God in Winter: Pondering the Gift of Snow

It snowed yesterday in Washington, D.C. It wasn’t anything epic, just a decent six-incher.

There were drawbacks, of course: Mass attendance was poor, and I had to get up early to shovel a path to the doors. (Thank you, Lord, for the helpers you sent!) Despite the inconvenience, snow incites wonder and awe in me.

I realize that not everyone likes snow, but it is an amazing work of God. He takes a barren winter landscape and creates it anew. I can almost hear Him saying, “Behold, I make all things new!”

We often walk past the glory of God hardly noticing the gifts He provides every day. Tonight and tomorrow I don’t want to miss winter’s white gown. Maybe—just maybe—God can get a few of us here on the East Coast to stop for a moment, rest, and behold His glory.

Having to cancel a few plans because of the weather can provide a wonderful opportunity to become reacquainted with our family and even with our very self. Just looking out the window and marveling at the snow as it falls with hypnotic and calming steadiness can be a prayer—if we think of God who sends it. Wherever you are, don’t walk through life and miss the glory of God!

In the Book of Sirach there is a beautiful and poetic description of God and the majestic work He creates even in the “dead” of winter. Enjoy this excerpt from Sirach and reflect spiritually on the glory of God in winter.

A word from God drives on the north wind.
He scatters frost like so much salt;
It shines like blossoms on the thornbush.
Cold northern blasts he sends that turn the ponds to lumps of ice.
He freezes over every body of water,
And clothes each pool with a coat of mail.
He sprinkles the snow like fluttering birds.
Its shining whiteness blinds the eyes,
The mind is baffled by its steady fall.

(Sirach 43, selected verses)

The video below brings back childhood memories of the joy and wonder of snow; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: God in Winter: Pondering the Gift of Snow

The Fading Glories of the World, as Seen in an Attic

The photo at the right, which I took in the attic of our parish school, reminds me of the ancient Latin phrase Sic transit gloria mundi (Thus passes the glory of the world). These are the symbols of victory in sports events, much trained for and fought for. Once they were proudly displayed in the trophy case of the main hallway. Over time they were shifted behind the newer trophies, then relocated to less prominent locations in the school, then to the closet, and finally to the attic.

My old “letter jacket” from high school still hangs in my closet, but it stopped fitting me decades ago. I also have a few tarnished medals I won running the mile. They once graced my “letter sweater,” with the big red, white, and blue letters “GF” (Garfield High School) sewn on. That sweater is long gone. I once strutted in it proudly as the medals and gold bars gleamed; now the races that merited them are but dim memories.

Scripture says,

  • For we have here no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Hebrews 13:14).
  • For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:18).
  • As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; but the wind passes over it, and he is gone, and his place knows him no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him (Psalm 103:15-17).

There’s an old hymn that says,

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away.
Change and decay in all around I see.
O Lord who changes not, abide with me.

Yes, earth’s glories pass away, but the glory of the Lord endures forever. If we are faithful, it is into that glory that we will enter. The Lamb is the light of the City of God!

I suppose there is a sadness in seeing all those rusting and bent trophies in the school attic, but there is also something freeing. The transitory nature of earth’s glories helps us to be less obsessed with them. The praise of men has its place, but the praise of God and His rewards will last eternally.

Another old hymn says, “Only what you do for Christ will last.” Whatever glory the trophies in that attic once signified, only the self-discipline and teamwork—if done in Christ—will last.

These are just some things I thought about as I stumbled upon the faded glory of some old trophies.

Our God Sits High Yet Looks Low – A Meditation on Our Smallness

There is a rather humorous aspect of the story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis. You likely know the basic story, which begins with the men of that early time saying, Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves (Gen 11:4). It was an image of pride, of grandiosity. The humor comes in that although the great tower has a top that seems to reach up to the heavens, it is actually so small that God must come down from Heaven in order to see it. The text says, And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built (Gen 11:5).

Of course God, omniscient as He is, sees everything. The humor is for our benefit. It makes the point that man’s greatest, tallest, most prominent, and glorious work is in fact so puny that God must stoop in order to get a glimpse of it. God isn’t surprised by how great we are; what does alarm Him is how colossal our pride is. In response He has to humble us, by confusing our language and scattering us about the planet.

I recalled this story as I was on a long flight today. I noticed that even the tall buildings of some large cities were difficult to see from 30,000 feet. I also remembered the video below, which shows some amazing footage of Earth taken from the International Space Station (ISS). The narrator explains some of the features we are seeing and where on the globe we are looking as the pictures pass by. Although the view is amazing, what is even more remarkable is what we do not see: us!

It is astonishing that even though the ISS is passing over well-populated areas, there is no visual evidence that we even exist. No cities or buildings are visible, no planes streaking through the skies, even large-scale agricultural features seem lacking. There is only one mention of a color difference across the Great Salt Lake, due to a railroad bridge preventing lake circulation. The bridge itself, however, is not visible—only its effect.

