There Was a Man Who Had Two Sons – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent

The Gospel this Sunday is about a man who had two sons, both of whom forsook him and refused to relive in relationship with him. Although the sons seem to have very different personalities (one outwardly rebellious, the other outwardly obedient), their internal struggles are similar. In effect, neither of them really wants a relationship with his father. Both prefer what their father has or can give them to their father himself.

In the end, one son repents and finds his way to the father’s heart. We don’t find out what happens to the second son. The parable didn’t tell us what happened to him because the story is really about us; it is we who must finish it. The question we must answer is this: What do I really want? Do I want the consolation of God, or the God of all consolation; the gifts of God, or the giver of every good and perfect gift?

Let’s look at this Gospel in four parts.

Renegade Son – Most of us are familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We tend to focus on the younger (and obviously sinful) son rather than the older one. This is interesting because the Lord Jesus seems to have His focus on the older son (the parable is addressed to the scribes and Pharisees, who see themselves as obedient). Nevertheless, let’s observe three things about this renegade son, this prodigal son.

Corruption – This is an angry young man, alienated from his father. He wants what his father has yet wants nothing to do with him. In effect, he tells his father, “You’re not dying fast enough. I want to be done with you and get what’s coming to me right now.”

His effrontery is even more astonishing given where and when it happened. Today, reverence for parents and elders is sadly lacking, but if our times are extreme in the one direction, ancient times in the Middle East were so in the other. In telling this parable as He does, Jesus shocks His listeners, who lived in a culture where no son would dream of speaking to his father in this way. Indeed, a son could be killed by his father for such insolence! Even to this day, so-called “honor killings” still occur in parts of the Middle East. If a child brings dishonor to the family, it is not unheard of for the father to kill him or her. While most governments forbid these practices, in many cultures people will look the other way and the perpetrators are seldom prosecuted.

Yes, Jesus must have shocked His listeners with such a parable. Here was a son who did something so insolent, ungrateful, and daring as to be practically unthinkable.

Even more astonishing than the son’s behavior, however, is the fact that the father actually gives him his inheritance and allows him to leave.

This is Jesus’ veiled description of the patience and mercy of the Father, who endures even greater insolence from us, His often-ungrateful children. We demand His gifts and take them with ingratitude; we want what God gives us but do not want Him.

Consequences – The renegade son sets off to “a distant country.” It is always in a distant country that we dwell apart from God. The consequences of the son’s behavior are great indeed.

This parable does not make light of sin. The Lord Jesus describes well a young man who chooses to live apart from God and in sinful rebellion. The result is that this renegade son lives in anguish and depravity. When he runs out of money, he finds he has no friends, no family, and no experience of his father.

So awful is his state that he becomes hungry for the disgusting mash that pigs eat. Yes, he is lower than the most unclean animal Jews can imagine: a swine.

Sin debases the human person and if its effects are not avoided, it orients us increasingly toward depravity. What was once unthinkable becomes easier and easier.

St. Augustine wrote of sin’s hold on individuals in his Confessions: “For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity. By which links, as it were, joined together (whence I called it a chain) a hard bondage held me enthralled” (Confessions, 8.5.10).

The renegade son is suffering the consequences of his sinful choices. He is debased, debauched, and nearly dead.

Conversion – In an almost miraculous turn of events, he comes to his senses. Too many, especially today, suffer a darkened intellect due to the debasing effects of their sin; it would seem that no matter how debased, confused, and even enslaved they become, they still do not come to their senses, for their senseless minds have become darkened (cf Romans 1:21).

Thanks be to God, the renegade son does come to his senses, thinking, I shall arise and go to my father. In this passage, the Greek text uses the word anistemi, here translated as “arise”—the same word used to describe the resurrection of Jesus. The young man’s father will later joyfully describe him as having been dead but then coming back to life.

St. Paul reminds us that we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive in Christ (cf Col 2:13). Thanks be to God for His mercy and for the conversion that He alone can effect in all of us, His renegade children, who ourselves have been debased and debauched and are dead in our sins. The conversion of this renegade son, we pray, is also our conversion, our rising and going back to the Father.

Rejoicing Father – The astonishing nature of this parable is only just beginning, for Jesus goes on to describe a father who is shockingly merciful. He does things that no ancient father would ever do. As Jesus describes this father, so filled with love and mercy that he sacrifices his personal dignity, we must remember that He is telling us that this is what His Father is like.

As the parable continues to unfold, we hear that the father sees the son while he is still a long way off. This tells us that he was looking for his son, praying and hoping for his return.

Such mercy is rare. Most people who are hurt and have their dignity scorned would be resentful, saying, “Never darken my door again!”

How shockingly different this father is, lovingly and longingly awaiting the day when his son will appear on the horizon.

Upon seeing his son, the father runs out to meet him, something no ancient nobleman would ever do. Running was a sign of being in flight or of being a slave out on an errand. Further, in order to run, the ancients (who wore long garments) had to bare their legs—a disgraceful thing for nobility. Only common workers and slaves had their legs exposed.

Yes, this is the portrait of a father willing to debase himself so that he can run and greet his returning son. When we take one step, God takes two or more; He comes running to us!

In the parable, the robe and the ring that the father puts on his son are signs of family belonging or restoration. This is the full restoration of a young man willing to live as a slave in his own father’s house. The father will have none of it. “You are my son whatever your sins. They are forgotten. You are my beloved son!”

What kind of father is this? No earthly father would behave this way. This is the heavenly Father. Jesus is saying, “This is what my Father is like!”

Resentful Son – Now we turn our attention to the older brother. His sinfulness is more subtle. Outwardly, he follows his father’s rules; he does not sin overtly. Unlike his prodigal brother, he has never openly rejected his father; inwardly, though, he is not so different. Like his younger brother, the older son wants his father’s goods, not his father himself. To understand the subtlety of his struggle, let’s look at some of the details of the story. Notice the following fundamental issues with the resentful older son:

He is distant. It is interesting that the older son is the last person to find out about the feast. This is a son who is distant from his father, unaware of the happenings in his father’s life.

Off on some far-flung part of the property, he is going about his duties, which he seems to fulfill adequately. However, we get the feeling that there is a sense of distance between father and son.

Why doesn’t he know that his father, worried about his younger brother, has been looking for him each day? Even the slaves in the household are drawn into the preparations for this celebratory feast; the older son is the only one who knows nothing about it. Even more telling is that he is unaware of his father’s joy at his brother’s return.

Yes, the resentful son is distant, miles away from the heart of his father.

He is disaffected. When the older son learns of the feast and the reason for it, he becomes sullen, angry, and resentful. He is disaffected. He stays away from the feast, refusing to enter.

So bitter is he that his father hears of it and comes out to plead with him.

Do not be too quick to scorn him, however, for we are too like him. We die the death of a thousand cuts as we see other sinners finding mercy. We become envious when others are blessed.

He is disconsolate. The father emerges from the feast to plead with his older son to come in. Again, such a thing would be unheard of in the ancient world! Any father in those days would have commanded his son to come in to the feast, expecting immediate obedience.

This father is different, for he represents the heavenly Father, rooted in love more than in prerogatives and privileges. He has already demonstrated his love for his renegade son and now does so for his resentful older son.

The fact is, he loves both of his sons. Yes, the heavenly Father loves each one of us.

Tragically, the resentful son is unmoved by this demonstration of love. He remains disconsolate and must be confronted in his resentful anger.

