the perceived absence of God, fears increase and shadows grow longer. In this sense much of our distress is self-produced. That is, it is the product of our lack of faith and our lack of awareness of God’s abiding presence.
Bishop Fulton Sheen used the image of the red sanctuary lamp near the tabernacle, which signals the presence of the Lord. Near the light we bask in its glow and enjoy its comforting warmth. But as we walk away from it the shadows grow longer and the darkness envelops us.
And so it is for us who lose a sense of God’s presence or willfully refuse to acknowledge that presence: the shadows lengthen, the darkness envelops, and the storms become more terrifying.
We now see why it is so important for us to accept the “normal Christian life” of being in living, conscious contact with God. For knowing God does not mean that there will be no storms. But it does mean that we can face them with courage and trust.
There is an old saying, “Stop telling God how big your storm is. Tell the storm how big your God is.” This can only come as we grow in faith and the experience of God’s presence.
An old gospel hymn says,
When the storms of life are raging,
Stand by me;
When the world is tossing me
Like a ship upon the sea
Thou Who rulest wind and water,
Stand by me.
In the midst of tribulation,
Stand by me;
When the hosts of hell assail,
And my strength begins to fail,
Thou Who never lost a battle,
Stand by me.
Now comes stage three.
III. POINT OF DECISION - The text begins at the crucial point of the drama: During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Now the Lord presents them with a choice: focus on the storm or focus on Him. He does not just say to them, “Do not be afraid.” He says, “It is I; do not be afraid.” In other words, if they focus on Him they will not be afraid. If they come to experience His abiding presence many of their fears will dissipate.
It is the same for us. If we will accept the normal Christian life and come to more deeply and constantly experience the Lord’s presence, our fears will dissipate. It is NOT that there will be no storms. Rather, it is that they will not overwhelm us with fear.
So we also have a choice to make: either focus on the storms in our life or focus on the Lord. And the result will be that we will either live in growing fear by focusing on the storms, or we will grow in confidence and trust by focusing on the Lord.
There is an old saying, “What you feed, grows.” If we feed our fears and negativity they will grow. But if we feed our faith and trust they will grow.
So, what’s it going to be? What will we focus on? What will we feed?
Pray for the gift to focus increasingly on the Lord. Pray for the gift to feed your faith and starve your negativity and your storm-focused fears.
IV. PROCESS OF DEVELOPMENT – The decision before the apostles is now clear. One of them, Peter, accepts the Lord’s offer to focus on Him rather than the storm. But as we see in the text, the decision to do this is, like most things in life, more of an ongoing process than a one-time decision. It is something we must grow into by making many small decisions that develop into greater capacities by a process of growth in the grace the Lord is offering. Let’s look at Peter’s process:
- Acceptance – Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” – Things begin with Peter accepting the Lord’s call to shift his focus and to thereby accept courage and see his fears diminish.
- Action – Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. It is a truly remarkable courage that Peter receives by shifting his focus to the Lord. It is astonishing to see him walk on the water and be almost heedless of the storm or the seeming impossibility of what he is doing. That he is walking “toward Jesus” is an indication that his focus is correct. Thus his courage is astonishing.
- Anxiety – But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink … – But here is where Peter gets into trouble. He shifts his focus back to the storm. At that moment his fear returns and he begins to sink. This is the human condition: we seldom go from zero to sixty all at once. Rather, we undertake a process of growth. Peter had done what was right. He had turned his focus to the Lord and his fear dissipated. But as is often the case with the inexperienced, his execution of the plan faltered. It is almost like a young boy riding a bike for the first time. He rides twenty yards and thrills in his newfound ability. But soon enough his thoughts turn back to the dangers and he wobbles and falls. But he will be all right if he gets back up and tries again. And though he has failed for the moment, something in him has changed. For, having felt the capacity to ride move through him, he will build on this and gradually riding will become second nature. So it is for Peter and for us. At first, faith and trust are hard. We step out, but only for a moment. And then we fall. But if we get back up again, we know something within us has changed. And that change grows in us if we engage the process.
- Acclamation – he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Even in his fall Peter still does the right thing by calling on the Lord. If you’re going to fall, fall on Jesus. Thus his failure is not total. His faith is weak but his instincts are right—he fell on Jesus.
- Assistance - Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter … If we take one step God takes two. Jesus says, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37). Peter may have fallen short of the goal but he has made progress. And later in life this moment of rescue will be an important ingredient in his bold faith. But more growth, and the Holy Spirit, will be needed to quicken his faith. But it will happen. Peter will grow and the process of his development in faith will continue by God’s guiding hand.
