In the ancient Church and up until rather recently, one genuflected at the two references to the Incarnation during the Mass: during the Creed and in the Last Gospel (John 1). Why was this done? It was explained to me that the mystery of the Incarnation is so deep, one can only fall in silent reverence.
There are many paradoxes and seeming impossibilities in the Incarnation. They cannot be fully solved, so they claim our reverence. We genuflected in the past, and today we bow at the mention of the Incarnation in the Creed, for it is a deep mystery.
As we continue to celebrate Christmas, I would like to list some of the paradoxes of Christmas. I want to say as little about them as possible—just enough to make the paradox clear. This paucity of words (not common with me) is in reverence for the mystery and also to invite your reflection.
The Infinite One becomes an infant.
An antiphon for the Christmas season says, How can we find words to praise your dignity O Virgin Mary, for he whom the very heavens cannot contain, you carried in your womb.
An old Latin carol (in Dulci Jublio) says, Alpha et O, Matris in Gremio (Alpha and Omega, sitting in Mommy’s lap).
He who looks down on all creation looks up to see His Mother. The most high looks up from a cradle. Of this moment, even the pagans wrote with longing and tenderness: Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem … ipsa tibi blandos fundent cunabula flores, occidet et serpens, et fallax herba veneni occidet (Begin, little boy, to recognize the face of your mother with a smile … for you, your own cradle will bear delightful flowers; the serpent will die and the plant that hides its venom) – Virgil 4th Eclogue.
He who indwells all creation is born in homelessness, no place to dwell.
He, to whom all things in Heaven and on earth belong, is born in poverty and neediness.
He is the mighty Word through whom all things were made. He is the very utterance of God, the Voice which summons all creation into existence. Of this Word, this Utterance, this Voice, Scripture says, The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, upon many waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful, the voice of the LORD is full of majesty … The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness … The voice of the LORD makes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forests bare; and in his temple all cry, “Glory!” (Ps. 29) Yet this voice is now heard as the cooing and crying of an infant.
His infant hand squeezes His mother’s finger. From that infant hand, the universe tumbled into existence. That same hand is steering the stars in their courses.
He who holds all creation together in Himself (Col 1:17) is now held by His Mother.
He who is the Bread of Life is born in Bethlehem (House of Bread) and lies in a feeding trough (manger).
He who is our sustainer and our food is now hungry and fed by His Mother.
Angels and Archangels may have gathered there, Cherubim and Seraphim thronged the air! But only his mother in her maiden bliss, could worship the beloved with a kiss (Christina Rosetti “In the Bleak Midwinter”).
Each of these is meant to be a meditation on the great mystery of the Incarnation. Please chime in with your additions to this list!
A paradox is something that defies intuition or challenges the common way of thinking. It unsettles us or startles us into thinking more deeply. The word paradox comes from the Greek para (beside, off to the side, or above) and dokein (to think or to seem). Hence a paradox is something “off to the side” of the usual way of seeing or thinking about things. If you’re going to relate to God you’re going to deal with a lot of paradox, because God’s ways and His thinking often defy those of humans. God is not irrational but He often acts in ways that do not conform to worldly expectations.
This Christmas, consider these paradoxes and learn from them. Remember, though, that mysteries are to be lived more so than solved. Reverence is a more proper response to mystery than is excessive curiosity. More is learned in silence than by many words.
In the Gospel for Sunday’s Mass, we read this funny story about Peter that speaks to the paradox of losing one’s life only to find it more abundantly:
Peter began to say to Jesus, “We have given up everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come. But many that are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mark 10:27-31).
Every priest knows well the paradox of these verses. Each of us gave up being the father of children and yet thousands call us Father. We gave up the bride of our dreams and yet have the most beautiful and perfect bride: the Church. She is indeed beautiful but has a long “honey do” list! As for buildings and land? We don’t have our own homes on a parcel of land, but we oversee multimillion-dollar buildings, often occupying an entire city block or a country acre.
Talk about receiving back a hundredfold! I don’t have a house of my own with a great room, but you ought to see the “great room” where I live! It seats 800 people and has a 35-foot ceiling of arches with a painted firmament with gold leaf stars; it has marble floors and a frescoed clerestory! You ought to see the windows, all works of stained-glass art. Yes, it is a glorious space, and at the center, the Lord of the universe is tabernacled under a glorious baldachino!