He is disrespectful. Now we see the ugly side of the apparently obedient son. He doesn’t truly love or respect his father; he doesn’t really know him at all. He disrespects his father to his face. He speaks of him as if he is a slave master, saying, I have slaved for you … I have never disobeyed any one of your orders.

Orders? I have slaved for you? Where is his love for his father? He does not see himself as a son but rather as an unwilling slave, one who follows orders only because he must. In effect, he calls his father a slave master, a despot.

Further, he accuses his father of injustice. He views the mercy his father has shown to his brother as evidence of a lack of due mercy shown to himself. He considers his father unreasonable, unjust—even despicable. How dare his father show mercy to someone that he, the “obedient” son, does not think deserves it!

In calling his father an unjust slave owner and taskmaster, the son disrespects him to his face. The father stays in the conversation, though, pleading with his son to reconsider.

He is disordered. Among the older son’s complaints is that his father never gave him so much as a kid goat so that he could celebrate with his friends. Our goal in life is not to celebrate with friends; it is to celebrate with the heavenly Father.

Note how similar the two sons actually are. Previously, the renegade son saw his father only in terms of what his father could give him; his father was only valuable in terms of the “stuff” he could provide. Despite his outward obedience, the older son has the same problem, seeming to value only what his father can give him. It is not his father he really loves or even knows. He is interested only in what his father can give him.

In this way, the resentful son is disordered. He misses the whole point, which is not the “things” his father can give him but their relationship. The goal in life is to live with the Father forever in a relationship of love.

Again, be careful before you condemn the resentful son. It is so easy for us to want the good things of God but not God Himself, to want God’s blessings and benefits but not His beloved self, to want the gifts of God but not Him who is the giver of every good and perfect gift.

Yes, the disorder of this resentful son is too easily our disorder. There is something about our flesh that wants God to rain down blessings, yet once we have received them, we want to keep our distance from God. Relationships are complicated and dynamic. Our flesh prefers trinkets. We prefer to receive gifts on our own terms. Our flesh says, “Give me the priceless pearls, but begone with the powerful person who gives them!”

Response – The father is outside pleading with his resentful son to enter the feast. At this point, Jesus abruptly ends the parable. Yes, the story ends! Does the resentful son enter the feast or not? Why is the story left unfinished?

Simply put, it is because we must finish the story, for we are so easily the resentful son.

Right now, the heavenly Father is pleading with us to enter the feast. Too easily we brood and say that we have our reasons for not wanting to go. After all, that renegade son is in there, our enemy is in there. If Heaven involves meeting our enemies and celebrating with them, we don’t want anything to do with it.

Here is the great drama: will we enter the real Heaven? The real Heaven is not of our own making, defined by our own parameters.

Are we willing to enter on God’s terms, or will we stand outside resentfully, demanding that Heaven be on our own terms? Further, do we see Heaven as being with the Father, or do we just view it as a place where we get the things we want?

The heart of Heaven is to be with the Father, with the Holy Trinity. The danger, even for the religiously observant, is becoming the resentful son. The Father is pleading with us to enter the feast, to set aside our prejudices and notions of exclusivity.

To the resentful son the father says, your brother was lost and is found, was dead, and has come back to life.

The Father is pleading with us to enter the feast—not some made-up feast where we choose the attendees—but the real, actual feast of Heaven, where some surprising people may be in attendance.

This parable is unfinished; you and I must finish it. Will you enter the feast? The Father is pleading with you, saying, “Come in before it’s too late.” What is your response to His plea? Answer Him!

Just for fun, here is a retelling of the parable in the “key” of F:

Feeling footloose and frisky, a feather-brained fellow forced his fond father to fork over the farthings and flew to foreign fields and frittered his fortune, feasting fabulously with faithless friends.

Fleeced by his fellows, fallen by fornication, and facing famine, he found himself a feed-flinger in a filthy farmyard. Fairly famishing, he fain would have filled his frame with foraged food from fodder fragments. “Fooey! My father’s flunkies fare finer,” the frazzled fugitive forlornly fumbled, frankly facing facts. Frustrated by failure and filled with foreboding, he fled forthwith to his family. Falling at his father’s feet, he forlornly fumbled, “Father, I’ve flunked and fruitlessly forfeited family favor!”

The farsighted father, forestalling further flinching, frantically flagged the flunkies to fetch a fatling from the flock and fix a feast.

The fugitive’s fault-finding brother frowned on fickle forgiveness of former folderol. But the faithful father figured, “Filial fidelity is fine, but the fugitive is found! What forbids fervent festivity? Let flags be unfurled. Let fanfares flare.”

And the father’s forgiveness formed the foundation for the former fugitive’s future faith and fortitude.

 

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: There Was a Man Who Had Two Sons

Sooner or Later Judgment Must Come – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

There’s an old Johnny Cash song (“God’s Gonna Cut You Down”) that is rooted in today’s Gospel:

You can run on for a long time … Sooner or later God’ll cut you down … Go tell that long tongue liar, Go and tell that midnight rider, Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter, Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down.

These verses go directly to the end point (judgment), but there is more to the story. First, there is mercy offered, then patience, and finally judgment.

Many today either dismiss judgment entirely or believe that judgment will result in instant entrance to glory.

Today’s Gospel contains a necessary balance. It speaks of God’s patience and care now but also of the day of reckoning, of judgment. On that day, He will adjudicate our “case”; the decision will be final; there will be no turning back.

Let’s look at this Gospel in two main parts:

The Proclamation of the Problem

The Gospel opens with these lines:

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

What Jesus is saying is that is easy to focus on the sins of others, failing to discern our own need for repentance and mercy. Before God we are all beggars; all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (cf Romans 3:23). Every one of us is in need of boatloads of grace and mercy. While we may rightly distinguish that there is a difference here on earth between the sanctity of a Mother Theresa and the wretchedness of a Hitler, before God we all fall far short.

Sin surely affects the lives of others and we are not asked to be blind to that. It is important to learn from the example of others, both good and bad; the point is to learn. We miss the point if all we do when we see someone suffer the effects of sin is to say, “My, my, God don’t like ugly!” What about the ugly in us? What about our own sin?

To our all-too-eager question “What about them, Lord?” Jesus replies, “What about you? Work on your own issues and leave their final fate to me. Punishment doesn’t just come to others; if you don’t watch out it will come to you as well.” Just to make sure we get it, the Lord adds, “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

In effect, the Lord tells us to get serious about our sin and what it can do to us. The most serious problem in life is not the fact that we die or the manner of our death. The most serious problem we face is not Pilate or any political misfortune; it is not falling towers or any physical threat. It is not financial setback, or suffering, or losing our job, or losing our possessions. The most serious problem we face is our own sin.

We don’t tend to think like this. Instead, we minimize the maximum and maximize the minimum. We get all worked up about lesser things while ignoring greater ones. We are forever worrying about passing things like health and money but paying little attention to the things of eternity and to getting ready to meet God. Let our physical health be threatened and we are instantly on our knees begging God for deliverance, but let our sins pile up and sinful drives be eating at our very soul and we take little notice. We don’t seem to care about being delivered from things that are far more serious than mere cancer.

The Lord says, If your right hand causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body cast into hell (Matt 5:30). Pay attention, the Lord is saying that it is worse to sin than to lose your right hand!