We think of ourselves as so important, so impressive. Yet we cannot be seen even from low Earth orbit. It is true that at night our cities light the view, but during the day next to nothing says that we are even here. Even when I magnified the video on my 30-inch iMac screen, I can see no sign of us below.

Watching the video makes me think of Psalm 8:

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. … When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? Yet, You made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Yes, we are powerful (by God’s gift), yet so tiny as to be nearly invisible from a short distance into space. Our mighty buildings rise, but they rise from a speck of space dust called Earth, which revolves around a fiery point of light called the Sun. Yet our huge sun is but one point of light in the Milky Way galaxy of over 100 billion other stars. And the Milky Way galaxy, so huge that its size is nearly incomprehensible to us, is but one of an estimated 200 billion galaxies.

What is man that you are mindful of him? (Psalm 8:4) Jesus says of us: And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered (Matt 10:30). God, who knows the numbers of the stars and calls them by name, also knows the number of hairs on each of our heads. Nothing escapes Him.

There’s an old preacher’s saying that “We serve a God who sits high, yet looks low.” Indeed, we should never forget how tiny we are and never cease to marvel that God knit us together in our mother’s womb and sustains every fiber of our being. We cannot even be seen from low Earth orbit. Yet God, who sees all, looks into our very heart. Though tiny, we are wonderfully, fearfully made (Psalm 139) and God has put all things under our feet.

The Testimony of Creation to its Creator

On this “World Day of Creation” we ponder the glory and power of God in what he has made. One of the painful paradoxes of our time is that our scientific insights have increased unbelief rather than belief. Perhaps as never before we have come to know the astonishing interplay of creation at every level. From the smallest parts of atoms to the farthest reaches of space, from the complex interactions within cells to the almost perfect sweep of earth’s orbit, everything seems gloriously orchestrated so that we can live and grow. Even in the upheavals of storms, such as we have recently experienced, and other natural disasters, God and creation are often up to something good.

Just a simple thing like photosynthesis silently serves life. Plants take in the carbon dioxide we exhale and return the oxygen we need. Beneath us, the earth is a cauldron that occasionally shakes or erupts, but those very eruptions release gases that help sustain our atmosphere. Earth’s orbit is nearly circular; the distance between the Earth and the Sun differs only by about 3 percent between its closest and farthest points. This relatively constant position moderates our temperature. This is in contrast to the other planets in our solar system, whose elliptical orbits are far more eccentric. The moon beautifully regulates our tides. The asteroid belt keeps the dangerous chunks from regularly raining down on our planet; Jupiter and Saturn are catching comets as well. I could go on, but at every level—inner space, the ecosystem, and outer space—everything works together in a beautiful symphony.

There is an old spiritual that says, “Over my head I hear music in the air, there must be a God somewhere.”

The whole universe shouts, I was designed and I am governed!

Recently I put together a video for use in a Bible study I was conducting. The song that is used speaks beautifully to the testimony of creation to its Creator:

The spacious firmament on high,
with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame,
their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
does his Creator’s power display,
and publishes to every land
the work of an almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail
the moon takes up the wondrous tale,
and nightly to the listening earth
repeats the story of her birth;
whilst all the stars that round her burn,
and all the planets in their turn,
confirm the tidings, as they roll,
and spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
move round the dark terrestrial ball;
what though nor real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found;
in reason’s ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice,
forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

Enjoy the video.

Learning to See – A Homily for the Feast of the Transfiguration

The Transfiguration, Raphael (1520)

The Feast of the Transfiguration is ultimately about vision. The Lord brought Peter, James, and John up a high mountain in order that they might come to see. Even the word that describes this day bespeaks vision. It is from the Latin transfiguratione. Trans means “across,” and by extension, “change.” Figura means “shape” or “form.” The suffix -ation creates a noun from the underlying verb. Putting it all together, transfiguration was the process by which Christ changed form or appearance. He gave them a glimpse of His true glory. He allowed them to see across (trans) to the other shore, to the true glory of Christ.

So the Feast of the Transfiguration is about vision. Have you seen the glory of Christ? Have you glimpsed God’s glory? Have you looked across to the other shore? It is essential for us to have this experience, otherwise the discouragements and disappointments of life can easily overwhelm us. Only when we glimpse the glory and experience the joy of God can we truly say that our sufferings are more than worth it, that the sufferings of this world cannot be compared to the glory that awaits (Rom 8:18), that our momentary afflictions are producing for us a weight of eternal glory beyond compare (2 Cor 4:17). Have you glimpsed the glory of God? Is this something you even expect to experience? We ought to ask for this wondrous gift because it is essential for us.

