Consider the commercial below. It says a lot about how we can conceive of Christ, and the desire of some to refashion Him. Perhaps we do well to look at it by analyzing the dramatis personae (cast of characters) and weaving in the plot.
As the scene opens there are three women who come upon a car belonging to one of them. The car has been damaged and this little crisis sets the stage for the different notions of the sort of savior who is needed. Let’s look at each person in the drama and see what we can learn:
The woman in the center is a sensible Christian. She is the owner of the car. She is unfazed by the damage to her car; she knows exactly what to do. She summons her insurance agent, who appears as if out of nowhere. She trusts him to handle everything and even encourages her friends to call on him.
The insurance agent is a Christ figure. He wears a red tie, reminding us of the blood that was shed for us. He has a book in his hand in which everything is recorded. He arrives not only to bring help but to make a judgement. He consults his book and gets to work (cfRev 20:12ff). His name is Rich; Christ is surely “rich” in grace (cf2 Cor 8:9). Later on in the ad he will rebuke the darkness.
The woman on the left is a worldly Christian. Although the Christ figure stands in her midst, she ignores him, wanting to see if she can come up with her own helper, a savior of her own making. It would seem that Rich, the Christ figure already standing there, does not suit her fancy. She wants one who is cute and more “sensitive.” An unchallenging agent is what she wants, one who will be more soothing, surely not one dressed in a business suit (as is Rich, the Christ figure with the red tie, who means business).
The woman on the right is a carnal Christian. She is lustful, impetuous, and daring; she wants a man who is similar. She hardly notices the Christ figure, except to reject him with a sneer. She calls for her “savior,” one with a dark side, and he appears on the scene. He is a rogue, a thug; lustful, arrogant, irresponsible, and immature. He is the perfect projection of her carnal, lustful, fallen nature, and you can see it by the look in her eyes.
In the background, the Christ figure just keeps on working, as if to say, My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working (Jn 5:17).
Now the carnal thug is sitting on the car. Not only is he not helping, he’s making things worse. So the Christ figure says to him, “Hey, Darkside, get your feet off the car.” It’s as if he’s saying, “Be gone, Satan.”
Yes, there it is: the light rebuking the darkness. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Which one are you in this story: the carnal Christian, the worldly Christian, or the sensible Christian? What sort of a savior are you looking for?
Given our brief sampling of the Book of Ruth in daily Mass, perhaps a reflection is in order.
The detailed background to the text is too lengthy to go into here, but a few points will help. The story features three main characters: Boaz, Ruth, and Naomi. Boaz is clearly a picture (or “type”) of Christ. He was born and lives in Bethlehem; he ultimately acts as Ruth’s “kinsman-redeemer” by rescuing her from poverty and paying the price so as to cancel her debt. This, of course, is just what Christ does for us: He redeems us by His blood, canceling our poverty and debt. Ruth is a picture of the individual soul in need of Christ’s redemption and mercy. Naomi plays several roles in the book, but in the passage we will consider here she is a picture of the Church; she advises Ruth in what to do and draws her to Boaz, her redeemer.
Consider the following text and then let us see how Naomi symbolizes the Church.
Naomi said to Ruth, “Is not Boaz … a kinsman of ours? Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.” “I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered (Ruth 3:2-5).
The advice that Naomi gives to Ruth is very much in line with the instruction that our Mother the Church gives us. In our poverty and under the debt of our sin, we are exhorted by the Church to seek our “Boaz,” who is Christ. (I am indebted to Rev. Adrian Rogers for supplying the alliterative headings below. They are his; the rest of the text is mine).
Be Firmly Convinced – Naomi says, Is not Boaz … a kinsman of ours? Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Ruth knows her poverty, her pain, and her debt; so does Naomi. She exhorts Ruth to seek Boaz because he is near and can help. Boaz is wealthy and thus has the power to save Ruth, to draw her out of her overwhelming poverty; he has the capacity to cancel Ruth’s debt. She is to seek him at the threshing floor, where he is preparing and providing the bread that will sustain her. She must go, firmly convinced that Boaz will love her and save her.
