My blog is usually posted in the evening at about 21:00 (9:00 PM) U.S. Eastern Time. But in Sydney, Australia, it is 1:00 in the afternoon of the following day. As I prepare for bed, they are eating lunch on a day that has not even begun for me. And proceeding farther west from there, in the Philippines and Japan the afternoon is winding down and the workday is coming to an end!
Time. What could be simpler than for me to look at the clock and say that it is 9:00 PM on Wednesday, February 17th? But on the other hand, what could be more mysterious? Time is a human reckoning of a mysterious passage.
And yet the mystery is also beautiful. At any given time, some people are asleep in the night, while others are at midday. There is a wonderful verse in an old English hymn that says,
The sun that bids us rest is waking Our brethren ‘neath the western sky, And hour by hour fresh lips are making Thy wondrous doings heard on high.
Here are two other beautiful verses from the same hymn:
We thank Thee that thy Church unsleeping, While earth rolls onward into light, Through all the world her watch is keeping, And rests not now by day or night.
As o’er each continent and island, The dawn leads on another day, The voice of prayer is never silent, nor dies the strain of praise away.
Magnificent lines! The hymn contains a beautiful and poetic description of the Church: always praising, always sighing, always at worship. Although some are asleep, the praises continue. One of the Psalms says, Let the name of the Lord be praised, both now and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, the name of the Lord is to be praised. The Lord is exalted over all the nations (Psalm 113:2-4). The praises never end, for the sun is always rising somewhere even as it is setting somewhere else.
Malachi, prophesying the glory of the Mass celebrated worldwide says, My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty (Mal 1:11). At any given time, Mass is surely being offered somewhere on this earth. The Liturgy of the Hours, too, always uttering forth from the lips of the faithful somewhere. Yes, in the mystery of time, this planet of ours is a place of perpetual praise. And our praises join the perpetual praises of Heaven, for as the Liturgy proclaims (in the words of the new translation), And so, Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the host and Powers of heaven, as we sing the hymn of your glory, without end we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts …
Yes, the mystery of time and our praises caught up in the ever moving sweep of time. What St. Paul says to us as individuals is fulfilled by the worldwide Church. His advice is so simple and yet so profound. St. Paul says, Pray always (1 Thess 5:17).
Here is a rendition of the entirety of the hymn (The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended) that was quoted above. The complete lyrics are available here: The Day Thou Gavest.
One of the great illusions under which we labor is that if we only get just one more thing from this world, then we will be happy. Perhaps we think that if we just had a little more money, or a better job, or the latest iPhone, or if we were married to so-and-so, or if we lived in a better neighborhood, then we would be satisfied and content at last. But “at last” never seems to come even if we do get some of the things on our list. As Ecclesiastes puts it, The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing (Ecc 1:8). Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income (Ecc. 5:8).
Although we realize this deep down, we continue to fall for the lie again and again. We think that just one more thing will do the trick. So we lay out the money and spend the time. And then the delight lasts twenty minutes at most! The world just can’t close the deal.
There is a joke (a parable, in my mind) that illustrates the endless treadmill the world has us on and how it continually seduces us into wanting just one more thing. In the end, this leads us to neglect the one thing most necessary.
There was a lonely man who thought that perhaps buying pet would ease his loneliness. So he went to the pet store and looked at many animals. He found himself drawn to one in particular. The sign over the cage said, “Talking Parrot: Guaranteed to talk.” Thinking that this would surely solve his problem, the man brought the cage up to the merchant at the counter.
“That’ll be $250, please.”
A week later the man returned, disappointed.
“This parrot isn’t talking!”
“You mean to say that he didn’t climb the ladder and talk?”
“Ladder? You didn’t tell me about a ladder!”
“Oh, sorry. The ladder is $10.”
So the man bought the ladder, brought it home, and put it in the cage. Another week went by and the man returned to the pet store.
“This parrot still isn’t talking!”
“You mean to say that he didn’t climb the ladder, look in the mirror, and talk?”
“Mirror? You didn’t mention anything about a mirror!”
“Oh, sorry. It’ll be $10 for the mirror.”
So the man bought the mirror, brought it home, and put it in the cage along with the ladder. Another week went by and the man returned to the pet store again.