If I were to lose my right hand, I think I would lament it for the rest of my life. The very thought of it gives me stabbing grief. Why don’t we think of our sin this way? Do you see how obtuse we are, how distorted our priorities?

One day the Lord looked at a paralyzed man and decided to cure his most serious problem. He said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Could the man’s sins have been more serious than his paralysis? Yes!

Thus, the Lord warns us that we ought to be more serious about our sins lest we perish, not merely losing our earthly life but our eternal life. The fact that the solution to our problem required the death of the Son of God indicates that we are in far worse shape than we think. Without our repentance and the magnificent mercy of God, something far worse than having a tower fall on us or our enemies kill us might happen. Elsewhere in Scripture the Lord says, I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him (Lk 12:4-5). The Lord is not counseling a cringing and avoidant fear but rather a respectful fear such that we are serious about judgment and understand that the result on that day will be eternal, unlike the passing quality of any earthly encounter.

Having portrayed the problem and underscored its seriousness, the Lord then reminds us that He is willing to help us, with His grace and mercy, to get ready. He sets forth a process in which we must cooperate, for judgment will surely come.

The Portrayal of the Process

The Lord tells a parable that sets forth the process in which we are currently engaged: a process of patience and mercy that leads to the finality of judgment. Note the following three steps:

1. ASSESSMENT There was once a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard and when he came in search of fruit on it and found none said to the gardener, “For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this tree and have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?”

Faith is a fruit-bearing tree. It is to bear the fruits of love, justice, and the keeping of the commandments. The Lord looks for these fruits and often, through our conscience and by His Word, assesses whether they are present.

Many claim to have faith, to be fruitful in what the Lord seeks, but it is He, as owner of the field, who sets the terms. We are not the judge in our own case. It is the Lord’s ongoing work to assess our progress and fruitfulness. He determines whether the necessary fruits are present.

Today, many people claim the right to assess their own status. They make bold proclamations that God would not “dare” to find them to be lacking in anything substantial. In presumption, many declare themselves to be safe, fruitful, and righteous.

This is not for us to say, however. In the parable it is the owner, the Lord, who makes the assessment; and note that in this parable He proposes that something significant is lacking.

Yet some interlocutor, here called the gardener but let’s call her the Church, asks for mercy and time. As we shall see, such mercy and time is granted, along with necessary supplies (grace) to help accomplish what is sought: the fruit of faith.

2. ASSISTANCE The text goes on to describe the prayers and requests of the gardener (in this case, Mother Church): Sir leave it for this year also. I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it. It may bear fruit in the future.

The Lord, the owner of the garden, not only grants the request but will also be the one to supply the necessary help to draw forth the fruits patiently awaited.

Indeed, the Lord sends us help and graces in so many ways:.

      • He speaks in our conscience.
      • He has written His law in our heart.
      • He gave us the law.
      • He sent us prophets.
      • He punishes our wrongdoings in order to bring us to repentance.

* Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I have kept your word (Ps 119:67).
* But God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:10).

      • He sent us His Son, who established the Church and gave us grace and the sacraments.
      • He gave us grace and the sacraments.
      • It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. [That we be] no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ (Eph 4: 11-17).

Do you see how much God has done for us? He has graced us in every way. He has entrusted to the Church, in answer to her pleas, every necessary grace to bear fruit. Now He patiently waits. He looks to return again to seek the fruits that are necessary for those who claim to have saving faith, fruits that are necessary to be able to endure the day of His coming, fruits that are necessary for us to have the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Indeed, we cannot see or endure His presence without the fruit of holiness by His grace, for as Scripture says, Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Or Who may stand in his holy place? Only he who has clean hands and a pure heart (Ps 24:3-4). Only God can accomplish this, but He who made us without us will not save us without us. Thus, we must, by His grace, renounce our sin and accept His grace.

3. ACCEPTANCE – The parable ends very simply with this line: If not you can cut it down.

I’ve chosen the word “acceptance” carefully. Judgment is not so much God’s decision as it His acceptance of our decision to bear fruit or to refuse to do so; to accept or refuse His offer of the fruits of faith such as chastity, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, love of the poor, and appreciation of the truth.

On the day of judgment God accepts our final choice. It is not so much the passing of a sentence as it is the final recognition of the absolute choice that we have made. At this point it is no longer possible for us to change; what we are remains forever fixed.

As we get older it is harder and harder to change. We are like concrete that sets over time; like pottery, which begins moist and malleable, but whose shape is fixed when subjected to the fire.

Thus, the Lord teaches us to be serious about sin and about judgment. For now, there is mercy and every grace available to us, but there will come a day when our decision will be accepted and forever fixed.

The Gospel today teaches beautifully of God’s patience but also of our need for mercy. It warns us that the decision we make by the way we live our life will finally be accepted. Yes, there is a day of judgment closing in on each of us.

Pointing out how often we sang “Kumbaya, My Lord” will not suffice.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul warns us against presumption and trying to serve as judge in our own case:

Our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert. These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall (1 Cor 10:1:ff).

For now, there is mercy, but there will come a day of ratification, of judgment; a day when the question will be asked and the final answer supplied, not so much by God as by us.

Your flesh says, “No worries,” but the Lord says, “Repent!”

Here are more of the lyrics from the Johnny Cash song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”:

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand
and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light.

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Go tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Sooner or Later Judgment Must Come – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

The Cross Is a Fruit-Bearing Tree – A Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent

The Second Sunday of Lent always features the Transfiguration. The first reason for this is that the trek up Mt. Tabor was one of the stops Jesus made with Peter, James, and John on His final journey to Jerusalem. It is commonly held that He did this to prepare His apostles for the difficult days ahead. There’s a line from an old spiritual that says, “Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, sometimes I’m almost to the ground … but see what the end shall be.” That is what the Lord is doing here: He is showing us what the end shall be. There is a cross to get through, but there is glory on the other side.

There also seems a purpose in placing this account here in that it helps describe the pattern of the Christian life, which is the Paschal mystery. We are always dying and rising with Christ in repeated cycles as we journey to an eternal Easter (cf 2 Cor4:10). This passage shows the pattern of the cross in the climb, the rising, and in the glory of the mountaintop; then it is back down the mountain again only to climb another one (Golgotha) and through it find another glory (Easter Sunday). Yes, this is the pattern of the Christian life: the Paschal mystery. Let’s look a little closer at three aspects of today’s Gospel passage.

The Purpose of Trials Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray.

We often pass over the fact that they had to climb the mountain, no easy task. Anyone who has been to Mt. Tabor knows just what a high mountain it is. The climb to the top is almost 2000 feet and steep as well. It would have taken the better part of a day and probably had its dangers. Looking down from the top is like looking from an airplane window out on the Jezreel Valley (a.k.a. Megiddo or Armageddon).

So, here is a symbol of the cross and of struggle. The climb was up the rough side of the mountain; it was exhausting, difficult, and tested their strength.

I have it on the best of authority that as they climbed they were singing gospel songs like these: “I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain, and I’m doin’ my best to carry on!” and “My soul looks back and wonders how I got over!” and “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder; every round goes higher, higher.”

This climb is like our life. We have often had to climb, to endure, to have our strength tested. Perhaps it was the climb of earning a college degree. Maybe it was the climb of raising children or building a career. What do you have that you really value that did not come at the price of a steep climb, of effort, of struggle?