So, too, does the Church exhort us: Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near (Is. 55:6). Yes, there is one among us, a near kinsman, who is not ashamed to call us his brethren (Heb 2:11); His name is Jesus. As God, He has the power to save us and to cancel our debt. Cast your cares on him, for he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). Jesus is at the threshing floor of His Church, preparing a banquet for you in the sight of your foe (Psalm 23:5). The grain He is winnowing is the Eucharistic Bread of His own flesh. Yes, says the Church, come to Jesus, firmly convinced of His love and His power to save.
Be Freshly Cleansed – Next, Naomi simply says, “Wash.” In other words, the first step in finding help from Boaz is to be freshly cleansed.
So, too, does the Church draw us to Christ with the exhortation to wash. Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Yes, the love of God will be poured forth on us and the cancellation of our debt will take place as we are cleansed of our sins.
Here are some other texts in which the Church—our Naomi, our Mother—exhorts us to be washed:
● Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded (James 4:8). ● Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God (2 Cor 7:1). ● Wash and make yourselves clean (Is 1:15). ● Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the vessels of the LORD (Is 52:11). ● And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name (Acts 22:16). ● Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Heb 10:22).
Be Fragrantly Consecrated – Naomi says to Ruth, “and perfume yourself.” In other words, make yourself nice to be near; Come with an aroma that is sweet and pure.
So, too, does the Church, our Naomi, exhort us to be fragrantly consecrated. The fragrance we are called to is that of a holy life, which we receive in baptism. Our life in God should be like a sweet incense or perfume. Consider some of the following texts that the Church gives us:
● Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph 5:2). ● For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing (2 Cor 2:15). ● [The groom (Christ) speaks to his beloved:] You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices (Song 4:12). ● Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps (Ex 30:7).
Be Fitly Clothed – Naomi says to Ruth, “and put on your best clothes.”
Our Mother the Church also advises us to be fitly clothed. For a Christian, this means to be adorned in the righteousness that comes to us in Christ by baptism. In the baptismal liturgy, the Church says to the newly baptized of the white garment that he or she wears, You have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ. Receive this baptismal garment, and bring it unstained to the Judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you may have everlasting life.
In other words, be fitly clothed. Wear well the garment of righteousness that Christ died to give you. Scripture, too, speaks of the garment in which we are to be fitly clothed:
● I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels (Is 61:10). ● Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints (Rev 19:7).
Be Fully Committed – Naomi continues, Then go down to the threshing floor, … until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down.
In other words, she is telling Ruth to place herself at the feet of her redeemer. This action of Ruth’s was a way of saying to Boaz, I put myself under your protection; I am fully committed to you.
The Church bids us to do the same: go to the threshing floor, to that place where the threshed and winnowed bread becomes the Eucharist.
Beneath or near every Catholic altar is the cross; on that cross are the uncovered feet of Jesus Christ.
The most sacred place on earth is at the feet of Jesus Christ. The Church, our Naomi, bids us to gather each Sunday at the altar, beneath the uncovered feet of Christ. The Church says to us just what Naomi said to Ruth: Place yourself at the feet of your Redeemer.
Be Faithfully Compliant – Naomi says to Ruth, confidently and succinctly, He will tell you what to do.
Here, too, the voice of the Church echoes what Mother Mary said long ago regarding her Son: Do whatever he tells you (Jn 2:5). How can our Naomi, the Church, say anything less or anything else? The Church has one message: Do whatever Christ, your redeemer, tells you.
So Naomi is a picture of the Church, Boaz a picture of Christ, and Ruth a picture of the soul in need of salvation.
How does the story end? I’m tempted to tell you to read it for yourself, but since Boaz is a picture of Christ you already know the ending. Ruth, firmly convinced, freshly cleansed, fragrantly consecrated, and fitly clothed, fully commits herself to Boaz and is at his feet. Boaz, who saw and loved Ruth before she ever saw or loved him (cf Ruth 2:5), arises and takes her as his bride, paying off all her debt and giving her a new life. Sound familiar? It is the story of salvation, if we but have eyes to see it.