“This parrot still isn’t talking!”
“You mean to say that he didn’t climb the ladder, look in the mirror, peck the bell, and talk?”
“Bell? You didn’t say anything about a bell!”
“Oh, sorry. The bell is $10.”
So the man bought the bell, brought it home, and put it in the cage along with the ladder and the mirror. Yet another week went by and the man returned to the pet store.
“This parrot still isn’t talking!”
“You mean to say that he didn’t climb the ladder, look in the mirror, peck the bell, jump on the swing, and talk?”
“Swing? You didn’t tell me about a swing!”
“Oh, sorry. It’ll be $10 for the swing.”
So the man bought the swing, brought it home, and put it in the cage along with the ladder, the mirror, and the bell. One more week went by and the man returned to the pet store again.
“How’s your parrot?”
“Dead? Did he ever talk before he died?”
“Yes, he did finally talk.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Don’t they sell any birdseed at that store?’”
Lesson 1: Promises, Promises
The world and the “prince of this world” are always promising results, yet when those results aren’t forthcoming there are only more demands. First the bird, then the ladder, the bell, the mirror, and the swing. There is always just one more thing that’s needed before the perfect result comes! But it’s a lie. The lie comes in many forms: you just need one more accessory, or the upgraded version of the app, or just one more drink, or a newer car, or a bigger house, or a face lift, or bariatric surgery. Yes, you just need one more thing and then you’ll be there. Happiness is always just past the next purchase.
In speaking to the woman at the well, Jesus said, Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again (Jn 4:13). And that is the sober truth about this world: it cannot finally quench our thirst, which is a thirst for God and Heaven. But time and time again we go back to the world and listen to the same lie, thinking that this time it will be different.
Surely it is sensible to make use of the things of this world to aid us in accomplishing our basic duties, but they are not the answer to our deeper needs. The big lie is that they are the answer. And when they fail to satisfy us, the lie just gets bigger, declaring that just a little more of it will surely close the deal.
Lesson 2: The One Thing Most Necessary
In buying the ladder, mirror, bell, and swing, the man neglected the most important thing: food. So, too, for us. We seek to accumulate worldly toys and trinkets that are passing, while neglecting eternal and lasting realities. We seem to find time for TV, sports, shopping, etc., but neglect or completely forget about prayer, Scripture, the Sacraments, the Liturgy, worship, and the development of any kind of relationship with the Lord. We are staring into the mirror focused on our own self. The enticements of this world summon us to endless things, mostly trivial in the long run. We are climbing the ladder of success without regard as to what is at the top of that ladder.
All of these less important matters divert us from the one thing necessary: feeding our souls on the Lord. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him…the one who feeds on me will live because of me (Jn 6:56-58).
Ah, but there’s no time for all that. Getting to Mass, praying, receiving Holy Communion? No time! I hear a bell summoning me to just one more diversion, one more meeting. I’m too busy climbing the ladder of success. I’m too busy looking at myself in the mirror to make sure that I fit in, and that everyone likes me.
“Dead? Did he ever talk before he died?”
“Yes, he did finally talk.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Don’t they sell any birdseed at that store?’”
Just a little parable on the lies of the devil and the empty promises of this world.
Jesus is Messiah and Lord, but He confounds every notion we have ever had about these titles. His power reaches perfection in “weakness” and He reigns from the cross. To the world this is utter absurdity, but the Lord insists that we meet Him at the cross. He chooses the foolish to shame the wise; He chooses the weak to shame the strong; He chooses the lowly and despised things of the world—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are (cf 1 Cor 1:27-28). Let us journey to the cross and meet Him there; let us endure a little of His “folly.”
Our journey begins at Cesarea Philippi, a town “way up yonder” in pagan territory.
I. Confusion – Jesus begins by asking the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.”
First, note that not only are many different opinions put forth, but all of them are wrong.
There are many today who think it advisable for the Church to change her teachings based on what “the people” are saying or think is “right.” Yes, we should just take a poll and find out what the people want! So often we are called out-of-date because we do not conform to current (passing) opinions.