Every priest knows the richness of his life in terms of buildings and land, but above all in people—in family. Such is the paradox of losing one’s life only to find it even more richly.
I think that God has a certain sense of humor about this as well and must have Himself a good laugh as we begin to realize the paradox.
I remember once, back when I was considering the priesthood, it occurred to me with some relief that at least I wouldn’t have to worry about losing my job or keeping a roof over my family’s head. Hah! God must have had a good laugh over those thoughts. I had a chuckle myself as I signed checks a few years ago totaling more than $300,000 just to replace the roof on our school. Somehow, we survived just fine financially; next come the boilers and other big-ticket items. I just can’t avoid a smirk and an eye roll when I think back on my once-naïve notion of the financial ease of being a priest. What was I thinking? Becoming a priest added at least two zeros to my financial world and all the headaches (what Jesus calls persecutions) that come with such large numbers.
But God has been good to me, so very good. In losing my own personal family I gained God’s family. In setting aside something lesser, I obtained something greater, far greater than I could ever have imagined. I forsook the rich blessing of marriage and family only to be astonished at the even larger family that would be mine.
Somehow for all of us the paradox rings true. When we lose our life to this world in some way, God has even greater things waiting. My mother set aside the more lucrative salary of a public-school teacher in order to teach in a Catholic school, but by her own testimony she got back more than she ever gave up. I know another woman who left a six-figure salary to be a stay-at-home mother. The beautiful and holy title of Mom meant so much more to her than her former executive title.
In losing our life we find it. Yes, while the full impact of this will only be seen in Heaven, many of us experience this truth even in this life. St. Paul expressed the rich tapestry of the paradox best of all. Looking to his own life and the lives of those who accompanied him, he could only marvel as he said,
We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything (2 Cor 6:8-10).
Yes, all is lost, but all is gained. Some is gained even right here in this world, as a kind of foretaste, but one day all will be gained beyond measure. Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 10:39). Yes, Lord, and we will find it in abundance! Thank you, Lord.
What is your story of losing your life to this world only to find it more abundantly in the Lord?
Marriage and family are wonderful gifts. That some are called to forsake them for the kingdom points to the depth of the sacrifice, but the return is priceless.
There are certain paradoxes and mysteries that underlie the growth of the Kingdom. While we should strive to implement “best practices” (e.g., good liturgy, dynamic preaching, Eucharistic adoration, a welcoming parish atmosphere), even when many of these things are in place, growth may still not occur; in fact, sometimes number may decline. Conversely, in some parishes where the liturgy is perfunctory, preaching is weak, and devotions are hurried, there may be significant growth. I know parishes that should be growing but are not; I also know ones that are growing almost in spite of themselves.
There are mysterious aspects to the growth or decline of the Church. Jesus said,
This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how (Mark 4:26-29).
Thus, the Lord teaches that much of the growth in the Kingdom of God is mysterious; it works “we know not how.”
Only one thing is clear: we must sow the seed. That’s “job one.” Indeed, we must work ardently to “scatter seed.” By extension, we should do our best to prepare the soil well and after sowing the seed, cultivate. However, there much that is mysterious and lies beyond our knowledge or control.
Perhaps with this and other things in mind, St. Paul further developed the paradox of God’s ways of reaching the world. What we tend to think is good “marketing” does not seem to impress God. He delivers to the world a message that is not popular, but because it is of Him it wins the day. Consider this passage:
Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:20ff).
Consider some of the paradoxical and countercultural ways in which St. Paul says that must we engage the world:
The cross, not comfort – Many people today say that we should speak more tenderly. We should be more positive, less demanding, and more merciful. We should strive to be known more for what we are for than what we are against. It is said that honey attracts more than vinegar, but clearly St. Paul and the Holy Spirit don’t agree, for we are exhorted to preach “Christ crucified” even though this is an absurdity to the world. Let us not forget to manifest our joy, but even in doing so let us not neglect to embrace the paradox of the cross.