One of the more puzzling aspects of demonology is the freedom that Satan and demons appear to have in roaming the earth, causing trouble. If the condemned are consigned to Hell for all eternity, why is Satan allowed to wander about outside of Hell? Isn’t he supposed to be suffering in Hell along with his minions and the other condemned? Further, it doesn’t seem that he is suffering one bit, but rather having a grand time wreaking havoc on the earth. How do we answer such questions?
Some texts in Scripture do speak of Satan and the fallen angels as being cast into Hell:
God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment (2 Peter 2:4).
And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day (Jude 1:6).
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, [likely a reference to the age of the Church and the going forth of the Gospel to all the nations] and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. (Rev 20:1-3).
Yet other texts speak of the fallen angels (demons) as being cast down to the earth:
But the dragon was not strong enough, and no longer was any place found in heaven for him and his angels. And the great dragon was hurled down—the ancient serpent called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him (Rev 12:8-9).
The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it” (Job 1:7).
Thus, though consigned to Hell, it would seem that some or all of the demons have the ability to roam the earth as well. Demons, however, do not have bodies and thus do not “roam the earth” the way we do. Their “roaming” is more an indication of their capacity to influence than their ability to move from one place to another. Further, Satan and demons are described as being “chained,” “in prison,” or “in darkness.” This is likely a way of indicating that their power to influence or “roam” is limited in some way. This does not say that they do not wield considerable power, just that it is not unbounded. If you think it is bad now, just imagine what it will be like when their power is unchained!
Near the end of the world, Scripture says that Satan will be wholly loosed and will come forth to deceive the nations for a while; after this brief period, he and the other fallen angels will be definitively cast into the lake of fire and their influence forever ended.
And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, … their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Rev 20:7-10).
So for now, demons do have influence, but it is limited. At the end, their full fury will be unleashed, but this is only to bring about their final, complete defeat, after which they will be forever sequestered in the lake of fire.
Why God permits some demons the freedom to wander about the earth is mysterious. We know that God permits evil as a “necessary” condition of freedom for the rational creatures He has created. Angels and humans have free, rational souls; if our freedom is to mean anything, God must allow that some abuse it, even becoming sources of evil and temptation to others.
For us, this life amounts to a kind of test: God permits some degree of evil to flourish yet at the same time offers us the grace to overcome it. Further, there is the tradition implied in Scripture that for every angel that fell there were two who did not (Rev 12:4). Thus, we live not merely under the influence of demons, but also under the influence and care of angels.
On account of temptations and trials, our “yes” to God has greater dignity and merit than it would if we lived in a sin-free paradise.
As to Satan having “a good time” wreaking havoc, it would be too strong say that demons and Satan do not suffer at all. Demons, like human beings, suffer both victories and defeats; there are outcomes that delight them and those that disappoint and anger them.
Anyone who has ever attended an exorcism can attest that demons do suffer great deal, especially when the faithful pray and make pious use of sacraments and sacramentals (e.g., holy water, relics, blessed medals, rosaries). Faith and love are deeply disturbing to demons.
We all do well in the current dispensation to remember St. John Vianney’s teaching that Satan is like a chained dog: He may bark loudly and froth menacingly, but he can only bite us if we get too close. Keep your distance!
While these videos are light-hearted, their message is serious:
The Feast of the Transfigurationis 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 CLARIFICATION – While 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 CONTEMPLATION – Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying.
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 COMMAND – While [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.
We in the West live in a place and at a time in which almost every burden of manual labor has been eliminated. Not only that, but creature comforts abound. Everything from air conditioning to hair conditioning, from fast food to high speed internet, from to indoor plumbing to outdoor grilling, from instant computer downloads to instant coffee machines. You don’t even have write letters anymore, just press send and a text or email is delivered nearly instantaneously. Yet despite all this it would seem that we still keenly experience life’s burdens, demonstrated by the widespread recourse to psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs.
It is increasingly clear that serenity is “an inside job.” Merely improving the outside and amassing creature comforts is not enough. A large fluffy pillow may cushion the body, but apparently not the soul.
