1 and 1 and 1 is One – A Homily for Trinity Sunday

053015There is an old spiritual that says, “My God is so high, you can’t get over him, he’s so low you can’t get under him, he’s so wide you can’t get ’round him, you must come in, by and through the Lamb.”

That’s not a bad way of saying that God is other; He is beyond what human words can tell or describe; He is beyond what human thoughts can conjure. And on the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity we do well to remember that we are pondering a mystery we cannot fit in our minds.

A mystery, though, is not something wholly unknown. In the Christian tradition the word “mystery” refers (among other things) to something that is only partially revealed, to something of which much more remains hidden. Thus, as we ponder the teaching on the Trinity, there are some things we can know by revelation but much more that is beyond our understanding.

Let’s ponder the Trinity by exploring it, seeing how it is exhibited in Scripture, and considering how we, who are made in God’s image, experience it.

I. The Teaching of the Trinity Explored – Perhaps we do best to begin by quoting the Catechism, which says, The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons: [Father, Son and Holy Spirit] … The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire (Catechism, 253).

So there is one God, and the three persons of the Trinity each possess the one divine nature fully. The Father is God; He is not one-third of God. Likewise the Son, Jesus, is God; He is not one-third of God. And so, too, the Holy Spirit is God, not a mere third of God. So each of the three persons possesses the one divine nature fully.

In our experience, if there is only one of something and I possess that something fully, there is nothing left for you. Yet, mysteriously, each of the Three Persons fully possesses the one and only divine nature fully, while remaining a distinct person.

One of the great masterpieces of the Latin Liturgy is the preface for Trinity Sunday. Compactly yet clearly, the preface sets forth the Christian teaching on the Trinity. The following translation of the Latin is my own:

It is truly fitting and just, right and helpful unto salvation that we should always and everywhere give thanks to you O Holy Lord, Father almighty and eternal God: who, with your only begotten Son and the Holy Spirit are one God, one Lord: not in the oneness of a single person, but in a Trinity of one substance. For that which we believe from your revelation concerning your glory, we acknowledge of your Son and the Holy Spirit without difference or distinction. Thus, in the confession of the true and eternal Godhead there is adored a distinctness of persons, a oneness in essence, and an equality in majesty, whom the angels and archangels, the Cherubim also and the Seraphim, do not cease to daily cry out with one voice saying: Holy Holy, Holy …

Wowza! A careful and clear masterpiece, but one that baffles the mind as its words and phrases come forth. So deep is this mystery that we had to “invent” a paradoxical word to summarize it: triune (or Trinity). “Triune” literally means, “three-one” (tri+unus). “Trinity is a conflation of “tri-” and “unity,” meaning the “three-oneness” of God.

If all this baffles you, good! If you were to claim you fully understood all this, I would have to call you a likely heretic. For the teaching on the Trinity, while not contrary to reason per se, does transcend it and surely transcends human understanding.

Dance? Perhaps, too, in order to avoid an overly static notion of the Trinity, it is helpful to understand God in terms of the dynamic relationships between the Persons: the Father begetting the Son, the Son eternally begotten of the Father, and the movement of love between them, who is the Holy Spirit. The Eastern Fathers speak of this great movement of love between and among the Three Persons as the divine perichoresis. It is a kind of dance of love, dynamic and vivid. It is a glorious movement, yes, a kind of dance.

A final image before we leave our exploration stage: the picture at the upper right is of an experiment I remember doing back in high school. We took three projectors, each of which projected a colored circle: one red, one green, and one blue (the three primary colors). At the point of intersection, the color was white. Mysteriously, within the color white the three primary colors are present, but only  white shows forth. The analogy is not perfect (no analogy is or it wouldn’t be an analogy) because Father, Son, and Spirit do not “blend” to make God. But the analogy does manifest a mysterious “three-oneness” of the color white. Somehow in the one, three are present. (By the way, this experiment only works with light; don’t try it with paint!)

II. The Teaching of the Trinity Exhibited – Scripture, too, presents images and pictures of the Trinity. Interestingly enough, most of the pictures I want to present are from the Old Testament.

Now I want to say, as a disclaimer, that Scripture scholars debate the meaning of the texts I am about to present; that’s what they get paid the big bucks to do. Let me be clear in saying that I am reading these texts as a New Testament Christian and seeing in them a doctrine that later became clear. I am not getting in a time machine and trying to understand them as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. might have understood them. And why should I? That’s not what I am. I am reading these texts as a Christian in the light of the New Testament, as I have a perfect right to do. You, of course, are free to decide for yourself if these texts really are images or hints of the Trinity. Take them or leave them. Here they are:

1. Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likenesss …” (Gen 1:26). So God speaks of Himself in the plural. Some claim that this is just an instance of the “royal we” being used. Perhaps, but I see an image of the Trinity. There is one (“God said”) but there is also a plural (us, our). Right at the very beginning, in Genesis, there is already a hint that God is not all by Himself, but rather is in a communion of love.

2. Elohim? In the passage above, the word actually used for God is אֱלֹהִ֔ים (Elohim). It is interesting that this word is in a plural form. From the view point of pure grammatical form, Elohim means “Gods.” However, the Jewish people understood the sense of the word to be singular. This is a much-debated point and you can read more about it from a Jewish perspective here: Elohim as Plural yet Singular. My point here is not to try to understand it as would a Jew from the 8th century B.C. or even a Jew of today. Rather, I find it interesting that one of the main words for God in the Old Testament is plural yet singular, singular yet plural. It is one yet also plural. God is one yet He is three. I say this as a Christian observing this about one of the main titles of God: I see an image of the Trinity.

3. 3 or 1? And the LORD appeared to [Abram] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on — since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said (Gen 18:1-5). From a purely grammatical point of view, this passage is very difficult, since it switches back and forth from singular references to plural ones. Note first that the Lord (singular) appeared to Abram. (In this case יְהוָ֔ה Yahweh (YHWH) is the name used for God.) And yet what Abram sees is three men. Some have said that this is just God and two angels. But I see the Trinity being imaged or alluded to here. And yet when Abram addresses “them” he says, “My Lord” (singular). The “tortured” grammar continues as Abram asks that water be fetched so that he can “wash your feet” (singular) and that the “Lord” (singular) can “rest yourselves” (plural). The same thing happens in the next sentence: Abram wants to fetch bread “that you” (singular) “may refresh yourselves” (plural). In the end, the Lord (singular) gives answer, but it is rendered, “So they said.” Plural, singular … which is it? Both. God is one; God is three. For me, as a Christian, this is a picture of the Trinity. Since the reality of God cannot be reduced to words we have here a grammatically difficult passage. But I “see” what is going on. God is one and God is three; He is singular and yet plural.

4. Lord … Lord … Lord! Having come down in a cloud, the Lord stood with Moses there and proclaimed his Name, “Lord.” Thus the Lord passed before him and cried out, “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Exodus 34:5). Here we see that when God announces His name, He does so in a threefold way: Lord! … The Lord, the Lord. There is implicit a threefold introduction or announcement of God. Coincidence or of significance? You decide.

5. Holy, Holy, Holy  – In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory (Is 6:1-3). God is holy, holy, and yet again, holy. Some say that this is just a Jewish way of saying “very holy,” but as Christian I see more. I see a reference to each of the Three Persons. Perfect praise here requires three “holys.” Why? Omni Trinum Perfectum (all things are perfect in threes). But why? As a Christian, I see the angels not just using the superlative but also praising each of the Three Persons. God is three (Holy, Holy, Holy) and God is one, and so the text says, “… Holy is the Lord.” Three declarations of “holy.” Coincidence or of significance? You decide.

6. There are many such references in the New Testament, but let me refer to just three quickly:

  • Jesus says, The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30).
  • He says again, To have seen me is to have seen the Father (Jn. 14:9).
  • And, have you ever noticed that in the baptismal formula Jesus uses “bad” grammar? He says, Baptize them in the Name (not names as it grammatically “should” be) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). God is one (name) and God is three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

Thus Scripture exhibits the teaching of the Trinity, going back even to the very beginning.