Now of course heavenly visions are not something we order as we would a pizza. Although we can and must ask God for this vision, we must also understand that there are things God does to give us this vision, to make this vision grow and sharpen. Notice in the Gospel for today’s Mass that there are four basic ways in which God ushers in this vision, clarifies it, grants it, and helps it to grow:

The CLIMB Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up a mountain to pray. The other Gospels describe this as a “high” mountain.

Tradition designates Mt. Tabor as the place of the Transfiguration. This is no small hill; it is quite a climb to the top! After the long drive to the top in a bus with a special transmission designed for the climb, the view of the Jezreel Valley is like what you would see from an airplane. It probably took the four of them a day—maybe two—to get to the top on foot. They must have been hardy men to make such a climb; they probably had to carry water and other provisions up with them as well.

The point is that the vision they experience comes only after a difficult climb. In our own life, suffering and difficulties usually bring about new vision, open new vistas, and bring deeper understanding. Suffering is not something we enjoy, to be sure, but it is part of the climb.

There is an old gospel song that says, “I’m coming up on the rough side of the mountain!” The paradox announced by the song is that it is easier to climb on the rough side of the mountain; that’s where progress is possible. The smooth side provides little footing and is more dangerous. Although we like a smooth and pleasant life, it actually makes for a more dangerous climb. At the top there is a vision to be had, but to get us there the Lord often makes us climb up the rough side of the mountain. This is what it often takes to give us vision.

The CLARIFICATIONWhile he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.

I have chosen the word “clarification” to do double duty here. On the one hand it refers to brilliant glory shining forth from Christ; the Latin clarus means “bright” and hence clarification refers to Jesus’ shining splendor. I also use the word in the more common sense of making things clear.

Notice that Moses and Elijah are present and conversing with the Lord. While they are historical persons, they also represent the Law and the Prophets. In other words, they represent Scripture.

Part of what the Lord needs to do for us in order to give us heavenly vision is to teach us His Word. As we grow in knowledge of Scripture, our vision grows, our understanding deepens, and we see things differently. Immersion in the Scriptures disposes us for heavenly vision. Notice also how Moses and Elijah (personifying Scripture) give the vision for what Christ is about to do in His final journey to Jerusalem. The vision is of a new Exodus. Just as Moses led the ancient people out of slavery in Egypt by the Blood of the Lamb at Passover and the parted waters (baptism) of the Red Sea, so now Jesus would lead His people out (an exodus) from slavery and sin by the blood of the Lamb (Jesus is the Lamb of God) and the baptismal waters flowing from His parted and pierced side.

Do you see what Scripture does? It gives us vision. It sheds light on the meaning of our life. Scripture is our story. It shows again and again that God can make a way out of no way, that He can do anything but fail. Do you want to see the heavens open and the glory of God be revealed? Then immerse yourself in Scripture. Through Scripture, God clarifies all things.

The CONTEMPLATIONPeter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying.

Now comes the vision! Throughout the difficult climb and suffering, and through immersion in His word, God often grants us this vision. When we see His glory we become fully awake. So great is this glory that Peter, James, and John do not know what to say! Those who have every really experienced a glimpse of God’s glory know that it cannot be reduced to words. It is ineffable, unsayable, unspeakable! There is an old saying: “Those who know, do not say. Those who say, do not know.” Peter is babbling at this point and suggests building booths or tents to capture this glory. He probably had in mind the Feast of Booths, wherein the Jewish people remembered the great Exodus, the time in the desert, and the giving of the Law. It was one of the great festivals of the year. Hence Peter’s suggestion is a way of saying, “Let’s celebrate this! Let’s extend the time in a week-long feast!” But Peter needs to understand that this is but a brief glimpse. There are still troubles ahead and another mountain to climb (Golgotha). For now, though the vision is wonderful.

So, too, for us who are privileged to get a glimpse of glory. It does not mean that we are fully in Heaven yet. For, us, too there are other mountains to climb and valleys to cross. But oh, the glimpse of glory; do not forget it! Let it sustain you in difficult times as it must have sustained Jesus in His passion.

The COMMANDWhile [Peter] was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

Now comes the great glory cloud (the shekinah) that overshadows them. This vision has been wonderful, but God has more than bright lights to show them. The vision He confers gives direction as well as light. His direction is clear: Listen to my Son. Not only does this instruction complete the vision but it also ensures greater vision in the future.

If we obey Jesus Christ, we will see greater and greater things (Jn 1:50). If we follow Him, He will lead us to the light and we will see all things by it. Note this, though: where Jesus leads is not always easy. In order to obey the Father’s command that they listen to Jesus, they are going to have to accept Christ’s instruction that they follow Him to Jerusalem and the cross. Only in this way will they see all things by the light of Easter glory.

Do you want to see? Then be willing to make the climb with Jesus. He gives us vision if we climb. He gives us vision if we are immersed in His Word, which is Scripture and Church teaching. If we but take up our cross and follow Him through His passion, death, and resurrection, His greatest vision lies ahead for us. Happy Feast of the Transfiguration! May God grant us vision.