- Admonition – and [Jesus] said to him, “O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?” Pay careful attention to what the Lord says here. He does not say that Peter has no faith; he says that he has little faith. Peter has stepped out in faith but he must continue to grow. His doubts must diminish; he must come to a stronger faith. As God said through Isaiah, If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all (Is 7:9). So Peter’s task is clear: he must continue to grow in his faith as must we. And if we do we will see our fears dissipate and our courage grow stronger. Peter has “little faith.” And that is the problem for most of us, too. But at least Peter has some faith—and so do we. So our cry is that of the apostles: Increase our faith! (Lk 17:5)
- Amazement – After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Difficult though this trial has been, it has increased their faith. They still have a long way to go, but they’re on the way.
So we have a decision to make: will we focus on the storm or on Jesus? We have to keep our eyes on the prize. The Book of Hebrews says, Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb 12:2). That’s right, keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on!
In the humorous video below, featuring (of all things) a family of dogs, the “father” finds his eye wandering where it should not and lingering a little too long. His “wife” gives him a salutary admonishment. The look on the daddy dog’s face at the end is priceless! Humorous though it is, there’s also a good point being made: it’s better to get busted than “lusted” (i.e., carried off to destruction by lust). There are some puppy dogs in the back seat who are depending on their daddy to “stay in his lane.”
- Do not desire [forbidden] beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes … Can a man carry fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk upon hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished (Prov 6:25, 27-29).
- None who go to her come back nor do they regain the paths of life (Prov 2:19).
- But you laid your loins beside many women, and through your body you were brought into subjection. You put stain upon your honor, and defiled your posterity, so that you brought wrath upon your children and they were grieved at your folly (Sir 47:19–20).
- With much seductive speech [lust] persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast till an arrow pierces its entrails; as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life. And now, O sons, listen to me and be attentive to the words of my mouth. Let not your heart turn aside to her ways, do not stray into her paths; for many a victim has she laid low; yea, all her slain are a mighty host. Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death (Prov 7:21–27).
- Israel is defiled. Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. For the spirit of harlotry is within them, and they know not the LORD (Hosea 5:3–4).
- Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts (Eph 4:22).
- Not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God (1 Th 4:5).
Well, you get the point: better a light rebuke now than punishing blows later. Lust is a dangerous fire. Enjoy the video and consider yourself warned!
P.S. I usually hate “men are stupid” commercials (which exist in abundance), but I’ll let this one pass since it’s about dogs.
We live in reductionist times, which is another way of saying that we live in times that have often cast aside the deeper, sacramental, and mysterious meaning of people and things.
Many human beings reduce themselves and others to merely biological realities. Gone is the soul and the mysterious spark we call life. Gone is the metaphysical; there is only the physical. Even our longings, our thirst and hunger for justice, our attraction to what is good, true, and beautiful—even these soulful expressions and their reach for what is not material are “understood” by many today merely as emanations of the chemicals in our brain.
It is all such a sad and reduced understanding of the human person. Somehow many see us as a merely biological “machine.”
Yet even among those who accept the existence of the soul, there is another reductionist tendency of seeing the body merely as a tool, or something we have, rather than something we are, in mysterious union with our soul.
I read today a beautiful description of the glory of the human person and also of the problem of reductionism. It is by Anthony Esolen, and appears in his book Defending Marriage – Twelve Arguments for Sanity. It is an excellent book—well worth reading—and from which I shall excerpt more next week. Regarding the human person, Esolen writes,
The human body is a precious thing, worthy of our reverence. It is not a tool, not an object of consumption like a steak or a keg of beer, not an animate provider of pleasure. It is the outward expression of a profound mystery, that of another human being. When we meet another human person, when we look at his or her face, we are in the presence of a creature whose like we have never found in all the rest of the universe. The human person is open to infinity … He can do more than apprehend the things he observes, he can imagine worlds he has never seen … honor and reverence is due to the astounding mystery of the human person … It is a contradiction to say, “I honor the human person,” while treating the human body as separable from the person using it as a tool, devouring [pornographic] images of it … One cannot at once love the beautiful and desire to defile it. It is like loving the Pieta with an ax (P. 51).
Yes, here is the glory of the human person and the human body: mysterious, wonderful, unique, and loved by God long before he or she was ever conceived (cf Jer 1:5).