Fools more so than formally educated – Studying and learning have their place. Learn your faith well and be prepared to defend it with patience and love. Parishes need to do a better job of teaching the faith to those who would spread it. However, we must not equate learning with godly wisdom. As St. Paul notes, the early Church did not draw foremost from the educated classes, but rather from the humble, the poor, and the uneducated. They won the ancient world not merely by learning, but also by joy, faith, courageous martyrdom, and simple virtue.
Apologetics but not apologies – Notice that St. Paul accepts that many in the world call us foolish. Apologetics has its place (so that we can reach the reasonable of this world by explaining and setting forth the reasonableness of faith), but it involves explaining and defending the faith, not making apologies for it. It is easy to make the mistake of trying to make the faith agreeable to others, watering down truths that challenge or forever delaying talking about the “hard” truths. Jesus started with the hard things. “Repent!” was His opening word. Whatever methods we choose, we cannot through endless prudence forever postpone proclaiming the whole counsel of God, in season and out of season. Some will scoff and say, “This is a hard saying who can endure it?” (John 6:60) A true apologist has not necessarily lost when someone scoffs; he has only lost when he fails to proclaim the whole faith. Scoffers may reconsider; those who reject the truth may repent; but truth unspoken, distorted, or watered down is a total victory for Satan.
Pure more than palatable – “Marketing 101” principles would say that in order to sell our “product” we should try to make it palatable to our target audience. However, faith that is made too palatable is almost certainly not the faith at all. True evangelization does not fit easily into the tidy categories of marketers and sociologists, who are often horrified at how “off-message” the faith can seem to the modern world. Even in the Church, many people demand that the faith be conformed to what the majority of people think. Remember, God has been at this just a little longer than marketers and publicity folks. His paradoxes have a way of winning the day when the ephemeral and fickle views of the world fade away.
Should we continue to do everything we can to spread the faith through various media, dynamic training opportunities, and trying to get the widest possible exposure? Sure! Today, at least, this is how we prepare the soil, sow the seed, and help to cultivate.
However, in humility and serenity, we must also accept that there are mysteries to what works and what does not. Growth sometimes comes out of nowhere for no discernible reason. God often surprises us with sudden growth spurts that are hard to explain. Meanwhile, we must work as best as we can and do what seems wisest.
How about a little humility that allows paradoxical things to work (paradoxical because they do not conform to the rules of the world)? How about a little humility that is willing to listen to God? We are always asking God to bless what we do. Why not (at least occasionally) find out what God is already blessing and do that?
Paradox and mystery may well have a lot more to do with effective evangelization than all our grand plans and glossy marketing campaigns.
Lord, we seek a miraculous catch of fish in our day and we are open to surprises. Keep us faithful to your teachings, which are “out of season” today. Help us to cast your nets faithfully and to be willing, like Peter, to cast them where you say even if it does not agree with our own instincts. And, like Peter, may we experience the astonishing miracle of a great catch that will make us fall to our knees in wonder and humility at the mystery and paradox of your work. Have mercy on us, Lord, and work—often in spite of us—to enrich your kingdom in ways “we know not how.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.
In this clip from the very unusual television series “The Young Pope,” the attractiveness of hiddenness and mystery is developed. It is way over the top, but the point remains that evangelization should inculcate mystery and draw forth the curiosity to which Jesus said, “Come and see.”
There is an old saying that sometimes “less is more.” In other words, at some point excess becomes burdensome and pointless.
In the commercial below, the upgrades to mowing equipment begin as helpful, but end as silly and even dangerous. Meanwhile, the poor wife struggles with an “upgraded” watering can that is downright burdensome.
One of the secrets of life is learning to enjoy things in moderation. A glass of wine brings joy; a full bottle brings inebriation and a hangover. A nice dinner is satisfying, but too much food brings obesity and even disease.
What in your life has become excessive? Where have you come to realize that less is in fact more?
In the Sunday Gospel, Jesus cuts right through the modern Western tendency to place love in opposition with law, and law in opposition with joy. Jesus joins all three concepts and summons us to a new attitude.