Jesus wants us to work on the inside and presents us a teaching in today’s Gospel on being increasingly freed of our burdens. He doesn’t promise a trouble free life, but that if we will let Him go to work we can grow in freedom and serenity. Jesus gives a threefold teaching on how to do this: by filiation, imitation, and simplification.
I. Filiation – At that time Jesus exclaimed, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”
Note how Jesus contrasts the “wise and learned” from the “little ones.” In so doing, Jesus commends to us a childlike simplicity before our heavenly Father, our Abba, our “Daddy-God.” This is the experience of divine filiation, of being a child of God, of being one of God’s “little ones.” The wise, learned, and clever often miss what God is trying to do and say, and because of this, they feel anxious and stressed.
It is possible for a person to study a great deal, but if he doesn’t pray he isn’t going to get very far. The Greek word translated here as “revealed” is ἀπεκάλυψας (apekalupsas), which more literally means “to unveil.” Only God can take away the veil and He does so for the humble and simple. Thus Jesus commends to our understanding the need for childlike simplicity and prayerful humility.
Half of our problem in life, and the overwhelming cause of our stress, is that we think too much and pray too little. We have big brains but small hearts, and so we struggle to understand God instead of just trusting Him. Though our reason is our crowning glory, we must never forget how to be little children in the presence of God our Father. No matter how much we think we know, it isn’t really very much. Jesus’ first teaching is filiation, of embracing a childlike simplicity before our Daddy-God.
What does it mean to be childlike? Consider how little children are humble. They are always asking “Why?” and are unashamed to admit that they do not know. Children are also filled with wonder and awe; they are fascinated by the littlest and biggest of things. They know they depend on their parents and run to them instinctively when they’ve been hurt or at any sign of trouble. They trust their parents completely. Children are always asking, seeking, and knocking.
Thus Jesus teaches us that the first step to lessening our burdens isto have a childlike simplicity with the Father, wherein we are humble before him, acknowledging our need for Him and complete dependence upon Him. He teaches us to have a simplicity that is humble enough to admit that we don’t know much and want to learn from Him, a wonder and awe at all that God has done, and an instinct to run to God when we are hurt or in trouble. Above all, Jesus teaches us by this image to grow each day in our trust of Abba, and in our confidence to ask Him for everything we need. Scripture says, You have not because you ask not (James 4:2). An old spiritual says, “I love the Lord; he heard my cry; and pitied every groan. Long as I live and troubles rise; I’ll hasten to his throne.”
Yes, run, with childlike simplicity and trust.
So here is the first teaching of Jesus on letting go of our burdens: grow in childlike simplicity and trust before God, your loving Father and Abba.
II. Imitation – “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest … for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.” Jesus commends to us two characteristics of Himself that (if we embrace them) will give us rest and relief from our burdens. He says that He is meek and humble of heart.
What does it mean to be meek? The Greek word used is πραΰς (praus), but there is some debate as to how it is best interpreted. Aristotle defined “praotes” (meekness) as the middle ground between too much anger and not enough. Hence, the meek are those who have authority over their anger.
However, many biblical scholars contend that Jesus used this word most often as a synonym for being “poor in spirit.” What does it mean to be poor in spirit? It means to be humble and dependent upon God. By extension, it means that our treasure is not here. We are poor to this world; our treasure is with God and the things waiting for us in Heaven. This is a source of serenity for us, for when we become poor to this world, when we become less obsessed with success, power, and possessions, many of our anxieties go away. To the poor in spirit, the wealth of this world is as nothing. You can’t steal from a man who has nothing. A poor man is less anxious because he has less to lose, less at stake. He is free from this world’s obsessions and the fears and burdens they generate. Jesus calls us to accept his example and to grow in our experience of being poor in spirit.
Jesus also says that He is humble of heart. The Greek word use is ταπεινός (tapeinos), meaning lowly or humble, and referring to one who depends upon the Lord rather than himself. We have already discussed this at length above, but simply note here that the Lord Jesus is inviting us to learn this from Him and to receive it as a gift. The Lord can do this for us. If we will learn it from Him and receive it, so many of our burdens and so much of our anxiety will be lifted.