When some speak to me in confession of their struggle with pornography, I often ask them to remember, before paging through hundreds of images of bodies and body parts, that there is a person “attached” to each of those bodies. And that person has had something go very wrong in her life that she would be led to expose the intimate parts of her body to be seen by those who should not.
She is someone’s daughter and she is God’s daughter. Surely at age ten she never dreamed of making her first porn pics while some stranger “did” her. Something in her life went very wrong, something worth grieving. Yes, there is a person “attached” to that body, and though the purveyors of pornography may seek to airbrush them away, the tracks of her tears are still there, seen and known by God.
Those who would victimize others or “consume” them like a product must first dehumanize them. And that is where reductionism comes in. The consumer of pornography must reduce the woman, whom he is actually consuming and using, to a body, to an image or picture. But she is not merely a body or a picture. She is a woman, a daughter, a sister; she is loved by God and something tragically awful has occurred in her life to cause her to take a turn down a very long and dark back alley.
Consider this well if you have a problem with porn, or know someone who does. Whatever the consumer of porn may think he is looking at, what he is actually looking at is a human person. He is also looking at a tragedy, a deeply sad portrait of a daughter of God who deserves more—so much more—than to be consumed as a product for sale. Yes, she is a human person. As Esolen says above, she is a person “whose like we have never found in all the rest of the universe … [to whom] honor and reverence is due [for] the astounding mystery of [her] person.”
Reflect on these things before you click over to that porn site or do that image search; think and pray a great deal.
Here is a portrait of the life of one of God’s daughters. Her earthly father must also love her very much to put together this tribute to her. These are the pictures, taken in love, that every daughter deserves.
I am often struck by the mystery of the relationship that dogs and cats have with their owners. While I realize that we humans do a lot of projecting of what we want their behavior to mean, it still remains a deeply mysterious reality to me how our pets come to “know” us and set up a kind of communication with us.
Dogs, especially, are very demonstrative, interactive, and able to make knowing responses. Cats are more subtle, but my own cat, Daniel, knows my patterns and also knows how to communicate when he wants water, food, or just a back rub. He’s also a big talker, meowing all day long to greet people and get attention from them.
As I say, this interaction with our animals is a mysterious thing. I do not raise this to suggest they are on a par with us intellectually or morally. Scripture is clear enough that animals are given to us by God and that we are sovereign stewards over them. And while it is never right to abuse animals, it is right that we make use of them in appropriate ways and even make use of some of them as a food source (cf Gen 9:1-3).
But animals, especially our pets, are also to be appreciated as gifts from God. Scripture is also clear that animals will be part of the renewed creation that God will bring about when Christ shall come again in glory:
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:6-9).
In Revelation, John speaks of speaks of seeing a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1), and he describes Christ from his judgment seat finally saying, Behold, I make all things new (Rev 21:5). I have little doubt that animals will share in that recreated and renewed kingdom where death shall be no more (Rev 21:4).
Part of the Kingdom! Without elevating pets (no matter how precious) to the full dignity of human beings, it is not wrong to think that they will be part of the Kingdom of God in all its restored harmony and beauty.
Perhaps in the mystery of our interaction with pets, God is giving us a glimpse of the harmony we will one day enjoy with all of creation. Scripture says,
For indeed, creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Romans 8:19-21).
Yes, creation itself is eagerly waiting the day when God says (in the words of an old spiritual), Oh preacher fold your bible, for the last soul’s converted! And then creation itself will be set free from its bondage to death and decay and be remade into its original harmony and the life-possessing glory that was once paradise.
Perhaps the mystery of our pets is that they are ambassadors for the rest of creation, a kind of early delegation sent by God to prepare the way and the connections of the new and restored creation. Perhaps they are urging us on in our task to make the number of the elect complete so that all creation can sooner receive its renewal and be restored to the glory and harmony it once had. Who knows? But I see a kind of urgency in the pets I have had. They are filled with joy, enthusiasm, and the expectation of something great.
Joyful expectation! Yes, I have powerful memories of the dogs of my youth running circles around me, running to greet me when I arrived home, and jumping for joy when I announced a car ride or a walk. Even my cats of recent years, though more subdued, saunter over to meet me at the door with a meow and an arched back, rubbing up against my leg. And when I see this joy and expectation in my pets the words of Romans 8 (above) will sometimes come to mind: creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.
All deep mysteries to be sure, but surely pregnant with meaning for us, humanity and all creation, for the birth of a new creation.
Photo Credit Above: This is a picture I took of my brother’s Alaskan Malamute, Kaila, lying down with the family parakeet in early fulfillment of Isaiah 11 (quoted above)!