Most of us know that though the climb is difficult there is glory at the top if we but persevere. Life’s difficulties are often the prelude to success and greater strength.

Though we might wish that life had no struggles, the Lord intends a climb for us, for only the cross leads to true glory. Where would we be without some of the crosses in our life? Let’s ponder some of the purposes of problems in our life.

God uses problems to DIRECT us. Sometimes God must light a fire under you to get you moving. Problems often point us in new directions and motivate us to change. Is God trying to get your attention? Sometimes it takes a painful situation to make us change our ways. Proverbs 20:30 says, Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inner most being. An old gospel song speaks of the need for suffering to keep us focused on God: “Now the way may not be too easy, but you never said it would be. ’Cause when our way gets a little too easy, you know we tend to stray from thee.” It’s sad but true: God sometimes needs to use problems to direct our steps toward Him.

God uses problems to INSPECT us. People are like tea bags: if you want to know what’s inside them, just put ’em in hot water! Has God ever tested your faith with a problem? What do problems reveal about you? Our problems have a way of helping to see what we’re really made of. Through trials, I have discovered many strengths I never knew I had. There is a test in every testimony. Trials have a way of purifying and strengthening our faith as well as inspecting it to see whether it is genuine. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure (1 Peter 1:6).

God uses problems to CORRECT us. Some lessons we seem to learn only through pain and failure. When you were a child your parents told you not to touch the hot stove, but you probably really learned by getting burned. Sometimes we only realize the value of something (e.g., health, a relationship) by losing it. Scripture says, It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees (Psalm 119:71-72), Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I keep you word (Psalm 119:67).

God uses problems to PROTECT us. A problem can be a blessing in disguise if it prevents you from being harmed by something more serious. A man was fired for refusing to do something unethical that his boss had asked him to do. His unemployment was a problem for him and his family, but it saved him from being sent to prison a year later when management’s actions were discovered. In Genesis, Joseph says to his brothers, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives (Genesis 50:20).

God uses problems to PERFECT us. Problems, when responded to correctly, are character-building. God is far more interested in your character than your comfort. Scripture says, We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character in us and helps us trust God more each time we use it until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady (Romans 5:3), and You are being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return (1 Peter 1:7).

So, the climb symbolizes the cross, but after the cross comes the glory.

The Productiveness of TrialsWhile he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

All the climbing has been worth it. Now comes the fruit of all that hard work! The Lord gives them a glimpse of glory. They get to see the glory that Jesus has always had with the Father. He is dazzlingly bright. A similar vision from the Book of Revelation gives us more detail:

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned, I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars … His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades (Rev 1:12-17).

Yes, all the climbing has paid off. Now comes the glory, the life, the reward for endurance and struggle. Are you enjoying any of the fruits of your crosses now? If we have carried our crosses in faith, they have made us stronger and more confident. Some of us have discovered gifts, abilities, and endurance we never knew we had. Our crosses have brought us life!

The other night I went over to the church and played the pipe organ. It was most enjoyable, but it was the fruit of years of hard work.

Not only have my own crosses brought me life, but the crosses of others have done the same for me. I live and work in buildings that others scrimped, saved, labored to be able to erect. I have a faith that martyrs died to hand on to me and that missionaries journeyed long distances to proclaim. See, trials do produce!

St. Paul says that this momentary affliction is producing for us a weight of glory beyond all compare (2 Cor 4:14). In Romans he says, For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom 8:18).

An old gospel song says, “By and by, when the morning comes, and all the saints of God are gathered home, we’ll tell the story of how we’ve overcome. And we’ll understand it better, by and by.”

So, the glory comes after the climb. This is the life that comes from the cross. This is the Paschal mystery: Always carrying about in ourselves the dying of Christ so also that the life of Christ may be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10).

The Pattern of TrialsAfter the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.

Notice that although Peter wants to stay, Jesus makes it clear that they must go down the mountain and then walk a very dark valley to another hill: Golgotha. For now, the pattern must repeat. The cross has led to glory, but more crosses are needed before final glory. An old spiritual says, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder … every round goes higher, higher, soldiers of the cross!”

Yes, this is our life: Always carrying about in ourselves the dying of Christ so also that the life of Christ may be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10).

There are difficult days ahead for Jesus and the apostles, but the crosses lead to a final and lasting glory. This is our life, too: the Paschal mystery, the pattern and rhythm of our life.

Here is a rendition of the song “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” The lyrics say that “every round goes higher, higher.” One can picture a spiral staircase as each round is pitched higher and higher musically. This is the pattern of our life: we die with Christ so as to live with Him, and each time we come back around to the cross or glory, we are one round higher and one level closer to final glory.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Cross Is a Fruit-Bearing Tree — A Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent

The Gospel Train Reaches Temptation Station – Stay on Board, Children! A Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

There’s an old gospel song tradition that speaks of the Christian life as a ride on the “gospel train.” The gospel train is not always an easy ride with perfect scenery, but you’ve gotta get your ticket and stay on board.

Mysteriously, the train sometimes passes through difficult terrain, but just stay on board! On His way to glory, Jesus faced trials, hatred, and even temptation (yet without sinning).

Today the gospel train pulls into “Temptation Station” and we are asked to consider some of life’s temptations. The three temptations faced by Jesus are surely on wide display in our own times. What are these temptations and how do we resist them?

In this desert scene, the Lord Jesus faces down three fundamental areas of temptation, all of which have one thing in common: they seek to substitute a couch for the cross.

In a way, the devil has one argument: “Why the cross?” His question is a rhetorical one. He wants you to blame God for the cross, and in your anger, to reject Him as some sort of despot.

Well, pay attention, Church! The cross comes from the fact that you and I, ratifying Adam and Eve’s choice, have rejected the tree of life in favor of the tree that brought death. We, along with the devil, may wish to wince at the cross and scornfully blame God for it, but in the end the cross was our choice.

If you think that you have never chosen the tree of death and that God is “unfair,” then prove to me that you have never sinned. Only if you can do that will I accept that you have never chosen the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil over the Tree of Life and that you deserve something better than the cross. Only then will I accept that you have never insisted on “knowing” evil as well as good.

If you can’t, then you’ve made the same self-destructive, absurd choice that the rest of us have. It is not God that is cruel but we who are wicked and are to blame for the presence of the cross. The cross comes not from God but from us. We ought to stop blaming God for evil, suffering, and the cross, and instead look in the mirror. The glory of this gospel is that the Lord Jesus came into this twisted world of our making and endured its full absurdity for our sake. If there is evil in this world, it is our choice, not God’s.

Have we finished blaming God? Are we ready to focus on our own issues? If so then let’s look at some areas of temptation that the devil can exploit because we indulge them. Let’s also see the answer that the Lord Jesus has for these temptations; for He, though tempted, never yielded.

Pleasures and Passions – The devil encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread. After such a long fast, the thought of bread is surely a strong temptation. In effect, the devil tells Jesus to “scratch where it itches,” to indulge His desire, to give in to what His body craves.

We, too, have many desires and are told by the devil in many ways to “scratch where it itches.” Perhaps no generation before has faced such strong temptation. We live in a consumer culture that is highly skilled at eliciting and then satisfying our every desire. All day long, we are bombarded with advertisements that arouse desire and then advise us that we simply must fulfill those desires. If something is out of stock or unavailable in exactly the way we want at the instant we want it, we are indignant. Why should I have to wait? Why can’t I have it in that color? The advertiser’s basic message is that you can have it all. This is a lie, of course, but it is told so frequently that we feel entitled to just about everything.