Here, then, is the second teaching Jesus offers us so that we will see life’s burdens lessened. He teaches us to learn from Him and to receive from Him the gifts of being poor in spirit and humble of heart. The serenity that comes from embracing these grows with each day, for we are no longer bound by the shackles of this world. It cannot intimidate us because its wealth and power do not entice us; we do not fear their loss. We learn to trust that God will see us through and provide us with what we need.
III. Simplification – Take my yoke upon you … For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. The most important word in this sentence is this one: “my.” Jesus says, my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
What is a yoke? Essentially “yoke” is used here as a symbol for the cross. A yoke is a wooden truss that makes it easier to carry a heavy load by distributing the weight along a wider part of the body, or by allowing the weight to be shared by two or more people or animals. In the picture at left, the woman is able to carry the water more easily with the weight across her shoulders rather than in the narrow section of her hands. This eases the load by involving the whole body more evenly. Yokes are also used to join two animals and help them work together in pulling a load.
What is Jesus saying? First, He is saying that He has a yoke for us, that is, He has a cross for us. He is not saying that there is no burden in following Him. There is a cross that He allows, for a reason and for a season.
Easy? Jesus says that the cross He has for us is “easy.” The Greek word χρηστὸς (chrestos) is better translated as “well-fitting,” “suitable,” or even “useful.” The Lord is saying that the yoke He has for us is suited to us; it is well-fitting; it has been carefully chosen so as to be useful for us. God knows that we need some crosses in order to grow and He knows what they are. He also knows what we can bear and what we are ready for. Yes, His yoke for us is well-fitting.
Note again that little word: “my.” The cross or yoke Jesus has for us is well-suited and useful for us. The problem comes when we start adding things of our own doing to the weight. We put weight upon our shoulders that God never put there and did not intend for us. We make decisions without asking God. We undertake projects, launch careers, accept promotions, and even enter marriages without ever discerning if God wants this for us. Sure enough, before long our life is complicated and burdensome; we feel pulled in many different directions. But this is not the “my yoke” to which Jesus referred; this is largely the yoke of our own making. Of course it is not easy or well-fitting; Jesus didn’t make it.
Don’t blame God, simplify. Be very careful before accepting commitments and making big decisions. Ask God. It may be a good thing, but not good for you. It may help others, but destroy you. Seek the Lord’s will. Ask advice from a spiritually mature person if necessary. Consider your state in life; consider the tradeoffs. Balance the call to be generous with the call to proper stewardship of your time, talent, and treasure. Have proper priorities. It is amazing how many people put their career before their vocation. They accept promotions and special assignments, thinking more about money and advancement than their spouse and children. Sure enough, the burdens increase and the load gets heavy. This is what happens when we don’t ask God or even consider how a proposed course of action might affect the most precious and important things in our lives.
So stop “yoking around.” Jesus’ final advice to us is to “take my yoke,” but only that. Forsake all others. Simplify. Take only His yoke. If you do that, your burdens will be lighter. Jesus tells us to come and learn from Him. He will not put heavy burdens on us. He will set our heart on fire with love. And then, whatever yoke He does have for us will be a pleasure for us to bear. What makes the difference is love. Love lightens every load.
There is a specific depiction of Christ known as Christ Pantocrator. It was widespread in the ancient world and still is today. The title “Pantocrator” is most often translated as “The Almighty One” or “The Omnipotent One.” It comes from the Greek words παντός (pantos, meaning all) and κράτος (kratos, meaning strength, might, or power).
In the particular image at right, Christ is seated (as a sign of authority). In many of the specific images he holds a book, sometimes open and sometimes closed. If the book is open, there can be a few of many different texts displayed. In some of the images there is an interesting juxtaposition of texts meant to provoke thought and lead to both catechesis and repentance.
Among the more interesting and provocative juxtapositions of texts is the one commonly used in the Neocatechumenal communities (see above right). On the left-hand page of the open book is the Gospel from today’s mass (Tue. of 11th Week), in which Jesus says, “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44). On the right is the one in which Jesus says, “I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:7).