The premise, of course, is that we live in “enlightened” times and that if only the Church would just conform to current “wisdom” her halls would be full. Any look at most of the mainline liberal Protestant denominations puts the lie to this. For all their conformity to modern sensibilities, they are far emptier than any Catholic church (or those of the Evangelical denominations).
Further, the “poll” results delivered by the disciples in this passage are all wrong—every one of them. Collecting everyone’s opinion does not produce the truth.
Thus, we ought to acknowledge that there is a lot of confusion and divided opinion in the world; we should be careful about taking cues from the world when it comes to religious, moral, and lasting truth. Even in the physical sciences, which claim to be so objective, there is a considerable shifting of even fundamental premises over time. Further, there is often division among scientists and medical experts over even basic matters.
We do well to approach this world’s teachings and claims soberly, realizing that even in worldly matters, let alone religious ones, the world is divided and sometimes just plain wrong.
The question remains: Who is Jesus Christ and how will the answer be given?
II. Committee – Having rejected poll results as a valid way of determining the truth, Jesus tries to sample the experts. Surely even if the general populace cannot supply the answer, they can. The question now gets posed to the “blue-ribbon panel,” the twelve Apostles: And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Now we may wish to rush ahead to Peter’s answer, but first let us note that, as a body, the apostles are not able to return a verdict. What we get is silence.
III. Confession– Finally the correct answer comes forth: Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ.” Then [Jesus] warned them not to tell anyone about him.
The manner in which God provides the correct answer to us is developed more fully in Matthew’s version, which adds the following: Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:17-19).
Hence, we are taught that God the Father anointed Peter with this knowledge and inspired him to speak it for the others. This is the basis of our confidence that Peter and his successors, the popes, are inspired to proclaim the faith infallibly, not on account of their own learning but on account of the grace of God. And while the pope generally works with the college of bishops, his affirmation of their deliberations is essential for formal teachings on faith or morals.
Peter’s declaration is true and correct: Jesus is the Christ. However, Peter and the others still need to grow to a deeper understanding of the full implications of the true Faith. Just as Jesus will lead them to understand it, so too has He led the Church to a deeper understanding over the centuries.
IV. Clarification – Jesus draws them to deeper understanding: He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly.
Although Peter has spoken rightly, calling Jesus the Messiah, the term “Messiah” was widely misunderstood at that time. The misunderstanding was rooted in an incomplete reading of messianic prophecy. Most Jews of the time thought of the Messiah as a powerful military figure who would usher in a bloodbath, a career of conquest against the Romans; that is how this “Messiah” would reestablish the Kingdom of David in all its glory. It was a worldly and political view of the Messiah, one which Jesus rejected. Instead, He would more likely refer to passages such as these:
The Lord GOD opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord GOD is my help; therefore, I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame. He is near who upholds my right; if anyone wishes to oppose me, let us appear together. Who disputes my right? Let that man confront me. See, the Lord GOD is my help; who will prove me wrong? (Is 50:5-9)
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Is 53:5)
Jesus clarifies what the Messiah must be: a suffering servant who dies so that His people don’t have to.
V. The Cross – Then things get tense for a moment: Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
Peter, correct just a moment ago, now needs rebuke, but Jesus is willing to work with him. He was right that Jesus was Messiah, but now he needs to understand more deeply what that really means. The Lord calls him away from the world’s notions and the opinions of sinful humanity.
After this, Jesus gets personal. He now tells them that not only will He take up a cross, but so must they.
Talk about not taking an opinion poll! Could anything rate lower on an opinion poll than the cross? Indeed, if one were to take a poll today, there would likely be no crosses at all, only pillows and buffet tables.
The cross is a paradox if there ever was one: from the cross comes life.
Even the world once had some notion of this. What do we have (that we value) that does not involve some sacrifice? A college degree, a career, children, a home, a television—all of them are the fruit of labor, of sacrifice. Too many today want blessings without sacrifice. If we want something, we “charge it.” We spend money we don’t have in order to possess things we have not earned. Welcome to $13 trillion in U.S. household debt, which of course no one should have to “suffer” to pay down. Indeed, the cross has largely been set aside.