Some of our biggest cultural problems are ones stemming from overindulgence. We are a culture that struggles with obesity, addiction, sexual misconduct, and greed. We experience overstimulation that robs us of a reasonable attention span; boredom is a significant issue for many who are too used to the frantic pace of video games and action movies. We have done well in turning stones into bread.

Jesus rebukes the devil, saying, Man does not live on bread alone. In other words, there are things that are just more important than bread and circuses, than creature comforts and indulgence. Elsewhere Jesus says, A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Lk 12:15). I have written further on this in another post: The Most Important Things in Life Aren’t Things.

Popularity and Power – Taking Jesus up a high mountain, the devil shows Him all the nations and people of the earth and promises them to Him if Jesus will but bow down and worship him. This is a temptation to both power and popularity; the devil promises Jesus not only sovereignty but glory.

Because most of us are not likely to become sovereigns and because temptation is only strong in those matters that seem remotely possible for us, I will focus instead on popularity—something we deal with regularly in this life. One of the deeper wounds in our soul is the extreme need that most of us have to be liked, to be popular, to be respected, and to fit in. We dread being laughed at, scorned, or ridiculed. We cannot stand the thought of feeling minimized in any way.

For many people the desire for popularity is so strong that they’ll do almost anything to attain it. It usually starts in youth, when peer pressure “causes” young people to do many foolish things. They may join gangs, get tattoos, pierce their bodies, and/or wear outlandish clothes. Many a young lady, desperate to have a boyfriend (and thus feel loved and/or impress her friends), will sleep with boys or do other inappropriate things in order to gain that “love.” As we get older, we might be tempted to bear false witness, to make “compromises” to advance our career, to lie to impress others, to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t really need, and/or to try to impress people whom we don’t even like. Likewise, we may be tempted to be silent when we should speak out for what is right.

All of this is a way of bowing before the devil, because it demonstrates that we are willing to sin in order to fit in, to advance, or to be popular. Jesus says, You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.

The real solution to this terrible temptation of popularity is to fear the Lord. When we fear God, we need fear no one else. If I can kneel before God I can stand before any man. If God is the only one we need to please, then we don’t have to expend effort trying to please anyone else. I have written more on this matter elsewhere: What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord?.

Presumption and Pride – Finally (for now) the devil encourages Jesus to test God’s love for Him by casting Himself off the highest wall of the Temple Mount. Does not Scripture say that God will rescue Him? The devil quotes Psalm 91: With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone. In our time the sin of presumption is epidemic.

Many people think that they can go one behaving sinfully, recklessly, and wantonly and that they will never face punishment. “God is love,” they boldly say. “He would never send people to Hell or punish them!” In saying this, they reject literally thousands of verses of Scripture that say otherwise; they have refashioned God and worship a man-made idol. “God doesn’t care whether I go to Church,” they claim. “He doesn’t mind if I live with my girlfriend.” The list of things God “doesn’t mind” continues to grow.

The attitude seems to be that no matter what I do, God will save me. It is presumptuous to speak or think like this. Hell and punishment are surely difficult teachings to fully comprehend and to reconcile with God’s patience and mercy, but He teaches of them and therefore we need to stop pretending He doesn’t.

I have written elsewhere on the topic of Hell and why it makes sense in the context of a God who loves and respects us: Hell Has to Be.

A mitigated form of presumption is procrastination, wherein we constantly put our return to the Lord out of our mind. About this tendency it is said,

There were three demons summoned by Satan as to their plan to entrap as many human beings as possible. The first demon announced that he would tell them there is no God. But Satan wasn’t too impressed. “You’ll get a few, but not many and even those atheists are mostly lying and know deep down inside that someone greater than they made them and all things.” The second demon said he would tell them there is no devil. But Satan said, “That won’t work, most of them have already met me and know my power.” Finally, the third demon said, “I will not tell them there is no God or no devil, I will simply tell them there is no hurry!” And Satan smiled an ugly grin and said, “You’re the man!”

Jesus rebukes the devil by quoting Deuteronomy: You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test. We ought to be very careful about presumption, for it is widespread today.

This does not mean that we have to retreat into fear and scrupulosity. God loves us and is rich in mercy, but we cannot willfully go on calling “no big deal” what He calls sin. We should be sober about sin and call on the Lord’s mercy rather than doubting that we that really need it or just presuming that He doesn’t mind.

The train is leaving the station soon. I hope that we’ve all benefited from this brief stop and have stored up provisions for the journey ahead: insight, resolve, appreciation, understanding, determination, and hope.

The journey ahead is scenic but difficult and temptation is a reality, but as an old gospel song says, “The gospel train’s comin’, I hear it just at hand. I hear the car wheel rumblin’ and rollin’ thro’ the land. Get on board little children, get on board. There’s room for many more!”

Never heard the song? Here’s a rendition of it:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Gospel Train Reaches Temptation Station – Stay on Board, Children!

The Cross Always Wins – A Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent

To the world and to those what are perishing, Sunday’s Gospel is utter madness, utter foolishness. Christ in effect declares that dying (to this world) is the only way to true life. While the world’s so-called wisdom holds that the way to life is through power, prestige, possessions, and popularity, Jesus says that in order to find true life, one must die to all that. This seems to be a paradox. The true gospel (not a watered down, compromised one) is a real insult to the world.

Indeed, most of us struggle to understand and accept what the Lord is saying, but He can give us a heart for what really matters, a heart for Him, for love, and for the things awaiting us in Heaven. The way to this new life is through the cross. Jesus had to go to the cross and die to give us this new life. We, too, must go to His cross and die with Him to this world’s agenda in order to rise to new life.

To those who would scoff at this way of the cross, there is only one thing to say, “The cross wins. It always wins.”

Let’s examine the Lord’s paradoxical plan to save us and bring us to new life.

I The Plan of Salvation that is acclaimed – As the Gospel opens we find a rather strange incident. The text says, Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

What is odd is Jesus’ apparent overreaction to the simple fact that some Greeks wish to speak to Him. From this seemingly simple and unremarkable (to us) fact, Jesus senses that His “hour” has now come. Yes, the time has come for His glorification, that is, His suffering, death, and resurrection. He goes on later to say, “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.

Yes, all this because certain Greeks (i.e., certain Gentiles) want to talk to Him.

Even more remarkable is that nothing in the text indicates that Jesus actually goes over to speak to them. Having given this stunning soliloquy and announced that the drama was to unfold, Jesus does not appear to have gone over to the Greeks to evangelize them. We will see why this in a moment.

First, let us examine why this simple request kicks off the unfolding of Holy Week. In effect, the arrival of the Gentiles fulfills a critical prophecy about the Messiah, wherein He would gather the nations unto Himself and make of fractured humanity one nation, one family. Consider two prophesies:

  • I come to gather nation of every language; they shall come and see my glory. just as the Israelites bring their offering to the house of the Lord in clean vessels. 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).
  • And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, every one who keeps the Sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Is 56:6-7).

Thus we see that one of the principle missions of the Messiah would be to save not only the Jews but all people and to draw them into right worship and unity in the one Lord. Jesus explicitly states elsewhere His intention to gather the Gentiles:

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:14).

So it is that this apparently simple request of the Greeks (Gentiles) to see Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, carries such significance.