Provocative, indeed—and a sober call repentance! It is hard to see how we could hope to enter Heaven with hatred or vengeful anger for our enemies in our heart. With that eating away at our heart it wouldn’t be Heaven! Therefore, we should consider our final end and beg for the grace to love our enemies by praying for them, working for their conversion, and supplying their basic human needs (cf Rom 12:20; Prov. 25:21). Our goal is to be at one with them in Heaven, and even here in this life if it be possible and rooted in the truth.
Jesus sets apart the love of one’s enemies as the “acid test” for Christians:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:44-48).
There’s nothing like a passage such as this one to get us on our knees asking for grace and mercy! Indeed, we will surely fail if we seek to love our enemies only through the power of our own flesh or from our own fallen nature.
Jesus is coming soon and He will look for this fruit in us. All the more reason, then, to ask it of Him:
Good Jesus, who alone can save me from my hard heart, grant me the grace to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me. I am too weak, self-centered, and thin-skinned to do it on my own. I consent, good and merciful Jesus, to this work of yours in me. Accomplish this, Lord, by your grace!
I must say that in the past I was not always as on board as I should have been when it came to the Feast of the Sacred Heart. As a man, I have struggled especially with some of the Sacred Heart images of past years, especially from the 1940s into the 1970s that, frankly, made Jesus look like a bearded lady. Deep red lips, baby soft skin, “come-hither” look, “feminine” head tilt, long slender fingers, and strangely bent wrists all seemed too feminine for me. See for example the image here: Sacred Heart. Frankly, the feminized portrayal of Jesus made me cringe. “Maybe this works for some,” I thought, “but not for me.” Women are beautiful, but men shouldn’t look like women.
Then too, the whole notion of the heart has become rather distorted. The heart is thought of by most as the domain of sentimental feelings and romance. Stronger biblical notions of the heart were lost in favor of these sentimental and romantic ones. So there was Jesus, pointing to His heart to indicate His love, but I experienced it through the current notion of sentimentality and romance. While the true teaching on the Sacred Heart was much richer and more proper, the version that reached me was distorted and had little appeal.
In recent years, I have tried to recover a more proper notion of the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I have done this by coming to understand the heart in a more biblical way. I have also done this by learning to understand the heart of Christ in a stronger way that is more helpful for me.
Recovering a more biblical understanding of the heart – In celebrating the heart of the Lord Jesus, we ought to see it in a more biblical way. In the biblical world, the heart did not exclude feelings, but feelings were thought of as more located in the gut. Things such as tenderness, mercy, love, and emotions were spoken of in terms more visceral than we are comfortable with today. Most of our modern translations do not render the Hebrew and Greek references, which speak of the “bowels of mercy” in God or in the human person, literally. Most modern translations render the Hebrew “bowels of mercy” as “tender mercy” and expressions such as “my bowels are moved within me” as “my heart is moved within me.” We just don’t talk about bowels today in polite company!
I say this to indicate that for the biblical writers, feelings, sentiment, and mercy were not usually located in the heart but elsewhere. You can see this if you get a rather literal rendering of the Hebrew and Greek such as the Douay Rheims or Young’s Literal Translation and refer to passages such as these: Gen 43:30; 1 Kings 3:26; Song 5:4; Is 63:15; Jer 31:20; Lam 2:11; 2 Cr 6:12; Phil 1:8; Phil 2:1; Col 3:12. While feelings such as anxiety, fear, romance, and tenderness were pondered in the heart, their real “place” was shifted down one level to the “gut” or viscera. We do have some vestiges of these ancient notions in expressions like “gut reaction” or “butterflies in my stomach.”
So what then IS the biblical notion of the heart? While not wholly excluding feelings, the “heart” in the Scriptures is the deepest part of us; it is where we “live.” It is where we deliberate, where our memories and thoughts are. It is where we process feelings and events. It is where we ponder what to do and then decide. It is where we reflect and consider the direction of our life and most deeply understand who we are and how we are related to God and others. It is the place of our decisions and where we set priorities. In short, it is the place where “I am” in the deepest sense. Most moderns locate this in the brain (or mind, a word that the Scriptures often use for a similar understanding), but the ancients located all this in the heart.