But not for Jesus and not for us. To be true Christians we must embrace the cross. Oftentimes this means doing what is hard. It is easy to give way to temptation; it is harder to withstand it. It is easy to be greedy; it is harder to be generous. It is easy to fornicate; it is harder to be chaste. It is easy to file for divorce; it is harder to work things out. It is easy to do what everyone else is doing; it is harder to be a witness or a martyr. It is easy to do what is sinful and self-serving; it is harder to do what is right.
Yes indeed, the cross is what it is—hard, but there is life that comes from it. I am a witness (and I hope you are too) that to the degree I have embraced the often-harder choice of following God’s way, I have been blessed. The chaste avoid lust’s fires, not to mention child support, alimony, and sexually transmitted diseases. The generous have powerful friends in the poor, not to mention being less addicted to money and possessions. Those who fear the Lord have simpler lives than those who must ingratiate themselves to often-contradictory crowds, compromising at every moment.
In today’s Gospel reading we have been led to a deeper understanding of Jesus Christ. Who is He? Does He hold a worldly kingdom and offer merely passing prosperity? Is He just a divine butler who “steps and fetches” to meet our needs? Or is He the Lord, whom we must obey and who tells us to meet Him at the cross? Ask the martyrs; inquire of the saints. They will tell you of the cross, but they will also shout of the victory.
Jesus is Lord and Messiah, but He will not fight on the world’s terms. He conquers darkness with light, hatred with love, and pride with humility. He gives life by dying and bestows joy by sacrifice. He is Messiah, but on His terms not ours. His “weakness” conquers the strong; His “folly” confounds the learned and clever.
No, He’s not your average Messiah.
This song says, “If you can’t stand a little disappointment … if you think you should always be up and never down, I’ve come to remind you: No cross, no crown.”
Many often think of exorcism only in relation to driving out demons from possessed people using ancient prayers. But, truth be told, we all have afflictions, oppressions, temptations and other negative thoughts and drives that are influenced by demons. Such influences may be direct and personal, but there are also sources of error and negativity that come from the world; and the world itself is often under the sway of the “prince of this world” (Satan) who spreads his lies and hate.
Among the Lord’s principal weapons in driving demons out is his Word, given to us in the Scriptures and Sacred Teachings of the Church. In the desert, Jesus rebuked every temptation by recourse to scripture. St. Michael is often depicted holding a sword against Satan. But this sword is not a physical sword of shiny steel, it is the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God (Eph 6:17).
One of the great purposes of the Lord’s Word is to drive back the demons in our lives associated with ignorance, despair, presumption, sinfulness, worldliness, and every other foolish and harmful thought or drive. In the sacred liturgy, the proclamation and preaching of the Word of God is not a mere conveying of information or the telling of ancient stories. The Word of God does not merely inform, it performs, and thereby transforms. In this way demons and their influence are driven back and there is built for us a bulwark of truth. If we faithfully attend Holy Mass and carefully listen to the proclaimed Word of God, it has an exorcistic quality. How much more so then when we also receive the Word Made Flesh, in Holy Communion!
Jesus went down to Capernaum, a town of Galilee. He taught them on the sabbath, and they were astonished at his teaching because he spoke with authority. In the synagogue there was a man with the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out in a loud voice, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebuked him and said, “Be quiet! Come out of him!” Then the demon threw the man down in front of them and came out of him without doing him any harm. They were all amazed and said to one another, “What is there about his word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out.” And news of him spread everywhere in the surrounding region. (Lk 4:31-37)
Note that Jesus’ authoritative proclamation as he taught them in the synagogue provoked and summoned a demon who stood forth. The authority of Jesus’ words so troubled the demon that he was forced to manifest his presence and admit the truth about Jesus. He now stands before Jesus and is driven out by his mere word.
See the picture here! As noted above, proper and orthodox preaching does this. It is endowed by the Lord’s grace and the power of his word. It summons the opportunistic demons forth who exploit human weaknesses such as ignorance, error, fear, past trauma, despair, doubt, stubbornness, hatred and so forth. While these are human struggles, demons often “pile on” by seeking these doorways, much as bacteria exploit cuts or wounds in our skin. God’s Word, helps to heal us, and disempower demonic strongholds.
Of course Jesus does all this in less than a minute! But the gospels often present deliverance and healing as compressed in time. For most of us, this deliverance, this casting out of negativity and the demons associated is something that takes place over a longer period time, even decades.