I. Connections– Jesus says, As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.
Note how the Lord joins the three concepts of love, law, and joy. This is precisely the opposite of what Western culture does. The best that Western culture will admit of law is that it is a necessary evil; more routinely it is viewed as an unloving imposition by the powerful on the weak, the hierarchy on the laity, the (evil, oppressive, pharisaical) Church on decent people.
Whereas the modern world disconnects law from love, Jesus links them.How do we both experience and show love? Jesus says that we do so by keeping His commandments. He sets forth a vision whereby we, having experienced God’s love, desire and rejoice in His commands. We also show love to the Lord through this very obedience and joyful adherence to His commands. This loving obedience goes even further by setting forth an abundant joy through the very keeping of those commands.
Again, this is completely contrary to modern notions. According to the modern world, a “loving” God has few or no rules. He merely affirms, encourages, accepts, and includes—or so goes the thinking.
The real Jesus is far more complex. He is surely loving, especially of sinners. He encourages, includes the outcast, and so forth, but He also speaks of sin and rebukes it. He embraces the sinner but directs him to “Sin no more.” He sets forth a demanding moral vision even as He shows mercy. In this Gospel, Jesus joins love and the law, saying that the law brings joy. They are not opposed. It is not an either/or, but a both/and. Jesus was not just the “affirmer in chief” who went about saying nothing but pleasant things. In fact, He often held many contrary ideas in tension and balance.
Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a [careful and] wise ethicist the next. … He promises to set [spouses against one another and] parents against children, and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. … He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping.
Douthat goes on to conclude:
The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. … [Where heresy says which one] Both, says orthodoxy…. The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus.
The main point is that Jesus, who is love, does not hesitate to teach on many moral topics and to warn sinners of judgment. He both personally and through his inspired apostles speaks with clarity about anger, greed, malice, neglect of the poor, divorce, fornication, adultery, impure thoughts, homosexual acts, lack of faith, revenge, dishonesty, the sin of human respect, false and worldly priorities, and countless other matters.
In the Sunday Gospel, not only does Jesus link love to the keeping of the commandments, but also says that the keeping of the commandments leads to joy.
Of this, I am a witness. God’s law gives joy to my heart. As a priest, I live as a celibate, like Jesus, and my life is very fulfilling. I have been faithful to my celibate commitment without fail. I have not strayed from proper boundaries. I do not view pornography. I am not in any way sexually active. In all this I am not repressed; I am not sad or lonely. My life is joyful; I am fulfilled and see my celibacy as a gift. To those who cannot marry, whether because they are homosexual, too young, or have not met the right person, I say that God can and still does bless you. Living celibately can be fulfilling and joyful for those who are temporarily and/or permanently called to it.
The Church cannot and will not affirm or call good what God calls sin, whether it is greed, violence, or (more controversially) homosexual acts or illicit heterosexual acts. In so doing we are not being any more unloving, repressed, or sad than Jesus—and He is none of these things. Neither can we affirm any other acts or attitudes that the Bible calls sinful. These things are all taught in love and they bring joy to those who will accept them.
The Lord is no liar, and He promises that love, His commandments, and joy are all interrelated. I am a witness that this is true.
II. The Core – The Lord says, This is my commandment, Love one another as I have loved you. While it is true that the Church and all of us as individuals must speak the truth, we must speak it in love. We are not out to win an argument, to overpower, or merely to criticize. Our goal is to love. It is not helpful, and quite likely harmful, to correct people whom we do not first love.
Hence the Lord’s command to love one another is at the core of any preaching or teaching task. There are many today who declare that they do not experience love from the Church, only “denunciation.” It is difficult for the Church to convey our love to a large number of people, to a nation, or to a culture. To the degree that we have failed to love or to convey that love, we must repent and strive even harder both to love and to express that love.
That said, the mere fact that we announce God’s law and summon others to it does not make us unloving. As we have seen above, Jesus links these concepts. There is no doubt that some will take offense no matter what we say or how we say it, but the fact that others are angry or hurt does not necessarily mean that we have done or said something wrong. Jesus, who was sinless, offended many and was a sign of contradiction both then and now.
As for the Church, we must never fail to ask for a deepening love for all, even for those who hate us, misunderstand us, or misrepresent us. The core of Jesus’ teaching is this: “Love one another.”