A broader and stronger notion of the heart – Hence, as we ponder the Heart of Christ on this feast of the Sacred Heart we do not wholly exclude His tender feelings for us. But we must also broaden our notions of what it means to celebrate the Heart of Christ. The Heart of Christ is where He lives and is most essentially His very self. Hence His human heart is a heart that first of all worships and obeys His Father. It is in His heart that He ponders His Father’s will and sets out to obey it. It was in His heart that He set his face like flint for Jerusalem (Lk 9:51) and said to this apostles, “the world must know that I love the Father and that I do just as the Father has commanded me” (John 14:31). It is in His heart that He decides to lay down His life for us: No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father (Jn 10:18). Isaiah had said of Jesus, Oblatus est quia ipse voluit (He was offered because he himself willed it) (Is 53:7). It is ultimately by Christ’s obedience that we are saved, and this was determined in His heart. His love was manifested by His decision to both obey His Father and die for us. This is deeper than emotion or feeling, though it does not exclude them. When the solider thrust a lance in His chest and heaved it open, there was revealed the human heart of Christ who resolutely chose to save us. There was also revealed the very heart of God, who loves us infinitely.
A heart tender but also strong – On this Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we celebrate not just that He loves us in an emotional sense, but even more, that He decided to die for us. He freely pondered what our salvation would cost Him and took up the cross. He chose to obey the Father for us. His love is tender but it is also decisive. The warmth of His love is sure but the wounds of His obedience also speak of a love that is strong and enduring unto the end.
Sentiment has its place but (perhaps because I am a man) I need more. On this Feast of the Sacred Heart, I am glad to point to a love that is strong, obedient, loyal, and sacrificial; a love that engages the battle on my behalf and summons me to follow; a love that is not just visceral but is of the true and deep Heart of Christ, a heart tender but also strong.
This video has many images of Jesus (some better than others). Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!
The Feast Yesterday of the Presentation of Jesus was a rich fare. In my homily I did not have time to cover all I wanted to. Frankly, the moment of the Presentation was one of the most dramatic in Biblical history, and yet almost no one noticed. Lets consider this astonishing moment.
The first part of this post is review for those of you who read regularly. To skip to the newer insights goo down to the red line.
Joseph and Mary have ascended to Jerusalem to fulfill two ancient mandates: the Rite of Purification for a woman after childbirth and the Rite of Presentation of their firstborn male child, Jesus. These rites set the stage for a dramatic moment in Biblical history, a moment missed by almost everyone. We shall explore this dramatic moment shortly but first a little background.
Jewish law considered that, after a woman gave birth she became ritually impure for a period. While this seems unjust to us, the Jewish notion was rooted in the flow of blood that occurred in childbirth and just about anyone who came in contact with blood incurred a ritual uncleanness for a period of time. The Book of Leviticus has this to say regarding a woman who has given birth:
The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding. ” ‘When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the LORD to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.” ‘These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’ ” (Lev 12:1-8).
As you can see, there is a fairly negative concept at work here from a modern viewpoint. A woman becomes ritually unclean by giving birth. This was due not to birth per se but to the flow of blood and/or other fluids at birth. Even more distressing to modern notions is that a woman who gave birth to a daughter was considered ritually unclean for even longer! Alas, it is well that the power of the Church to bind and loose has freed us from this thinking. Keep in mind that this was ceremonial law, not moral law and, hence, the Church is not setting aside immutable moral law in abrogating such notions of ritual impurity.
Obedient to the Law – Nevertheless Joseph and Mary, obedient to law make the dramatic ascent to the Temple, the Son of God carried in Mary’s arms. It is forty days since the birth of the Lord in fulfillment of the Law.
As they ascend the glorious steps to the Temple Mount they also fulfil another requirement of the Law:
You are to give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD. Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons. “In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’ (Ex 13:12-15)
But something even more dramatic takes place here. To understand what it is, let’s look back to 587 BC.