Why did Jesus not run and greet them at once? Simply put, the call and salvation of the Gentiles must wait for His death and resurrection to be accomplished. It will be His atoning death that will reunite us with the Father and with one another. A simple sermon or slogan like “Can’t we all just get along” isn’t going to accomplish the deeper unity necessary. Only the blood of Jesus can bring true Shalom with the Father and with one another; only the blood of Jesus can save us.

Consider this text from Ephesians:

But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both {Jews and Gentiles] one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Eph 2:13ff)

Thus, nothing but the blood of Jesus can make us whole, can save us, or can make us one with the Father or with one another. There is no true unity apart from Christ, and He secures it by His blood and the power of His cross. Only by baptism into the paschal mystery do we become members of the Body of Christ and find lasting unity, salvation, and true peace.

The door has opened from the Gentiles’ side, but Jesus knows that the way through the door goes by way the cross. His apparent delay in rushing to greet the Gentiles makes sense in this light. Only after His resurrection will He say, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). Now there is the power through baptism to make all one in Christ. The price of our salvation, our new life, our peace with one another and the Father, is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Thank the Lord that Jesus paid that price. The old hymn “At Calvary” says, “Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan! Oh, the grace that brought it down to man! Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span! At Calvary!”

II. The Plan of Salvation applied – Jesus goes on to say, Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.

Now while it is true that Jesus pays the price for our peace and our unity with the Father and with one another, it is also true that He sets forth a pattern for us and applies it. Note that Jesus says, “Amen, amen I say to you …. He also says, “Whoever serves me must follow me.”

Thus the pattern of His dying and rising to new life must also be applied to the pattern of our life. If we seek unity and peace and want to enjoy this new life with the Father, we must die so as to rise again. We must follow in the footsteps of Jesus. If we want peace we have to be willing to accept the pattern of dying for it and rising to it.

How must we die for this? We have to die to:

  • our ego
  • our desire for revenge
  • our hurts from the past
  • our desire to control everything
  • our sinful and unbiblical agendas
  • our irrational fears rooted in ego and exaggerated notions
  • our hatreds
  • our unrealistic expectations
  • our stubbornness
  • our inflexibility
  • our impatience
  • our unreasonable demands
  • our greed
  • our worldliness

Yes, we have to be willing to experience some sacrifices for unity and to obtain new life. We have to let the Lord put a lot of sinful and unhealthy drives to death in us. New life does not just happen; peace and unity do not just happen. We have to journey to them through Calvary. We must allow the Lord to crucify our sinful desires and thereby rise to new life.

But remember, the cross wins; it always wins.

III. The Plan of Salvation at day’s end – Jesus speaks of a great promise of new life but presents it in a very paradoxical way. He says, Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.

In other words, if we are not willing to follow the pattern He sets forth of dying to ourselves and to this world, we cannot truly live. If we go on clinging to our worldly notions of life, if we live only for ourselves, if we live only for power, possessions, popularity, and prestige, we are already dead. Indeed, if we live only for the things of this world (and many do), ours will be a cruel fate, for we will die and lose all.

If we allow the Lord to help us die to this world’s agenda and to its pathetic charms, then and only then can we pass increasingly to real life, to true unity with the Father and to deeper unity with one another in Christ. Only then does a newer, deeper life dawn upon us. Only then do we see our lives dramatically transformed day to day.

Jesus had to die to give this to us. In order to have it bestowed on us we must be configured to Christ’s death to this world so that we can live in Him and find this new life. We die to a sinful and overrated world so as to live in a whole new way in a life open to something richer than we could ever imagine.

Note that Jesus calls this new life “eternal life.” Eternal life means far more than living forever. While not excluding the notion of endless length, eternal life at a deeper level has more to do with its fullness.

For those who know Christ, this process has already begun. Now that I am well past age fifty, my bodily life has suffered setbacks, but spiritually I am more alive than I ever was at twenty. Just wait until I’m eighty! Our bodies may be declining, but if we love and trust Christ, our souls are growing younger and more vibrant, more fully alive. Yes, I am more joyful, more serene, more confident, less sinful, less angry, less anxious, more compassionate, more patient, and more alive!

All of this comes from dying to this world little by little and thereby having more room for the life Christ offers.

What is the price of our peace and our new life? Everything! We shall only attain to it by dying to this world. While our final physical death will seal the deal, there are the thousand little deaths that usher in this new life even now. Our physical death is but the final stage of a lifelong journey in Christ. For those who know Christ, the promise then will be full. For those who rejected Him, the loss will be total.

Again from the hymn “At Calvary”: “Now I’ve given Jesus everything, Now I gladly own Him as my King, Now my raptured soul can only sing of Calvary!”

Yes, the promise is real, but it is paradoxically obtained. The world calls all this foolishness. You must decide. Choose either the “wisdom” of this world or the “folly” of Christ. You may call me a fool, but make sure you add that I was a fool for Christ. I don’t mind. The cross wins; it always wins.

Four Immediate Results of Jesus’ Death on the Cross

crossLet’s conclude our consideration of certain texts from the Passion Narratives with one that describes the aftermath of Jesus’ death. The Gospel of Matthew recounts four immediate results of Jesus’ death, and while they describe historical events, they also signal deeper spiritual truths.

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split, and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city, and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:50-53)

Let’s consider the four results described in this passage, each in turn.

I. Return At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

The significance of the tearing of the Temple curtain and the way in which it happened ought not to be underestimated. Consider that God had walked intimately with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of day (cf Gen 3:8), but that after sin, they could no longer endure His presence; they had to dwell apart from the paradise that featured God’s awesome presence. Consider, too, how terrifying theophanies (appearances of God to human beings) were after that time. For example, the appearance of God on the top of Mt Sinai is described in the Book of Exodus:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Ex 20:18-19).

Had God changed? Was He different from when He walked with Adam and Eve in intimacy? No. We had changed and could no longer endure the presence of God.

Throughout the Old Testament, a veil existed between God and Israel. There was the cloud that both revealed God’s presence and concealed it. There was also the curtain in the sanctuary, beyond which the High Priest could only venture once a year, and even then in fear and trembling.

Sin had done this. Mere human beings could no longer tolerate God’s presence.

But with His Death on the cross, Jesus has canceled our sin. We once again have access to God through Christ our Lord. His blood has cleansed us and the ancient separation from the Father and from God’s presence has been canceled. But we will not encounter God in a merely earthly paradise; He has now opened the way to Heaven.

It is now up to us to make the journey there, but the way has been opened, the veil has been rent. Through this open veil the Father now says, “Come to me!”

II. Rendering of Judgment upon the World The earth shook, the rocks split …

Judgment has now come; Earth stands judged. This refers not merely to the created world, but also to the forces of this world, the forces of this age, which are arrayed against the Lord and His kingdom. These are forces that do not acknowledge the sovereignty of God but rather insist that political, social, cultural, and economic forces are what must hold sway and have our loyalty.

This earthquake, which has significant historical corroboration, demonstrates that the foundations of this rebellious world ultimately cannot stand before God. The foundations are struck; the powers of this world quake. Scripture says,

  1. People will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from the fearful presence of the LORD and the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to shake the earth (Is 2:19).
  2. For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts (Haggai 2:6-7).
  3. In my zeal and fiery wrath, I declare that at that time there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel (Ez 38:19).
  4. The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain” (Psalm 2:2-6).
  5. In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever (Daniel 2:42).
  6. The LORD will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble. But the LORD will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel (Joel 3:16).
  7. A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! The crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come; to him I will give it (Ez 21:27).