III. The Teaching of the Trinity Experienced – We who are made in the image and likeness of God ought to experience something of the mystery of the Trinity within us. And sure enough we do.

It is clear that we are all distinct individuals. I am not you; you are not I. Yet it is also true that we are made for communion. As humans, we cannot exist apart from one another. Obviously we depend on our parents, through whom God made us. But even beyond physical descent, we need one another for completion.

Despite what the song says, no man is a rock or an island. There is no such thing as a self-made man. Even the private business owner needs customers, suppliers, shippers, and other middlemen. He uses roads he did not build, has electricity supplied to him over lines he did not string, and speaks a language to his customers that he did not create. Further, whatever the product he makes, he is likely the beneficiary of technologies and processes he did not invent. The list could go on and on.

We are individuals but we are social. We are one but linked to many. Clearly we do not possess the kind of unity that God does, but the “three-oneness” of God echoes in us. We are one yet we are many.

We have entered into perilous times, times in which our interdependence and communal influence are underappreciated. The attitude that prevails today is a rather extreme individualism that says, “I can do as I please.” There is a reduced sense of how our individual choices affect the whole of the community, Church, or nation. Although I am an individual, I live in communion with others and must respect that dimension of who I am. I exist not only for me but for others as well. What I do affects others, whether for good or ill.

The “It’s none of my business what others do” attitude also needs some attention. Privacy and discretion have important places in our life, but so does having concern for what others do and think, the choices they make, and the effects that such things have on others. It is important to cultivate a common moral and religious vision. We should care about fundamental things like respect for life, love, care for the poor, education, marriage, and family. Indeed, marriage and family are fundamental to community, nation, and the Church. I am one, but I am also in communion with others and they with me.

Finally, there is a rather remarkable conclusion that some have drawn: the best image of God in us is not a man alone or a woman alone, but a man and a woman together in a lasting and fruitful relationship we call marriage. For when God said, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26), the text goes on to say, “Male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). And God says to them, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). So the image of God (as God sets it forth most perfectly) is the married and fruitful couple.

Here of course we must be careful to understand that what we manifest sexually, God manifests spiritually. For God is not male or female in His essence. Thus we may say that the First Person loves the Second Person and the Second Person loves the First Person. And so real is that love that it bears fruit in the Third Person. In this way the married couple images God, for the husband loves his wife, the wife loves her husband, and their love bears fruit in their children. [1]

So today, as we extol the great mystery of the Trinity, we look not merely outward and upward to understand, but also inward to discover that mystery at work in us, who are made in the image and likeness of God.

Here’s another song that reminds us that we were made for communion.

The Fire Next Time – A Homily for Pentecost

052315What a wondrous and challenging feast we celebrate at Pentecost! A feast like this challenges us because it puts to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life. The Lord Jesus said to the Apostles and still says to us, “I have come to cast a fire on the earth!” (Luke 12:49) This is a feast about fire—about a transformative, refining, and purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us and in this world. It is about a necessary fire, for as the Lord first judged the world by fire, the present heavens and the earth are reserved for the fire. Since it is going to be the fire next time, we need the tongues of Pentecost fire to fall on us to set us on fire and bring us up to the temperature of glory.

The readings today speak to us of the Holy Spirit in three ways: the portraits of the Spirit, the proclamation of the Spirit, and the propagation by the Spirit. Let’s look at all three.

I. The Portraits of the Spirit – The First Reading today (Acts 2:1-11) speaks of the Holy Spirit using two images: rushing wind and tongues of fire. These two images recall Psalm 50, which says, Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest (Psalm 50:3).

Rushing Wind – Notice how the text from Acts opens: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.

This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word “spirit.” For “spirit” refers to “breath,” and we have preserved this meaning in our word “respiration,” which means breathing. So the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai (the Spirit, the breath of God).

Genesis 1:2 speaks of this, saying, the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And Genesis 2:7 speaks even more remarkably of something God did only for man, not for the animals: then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

So the very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam! But as we know, Adam lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned.

Thus we see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person, as these first Christians (120 in all) experience the rushing wind of God’s Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does CPR and brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16). It has been said that Christmas is the Feast of God with us, Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, but Pentecost is the Feast of God in us.

Tongues of Fire – The text from Acts says, Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.

The Bible often speaks of God as fire, or in fiery terms. Moses saw God as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up onto a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was. Psalm 97 says, The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory (Ps 97:1-6). Scriptures call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29), and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10, Jer 9:7, Zec 13:9, Mal 3:3).

And so it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through His Holy Spirit. And as a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).

And He is also preparing us for judgment, for if God is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of His coming or of our going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus we must be set afire by God’s love.

So in the coming of the Holy Spirit, God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, He purifies us and prepares us to meet Him, who is a Holy Fire.

II. The Proclamation of the Spirit – You will notice that the Spirit came upon them like “tongues” of fire. The reference to tongues is no mere accident. For notice how the Holy Spirit moves them to speak and ultimately to witness. The text says, And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

So behold how the Holy Spirit moves them to proclaim, not just within the safety of the upper room, but also in holy boldness before the crowds who have gathered.

Notice the transformation! Moments ago these were frightened men who gathered only in secrecy, behind locked doors. They were huddled together in fear. But now they go forth to the crowds and proclaim Christ boldly. They have gone from fear to faith, from cowardice to courage, from terror to testimony!

And how about us? Too many Christians are silent, dominated by fear. Perhaps they fear being called names or not being popular. Perhaps they are anxious about being laughed at, or resisted, or of being asked questions they don’t feel capable of answering. Some Christians are able to gather in the “upper room” of the parish and be active, even be leaders. But once outside the “upper room” they slip into “undercover mode.” They become “secret agent” Christians.

Well the Holy Spirit wants to change that, and to the degree that we have really met Jesus Christ and experienced His Holy Spirit, we are less “able” to keep silent. An old gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify, but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me.” The Holy Spirit, if authentically received, wants to give us zeal and joy, and burn away our fear so that testifying and witnessing are natural to us.

Note also how the Spirit “translates” for the Apostles, for the crowd before them spoke different languages yet each heard Peter and the others in his own language. The Spirit, therefore, assists not only us but also those who hear us. My testimony is not dependent only on my own eloquence but also on the grace of the Holy Spirit, who casts out deafness and opens hearts. Every Christian should remember this. Some of our most doubtful encounters with others can still bear great fruit on account of the work of the Holy Spirit, who “translates” for us and overcomes many obstacles that we might think insurmountable.

III. The Propagation by the Spirit – In the Great Commission, the Lord said, Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matt 28:19ff). He also said, I have come to cast a fire on the earth and How I wish the blaze were already ignited (Luke 12:49).

But how is the Lord going to do this?

Perhaps a picture will help. My parish church is dedicated to the Holy Spirit under the title Holy Comforter. Above the high altar is the Latin inscription Spiritus Domini, replevit orbem terrarum (The Spirit of the Lord, filled the orb of the earth). (See photo, above right, of our high altar.)

The walls of my parish Church answer the question. The clerestory walls are painted Spanish Red and upon this great canvas are also painted depictions of the lives of 20 saints, surrounding us like a great cloud of witnesses (cf Heb 12:1). (See also the video below.) And above the head of every saint is a tongue of fire.

THIS is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the earth. It is not “magic fairy dust”; it is in the fiery transformation of every Christian, going forth into the world to bring light and warmth to a dark and cold world. THIS is how the Lord casts fire on earth; THIS is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth: in the lives of saints, and, if you are prepared to accept it, in YOU.

In the end, the Great Commission (Matt 28) is “standing order number one.” No matter what else we do, we are supposed to do this. Parishes do not deserve to exist if they do not do this. We as individual Christians are a disgrace, and not worthy of the name, if we fail to win souls for Jesus Christ. The Spirit of the Lord is going to fill the orb of the earth, but only through us. The spread of the Gospel has been placed in your hands—scary, isn’t it?

Beginning two years ago, my own parish, after a year of training, stepped out into our neighborhood and went from door to door as well as into the local park. We announced Jesus Christ and invited people to discover Him in our parish and in the Sacraments. We were in the local park and the market just last week doing “sidewalk evangelization.”