Jesus goes so far as to say that we must be willing to endure martyrdom in order to speak the truth to others. He says, No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Are we willing to endure hatred? Are we willing to be spat upon and mocked? Are we willing to be called hateful, bigoted, homophobic, backward, repressed, intolerant, and so forth? Jesus was willing because He had the kind of love to stay in the conversation even when many (though not all) hated Him. What are you willing to bear to proclaim the truth in love?
III. Camaraderie – Jesus also links friendship to the knowledge of His law. He says, You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
Here is another connection Jesus makes that the modern world rarely does. The world thinks of rules, laws, and commandments in terms of slavery and subservience. Jesus, however links these to friendship. A friend knows what his friend is about and gladly seeks to understand and support him. Scripture says, Happy are we, O Israel, for what pleases God is known to us (Baruch 4:4).
True friendship means seeking to know and understand one’s friend and to accomplish what is important to him. Many today call themselves friends of Jesus but give Him little more than lip service. A true friend of Jesus is delighted to know His will and to accomplish it.
IV. Call – Jesus says, It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another. In these final lines, we are reminded that the Lord, who has chosen us, can and will equip us to live His law, to bear fruit in the keeping of the commandments, and to be someone whom the Father can trust with blessings.
To be rebellious and resentful is to be untrustworthy of further blessings, but here again the Lord stresses that the keeping of the commandments is linked to love and to further blessings.
The commandments bring joy; they are rooted in love and bring blessings. Do we really believe this? Or will we accept the worldly thinking that places these in opposition with each other: love and law, law and joy, and law and friendship? The choice is ours. As for me, I am already a witness that the law is love, joy, and friendship. How about you?
This song rejoices in the Light of Jesus, the clear Sun (Son) of Righteousness, who shows the way to the Father:
One of the strong traditions of Scripture is of the great reversal that will one day come for many. I have often been sobered by it when I consider how blessed I have been in this life. I have also been consoled by it when I struggle to understand why some people in this world seem to suffer so much more that I do, or others do.
Life seems a very uneven proposition if we only look at this side of the equation. Only God sees the whole picture, but to some extent, he has revealed that those who have suffered much in this life will be more than rewarded in the life to come and that there will be a great reversal.
The theme of the great reversal is most fully developed in the New Testament where the understanding of the life to come is also most developed. Consider the following texts:
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first (Matt 19:30, Mark 10:31).
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; but the rich he has sent away empty (Lk 1:52-53).
Abraham replied [to the rich man], “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented …” (Luke 16:25).
Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way (Luke 6:21-26).
Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more (Luke 12:48).
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us (Rom 8:18).
For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:17-18).
There are other examples, and I invite you to add to this list. But, for now, let these suffice. As I have said, I am both challenged and consoled by these texts.
I am consoled because I have suffered and experienced setbacks in this life, as I’m sure have you. But the Lord promises that if these are endured with faith, they ultimately lead to profit, not loss. And while much of this benefit may wait until Heaven, sufferings endured with faith are like treasure stored up in Heaven. First the cross, but then the crown. Hallelujah!
I am also consoled on behalf of others. I know many people who have suffered far more than seems fair. They have experienced loss after loss: lost health, lost jobs, lost homes, lost family members. My humanity recoils at this and I often cry to God on the behalf of these people who seem to suffer so much more than others. Why, O Lord?
But I am also challenged. I am certainly among those who are first. What does this say for me in the great reversal that is coming upon this world? My health is good; I enjoy bountiful blessings. I am more blessed that I deserve. I live in the richest and most powerful country in the world. My needs are largely provided for. I am here in my temperature-controlled room with plenty of time to write and to ponder things. I live far above mere subsistence level. I am surely among the first, the rich. Even the poorest in this country are blessed compared to many in other parts of the world.
Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds, when the great reversal sets in?
Not everything is as it appears. We crave wealth, power, and access, considering those to be blessings. We want to be first. But God warns that it may well be a curse:
Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains (1 Tim 6:9-10).
Even though we are familiar with texts like this we still want to be rich, on top, first. We are very obtuse!