Steadily attending to God’s Word through our presence at holy Mass, devotional reading, the Divine Office and other things, such as parish bible studies, goes to work over time and casts out many evil spirits that assail and tempt us with sinful and worldly thought.
And in this way, God’s holy Word has an exorcistic quality. Of this I am a witness. For almost forty years now, since my entrance into the seminary I have daily read, prayed and studied God’s Word. And it, along with the reception of the Sacraments, has changed me profoundly. Dark, despairing and sinful thoughts have been brought to light and been driven away, along with any demons associated with them. This work is on-going, but the Lord has brought me a mighty long way.
The Gospels do not simply tell us stories of people who lived thousands of years ago; they tell us our story, and this Sunday’s Gospel is no different. We encounter a deaf man with a speech impediment living in a pagan land; this man represents each of us. If you are prepared to accept it, you are also Jesus, for His story and His work are largely yours as well.
Let’s look at today’s Gospel, remembering that it is our story.
I. The PLACE of the Gospel. The text says that Jesus went into the Decapolis region. This was an area of ten Gentile (pagan) cities. While there were some believers living there, most did not believe. In other words, Jesus was in a largely unbelieving region.
For us who live in the West, this atmosphere of unbelief describes our culture, too. Notice that Jesus does not hesitate to engage with the unbelieving culture in His time and neither should we. Something drew Him there. What was it? Was it love? Was it zeal?
What is it that keeps us engaged and sends us forth to draw in our increasingly pagan—indeed worse-than-pagan—culture? Is it patriotism? Is it love of God and truth? What motivates you to engage family, friends, and neighbors?
Regardless of where He was, Jesus did not hesitate to proclaim the Gospel. He didn’t simply wait until things were comfortable or the timing was opportune. He proclaimed the Gospel in season and out of season, in friendly lands and in hostile ones, whether He was praised or persecuted. What about us?
II. The PROBLEM that emerges. A man who is deaf and has a speech impediment is brought to Jesus. Frankly, this describes many of us. In the midst of an increasingly unbelieving culture, many of us have become deaf to God’s truth, and because of that deafness we have the speech impediment of being silent in the face of sin and unbelief.
Some of our deafness is because we haven’t heard. Many people were never properly catechized. Sadly, too many of our pulpits, whether the literal ones in churches or the figurative ones in our homes, have been silent. In a certain and very real sense, we have a deafness that has never heard the Word of God.
Some of our deafness, however, is acquired, for though our ears were opened at our baptism, we haven’t listened; we’ve been stubborn. Sometimes there is outright rejection of the Word, but even more frequently it is a case of selective resistance. We are like the teenager who only half-listens to his parents. We “tune out” when we are confronted by less appealing aspects of God’s Word. We think to ourselves, “There goes that preacher again. I understand he has to say stuff like that but come on.”
At least partially because of this deafness, we also have a speech impediment. Those who have never heard have a hard time speaking well. The Gospel today seems to link the deafness with the speech impediment.
There are other causes of a speech impediment when it comes to faith. For example, half-hearted listening leads to half-hearted witness or no witness at all. Lukewarm faith can lead us to remain silent even as we see the world around us falling into decay. St. Paul said, Because I believed, I spoke out (2 Cor 4:13). Because our faith is not strong, we say little, and, frankly, we have little to say.
Another cause of a speech impediment is fear. We are so terrified of what people might say or think that we say nothing at all. The martyrs went to their deaths for the proclamation of the faith, but we are afraid of a few raised eyebrows!
Yes, we are a fearful lot, and that fear is rooted in a desperate and unbalanced need to be liked, to fit in, and to be accepted. Well, we need to get a grip now, because the age of the martyrs may be returning—and if our faith is not strong, we will not be strong.
III. The PROCESS.Jesus is not interested in running a carnival side show. He takes the man away alone to heal him, apart from the crowd. Let’s examine several aspects of this healing.