Before we count even a single convert, this is already a success, because we are obeying Jesus Christ, who said, simply, “Go! Go make disciples.” And, truth be told, we ARE seeing the results in my parish. Our Sunday attendance has grown from about 450 to 520, roughly a 15% increase. We are growing, and our attendance—while average for a downtown city parish—is going in the right direction. God never fails. God is faithful.

Spread the news: it works if you work it, so work it because God is worth it. Go make disciples. Ignore what the pollsters tell you about a declining Church and let the Lord cast a fire on the earth through you! Fires have a way of spreading! Why not start one today? The Spirit of God will not disappoint.

I know this: my parish has a future because we are obeying Jesus Christ; we are making disciples. How about you and yours? If parishes do not obey they do not deserve to exist, and they can expect to close one day no matter how big they may be today. I, in my short 50+ years on this planet, have seen it: parishes once big, booming, and (frankly) arrogant are now declining and some are even near closure. It happens to the best if they do not evangelize, if they do not accomplish “job one.” The Lord wants to light a fire. Why not become totally fire? Let the Spirit propagate the Church through you. (I am not talking to the person next to you; I am talking to you.)

Happy Feast of Pentecost! But don’t forget that the basic image is very challenging, for it means getting out of the “upper room,” opening the doors, and proclaiming Christ to the world. Let the Holy Spirit light a fire in you and then you can’t help but spread light and heat to a cold and dark world.

Let the evangelization of the whole world begin with you.

This video features details from the clerestory (upper window level) of my parish of Holy Comforter here in D.C. Notice the tongue of fire above each saint. The paintings show how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth (see photo above) through the lives of the saints (this means you, too). It is not magic; it is by grace working in your life, through your gifts and your relationships, that the Lord will reach each soul. The witnesses on the walls of my Church say, “You are the way He will fill the earth and set it on fire.” Let the blaze be ignited in you!

The song says, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord. Let us stand worthy, and be faithful to God’s call … We must not grow weary!”

Here is another video I put together that has scenes from the Pentecost Mass in the Extraordinary Form celebrated here last year. This year we will celebrate a Mass of the Octave Mass next  Saturday at 10:00 am. The video is set to the music of Palestrina’s Dum Complerentur which was sung at the Mass. I like this musical version since it is sung in dance time. The Latin text to the motet is below the video along with its English Translation.

Dum complerentur dies Pentecostes,
erant omnes pariter dicentes, alleluia,
et subito factus est sonus de coelo, alleluia,
tamquam spiritus vehementis,
et replevit totam domum, alleluia.

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come,
they were all with one accord in one place, saying, alleluia.
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, alleluia,
as of a rushing mighty wind,
and it filled the whole house
where they were sitting, alleluia.

Love Lifted Me – A Homily for Ascension

In more dioceses than not, the Feast of the Ascension is celebrated this weekend. The liturgist in me regrets the move, but here we are any way. So let’s ascend with the Lord, three days late!

This marvelous feast is not merely about something that took place two thousand years ago. For though Christ our head has ascended, we the members of his body are ascending with him. Since he was ascended, we too have ascended. In my own life as a Christian, I am brought higher every year by the Lord, who is drawing me up with Him. This is not some mere slogan, but something I am actually experiencing. An old song says, I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained with sin, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea, heard my despairing cry. And from the waters lifted me. Now safe am I. Love Lifted me, When nothing else could help. Love lifted me!

Yes, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension is our feast too, if we are faithful. Let’s look at it from three perspectives.

I. The Fact of the Ascension. – The readings today describe a wondrous event that the Apostles witnessed. The Lord, by his own power, is taken to heaven. In so doing He opens a path for us, too. The gates of paradise swing open again: Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in! (Psalm 24:7). In Christ, man returns to God. Consider three things about the Ascension:

A. The Reality Imagine the glory of this moment. Scripture says, As they were looking on, he was lifted up and cloud took him from their sight … they were looking intently in the sky as he was going (Acts 1:9). So impressive was the sight that the angels had to beckon them to get along to Jerusalem as the Lord had said, “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Yes, it was glorious. Jesus had once said as a summons to faith, What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (John 6:62). He had also encouraged them saying, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1:51). So here is a glorious reality and a fulfillment of what Jesus had said.

B. The Rescue In the Ascension, it does not seem that the Lord entered Heaven alone. As we have remarked, in His mystical body we also ascend with Him. But consider too this remarkable text that affirms that: Therefore it is said, When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men. In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:8ff). Yes, the Lord had earlier, just after his death, descended to Sheol and awakened the dead and preached the gospel to them (cf 1 Peter 4:6). And now for those He had justified came the moment to ascend, with Jesus as a “host,” as an army of former captives now set free. Behold the great procession that enters behind Christ through the now opened gates of Heaven: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Judith, Deborah, David, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, John the Baptist, … and one day, you! Yes this is a great rescue. Adam and his descendants have not simply been restored to some paradisiacal garden; they have entered Heaven.

C. The Rejoicing Consider how this once captive train sings exultantly as they follow Christ upward to Heaven. The liturgy today puts before us a likely song they sang: God mounts his throne to shouts of Joy! The Lord amid trumpet blasts. All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness, for the Lord the most high, the awesome is the great king over all the earth. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne (Psalm 47:6-7). I also have it on the best of authority that they were singing an old gospel song: I’m so glad Jesus lifted me! Yes I also have it on the best of authority that they were even singing an old Motown song: Your love is lifting me higher than I’ve ever been lifted before!

Yes, here are some glorious facets of the Ascension.

II. The Fellowship of the Ascension – We have already remarked that, when Christ ascends, we ascend. Why and how? Scripture says, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). It also says, All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. By baptism we were buried together with him so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might live a new and glorious life. For if we have been united with him by likeness to his death we shall be united with him by likeness to his resurrection (Rom 6:3ff). So when Christ died, we died. When Christ rose, we rose. When He ascends, we ascend.

But, you may say, He is in glory while I am still here. How is it that I am ascended or ascending? Consider a humorous example using our physical bodies. When I get on an elevator and punch the button for the top floor, the top of my head gets there before the soles of my feet. But the whole body will get there unless some strange loss of integrity or tragic dismemberment takes place. In an analogous way, so it is with Jesus’ mystical body. In Christ, our Head, we are already in glory. Some members of His Body have already gotten there. We who come later will get there too, provided we remain members of His Body. Yes we are already ascended in Christ, our Head. We are already enthroned in glory with Him, if we hold fast and stay a member of his Body. This is the fellowship of the Ascension.

III. The Fruitfulness of the Ascension – Jesus does not return to Heaven to abandon us. He is more present to us than we are to ourselves. He is with us always to the end of the age (cf Matt 28:20). But in ascending, without abandoning us, He goes to procure some very important things. Consider four of them:

A. Holy Ghost power Jesus teaches very clearly that He is ascending in order to send us the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (Jn 16:7ff). He also says, These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (Jn 14:25ff). And yet again, I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (Jn 16:13-14). So the Lord goes in order that He might, with the Father, send the Holy Spirit to live within us as in a temple. In this way, and through the Eucharist, He will dwell with us even more intimately than when He walked this earth.

B. Harvest Jesus says, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (John 12:32). While the immediate context of this verse is the crucifixion, the wonder of John’s gospel is that he often intends double meanings. Clearly Christ’s glorification is His crucifixion, but it also includes His resurrection and ascension. So, from His place in glory, Christ is drawing all people to Himself. He is also bestowing grace on us from His Father’s right hand to be His co-workers in the harvest: But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Yes, from His place in glory, Christ is bringing in a great harvest, as he said in Scripture: “Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (Jn 4:35-38). Harvest! And it is the Lord’s work from Heaven in which we participate.

C. Help At the Father’s right hand Jesus intercedes for us. Scripture says, Consequently he is able, for all time, to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives always to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25). The Lord links his ascension to an unleashing of special power: Amen, amen, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (Jn 14:12).