And so I am challenged. I am not, however, defeated or fatalistic. God has not utterly forsaken those who are first. He has left us a way. He has given us instruction on how to avoid the “curse” of our wealth and good fortune: use our position as “first” in order to bless others; place our many gifts at the service of the human family. A few texts come to mind:
I tell you, make friends for yourselves with deceitful wealth, so that when it fails, they [likely the poor whom we befriended] will welcome you into eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9).
Tell the rich in the present age not to be proud and not to rely on so uncertain a thing as wealth but rather on God, who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, ready to share, thus accumulating as treasure a good foundation for the future, so as to win the life that is true life (1 Tim 6:17-19).
And so it is that the Lord instructs those who are cursed to be first to store up our true treasure in Heaven (Matt 6:19). Of course we do not store up our treasure in Heaven by sending it up in a balloon or rocket! Rather, we store it up by generously dispensing it to the poor and needy. We may do this through a simple gift. Perhaps we provide jobs and economic opportunity for others. Maybe we share our knowledge, talents, or time. In doing such things, perhaps our curse of being among the first will be overcome.
The great reversal is coming! Where will I be when the first trumpet sounds?
This Chant of the Funeral Mass refers to the great reversal but prays that the deceased will be found with Lazarus, who once was poor. The text says, In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem. (May the angels lead you to paradise and at your coming may the martyrs receive you and may they lead you into the Holy City Jerusalem. May a choir of Angels receive you and with Lazarus who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.)
One of the Five Hard Truths that will set us free is this one: “You are not in control.” This unnerves us, even terrifies us at times. We like to be in control, but control is an illusion; things you think you control are resting on things you cannot control such as the next beat of your heart or even the continued existence of the cosmos! No, we are not in control.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil (James 4:13-16).
This is just another way of saying that we are not in control.
The paradox is that accepting this hard, even terrifying truth is what frees us from many fears and anxieties. Uncertainty is not the deepest source of our anxiety, rather it is our desperate clinging to control and our insistence on our own preferred outcomes. We don’t always (or even usually) know what is best for us. Abandoning ourselves to God’s wisdom and leadership is the only path to true peace. C.S. Lewis wrote,
What are we to make of Christ? … [Rather] it is entirely a question of what he intends to make of us …. Try to retain your own life and you will be inevitably ruined. Give yourself away and you will be saved …. Whatever is keeping you from God … whatever it is, throw it away …. And do not be afraid. I have overcome the whole universe (The Business of Heaven, p. 33).
The only solution is to trust God. Now trusting does not mean assuming God will eventually give what you want. No, trusting is believing that you will be just fine with whatever the Lord wants. Notice that trusting doesn’t necessarily mean jumping for joy at what God decides. What He decides may not turn out to align with our preferred outcome. Most of us prefer health to sickness, wealth to poverty. We want God to say yes to our requests, not no or later. Trusting means being serene and “OK” with what God decides. In this is our path to peace.
All of this is easy to say but hard to do. We need to accept our poverty, our inability to relinquish our illusion of control and trust God. We need to beg for greater trust. Say with the ancient disciple, “I do believe, Lord. Help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24). Say with the apostles, “Lord, increase our faith” (Lk 17:5).
We live in times in which love is presented in a distorted, even manipulative way. Some use a vague and all-encompassing notion of love to justify almost any behavior. They declare that if we do not approve of what they do, not only are we unloving, we are haters. In this way love is equated with kindness, affirmation, and approval.
This, of course, is an inaccurate, diminished understanding of love. Love wills the good, the best, for another. Love speaks the truth even if it is challenging or painful.
If my doctor lied to me about my health, hiding serious problems from me merely so that I would not be upset, he would be guilty of malpractice. Similarly, lying to someone by making light of sin is not love, it is “malpractice” for us who would be the Lord’s prophets and agents of saving love.
For those who have watered down love to mere kindness, “malpractice” is not only preferred it is often required. “Safe zones” and an ever-expanding definition of discrimination can demand a kind of lying. If you don’t go along you may be called a hater or even find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
But distorted love isn’t love at all. Those who insist on this distorted definition of love show their true colors when someone dares defy the demand for affirmation: suddenly vicious accusations fly and social isolation is imposed.