Yes, the world shakes; the world is judged. And, most important, as Jesus says, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out (John 12:31).

Do not doubt, dear reader, that no matter how powerful this world may seem in its pride and glory, it has already been shaken; it has already been judged. The world has been conquered and shaken to its very foundations. Do not put your trust or hope in any worldly reality; the world has been judged and shaken; it cannot stand the test of time. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb 3:14).

III. Resurrection to New Life … the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

“Death is struck and nature quaking. All creation is awaking, to its judge an answer making.” (from the Dies Irae). Yes, by dying, Jesus has destroyed our death.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).

Note well that although the text says that many of the dead appeared in Jerusalem, these appearances occurred after Jesus’ resurrection. Hence, we ought not to imagine ghosts or corpses walking around at 3:00 PM on Good Friday! Rather, they appeared on or after Resurrection Sunday. In this, they witness to the truth of resurrection and the initial fulfillment of the text from Ezekiel:

Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people! I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life (Ez 37:12-14).

Yes, on Good Friday, Jesus awakens the dead with the words, “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14).

IV. Realization of Who Jesus Is When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!

Jesus most clearly showed His identity as the Son of God through His obedience to the Father. According to the Gospel of John, as Jesus rose from the table of the Last Supper, He said,

The prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. Come now; let us go forth (Jn 14:30-31).

The centurion, in seeing Jesus die this way, somehow recognizes in Him the obedience of the Son of God, who loves and obeys His Father.

By His obedience, Jesus has canceled our disobedience; His humility has canceled our pride. Yet the weakness of God is more powerful than any worldly force. The centurion, who knew power and was trained to respect it, saw in the earthquake and the other occurrences, an indication of the Lord’s glory. The Lord’s way to that glory is not our way. But His glory and Sonship cannot remain forever hidden! Scripture says,

See, he comes amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all peoples on earth will mourn because of him. Even So. Amen (Rev 1:7).

An Early Lenten Meditation on Spiritual Warfare

2.10blogAs we begin Lent, we do well to recall that we are engaged in a great and dramatic battle for our souls. The opening prayer for Ash Wednesday Mass makes use of the image of a military “campaign” and mentions weapons and battle: Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint. The First Sunday of Lent lays out the tactics of the devil in terms of temptation, and relates how we must be prepared to refute and resist such things.

Every ancient prayer manual and guide to spirituality until about fifty years ago had at least one large section devoted to what was known as Pugna Spiritualis (spiritual battle or spiritual warfare). In more recent decades, many spiritual books have either downplayed or completely deleted references to spiritual battle or spiritual warfare.

Many modern approaches to faith, religion, and spirituality prefer to emphasize consoling themes rooted in self-esteem and affirmation. To be sure, the authentic faith can and does offer great consolation, but the truest and deepest consolation often comes after one has persevered along the sometimes-difficult path, along the “narrow way” of the cross. But too many today, in the name of affirmation and pseudo-self-esteem, are all too ready to excuse or even support grave moral disorders rather than fight them.

It is true that the Holy Father would have us focus on mercy this year. And so we should. But, paradoxically, mercy is a tactic of battle. Satan would “love” nothing more than for us to hold grudges and intensify our divisions through prideful resistance. He would prefer that we despair of God’s mercy or despair that it is even possible for us to live apart from sinful habits. Thus mercy is a tool of tactical genius; it breaks the cycle of negativity and sin and robs Satan of victories and of souls, snatching them back from the downward spiral of anger and despair.

Mercy does not mean saying that God doesn’t mind what you do. Rather, it means that saying that God loves you despite your sins and is extending to you a way out of the misery your sins have caused.

Grace and mercy are marvelously extended to us, but it is repentance that opens the door to these gifts. Repentance, too, is a battle tactic, because it embraces God’s daring move to break the satanic cycle of anger and despair. Repentance (metanoia) most literally means to come to a new mind, to a new way of thinking. Repentance is accepting God as our general and following His battle plans for our life. It is recognizing that sin is awful, but that grace and mercy are still extended to us and that we ought to accept and depend upon them. By unlocking grace and mercy, repentance deals serious blows to satanic plans and powers. To repent is to engage in the battle on the right side of the war.

In our times it is rare to hear spiritual realities being spoken of in warlike terms. Many prefer softer terms and images. Some are even outright offended at concepts such as spiritual warfare. Many hymnals have dropped older hymns that reference being on the battlefield for the Lord, or being soldiers in the army of the Lord.

With spiritual battle having been removed from many people’s spiritual landscape, the idea that the Lord would summon us to battle, or to ask us to choose sides, seems foreign, intolerant, and uncompassionate.

Even more dangerous, these modern conceptions not only distort Jesus, but they downplay the presence and influence of Satan. This is a very, very bad idea. Even if we cease fighting against Satan, he will never cease his sometimes very subtle attacks on us.

Jesus called consistently for prayerful, sober vigilance against the powers of evil and sin. Like it or not, we are in a battle. Either we will undertake the battle soberly and vigilantly, or we will be conquered and led off like sheep to the slaughter.

Contrary to the modern spiritual approaches, Christianity has been a militant religion since its inception. Jesus was exposed to every kind of danger from the beginning. Herod sought His life. Satan tried to tempt Him in the desert. Many enemies plotted on all sides as He worked His public ministry, misrepresenting Him, levying false charges, and conspiring to sentence Him to death (eventually succeeding, though only for a moment).

And as for Jesus, so also for His mystical Body, the Church: Saul, Saul why do you persecute me? (Acts 9:4) Jesus warned that the world would hate us (Luke 21:17, John 15:20), that in this world we would have tribulation (Jn 16:33), and that we should watch and pray lest we give way to temptation (Matt 26:41). He summons us to persevere to the end if we would be saved (Mk 13:13). Jesus rather vividly described the kind of struggle with which we live when He said, From the time of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force (Matthew 11:12). Indeed, no Christian until the time that Jesus returns can consider himself dismissed from this great spiritual battle, this great drama in which we exist, this battle between good and evil.

Unpopular theme or not, we do well to remember that we are in the midst of a great cosmic and spiritual battle. And in that battle we must be willing to choose sides and fight with the Lord for the Kingdom of God. Either we will gather with Him or we will be scattered. We are to fight for our own soul and the souls of those whom we love.

In Lent we move toward the awesome battle we call the Paschal Mystery, in which Jesus will conquer Satan’s pride by humility and obedience. We are reminded once again of the great cosmic battle that the Lord waged and that is still being waged today. Though already victorious in His mystical Body the Church, the Lord in His faithful members still suffers violence, rejection, and ridicule. Lent is a time to reclaim territory from the evil one, to take back what the devil stole from us. We are to advance the glory of God’s Kingdom through the fruits of great spiritual struggle, sacrifice, prayer, fasting, preaching, and an extensive missionary campaign to which the Lord has summoned and commissioned us.

The battle is on; the struggle is engaged! To spiritual arms, one and all! Fight the good fight for the Lord.

Still not convinced that we are at war? Let the Lord pull back the veil just a bit and let you look at what’s really going on. The final words of this article will not be mine; they will be the Lord’s. Here is described the cosmic battle that is responsible for most of the suffering and confusion you experience:

A great 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 its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days. Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.” When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus (Rev 12).