It is true, we must not understand asking in the name of Jesus as a mere incantation, for to ask in His name means to ask in accord with His will. And yet we must come to experience the power of Jesus to draw us up to great and wondrous things in His sight. Despite the mystery of iniquity all about us, we trust that Christ is conquering, even in the puzzling and apparent victories of this world’s rebellion. We read, In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Though, at present we do not see everything subject to him, yet we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor … so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:8-9; 14-15). Thus, from Heaven we have the help of the Lord’s grace which, if we will accept it, is an ever-present help unto our salvation.

D. Habitation Simply put, Jesus indicates that in going to Heaven He is preparing a place for us: In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn 14:2ff). Yes, indeed. He has the blueprints out, and the hard hat on. He is overseeing the construction of a mansion for each of us that we may dwell with Him, the Father, and the Spirit forever.

Here then are the ways that Christ, by His love, is lifting us higher than we’ve ever been lifted before. Yes, love lifted me when nothing else could help; love lifted me.

Here’s a modernized version:

Focused on a Functional Family: A Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

122714Here in the middle of the Christmas Octave, the Church bids us to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. On the old calendar, the Feast of the Holy Family falls on the Sunday after Epiphany, which makes a little more sense since the gospels appointed for the feast often take us far forward in time mere days after He is born. The gospel this year is only forty days into the future  (unlike other years when the gospel takes us twelve years into the future), but today’s gospel is still well past the Feast of the Epiphany, which we have yet to celebrate.

Nevertheless, here we are. Perhaps it is a good time to reflect on family life. For, at Christmas time, family and extended family often gather together.  We are also in the midst of a reflection by the Church at Synods in Rome on the modern problems associated with the family.  These problems are rooted in the loss of God’s vision for human families and sexuality. Pray for the synod members, that they will look less to diseases now and more to the solutions given in God’s Word. It is true that we must understand the problems, but it is even more important that we understand what God teaches and effectively proclaim it.

In terms of this Feast of the Holy Family, let us consider marriage and family along three lines: structure, struggles, and strategy.

I. Structure – All through the readings for today’s Mass, we are instructed on the basic form, the basic structure of the family. For example,

  1. God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sirach 3:2).
  2. May your wife be like a fruitful vine, in the recesses of your home; your children like olive plants, around your table (Psalm 128:3).
  3. Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so that they may not become discouraged (Colossians 3:20–21).
  4. Each year, Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover … Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety … (Luke 2:45, 51).
  5. And he was obedient to them; … And Jesus advanced in age and wisdom and favor before God and man (Luke 2:51–52).

And thus we see the basic structure of family:

  1. A father in honor over his children
  2. A wife and mother, supportive of her husband and his authority
  3. A mother, having authority over her children, supported, loved, and encouraged by her husband and obeyed by her children
  4. Children who both honor and obey their parents
  5. Fathers, and by extension mothers, who instruct and admonish their children, but not in a way that badgers and discourages them, but in a way that encourages and builds them up
  6. A family structure that helps children to advance in wisdom and age, and in favor before God and man
  7. So, a father, a mother, and children, all reverential and supportive of one another in their various roles and duties.

Here, then, is God’s basic teaching on family and marriage. Here is the basic structure for the family as God sets it forth: a man who loves his wife and a woman who loves her husband. And in this stable, lasting, and faithful union of mutual support and love, they conceive and raise their children in the holy fear of the Lord.

Add to this, the principal description of the book of Genesis, which lays out how God sets forth marriage: “A man shall leave his father and mother, cling to his wife, and the two of them shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). And to this first couple, God gives the mandate, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:22).

Note, too, how the structure of the family takes its basic form based on its essential work: procreation and the rearing of children. Why should marriage be a stable and lasting union? Why is Adam told to cling to his wife, to form a stable and lasting union with her? Why? Because this is what is best and just for children! Children both need and deserve a stable and lasting union of their father and mother, and the complementary influence of the two different sexes. This is what is best for children to be raised and formed. Hence, the family structure of a father and a mother, a male and a female parent, flows from what is best and just for children. The structure of the family, as set forth by God, is rooted in what is best and just for children. This is what is sensible and best, sociologically and psychologically, for the proper development of children.

Even before we open the Bible, it makes sense that a child should have a father and a mother, the influence and teaching of both a male and a female. There are things that a father, a male, can teach a child that a mother, a female, cannot teach as well. Further, the mother, a female, can teach and model for children what only she knows best. Both male and female influences are essential for the proper psychological and sociological development of the child. Clearly, then, God’s biblical mandate that marriage should consist of a father and a mother is not without basis in simple human reason and common sense.

To intentionally deprive a child of this context is both unjust to the child and unwise. Hence, we see that the basic structure for marriage takes its shape from what is best and just for children. Both God and nature provide for a father and a mother, a male and a female, to conceive and raise a child.

It also makes sense, based on simple human reasoning, that that relationship should be stable, something the child can depend on from day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year, through all the formative years.

Here then is the proper structure for marriage. It is set forth both by God and human reason.

II. Struggles – And yet, what should be obvious to us as a culture seems to be strangely absent in the minds of many. Let us be clear: sin clouds judgment and makes many think that what is sinful and improper is in fact okay or even good. It is not. In our current culture we gravely sin against God and against our children by consistent misconduct and by the refusal to accept what is obviously true. The words of St. Paul are fulfilled in our modern times: their senseless minds were darkened, and they became vain and foolish in their reasoning (Rom 1:21).

It is clear today that the family is in grave crisis. And it is also clear that it is the children who suffer the most. Our modern age in the western world shows forth a mentality that is both deeply flawed and gravely harmful to children.

Marriage and family are in great crisis due to the willful and sinful habits of the vast majority of adults in our culture regarding sexuality, marriage, and family life. The rebellion of adults against the plan and order of God has caused endless grief and hardship, and has set forth a culture that is poisonous to the proper raising and blessing of children.

Previously, there has commentary on this on the blog regarding this. Without repeating  whole blog posts, the following excerpts stands forth:

Children have much to suffer in this world of our collective making. And while not all of us are equally guilty of contributing to the suffering of children, none of us is wholly innocent either, if for no other reason than our silence.

Consider that most children born today are no longer born into the stable and lasting family units they justly deserve, with a father and mother committed to one another till death do them part.

The problems begin with fornication, which is rampant in our culture. And while most do not think of this as a sin of injustice, it is. It is so because of what it does primarily to children.

The fact is, many children are conceived of fornication. Tragically, most of these children who are thus conceived are outright murdered by abortion. 85% of abortions are performed on unmarried women. And for all the vaunted declarations of how contraception makes every baby a wanted baby, nothing could be further from the truth. Abortion has skyrocketed with the availability of contraception. This is because the problem is not fertility; it is lust, promiscuity, fornication, and adultery. And contraception fuels these problems by further enabling them with the lie that there is no necessary connection between sex and procreation. The promises associated with contraception are lies; contraception does the opposite of what it promises.

Thus fornication and the contraceptive mentality (founded on lies) cause grave harm to children, beginning with their death in huge numbers. And the children conceived of fornication who do (thankfully) survive are nevertheless subjected to the injustice of usually being born into irregular situations. There are single mothers, some single fathers, and many other irregularities.

Add to this picture the large number of divorced families. And make no mistake about it, these shredded families cause great hardships and pain for children that include children being shuttled back and forth between different households each week, having to meet “daddy’s new girlfriend” or “mommy’s new boyfriend,” and all sorts of other family chaos. Blended families also dramatically increase the likelihood of sexual and emotional abuse, since legal relationships seldom have the built-in protections of natural relationships.

All of this misbehavior, individual and cultural, harms children. Not being raised in a traditional marriage dramatically increases a child’s likelihood of suffering many other social ills, starting with poverty.

The chief cause of poverty in this country, is the single motherhood, absent fatherhood.
71% of poor families are not married.
Children of single parent homes are 2 times more likely to be arrested for juvenile crime,
2 times more likely be treated for emotional and behavioral problems,
Twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school,
33% more likely to drop out of school,
3 times more likely to end up in jail by age 30.
50% more likely to live in poverty as adults,
And twice as likely to have a child outside of marriage themselves
. [*]

And add to the burdens children must experience, the new trend of same-sex adoption. Never mind that it is best for the psychological development of a child to have a father and a mother, a male and a female influence. No, what is best and just children must be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. Same-sex couples must now be given equal consideration under the law (in many states) to heterosexual couples. It’s the adults and their rights that seem to matter most here; what is best for children is quite secondary.