Enjoy this video of a dog looking with eager expectation to his owner. A friend of mine thinks this video was doctored, but I do not. Obviously the human voice coming from the dog is added, but as for the mannerisms, they are just what I used to see in my dogs. The appearance of the eyes and ears mean the dog is hearing his owner suggest a treat of some kind. This leads to nervous gestures such as standing, yawning, pacing, and even a moaning, which makes the dog’s mouth move as though talking; but actually he is just making small sighs, yips, and moans. As you view this video, consider the words, creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.
What we fear controls us. Consider the following story.
Trichloroethane, an aerosol propellant that was used in the spray cans of many household cleaners, is toxic when inhaled in large concentrations. Back in the 1980s, teenagers discovered that they could get high by spraying the cleaner into bags and breathing in the fumes.
A label on the can clearly warned of death or serious injury if the product was inhaled. But the young people who inhaled it simply ignored these sorts of warnings, leading to a number of deaths.
The president of one aerosol company was told by his lawyers to make the warning larger. But the president argued against this since the warning was clear enough now but was simply being ignored. He said, “Death and serious injury do not seem very real to most young people thus they do not fear them.” “Instead,” the company president said, “Let’s consider … What do kids worry about more than death or injury? … How they look, of course!”
Thus the company president directed that the warning instead say, “Inhaling the fumes of this product may cause death, extreme hair loss, or facial disfigurement.” But the attorney objected, saying that the warning was a lie. “No,” replied the company president, “It is not a lie. After death, extreme hair loss and facial disfigurement do in fact follow.”
The new warning really scared the target audience and the liability claims against the aerosol company dropped to zero.
What we fear controls us. Satan knows this and so do marketers. And while the story here features a company using fear to save lives, the more frequent use of fear is to control people for less noble purposes.
A good bit of marketing does not merely target our needs but also our fears. Thus many commercials begin their appeal by subtly indicating that we are not pretty enough, or not popular enough, or that we might have bad breath, or that we haven’t really lived and will not reach our potential unless we use “Product X.” If we do not have or use “Product X” we are inadequate; our life is a failure and others will surpass us or look and be more successful than we are. Other commercials warn us of every disease, calamity, or possible trouble. Then after inciting these fears, they offer to sell us medicines, insurance, alarm systems, or financial securities.
Of themselves, these sorts of appeals are not evil, but they do show how effective fear is in motivating and even controlling us. Companies spend billions on these commercials because they know that they work.
Satan, too, uses fear to control us—especially the fear of rejection. Most of us have a natural desire to get along with others and to avoid unnecessary conflict. But given our fallen nature, we have this desire to a great fault. The desperate desire to fit in and be approved is one of the deepest wounds in the human heart. So pervasive is this sinful drive of fear that I have often wondered why it isn’t the “Eighth Deadly Sin.” As a sinful drive, this fear leads us to countless other sins.
So much do we fear rejection and not being popular that we will sin in very serious ways in order to gain the approval of others and the world. Young girls will give away their bodies to mere boyfriends in order to be approved. Young men will join gangs and get in all sorts of trouble to be approved and accepted. People will spend enormous amounts of money buying things they cannot really afford just to impress people they do not even really know or like. People will walk up to a group engaged in very ugly gossip or unchaste conversation and join right in just to gain entrance to the group. People will dress and act immodestly, even if it’s uncomfortable, just because “everyone else is doing it” and they feel they must also in order to be accepted and approved.
The list could go on but you get the point. What we fear controls us.
Well, God has a solution: fear the Lord. It’s a pretty good deal, actually, since fearing the Lord is easier than fearing ten thousand people, possibilities, and things. Hmm … one or ten thousand? … I think I’ll choose the fear of the one Lord! And while the fear that comes from Satan and the world is often a sinful fear, the fear of the Lord is a saving fear!
To be sure, the Lord would prefer us to have something more than cringing, servile fear (i.e., fear of punishment). But if that’s all you’ve got, start there. (You can read more on this topic here: Servile Fear is Salutary Fear.) The Lord will begin a process of perfecting your fear with increasing love so that it becomes a filial fear based in wonder and awe, a fear rooted in love of God, a fear that dreads offending someone we love and who has been so good to us.
Yes, what we fear will control us. But it is so much better to be controlled by the Lord, who loves us, than by Satan, who hates and lies to us, or by the world, which doesn’t really care about us. Choose the fear of the Lord and let him gently and lovingly take control.