Here’s a great video reminding us that the Church is more a battleship than a cruise ship:

Making a Quiet Place for Our Lord This Lent – A Meditation on a Teaching from Diadochus of Photice

2.8blogThere is a remarkable passage in the breviary from Diadochus of Photice (pronounced Di-áh-do-cuss of Fóe-tah-chee). Little is known of his life. He lived from around 400 to 485 A.D. He was a mystic and theologian who particularly refuted Christological heresies and upheld the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon. He became bishop of Photice, a region in northwestern Greece. His writings emphasized the stillness, rest, or quiet that is necessary for spiritual insight and growth. The excerpt we shall examine here is surely part of that tradition. It is all the more necessary in today’s loud and hectic times, in which most people struggle to find the time and/or place to reflect and thus fail to live reflective lives.

In Catholic and biblical tradition there is a balanced insight concerning the human person that acknowledges the great and crowning gift of our intellect and the capacity to reason, to know truth, and to have insight. It is, along with our freedom to choose and to love, our most God-like quality. As such, it is esteemed and serves as a basis for our capax Dei (our capacity to know and be addressed by God and to make a personal response to Him).

On the other hand our intellect is wounded by the effects of Original Sin and the accumulated effects of our personal sins, which tend to darken our mind. Thus, while it is possible for the mind unaided by grace to come to knowledge of God’s existence and of His attributes and laws, grace is useful—even necessary—to overcome the difficulties due to sin. The Catechism puts it this way:

In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone:

Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.

This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation, not only about those things that exceed his understanding, but also “about those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error (CCC 37-38).

Yes, so much grace is needed to assist our minds in grasping the deeper things of God and of what He has revealed and done. Our minds do have the capacity to grasp the basics, but even the basics sometimes escape us due to the weight our sin, our disordered desires, and the darkness caused by these things. Our minds are like a battleground and though they are wired for truth, the world, the flesh, and the devil sow discordant thoughts in us that compete for our attention and distract us from the higher and better things. It is something like a computer that is capable of processing the finest and most sophisticated mathematical algorithms, but is instead used to play silly, violent, and/or lurid video games.

Along with grace, much effort is needed to purify our intellects and direct them to things that enrich us, and to the One whom we really seek.

That leads us to this teaching of Diadochus of Photice who, out of respect for the glory of our minds, directs us to the healing remedies of God’s grace and revelation. His words are presented below in bold, black italics, with my poor comments following in plain red text.

The light of true knowledge makes it possible to discern without error the difference between good and evil. Then the path of justice, which leads to the Sun of Justice, brings the mind into the limitless light of knowledge, since it never fails to seek the love of God with all confidence.

Note that he speaks of the remedy of true knowledge. True knowledge is what God has revealed in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. These are a sure guide that opens the path of the intellect to God Himself and to all He has revealed to us, in an ever-deepening and more confident understanding.

Therefore, we must maintain great stillness of mind, even in the midst of our struggles. We shall then be able to distinguish between the different types of thoughts that come to us: those that are good, those sent by God, we will treasure in our memory; those that are evil and inspired by the devil we will reject.

A comparison with the sea may help us. A tranquil sea allows the fisherman to gaze right to its depths. No fish can hide there and escape his sight. The stormy sea, however, becomes murky when it is agitated by the winds. The very depths that it revealed in its placidness, the sea now hides. The skills of the fisherman are useless.

These are powerful words for us in this age of almost constant noise. So overstimulated are we that many cannot even fall asleep unless the radio or TV is on in the background. Silence and the slower pace of normal human life comes close to terrifying many today. Silence is deafening, even terrifying, to a world used to such a chaotic pace and loud volume. If I leave a little room for silence after the homily or after communion I can almost feel the tension. I can imagine the thoughts of the congregation: “When will this end? When is he finally going to get up and say, ‘Let us pray’?”

But our author summons us to reacquaint ourselves with holy silence, with being still. And in this stillness reflection can happen.

He uses the image of still waters, which permit us to see into the depths, to carefully discern and slowly ponder what is true, good, and beautiful, and to distinguish it from the things that merely masquerade as such. When the waters are stirred and stormy, nothing can be seen—nothing. Only in silence, in disciplined quiet and reflection, can many things be seen, experienced, and discerned.

Some axioms from Scripture come to mind: Be still and know that I am God (Ps 46:10) and Silence! God stirs from his holy throne! (Zech 2:17).

These Scriptures and our author point to a discipline that is possible to us, but we must cultivate it. Holy silence and peace of mind do not just happen. Even though these gifts can be assisted by the Holy Spirit, there is also a discipline we must learn and acquire by habit.

Have you ever driven to work in silence? Have you ever unplugged from your cell phone? Perhaps this is something to try for Lent, even if only for 15 minutes. Become accustomed to more silence. Is it really necessary to turn on the TV or radio the first thing in the morning?

Everything is hard at first. Try just five minutes of quiet. Ask for the gift from God. See if you can grow it. Silence is essential if we hope to hear the quiet whispers of God, and to reach that place where insight and recollection are possible.

Only the Holy Spirit can purify the mind: unless the strong man enters and robs the thief, the booty will not be recovered. So by every means, but especially by peace of soul, we must try to provide the Holy Spirit with a resting place. Then we shall have the light of knowledge shining within us at all times, and it will show up for what they are all the dark and hateful temptations that come from demons, and not only will it show them up: exposure to this holy and glorious light will also greatly diminish their power.

Only the Holy Spirit alone can really purify the mind. But we have to open the door. The Holy Spirit can do His work, but He will not turn off the radio, TV, video games, or cell phone for you; that’s your job. The Holy Spirit will not barge in. He respectfully waits for you to give Him a place in your life. Diadochus emphasizes that cultivating peace of soul, by God’s grace, gives permission to the Holy Spirit to enter and do His work. And once having a place, He will crowd out that which is dark and demonic.

This is why the Apostle says: Do not stifle the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of goodness: do not grieve him by your evil actions and thoughts, and so deprive yourself of the defense his light affords you. In his own being, which is eternal and life-giving, he is not stifled, but when he is grieved he turns away and leaves the mind in darkness, deprived of the light of knowledge.

Wow, it would be bad news if we turned the Spirit away with a stifling no. And thus the darkness and anxiety remain in our minds. And if the light in you is darkness, how deep will the darkness be! (Mat 6:23) And yet this explains exactly the state of many today: in an ever-deepening darkness. The noise of this world is all they know; the quiet light of truth seems both dull and obnoxious.

The mind is capable of tasting and distinguishing accurately whatever is presented to it. Just as when our health is good we can tell the difference between good and bad food by our bodily sense of taste and reach for what is wholesome, so when our mind is strong and free from all anxiety, it is able to taste the riches of divine consolation and to preserve, through love, the memory of this taste. This teaches us what is best with absolute certainty. As Saint Paul says: My prayer is that your love may increase more and more in knowledge and insight, and so enable you to choose what is best (from the treatise On Spiritual Perfection, by Diadochus of Photice, bishop (Cap. 6, 26. 27. 30: PG 65, 1169. 1175-1176)).

Amen, Lord. May it be that when in quiet and trust our minds find peace, we become strong and lightsome and savor the beauty of your truth and the delights of your kingdom! May this Lent find us more quiet and watchful, giving a place to your Holy Spirit.