Here then are our struggles. Our families are in grave crisis and MOST children in our culture are not raised in the stable and committed homes they deserve. And let us be even more clear: to intentionally deprive children of this sort of home by raising them outside of marriage, or in same-sex unions, etc., is sinful, wrong, and an injustice.

Disclaimer – Let us also be clear that it is not possible to personally judge every case of a broken family. The modern world has experienced a cultural tsunami and many have been influenced by lies and other false promises. It may be true that, if you are divorced, you tried to save your marriage but your spouse was unwilling. Perhaps in a moment of weakness, perhaps before your your conversion to Christ, you fell and bore children outside of marriage, but have done your best to raise them well.

But in the end we must say that children have had much to suffer on account of adult misbehavior in our culture. It is a true and sad fact, and we need to repent and beg God’s grace and mercy to undo our grave sins of commission, omission, and silence. We have set forth a bitter world for our children to inherit.

III. Strategy – What are we to do? In a phrase, “Preach the Word.” Whatever the sins of us in this present generation (and there are many), we must be prepared to repropose, unambiguously, the wisdom of God’s Word to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Even if many of us in the current generation have fallen short, we cannot hesitate to announce God’s plan for sexuality, marriage, and family.

Our strategic proclamation must include these key elements:

  1. No sex before marriage, ever, under any circumstances. Sexual intercourse is rooted in the procreation of children and there is no legitimate use of it outside of marriage, ever.  There are no exceptions to this.
  2. Children deserve and have the right to expect two parents, a father and a mother, committed to each other till death do them part. Anything short of this is a grave injustice to children and a mortal sin before God.
  3. Gay unions, or single mothers and fathers are NOT an acceptable alternative to biblical marriage. To intentionally subject children to this, for the sake of political correctness or for the perceived needs of adults, is a grave injustice to them.
  4. Marriage is about what is best for children, not adults.
  5. Married couples must learn to work out their differences (as was done in the past) and not rush to divorce courts, which offends God (cf Malachi 2:16).
  6. The needs of children far outweigh the preferences and needs of adults.

Whatever the personal failings of any of us in this present evil age (cf Gal 1:4), our strategy must be to preach the undiluted plan of God for sexuality, marriage, and family to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

In short, “Back to the Bible! Back to the plan of God! Away with modern experiments and unbiblical schemes!” God has given us a plan. And we, thinking we had better ideas, have caused great sorrow and hardship for our descendants. We have acted unjustly, murdered our children through abortion, and, sowing in the wind, have caused those who have survived our misbehavior to inherit the whirlwind. It is time to repent and help our heirs to rejoice in chastity, marriage, and biblical family. Otherwise we are doomed to perish.

God has a plan and it must be our strategy to get out of our struggles and back to God’s structure for our families.

This song says, “So, humbly I come to you and say. As I sound aloud the warfare of today. Hear me, I pray. What about the children?”

I Hear Music in the Air! – A Homily for Christmas

122414The mysteries of Christmas are many. Among them is the mystery of the music heard that night. The angels shouted the great declaration, “Glory to God in the Highest,” and creation takes it up as a song. But why this music? Is it merely window dressing, or does it disclose a mystery to us? Is it merely for us, or do the angels also have need of the declaration?

As always with the things of God, there are realities far deeper than most of us imagine. But tonight’s Christmas feast weaves together, among many other mysteries, those of music and descent, and points up to music and ascent.

You see, over my head I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere. And the Lord descends to one song so that we might ascend to a new song in a new place: in the highest heavens. Let’s see how.

I. Divine Condescension – The text says, Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (Lk 2:8-12).

We look first to the divine descent of Jesus. Note that Jesus, who is called Savior, the Anointed One, and Lord, is said to be found wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a feed box, a trough from which animals are fed.

What sort of King and Lord is this? It is almost a divine comedy. Imagine the shepherds quaking in fear at the presence of an awesome angel. And then the angel tells them that they will find the Christ lying in a feed box, in a stable somewhere nearby. One can almost image one shepherd saying to another in a sort of whisper, “Did that angel say ‘feeding trough’?” And then the other nervous shepherd whispers back, “Yeah, that’s what he said.” It is comedic because it is so anti-climactic.

Indeed, there is a remarkable divine condescension here! The Lord did not merely descend from Heaven to earth. He descended to one of the lowest places on the earth, to a stinking cave, among animals, and has for His bed a feeding trough meant for animals.

And though Bethlehem was called the “City of David” it was hardly fit for a King. It was then, and is now, a run-down, dusty, ramshackle, poor town.

So here is the King of the Universe born, not in a stately palace, but in a stinking pen; not in a cozy cradle, but in a messy manger.

Yet God speaks eloquently in this poverty and condescension. Here is the Bread of Life, in a town called Bethlehem (House of Bread), lying in a feed trough. In His littleness and poverty He is approachable and calls to the poor.

But do not miss the radical nature of this descent! So radical was it, that this very thing is said in tradition to be the reason that one-third of the angels rebelled, turning against God and falling to the earth as demons (fallen angels). In both Jewish apocryphal writings as well as the writings of the Fathers of the Church, Lucifer, one of the highest ranking angels and among the seraphim, recoiled at the idea that God would choose to join Himself to His physical creation. Man was a mere mud doll to Lucifer, something and someone so far beneath him as to merit no real attention. The thought of God becoming flesh caused Lucifer to rebel, and he took a third of the angels with him in rebellion against so absurd a plan: God as mud doll, taking on human flesh and being joined to mere material creation. It was unbecoming, beneath the dignity of the spiritual world!

Condescension was unthinkable to Lucifer’s pride and he fell, refusing to accept such an absurd notion. Ever since that time, he and the fallen angels with him have envied the human person whom God was pleased to indwell, and by this envy have sought to destroy our truest dignity: an indwelling relationship with God.

Why this condescension? He condescends today to one song in order that we may ascend one day with Him to a new place and sing a new song. To what song does He descend and to what song will we ascend? Let’s read on.

II. Dancing Choirs –  The text says, And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

But the angels who did not fall had rejoiced in God’s plan and longed for its day! Thus on this day, as the Lord is manifest to the world, the highest angels who descended with Christ at the Annunciation now send word through and to the lower ranks of angels and a great heavenly throng makes the declaration, Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth Peace! The great hymn that is sung (or more literally, declared) is not just for the human family; according to the Fathers of the Church it is also a signal to the lower ranking angels from the higher ranking angels. All Heaven has revealed to it the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his holy ones (Col 1:26). A mystery, a wisdom which is hidden, which God ordained before the world, unto our glory (1 Cor 2:7). …The things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:12).

Perhaps a little background will help understand the dance of the choirs and the communication that takes place.

The inner life of the Trinity, according to sacred tradition and the teaching of the Fathers, is not a mere static vision of the three persons for one another. The inner of the live of the Trinity is a movement of love. The Father loves the Son; the Son loves the Father; the Holy Spirit processes between them in this great movement which the Greek Fathers call the divine perichoresis, a kind of dance of love.

And the angels are arranged around God in ranks or choirs somewhat like concentric circles.  And they, too, take up the dance of love, passing love and revelation from God through each rank or choir and back again. Yes, here is the great dance, the perichoresis of God’s inner love radiating out to angels, down through the ranks to us, and from us back through them to God.

The nine choirs (ranks) of angels are divided into three tiers, or triads, each with specific concerns:

  1. The Highest Tier: Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, who concern themselves with contemplating the glory of God. It is the six-winged seraphim who sing the Sanctus, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:3).
  2. The Middle Tier: Dominations, Virtues, and Powers, who are known as the “angels of creation” because they concern themselves with the ordering of the cosmos and the causes of things.
  3. The Lower Tier: Principalities, Archangels, and Angels, who concern themselves with the minute ordering of the universe and with specific causes, including the welfare of people. Each human being, each church, and each country has a guardian angel.