True love is a many-splendored thing. It is kind and encouraging to be sure, but it is also willing to correct—even rebuke and punish—for the sake of the beloved. There are certain paradoxes of love that must be rediscovered. Let’s examine some of these using Scripture as our guide.
Love perfects the law; it does not oppose it. Many today set love and the law in opposition to each other. They often assert that love, God’s love in particular, means that whatever I want to do is approved of by God. The premise is that love never sets limits; it merely approves of what the beloved wants to do. Scripture says,
If you love me, you will keep my commandments (Jn 14:15). Whoever has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me (Jn 14:21). If you keep My commandments, you will remain in My love (Jn 15:10). For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. (1 Jn 5:3). And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments (2 John 1:6).
Love and God’s law go hand in hand. Love does not give blanket permission to do as one pleases.
Love makes demands. Love does not mean simply accepting the other as he is, not asking him to change or repent if necessary.
Jesus, who loves us, made many demands. Consider His encounter with the rich young man: And Jesus, having looked upon him, loved him and said to him, “One thing to you is lacking: Go, sell as much as you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Mk 10:21).
St. Paul insisted on his apostolic authority and his capacity to preach the hard things of the cross, saying, As the truth of Christ is in me, this bold proclamation of mine will not be silenced …. And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! (2 Cor 11:10-11)
Love requires making choices. A common refrain of many is this: “Jesus understands.” Or “God is love.” Weaknesses, sinful acts, and duplicity are brushed aside by a vague notion that God, who is love, doesn’t care about such things.
But the real Jesus of Scripture does care. Jesus says, If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple (Lk 14:26). Jesus says to Peter: Simon son of John, do you love me more than these? (i.e., the fish, and by extension, his career) (see Jn 21:15).
The love of God is exclusive and is superior to every other love. The Book of James makes this clear: You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4). Jesus says plainly, No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Matt 6:24).
Love demands that we make a clear choice; it will not tolerate a half-committed heart or indulgence in sin. There are demands of discipleship. Love does not permit adulterous liaisons with the world, the flesh, or the devil.
Love punishes. The modern notion is that love is permissive, merciful, and kind at all times.
But Scripture says of God’s love, The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined … then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all (Heb 12:6-8). And Jesus says, Those I love, I rebuke and discipline. Therefore, be earnest and repent (Rev 3:19).
Love warns. Many set love-based arguments in opposition to fear-based arguments. It is true that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18), but most of us don’t have perfect love. That is why Jesus often used fear-based arguments, warning us of what awaits us if we do not repent.
No one loves us more than Jesus, yet no one warned us more of Hell and the coming judgment than He did. Most of the teaching on Hell and the Day of Judgment come right from His mouth. Twenty-one of the thirty-eight parables are about judgment and possible exclusion from Heaven. There are the sheep and the goats, those on the right and those on the left; the wise virgins and the foolish ones; those that enter the wedding feast and those who reject the invitation; those who hear, Come, blessed of my Father and those who hear, Depart from me you accursed, I know you not.
Jesus loved the people of Jerusalem, yet He warned of a coming destruction if they did not repent. Indeed, he wept over Jerusalem when he saw it for the last time: As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Lk 19:41-44).
Jesus did not cease warning those whom he loved. Love warns that there are consequences to sin and infidelity.
Love is not always kind; sometimes it challenges and rebukes. Kindness is an aspect of love, but so are rebuke and punishment.
True love cannot bear that another carries sin or error. Love will at times exhibit anger and strong words to dissuade the beloved from sin and harm. Scripture says,
You shall not hate your brother in your heart: you shall instead rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17). If your brother sins against you, go and confront him privately. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over (Matt 18:15). Watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him (Lk 17:3). Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness; let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it (Ps 141:5).
The list could go on and on. Love is truly a many-splendored thing. It does exhibit kindness, tenderness, affection, and affirmation, but it wants what is truly best for the beloved, not what is apparently best or simply pleasant in the moment. True love wants salvation and perfection for the beloved, not merely their comfort and self-esteem. True love can say no. True love can insist upon even difficult and challenging things. True love has greater blessings in mind than passing pleasures and flattery.
Love is one of the most distorted, overused words in our culture. How about some true love?