It is PERSONAL. It is personal in two senses. First, He ministers to the man in a way that respects his dignity. Whatever the causes of his deafness and speech impediment, his healing must be a personal walk with the Lord Jesus. Yours must be as well. Jesus is not interested in making a spectacle of you. He heals you for your own sake. If one day you or I should choose to make a witness of our healing, fine, but that is not why the Lord heals us; He heals us for our own sake because He loves us. Second, the healing is personal in that it is a way of teaching us that it is easier to wear slippers than to carpet the whole world. In other words, the healing of the world can begin with us. It is too easy for us to wait and hope that God will raise up the next Fulton J. Sheen—but what if the Lord wants to take you aside? What if He wants to speak to you? What if He wants you to get your fingers out of your ears? What if He wants to heal your deafness so that His Word is heard loud and clear?
It is PICTURESQUE. There are images at work here. There are the fingers in the ears as if Jesus is placing His words in the man’s ears, opening them to God’s Word. The text says that Jesus, spitting, touched the man’s tongue. It’s as if to signify, “from His mouth to yours.” Jesus puts His own words into our mouth. There is also the command, “Be opened,” as if to say, “Open your mind; open your heart,” and thus, “Open your ears; open your mouth.” The problem is not merely a physical one of stopped ears or a lame tongue. The problem is mental and spiritual as well: a closed mind and a closed heart. Thus, the Lord says, simply and without qualification, “Be opened.”
The healing is PURE. The text says that when the man’s ears were opened, and his tongue was loosed, “He spoke plainly.” The Greek word used here is ὀρθῶς (orthos), meaning straight, without deviation, true, or correct. It is the root from which we get the English word “orthodoxy.” This is important because we don’t need eloquent heretics. We need eloquent true believers, people who have heard the true and whole Word of God and are ready to articulate what He says rather than some fake or incomplete version. Give us true prophets, O Lord, not false ones, who tell us only what we want to hear or who give us only part of the truth.
IV. The PROCLAMATION. The text reports ironically, Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it. They were exceedingly astonished, and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
What, is the Lord kidding? He has healed a man so that he can hear and can speak the Word clearly and then tells him to be quiet! Scholars may differ on the interpretation, but I believe that the Lord is being intentionally ironic and “tongue in cheek” when He says, smiling, “Not a word to anyone now!”
When you’ve experienced really good news it’s hard to stay quiet!
What is your story? How has the Lord opened your ears? How has He enabled you to hear and understand His Word in your life? How has He loosed your tongue to speak His Word? I am a witness. I was once a shy and poorly catechized young man. Frankly, I wasn’t interested in the things of God, but He took me aside. He put His word in my ear, loosed my tongue, and now can’t get me to shut up. Yes, He has done all things well!
Here is a final question for you: How has Jesus used you to unstop the ears of the deaf, communicate His word, and liberate the tongues of others? Perhaps He has used you as a parent, catechist, priest or religious, choir member, lector, or leader. Here, too, I am a witness. Thank you, Lord, for using me to impart knowledge, to unstop ears and place your Word there, and to loose tongues. Thank you, Lord. You have done all things well, even through me.
Disclaimer: Please take this post in the mirthful manner I intend. I do not intend to be argumentative or to directly oppose the writings of a fellow blogger and priest whom I respect and appreciate. Frankly, I hope and piously think Father Ryland is correct, but for reason stated below, I wonder if his stated, and my hoped-for conclusion is correct, namely that Angels sing. Here is a link to his post: Can Angels Speak or Sing? – Fr. Ray Ryland
In his brief article Father concludes that angels can both speak and sing. This is the most commonly held view, to be sure. I have no doubts that they can and do speak, and that God provides some way for them to do that when interacting with us. But has for singing, I am less certain and here’ why:
1. There is no Scriptural verse that I have ever read that describes them as singing. Even in the classic Christmas scene where we depict them as singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” the text indicates that they SAYING (Gr: legontōn) the song not that they sing it (cf. Luke 2:13). If you can find a Scripture text that shows the angels singing please share it, but I’ve looked for years and can’t find it. Here too I state this humbly and may be wrong. If so you will help me.