Thus, the “Gloria in Excelsis” is a declaration of praise not just overheard and taken up by humanity; it is not just a hymn of praise, it is a dance and a passing of information down the chain of angelic choirs. The highest choirs of angels have descended with the Word made Flesh, Jesus, since it is their role to surround Him with perpetual adoration.

The Church Father, Origen, has the higher angels say,

“If he has put on mortal flesh, How can we remain, doing nothing!? Come Angels, let us descend from heaven!” That is why [Scripture says] there was a multitude of the heavenly Hosts praising and glorifying God when Christ was born. Everything is filled with angels! (Hom in Ex. 1:7)

And now at Jesus’ birth, the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones signal the lower angels: “This is He, who is Lord of all Creation; He who is ever to be adored and glorified.” The lower angels take up the information and cry out, “Glory to God in the Highest.”

Another Church Father, Pseudo-Dionysius, says of this great heavenly hymn that is declared,

The highest order composed of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, and which is closest of all, by reason of its dignity, to the secret sanctuary of God [instructs]  the second order, composed of Dominations, Virtues and Powers. This order in turn reveals the mysteries to the lower tier of angels the Principalities, Archangels and Angels who are set in charge of the human hierarchies (Hier Ceol. 9,2).

And thus the great “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” resounds in the heavens, not just on the earth. The angels are given the good news along with us! An ancient hymn from the Liturgy of St. James says of this moment,

  • Rank on rank the host of heaven
  • spreads its vanguard on the way,
  • as the Light of light descendeth
  • from the realms of endless day,
  • that the powers of hell may vanish
  • as the shadows clear away.
  • At his feet the six-winged seraph,
  • cherubim, with sleepless eye,
  • veil their faces to the presence,
  • as with ceaseless voice they cry,
  • “Alleluia, alleluia,
  • Alleluia, Lord most high!”

And to us on earth comes the call to hear the music, the great hymn of praise and instruction, and to respond with our souls!

I have it on the best of authority that as the shepherds heard the great song of the angels, one of them said, Over my head I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere!

All of creation echoed that night with the song of the angels communicating this truth to one another and to us.

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echo back the joyous strains

The animals, too, lifted their eyes heavenward, and one was said to say,

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
A song, a song, high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea!

But why all this music at the divine descent? Because the music (Gloria in Excelsis) and the descent are related and meant to signal and lead us higher. Christ descends to one song in order to lead us to an even nobler and higher song,

III Destiny of the Christian – The Psalm says, Sing to the LORD a new song, sing to the LORD, all you lands. Sing to the LORD; bless his name (Ps 96:1-2).

So again, this music (Gloria in Excelsis) and the descent are related and meant to signal and lead us higher. Christ descends to one song in order to lead us to an even nobler and higher song, a song sung in the highest heavens! And without this descent and this first song, the second song and our ascent are impossible. Christ descends to the song of the lower heavens so that we, by His saving grace, may ascend to the place and song of the higher heavens.

And what is this new song and place? Isaiah heard the music and saw the place:

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  6 Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven”  (Isaiah 6:1-8).

Here is a our new song, a higher song, one sung only in the highest Heaven before the throne of God, one sung only by the redeemed: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts! At every Mass, our High Priest, Jesus, speaking through His ministerial priest says, Lift up your hearts! We reply that we have them lifted up to the Lord. In other words we are told to come up higher, to come into the Holy of Holies in Heaven, to come before the throne and sing the hymn of the highest in Heaven.

Our ascent to this highest place is made possible only by the Lord’s descent to the lowest places here: the manger, the Cross, and Sheol. In the early Church, only the baptized could sing the Sanctus at Mass. The unbaptized were not allowed to attend. The catechumens, though permitted to sing the hymn of the lower heavens (The Gloria), were dismissed prior to the singing of the Sanctus, the song of the higher heavens. Only when we are caught up higher by grace can we hear and join the Sanctus. And one day it will be fully our song when God, who descended, says to us, “Come up higher.” And then, by Him who descended, we will ascend and sing a new song to the Lord!

Over my head I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere. And the Lord descends to one song so that we might ascend to a new song in a new place, in the highest heavens. May HE, who descends to the manger today, cause you to ascend to the highest heavens to sing that new song.

See What the End Shall Be – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896In today’s Gospel we step back nine months to March 25th, the feast of the Annunciation, an event all but hidden, but which changed the world.

God, whose focal presence had departed the Temple just prior to the Babylonian invasion (cf Ez 10:18) and the loss of the Ark of the Covenant, now returns to the Ark of Mary’s womb. The glorious presence of God returns now to His people in an obscure town of fewer than three hundred, a town so small that no road led to it.

We are reading here of a pivotal moment in the history of mankind. God not only returns to His people but becomes one with them in the Incarnation.

And at this moment we do well to consider four aspects of this pivotal moment. As we do so, we consider not only Mary’s glories but ours as well (in a subordinate yet real way). For Mary is the perfect disciple and typifies in a most excellent way the glories that God also wishes to bestow on us, in perhaps a different but still substantial way. Let’s look at four aspects of this Gospel.

I. The RESPECT of God – The text says, The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth. To a virgin betrothed to a man name Joseph and the virgin’s name was Mary … Mary said “Behold I am the Handmaid of the Lord, May it be done to me according to your word.

Note that God asks of Mary her cooperation. Although the Angel Gabriel’s words are not in the form of a question, it is clear from Mary’s response that she considers this to be a request from God. She says yes, and thus understands it as a request, not merely a statement of what shall be.

In this regard we see an important indicator of the respect of God for her freedom. Surely He has prepared her and equipped her with every good grace to say yes, but in the end, her freely offered yes is significant, and something that God looks for and respects. Otherwise, why bother to send an angel at all? Why come through Mary at all? Why not simply appear suddenly as a full-grown man and start to work? As it is, God wills to come through Mary (cf Gen 3:15) and seeks her yes in the place of Eve’s no.

And this respect for Mary’s freely offered yes is also a respect God extends to us. Indeed we can see here how God’s respect is in direct contrast to the behavior of the devil, who provokes, shouts, and intrudes. Through cultural noise, etc., he tempts and provokes us. In contrast, God whispers and respectfully invites. He does not force a decision on us, but rather summons us in love and patiently awaits our answer.

In Scripture we read of Jesus, Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). Hence, though all powerful and able to coerce, God does not do so; He does not act violently or impose His will. He respects the freedom He Himself gave us and invites us to cooperate in His plan for us.

Mary (and we) are thus respected by God in terms of our freedom, and God “needs” us to open the door for Him to go to work.

II. The REGARD of God – Note in the text the great love, appreciation, and regard God extended to Mary through the angel. The text says, Hail, Full of grace! The Lord is with you … Do not be afraid Mary. You have found favor with God ...

As the great and glorious Angel Gabriel (and every angel is glorious) comes to Mary, he must still, in an astonishing way, acknowledge Mary’s beauty, holiness, and perfection by God’s grace. Imagine an all-glorious archangel rendering a kind of debt of praise to a mere human being! And in speaking this way he is speaking for God, of the deep love, appreciation, and regard that God has for Mary, His greatest human work.

Indeed, we should never forget the love and deep regard God has for Mary and also for us. Mary is surely God’s masterpiece. But she is also the result of His grace and work. She is sinless, “full of grace,” for, being filled with grace, there is no room in her for sin.

The Angel Gabriel speaks to her dignity and perfection in the greeting Χαιρε κεχαριτωμενη (Chaire, Kecharitomene – Hail, full of grace). Kecharitomene (full of grace) is a perfect, passive participle indicating an action completed (perfected) in the past but operative now as well. Thus Gabriel salutes her not by her name, “Mary,” but by a sort of new name: “Hail, she who was perfectly graced and is so now!” Thus she had been freed of all sin in the past for she is perfectly, fully graced, and she is so now as Gabriel greets her and regards respectfully the work of God in her.

In a less perfect (but still true) way, God also loves us and loves in us the perfection we will one day attain by His grace and mercy. A couple of texts come to mind:

I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving kindness (Jer 31:3).

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior … you are precious and honored in my sight, and … I love you (Isaiah 43:1-3).