The Babylonians had invaded Jerusalem and the unthinkable had happened. The Holy City was destroyed and, along with it, the Temple of God. Inside the Temple something even more precious than the building had been housed: the Ark of the Covenant.
Recall what the Ark of Covenant was in the Old Testament. It was a box of Acacia wood, covered in gold. Inside it were placed: the two tablets on which God inscribed the Ten Commandments. Also in it was the staff of Aaron, and a vial of the Manna. More importantly, in this box, this ark, dwelt the very Presence of God in Israel. God mysteriously dwelt within, much as is the case today in our understanding of the tabernacle in our Catholic Churches.
The Lost Ark – Incredibly however, the Ark was lost when the Babylonians destroyed the temple and Jerusalem in 587 BC. It was never found again. Some thought Jeremiah had hid it in the Mountains, others that the priests had hastily hid it in the maze of caves beneath the Temple Mount. Others argue it was taken to Ethiopia. But in the end, the Ark had gone missing.
Empty Temple – When the Temple was rebuilt some eighty years later, the Holy of Holies was restored but the Ark was missing. The High Priest still performed the yearly ritual and entered the Holy of Holies, but the room was empty. Some argued for a spiritual presence in the Temple, but in fact the Ark and the certain presence of God were missing in the Temple after 587 BC. The Ark was never found and returned there. Something, someone, was missing. The very Holy of Holies was an empty room, the Ark, and the presence of God it carried were missing: the Ark, the mercy seat, gone. Would it ever be found? Would it ever be returned to the Temple? Would the Holy Presence of God ever find its way to the Temple again?
The ascent to Jerusalem is a steep one. The mountains surround Jerusalem and the City sits up at a higher altitude than the area around it. As the ancient Jews made the climb they sang the psalms of ascent: Psalms 120-134. As Joseph and Mary ascended they too sang the words that instilled joy: I Lift up mine eye to the mountains from whence cometh my help (121)…..I rejoiced when they said to me let us go up to the House of the Lord (122)…..To you O Lord I have lifted my eyes (123)….Like Mount Zion are those who trust in the Lord (125)….Out of the depths I call unto you O Lord! (130)…..Let us enter God’s dwelling, let us worship at the Lord’s footstool. Arise O Lord and enter your dwelling place, You and the Ark of your strength! (132)….Come and bless the Lord, You who stand in the House of the Lord Lift your hands to the Sanctuary and bless the Lord. The Lord bless you from Zion (134).
Singing these songs, Mary carried Jesus. The climb was even more difficult carrying a newborn babe. But the burden was sweet. A final ascent up the stairs to the Temple Mount. Likely they entered on the southern side through the Huldah gates. Going up the steep stairs, through the tunnel in the walls and emerging on to the bright Temple platform above.
God had returned to His Temple. He, and the Ark who carried him, were found. Mary the Ark, carrying Jesus in her arms. Jesus, very God, true God from True God. Yes, God and the Ark had been found and God was once again present among His people on the Temple Mount. Scripture says:
And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his Temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? (Mal 3:1-2)
What a dramatic moment. And yet what a remarkable understatement by God! If I were to direct the moment I would have called for trumpet blasts, peals of thunder and multitudes of angels! And everyone would fall to their knees in recognition of the great fulfillment and the great return of God to his Temple.
Yet, it would seem only an elderly Man and woman took any note at all: Simeon and Anna. They alone understood they were in the presence of greatness and beheld the drama of the moment:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophetess, Anna…Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2)
Yes, here was the dramatic moment awaited for centuries. The ark of God was found (Mary), and God (Jesus) returned to his temple. But only a few noticed. Just a few understood and celebrated.
And what of us? At every Mass Jesus, God himself is present. Yet how many notice? Do they really see him? Or do they see only the human priest and the human elements of the Mass. Do you see? Do you notice? Are you Simeon? Anna? Mary? Joseph? Or are you just among those on the Temple Mount who miss the dramatic moment of God with us?