2. The catechism doesn’t say that angels sing.
3. The liturgy of the Church does not to indicate that angels sing. Perhaps the closest that we come are the prefaces. There is reference to the “song of the angels” (the Holy, Holy, Holy) but they are said to “say” this song. The most common ways of describing what angels do regarding the heavenly hymn, Holy Holy, Holy are with are phrases such as: Sine fine dicentes (saying, without end), Clamantes (shouting), ingaudioconfitentes (declaring in joy), Concinunt – This is about as close as the Latin gets to saying they sing. It can be translated “they sing” but can also be translated “they agree in saying” or “they say together.” There is also a phrase that comes up in the prefaces which says, cumque omni militia caelestis exercitus hymnum gloriae tuae canimus (and with all the heavenly hosts we sing the hymn of your glory). But the “we” who sing is us. That the angels are referred to as singing is not clear. It may well be a gloss on Psalm 137:1 In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises Lord.
4. I cannot say I have comprehensive knowledge of the Fathers of the Church so here I cannot definitively declare they never indicate that angels sing. Perhaps you can assist in this regard?
5. Though there are references to nine “choirs” of angels, the word choir here means “order” or “group.”
6. It would also seem that, having no bodies, they cannot sing. For to sing is to cause the vocal cords to vibrate, causing the air to vibrate as well. While it is true that angels are said to talk, and do other things such as blow trumpets, it is unclear if this is meant literally or analogously. It also is possible that humans hearing or seeing angels were able to do this through a temporary grace from God. St. Thomas effectively argues that angels do sometimes assume bodies, (Pars Prima, 51.1). Even if this is the case, they are still never said to sing.
So here is my proposition: “Angels don’t sing.” Perhaps singing is a particular glory of the human person; a capacity unique to us, a very special gift. In the heavenly liturgy I propose to you that it is we who will sing, and not the angels.
But please this is only a proposition about a matter not essential to salvation! I have thought about it for years. I do not declare it with pride as though I am certain I am right. The long and consistent belief of the faithful should not be easily set aside. But for the reasons stated I want to propose this for your consideration. How say you?
This Sunday’s readings teach a proper understanding of God’s Law and its relationship to our hearts. The readings go a long way toward addressing the false dichotomy that many set up between love and the Law, as though the two were opposed; they are not. If we love God, we want what He wants and love what He loves. The Law describes well what God wants and loves. Indeed, the Law is letting love have its way.
God is Love and His Law (no matter how averse we are to “rules”) is ultimately an expression of His love. In all the readings today, God asks—even commands—that we let love have its way. Let’s look at four teachings on the relationship of Law to God, who is love.
I. The PROTECTION of the Law – Note that the text from today’s first reading frames the Law and the obedient hearing of it in terms of a promise of God, seeing the Law as a doorway to the loving blessings and promises of God. The text says, Moses said to the people: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.”
So, the Law comes with a promise. It is the basis of life and the doorway to the further blessings of the land. Many today see God’s Law as prison walls, as a limitation on our freedom to “do as we please.” The walls are not prison walls; they are defending ones.
Every ancient city had walls, not to imprison its citizens but to protect them from the enemy. Within the walls there was security and the promise of protection. Outside the walls lurked danger; there was no promise of safety there.
It is like this with God’s Laws. For those who keep them, they are a great source of protection; they also contain the promise of ultimate victory. Outside these protective walls there is every danger and there is no promise of victory.
In his famous book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote,
Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground …. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the center of the island; and their song had ceased .
God didn’t give the Law to take away our fun, but that we might find life and happiness. The devil is a liar; he tells us that we’ll be happier if we sin, that God is limiting our freedom by hemming us in with His Law. Sin does not make us free. Jesus says, Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Indeed, how much suffering and pain would vanish if we all just kept the commandments? Most of our wounds are self-inflicted, by insisting on journeying outside the walls of God’s loving and protecting commandments.
Moses reminds us that our decision for or against the Law brings either blessing or curse:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Deut 30:15-20).
II. The PRECISION of the Law – Regarding the Law of God, Moses says, In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.
We mightliken Law to a set of directions to a destination. If you give me directions to get to your house, I am probably not going to get there if I only follow half of them. The compliance must be complete to bring me to the right place. Similarly, we are directed the follow the Law of God wholly. Scripture says,
Instruct me O Lord, in the way of your statutes, that I may exactly observe them (Ps 119:33).
I intend in my heart to fulfill your statutes always to the letter. I have no love for half-hearted men, my love is for your law (Ps 119:112-113).
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10).
Here we must see God as a healer who is exacting and precise not for His sake but for ours. Imagine a man with two broken legs who goes to the doctor. The doctor says, “We’re going to aim for 50% here. I’ll set one leg but leave the other one broken. Don’t worry about the broken leg; that’s why God gave you two!” We would surely hold such a doctor in contempt. God, who is our healer, points to full health, not partial or crippled health.
When Jesus says, You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48), He is indicating the kind of healing He offers. St. Paul adds, [God who] began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).
Thus, the precision of the Law is taught to indicate the healing power of God’s Law with grace.
III. The PRIORITY of the Law – In today’s gospel, Jesus rebukes the Scribes and Pharisees, saying, “[You] teach as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
Now, as then, many people set aside the priority of God’s Law in favor of human thinking. Politics has become a pernicious influence in this regard. Many Catholics of both parties are more passionate about their political views than about God’s teachings as revealed through Scripture and Church teaching. If there is a conflict between what God teaches and the political party’s view, guess which gives way and which gets unquestioning allegiance?
Be it questions of abortion, immigration, or same-sex “marriage,” all too easily Catholics will turn a deaf ear to what God teaches. They never rebuke their own political party when correction is needed, and even cheer as their political leaders champion positions contrary to God’s Law. Too many Catholics place political priorities, popularity, human traditions, and human agendas over God’s Law.
The Lord Jesus goes on to say, Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus says, [You] make void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do (Mk 7:13).
Be very careful. The pernicious effects of partisan political thinking, worldviews, and mere cultural preferences have caused too many Catholics to cease to be the leaven, the prophetic voice they are supposed to be in this world. All political parties, most worldviews, and many cultural trends need purification. A Catholic must be a Catholic before he is a Democrat, a Republican, or a Libertarian; before he is a fan of a celebrity; before he raves about the latest trends. None of these things typically stand blameless before God, and the unquestioning, unqualified, and silent allegiance from Catholics and other Christians toward such worldly things is a huge problem. We are too easily compromised and have often elevated human teachings and movements above God’s Law.
To all of this, the Lord gives rebuke and reminds us that His Law must the standard by which everything else is judged. A Christian should see everything by the light of God’s Law, exposing error and evil, approving goodness and truth wherever they are found. Nothing has priority over what God teaches.
In the end it is a question of what and whom we love more: God and His Law or this world and its ways of sin and compromise.
IV. The PLACE of the Law – The Lord goes on to indicate that our fundamental problem can be that the Law of God is not in our heart. He warns that the heart, as the locus of human decision and action, must be the place of His Law for us. The Lord says, Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.
Hence, we need to have God’s Law in our heart. It is not enough to have a cursory and intellectual awareness of His Law; it must drop the foot or so from our intellect to our heart.
What is the human heart? While there are ambiguities in the biblical text distinguishing mind and heart, this much is clear: the heart is the deepest part of the human person, the place where we are alone with our thoughts and deliberations. The heart is the place where we discern, ponder, and ultimately decide. The heart is “where we live.” It is in this deepest part of us that the Law of God must find a home.
Jesus makes it clear that it is from the heart of the individual that come the behaviors that determine our character and our destiny. It is here that the Law of God must find a home. It will only find a deep home in the heart through prayer and meditation; through the careful, persistent, and thoughtful reading of God’s revealed truth, coupled with gratitude and love of God.
It is no mistake that the summary of God’s Law is simply, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as your very self.” It is only love that unlocks the door of our heart. In loving God, we begin to love what and whom He loves. To love God is to love His Law. Scripture says,
My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times (Ps 119:20).
Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors (Ps 119:24 24).
The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold (Ps 119:72).
For I love your commands more than gold, however fine (Ps 119:127).
I open my mouth and sigh, longing for your commands (Ps 119:131).
Yes, in the end, the Law comes from love, the God of love, who is Love. Thus, it is love that unlocks the Law. It is love that makes us realize that the Law is a gift of God’s love. He gives us His law to protect us, to guide us, and to heal us. Therefore, He asks us to make His Law our wholehearted priority.