We are not good, and therefore God loves us. God loves us and therefore we are good, if we accept His love. Mary was, by a singular grace, wholly open to God’s love and perfection. And if we are faithful, each of us, too, will one day become the man or woman God has always intended us to be.

God thus shows great regard for Mary (through Gabriel) and He also knows the glory we will one day share.

III. The RIDDLE in the middle – There remains the mysterious question of Mary: “How will this be since I do not know man?” Had she been thinking in strictly biological terms she would have known the obvious answer to the question: she and Joseph would conceive. But her question seems to imply she had other notions about her future than regular marital relations.

Some hold that the question is not really Mary’s question, but rather is rhetorically placed here by Luke so that the angel can inform us, the readers, that God alone is the true Father of the Son. But such a notion seems more likely concocted by nervous moderns in an attempt to solve the mystery. Reducing a pivotal question like this to a mere literary device seems unbecoming.

Catholic tradition surely sees evidence here of the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. To be sure, many other questions are raised by this resolution. Why would two people get married and then live as virgins? Were such arrangements common at that time? (It would seem not.) And so forth.

In the end, Mary’s question seems to point to some expectation on her part that she would “not know man” in some sense, going forward. But at any level, we are not going to be able to completely satisfy our curiosity in this matter, and ultimately it is none of our business.

One thing is sure: the Church teaches, without ambiguity, that Mary remained ever-virgin. It seems a reasonable conclusion that Mary’s question indicates that she was clear on this. But there remains also a mystery that we must respect.

In this case, Protestants and others who deny her lasting virginity have some thinking to do. For Mary’s question is not meaningless or naïve. It is a true question, with a true context, that ought to be respected as at least pointing to her virginity, even if it alone does not alone prove it.

IV. The REASSURANCE of God – Mary is in the presence of an archangel. This alone is frightening enough. But it is also true that her world is shifting quite dramatically. Hence, her natural fear and anxiety is understandable. Thus the Archangel Gabriel gives a number of reassurances to Mary: Do not be afraid Mary, For you have found favor with God … Behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the most high, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end

In effect, St. Gabriel is saying to her that, however the details unfold, in the end there will be total victory, for she is to bear a Son who is the Son of the most High God, and who will have a kingdom that will never end or be conquered. Hence, whatever her concerns, this all leads to victory.

Mary will need this reassurance for there ARE some difficult days ahead: the crisis of homelessness at Jesus’ birth, the flight to Egypt, Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart, and the actual thrusting of that sword at the foot of the Cross. This knowledge of ultimate victory is an important reassurance for her to hold close and not forget.

So, too, for us. For we, too, have some difficult valleys to cross, some arduous hills to climb. We must constantly keep in mind the end of the story: Jesus is already the victor. Even if we might think we are losing, in the end, total victory belongs to Jesus, and to us if we stay with Him. The end of the story is already declared: Jesus wins, overwhelmingly, and all His enemies are placed under His feet (e.g., Rev 20-22; 1 Cor 15:25-26; John 16:33 inter al).

Consider this magnificent passage from Isaiah:

I am God there is no other. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand. I accomplish my every purpose. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it and I will do it. Listen to me you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give my glory to Israel (Isaiah 46:12ff).

If we were to memorize and internalize this passage, so many of our fears and anxieties would flee, our trust would build, and we would live victorious lives. It may at times seem that evil has the upper hand. Evil may have its day, but God has the ultimate victory. No matter how dark it may seem, God has already won, only the news has not yet leaked out.

But on our hearts this truth and reassurance must be emblazoned. For, like Mary, we have difficult days in our future. All the more reason God’s reassurance is essential for us. It got Mary through the Cross and it will get us through our trials.

Hence, we have here a pivotal moment in history. God’s presence returns to the human family. And it all happens so quietly in Nazareth, a town of 300, a town so small that there was not even a road that went to it. Quietly, but clearly and powerfully, God has thrust the first blow at Satan’s realm. Victory is sure.

Painting above: Annunciation, by H. Tanner

I have it on the best authority that Mary sang this song after the angel left: “Done made my vow to the Lord and I never will turn back, I will go, I shall go to see what the end shall be.”

It occurs to me that Mary, at this time, was not much older than the young ladies in this choir.

Sweet, Beautiful, Soul-Saving Joy – A Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

121314This Sunday is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday based on the Introit for the day: Gaudete in Domino semper, iterum dico, Gaudete (from Philippians 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice). This theme is developed most fully in today’s readings in 1 Thessalonians 5:16ff. It, too, begins with the salutation and imperative, “rejoice always!”

Let’s take a closer look at that reading and what is meant by the admonition to “rejoice.”

The text begins, Rejoice always. The Greek word properly translated here as “rejoice” is χαίρετε (chairete). However, more is intended here than to merely rouse ourselves to some sort of the emotional state of joy or happiness. You may note the root word “charis” in “chariete,” and charis refers to grace. Hence chairete means, properly, to delight joyfully in and BY God’s grace, to experience God’s favor (grace), to be conscious of and glad for His grace.

Since it is a work of grace, the gift of this sort of joy is more fully understood as a serene, confident, and stable joy, a joy not rooted merely in the passing moods of our fallen human state.

The text continues further to identify three basic ways that our joy can become both stable and deeply rooted in our personality and psyche. In effect, the text does not merely instruct us to rejoice always, but tells us how this can be done. Let’s look at these three ways.

I. PERSEVERANCE IN PRAISE – The text says, Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Hence we see the first three foundations for rejoicing always. Let’s take them a little out of order.

A. Grateful – In all circumstances give thanks – Thanksgiving is an important discipline that trains our mind to focus on reality. For it so happens that we tend to be negative, perhaps due to our fallen nature. The reality is that every day ten trillion things go right and only a few things go wrong. Now you may think that ten trillion is an exaggeration, but it is not. Consider all the things that have to go right with every cell in your body. Add to that all the many things and factors on this earth, indeed in the whole universe, that must be perfectly balanced in order for you and me to even be here at all, alive and flourishing. Ten trillion is not an exaggeration.

However, if we are not careful, we are going to focus on the five or six things that went wrong today. And, mind you, some of them may feel serious at times (although usually they are not). Nevertheless, even the truly serious mishaps cannot negate the reality of the ten trillion things that have gone right.

Thanksgiving disciplines our mind to focus on the bigger reality of our countless blessings. Even some of the mishaps of a day can actually be blessings in disguise.

Hence we are told to give thanks in all circumstances. Daily thanksgiving disciplines our mind to focus on the astonishing number of blessings. What you feed grows, so if the negative is fed, it will grow. But, if the positive is fed, it will grow and become an important basis of stable joy in our life. Give thanks in all circumstances.

B. Prayerful – Pray without ceasing Here, too, is a discipline of the mind. Paul does not mean to say that we should stay in a chapel all day. He means that we should lay hold of the normal Christian life, which is to be living in conscious contact with God at every moment of our day. To the degree that we are consciously aware of God’s presence and in a dialogue of love with Him all day, our joy is deeper and becomes more stable.  Thus we are able, by this ongoing sense of His presence, to “rejoice always.”

C. Spirit-filled – Do not quench the Spirit That such gifts (ongoing prayer and thanksgiving) are “God’s will for us,” means that God wants to give us these gifts. Hence we should not quench the Spirit, which bids us to seek these things. Rather, we should heed His promptings and seek these gifts, even pester God for them. Too often we quench the Spirit by not taking seriously the promises He offers us in Christ Jesus. We are not convinced that the Spirit can give us a whole new life and deepen our prayer and gratitude, so we don’t even ask. We also quench the Spirit by cluttering our lives with endless distractions, never sitting still long enough to listen to the small, still voice of God. But if we fan into flame the gifts of God’s love, God the Holy Spirit will kindle a fire in us that will never die away. And as the gifts of His love, including deeper prayer and constant thankfulness, take hold, our joy deepens and we can “rejoice always.”

II. PERSPECTIVE THROUGH PROPHECY – The text says, Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good.

In the first place, “prophetic utterances” refers to Scripture itself. Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality. It describes the world as it truly is and sets forth a clear vision. It is an antidote to the muddled and murky suppositions of worldly thinking that, at best, grope in the darkness, and at worst, are deceitful and erroneous. We ought not despise God’s Word in any way, but should accept it wholeheartedly. To the degree that we do so, we are assured of the ultimate victory of God, His truth, and His Kingdom. Our own victory is also set forth in the paschal mystery of God’s Word, wherein every cross, faithfully carried, produces for us a weight of glory beyond all compare (cf 2 Cor 4:17). This vision, this prophetic interpretation of reality, produces in us a serene joy that allows us to “rejoice always.”

“Prophetic utterances” also refers to the teachings of the Church, the words of the Fathers of the Church, and the teachings of the saints down through the ages. There is a great deposit of faith that has been carefully collected and lovingly handed down from apostolic times. The dogmas and doctrines of the faith are like the precious fragments gathered up by the Apostles at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. For the Lord had told them that nothing was to go to waste. And so we, too, ought to seek out every instruction prophetically uttered by Mother Church, allowing nothing to fall to the ground.

The Fathers and saints, too, have left us wondrous testimony that we should neither despise nor ignore. They, along with the Church, utter wisdom and announce victory to every believer. In the laboratory of their own lives, they have tested the Word of God and found it to be true. Added to this number are many trustworthy people in our own time who teach us the Word of God. They include our parents, priests, religious, and holy men and women who have inspired us. And to the degree that we will let the Church and the saints teach us, along with trustworthy souls of our own time, to the degree that we do not despise these prophetic utterances, the foundation of our joy becomes more sure and we can rejoice always.

III. PROGRESS TOWARD PERFECTION – The text says, Refrain from every kind of evil. May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.

The greatest source of sorrow in our life, the biggest killer of joy, is our sin. To the degree that we indulge it, our joy is sapped. But to the extent that we allow the Lord to deliver us from sin and make us more and more holy, our joy becomes deeper and more lasting. The words “holy” and “whole” are not far removed from each other. And to the degree that we become more whole, more perfected, more free from sin, more holy and blameless, our joy becomes deeper and we can increasingly “rejoice always.” God will do this for us if we are willing and if we ask Him.

Thus we see that the mandate, the exhortation, to “rejoice always” is far more than a command to whip ourselves up to an emotional high. Rather, it is a stable and serene joy rooted in prayerful gratitude, a mind transformed by God’s truth and a growing holiness. Allow the promise of the Lord to be fulfilled in you. For He has said,

Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete (Jn 15:9-11).

This song says, “Joy, Joy, God’s great joy! Joy, Joy, down in my soul. Sweet, beautiful soul-saving joy. Oh Joy! Joy in my soul!”

And this songs says, “The King shall rejoice in thy strength O Lord! Exceeding glad shall He be.”

The Fire Next Time – A Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent

120814An old spiritual says, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, but the fire next time. The second reading in today’s Mass speaks to us of the “fire next time” and again reminds us of the need to be ready for the coming of the Lord. In this homily, I will focus on that second reading, wherein St. Peter reminds us of the passing that will come for us all, sooner or later. And since Advent is a time to prepare through prayer and repentance, we do well to heed this sacred teaching and warning, echoed by St. John the Baptist as well, of whom the Gospel today says, A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:2-3).

Note four aspects of the second reading:

I. The PATIENCE that is PURPOSEFUL – The text says, Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

Though the Lord seems long-delayed in coming (2000+ years!), the text tells us that this delay is so that as many of us as possible can be saved.

But notice that the text says that God wants us to come to repentance. So God’s patience should not be seen as an excuse for presumption, but, rather, a time for repentance. This is no time to say, “Later.” This is a time to be serious about repenting and about preparing to meet the Lord.

Note, too, that the Greek word here translated as repentance is μετάνοιαν (metanoian), referring not just to better behavior, but also to a new mind. For our transformation is not merely external, but also internal. When what we think changes, so does our behavior. When our thinking is conformed to God’s revealed truth, our priorities, feelings, desires, and decisions all begin to change as well. Conversion and repentance are the result of being a changed and transformed human being with a new mind.

II. The PASSING that is PERILOUS – The text says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

In effect, the text says that God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days. And when he comes it will be

Sudden – For the text says that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief.

This image is quite a consistent with the image Jesus used for the Day of Judgment as well. But the image should not be true for those of us who wait and watch. St. Paul says, But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief … So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thess 5:4,6).

Further, the image of God as a thief is also not appropriate for us if we realize that all we have and all we are belongs to God. For those who are worldly and who claim authority over themselves and their things, God is a thief who comes suddenly and in a hidden way. He overtakes their perceived ownership and possession and puts an end to it. To them He seems a thief as He “steals” what they consider theirs. They are badly misled.

But for us who watch and are prepared (pray God), the Lord comes not to take but to give. He comes to bestow and reward as we inherit His Kingdom.

Shocking – For the text speaks of the roaring heavens and of fire that overwhelms, and by it, all will be dissolved with fire.

Now here, too, the image, though shocking, should not alarm us if we are already on fire. At Pentecost, as well as at our individual baptism and confirmation, the Lord lit a fire within us in order to set us on fire, in order to  bring us up to the temperature of glory. Thus, for those in the Lord, the “weather” on that day will seem just fine.

The prophet Malachi speaks of the twofold experience of the Day of the Lord in this way: “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. Notice therefore, that for some the Day is burning with wrathful heat, but for the Just, it is a sunny day wherein the Sun (Son) of righteousness will bring warmth and healing (Mal 4:1-3).

An old spiritual refers to this verse sayingGod gave Noah the rainbow sign, no water but the fire next time. Thus God wants to get us ready by setting us on fire with His love and grace. If God is a Holy Fire then we must become fire ourselves in order to endure the day of His coming.

Showing – For the text says that all things will be revealed.

So it would seem that this fire burns away the masks many people wear, leaving them to be seen for what they really are. The Lord says, But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). And again He says, There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs (Lk 12:2-3).

Now even the just may wince at this, for all of us have a past and most would prefer that the past stay in the past. But I have sometimes seen, when I have visited 12-Step meetings, how many will recount vividly what they did when they were drinking. And they seem to do so with little shame and much laughter, for they share it with those who understand, those who have also been set free from the source of the problem. Perhaps, for the just, on that disclosing Day it will be like that.

But for those who are among the unrepentant, imagine the embarrassment and fear as their secrets, sins, and injustices are disclosed to those who are also unforgiving and unmerciful. A bad scene, really.

III. The PRESCRIPTION that is PROCLAIMED – The text says, Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire … Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

The text asks rhetorically, “What sort of persons ought you to be?” In a word, the answer is “fiery.” God has lit a fire within us to purify and refine us. Hence, on that day when the Lord will judge by fire, we will pass through. And though some final purifications (purgation) may take place, the fact that the fire has been kindled in us and has already been fanned into a flame, will mean purification, not destruction.

St Paul describes the just as going through the purgatorial fire that leads to purification rather than destruction in HellIf any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:12-15).

So the prescription for us is to let God set us afire now so as to purify us, making us more holy and devout. The fire now of His Holy Spirit is the only thing that can truly prepare us  and permit us to endure the day of His coming and be spared the “wrath to come” (cf 1 Thess 1:10; Matt 3:7; Romans 5:9; 1 Thess 5:9) when God will judge the world and everything in it by fire.

IV. The PERFECTION that is PROMISED – The text says, But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

This text presents the possibility that the created world will not so much be destroyed as purified by this fiery judgment of God. While the text may also signify a total destruction of all that now is and a replacement of it by new heavens and earth, it is also argued that the created world will instead be renewed rather than destroyed and replaced. This view would correspond with other texts (e.g., Isaiah 11 and Romans 8). For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:20-21).

Whatever the answer to the debate, the bottom line is that the new (or renewed) world will be a heaven wedded to earth in which the full righteousness of God will be manifest. Further, we will be without spot or blemish and will be at peace. Yes, God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days, hallelujah! And God’s fire purifies that which is holy, and burns away all that is lacking or unholy. God will restore all things in Christ!

The Dies Irae was originally written for the Second Sunday of Advent: