SATURDAY READING: The Paradoxes Of Christianity, by G. K. Chesterton

From Orthodoxy

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one.  The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite.  Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians.  It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.  I give one coarse instance of what I mean.  Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was duplicate.  A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left.  Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one of the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain.  At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other.  And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong.

It is this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is the uncanny element in everything.  It seems a sort of secret treason in the universe.  An apple or an orange is round enough to get itself called round, and yet is not round after all.  The Earth itself is shaped like an orange in order to lure some simple astronomer into calling it a globe.  A blade of grass is called after the blade of a sword, because it comes to a point; but it doesn’t.  Everywhere in things there is this element of the quiet and incalculable.  It escapes the rationalists, but it never escapes till the last moment.  From the grand curve of our Earth it could easily be inferred that every inch of it was thus curved. It would seem rational that as a man has a brain on both sides, he should have a heart on both sides.  Yet scientific men are still organizing expeditions to find the North Pole, because they are so fond of man’s heart; and when they try to find it, they generally get on the wrong side of him.

Now, actual insight or inspiration is best tested by whether it guesses these hidden malformations or surprises.  If our mathematician from the moon saw the two arms and the two ears, he might deduce the two shoulder-blades and the two halves of the brain.  But if he guessed that the man’s heart was in the right place, then I should call him something more than a mathematician.  Now, this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity.  Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth.  It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so) exactly where the things go wrong.  Its plan suits the secret irregularities, and expects the unexpected.  It is simple about the simple truth; but it is stubborn about the subtle truth.  It will admit that a man has two hands, it will not admit (though all the Modernists wait to it) the obvious deduction that he has two hearts.  It is my only purpose in this chapter to point this out; to show that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.

I have alluded to an unmeaning phrase to the effect that such an such a creed cannot be believed in our age.  Of course, anything can be believed in any age.  But, oddly enough, there really is a sense in which a creed, if it is believed at all, can be believed more fixedly in a complex society than in a simple one.  If a man finds Christianity true in Birmingham, he has actually clearer reasons for faith than if had found it true in Mercia.  For the more complicated seems the coincidence, the less it can be a coincidence.  If snowflakes fell in the shape, say of the heart of Midlothian, it might be an accident.  But if snowflakes fell in the exact shape of the maze at Hampton court, I think one might call it a miracle.  It is exactly as of such a miracle that I have since come to feel of the philosophy of Christianity.  The complication of our modern world proves the truth of the creed more perfectly than any of the plain problems of the ages of faith.  It was in Notting Hill and Battersea that I began to see that Christianity was true.  this is why the faith has that elaboration of doctrines and details which so much distresses those who admire Christianity its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science.  It shows how rich it is in discoveries.  If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right.  A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident.  But a key and a lock are both complex.  And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.

But this involved accuracy of the thing makes it very difficult to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth. It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind of huge helplessness. The belief is so big that it takes a long time to get it into action. And this hesitation chiefly arises, oddly enough, from an indifference about where one should begin. All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never get there. In the case of this defense of the Christian conviction I confess that I would as soon begin the argument with one thing as another; I would begin it with a turnip or a taximeter cab. But if I am to be at all careful about making my meaning clear, it will, I think, be wiser to continue the current arguments of the last chapter, which was concerned to urge the first of these mystical coincidences, or rather ratifications. All I had hitherto heard of Christian theology had alienated me from it. I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen; and I cannot understand any one passing the age of seventeen without having asked himself so simple a question. I did, indeed, retain a cloudy reverence for a cosmic deity and a great historical interest in the Founder of Christianity. But I certainly regarded Him as a man; though perhaps I thought that, even in that point, He had an advantage over some of His modern critics. I read the scientific and skeptical literature of my time—all of it, at least, that I could find written in English and lying about; and I read nothing else; I mean I read nothing else on any other note of philosophy. The penny dreadfuls which I also read were indeed in a healthy and heroic tradition of Christianity; but I did not know this at the time. I never read a line of Christian apologetics. I read as little as I can of them now. It was Huxley and Herbert Spencer and Bradlaugh who brought me back to orthodox theology. They sowed in my mind my first wild doubts of doubt. Our grandmothers were quite right when they said that Tom Paine and the free-thinkers unsettled the mind. They do. They unsettled mine horribly. The rationalist made me question whether reason was of any use whatever; and when I had finished Herbert Spencer I had got as far as doubting (for the first time) whether evolution had occurred at all. As I laid down the last of Colonel Ingersoll’s atheistic lectures the dreadful thought broke across my mind, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” I was in a desperate way.

This odd effect of the great agnostics in arousing doubts deeper than their own might be illustrated in many ways. I take only one. As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind—the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness. In case any reader has not come across the thing I mean, I will give such instances as I remember at random of this self-contradiction in the skeptical attack. I give four or five of them; there are fifty more.

MYSTICISM: The Outer Senses (Part II), From the Ancrene Riwle

Author unknown

Here begins the second part, of the defense of the heart by the five senses.

Omnia custodia serva tuum quia ex ipso vita procedit (Proverbs 4:2-3).  “Protect your heart well with every kind of defense, daughter,” says Solomon, “for if she is well locked away, the soul’s life is in her.”  The heart’s guardians are the five senses, sight and hearing, tasting, and smelling, and the feeling in every part.  And we must speak of all of them, for whoever protects these well does as Solomon commands: protects well their heart and their soul’s health.  The heart is a most wild beast and makes many a light leap out.  As St. Gregory says, Nihil cordefugiatus, “nothing flies out of a person sooner than their own heart.”  David, God’s prophet, at one time mourned that she had escaped him: Cor meum dereliquit me (Psalm 39:1-3), that is, “My heart has fled from me.”  And another time he rejoices and says that she has come home: Invenit servus tuus suum (2 Samuel 7:27).  “Lord,” he says, “my heart has come back again; I have found her.”  When so holy a man and so wise and so wary lets her escape, anyone else may anxiously dread her flight.  And where did she break out of David, the holy king, God’s prophet?  Where?  God knows, at the window of his eye, because of one sight that he saw while looking out just once, as you will hear after.

Therefore my dear sisters, love your windows as little as you possibly can.  Let them all be little, the parlor’s smallest and narrowest.  Let the cloth in them be of two kinds: the cloth black, the cross white, both inside and outside.  The black cloth symbolizes to the world outside that you are black and unworthy, and that the true sun has burned you outwardly, and so made you as outwardly unlovely as you are, with the gleams of his grace.  The white cross is proper to you.  For there are three crosses, red and black and white.  The red is proper to those who are ruddied and reddened as the martyrs were through the shedding of their blood for God’s love.  The black cross is proper to those who are doing their penance in the world for terrible sins.  The white cross is rightly proper to white maidenhood and to purity, which it is very hard to keep well.  By a cross, hardship is always to be understood – so the white cross symbolizes the defense of white chastity, which it is very hard to protect well.  The black cloth, apart from its symbolism, does less harm to the eyes and is thicker against the wind and harder to see through, and keeps its color better against the wind and other things.  Look that your parlor cloth is fastened on every side and well-attached, and guard your eyes there in case your heart flies out and goes away as it did from David, and your soul sickens as soon as she is gone.

I write much for others that in no way touches you, my dear sisters.  For you do not have a name – nor ever will have through the grace of God – for being peeping anchoresses, or using enticing looks and behavior, as some, alas, sometimes unnaturally do.  For it is against nature and an immoderately strange thing that the dead should dote on those living in the world, and go mad with them through sin.

“But dear sir,” says someone. “Is it then so mightily evil to peep out?”  Yes it is, dear sister, because of the evil which comes of it.  It is evil and mightily evil to every anchoress, especially to the young – and to the old because they set a bad example to the younger, and give them a shield to guard themselves with.  For if anyone blames them, then they say right away, “But sir, she does it too, who is better than I am, and knows better than I what she ought to do!”  Dear young anchoress, often a most skillful smith forges a most puny knife.  Follow the wise in their wisdom and not in their folly.  An old anchoress may do something good that would be bad if you did it.  But to peep out without harm neither of you can do.  Take note now what harm has come of peeping: not one harm or two, but all the woe that now is and ever was and ever will be – all comes from sight.  See here the proof that this is true.

Lucifer, because he saw himself and gazed at his own fairness, leaped into pride, and from an angel became a hideous devil.  Of Eve our first mother it is written that sin found its very first entry into her through her sight: Vidit igitur mulier quod bonum esset lignum ad vescendum, et pulcrum oculis, aspectuque delctabile, et tulit defructu eius et comedit, deditque viro suo, (Genesis 3:6): that is, “Eve looked on the forbidden apple and saw it was fair; and she began to delight in looking at it, and set her desire on it, and took and ate of it, and gave it to her husband.”  See how Holy Writ speaks, and how profoundly it tells the way sin began, thus: sight went before and made a way for harmful desire – and the act that all humanity feels came after it.

This apple, dear sister, symbolizes all the things that desire and the delight of sin turn to.  When you look at a man, you are in Eve’s situation: you look at the apple. If someone had said to Eve when she first cast her eye on it, “Ah, Eve, go away, you are looking at your death,” what would she have answered?  “My dear sir, you are wrong, why are you challenging me?”

The apple that I look on is forbidden me to eat, not to look at!  Thus would Eve readily enough have answered.  O my dear sisters, Eve has many daughters who follow their mother, who answer in this way: “But do you think,” someone says, “that I will leap on him just because I look at him?”  God knows, dear sister, stranger things have happened.  Eve your mother leapt after her eyes, from the eye to the apple, from the apple in paradise down to the Earth, from the Earth to hell, where she lay in prison four thousands years and more, she and her husband both, and condemned all her offspring to leap after her to death without end.  The beginning and the root of all this sorrow was one light look; just so, as it is often said, much comes from little.  So let every weak woman fear greatly – seeing that she who had just then been wrought by the hands of God was betrayed through a single look, and brought into deep sin which spread over all the world.

Egressa est Dyna filia Jacob ut videret mulieres alien igenas, et cetera, (Genesis 34:1): “A maiden, Jacob’s daughter, called Dinah,” as it tells in Genesis, “went out to look at strange women” yet it does not say that she looked at men.  And what do you think came of that looking?  She lost her maidenhood and was made a whore.  Thereafter, because of that same act, the pledges of high patriarchs were broken and a great city was burned, and the king, his son, and the citizens were slain, the women led away.  Her father and her brothers were made outlaws, noble princes though they were.  This is what came of her looking.  The Holy Spirit caused all such things to be written in the book to warn women of their foolish eyes.  And take note of this: that this evil caused by Dinah did not come from the fact that she saw Hamor’s son, whom she sinned with, but came from her letting him lay eyes on her – for what he did to her was very much against her will at first.

In the same way Bathsheba, by uncovering herself in David’s sight, caused him to sin with her, a holy king though he was, and God’s prophet, (2 Samuel 11:2-5).  Now, here comes a weak man – though he holds himself estimable if he has a wide hood and a closed cloak – and he wants to see some young anchoresses.  And he just has to see whether her looks please him, she whose face has not been burnt by the sun – as if he was a stone!  And he says she may confidently look upon holy men – yes, someone like him, with his wide sleeves.  But, arrogant sir, have you not heard about David God’s own darling? – Of whom God himself said Inveni virum secundum cor meum, (Acts 13:22): “I have found,” he said, “a man after my own heart.”  This man, whom God himself in this precious saying declared a king and a prophet chosen above all, this man, because of one look cast on a woman as she washed herself, let out his heart and forgot himself, so that he did three immeasurably serious and mortal sins: with Bathsheba, the lady he looked at, adultery; on his faithful knight, Uriah her lord, treachery and murder, (2 Samuel 11).  And you, a sinful man, are so brazen as to cast foolish eyes upon a young woman!  Yes, my dear sisters, if anyone is eager to see you, never believe good of it, but trust him the less, I would not have it that anyone see you unless he has special leave from your director.  For all the three sins I have just spoken about, and all the evil caused by Dinah that I spoke about before, all came about not because the women looked foolishly on men, but because they uncovered themselves in the sight of men, and did things through which they had to fall into sin.

For this reason it was commanded in God’s law that a pit should always be covered, and if anyone uncovered a pit and a beast fell in, the one who had uncovered the pit had to pay for it, (Exodus 21:33-34).  This is a most fearsome saying for a woman who shows herself to the eyes of men.  She is symbolized by the one who uncovers the pit; the pit is her fair face and her white neck and her light eyes, and her hand, if she holds it out in his sight.  And also her words are a pit, unless they are well-chosen.  Everything to do with her, whatever it may be, which might readily awaken sinful love, our Lord calls all of it a pit.  This pit he commanded to be covered, lest any beast fall in, and drown in sin.  The beast is the animal man who thinks nothing about God, and does not use his senses as one ought to do, but seeks to fall into this pit that I speak of, if he finds it open.  But the judgment is very severe on whomever uncovers the pit, for she must pay for the animal that has fallen in.  She is guilty of that animal’s death before our Lord, and must answer for his soul on Doomsday, and pay for the loss of the animal, and have no other coin but herself.  This is a most heavy payment!  And God’s judgment and his commandment is that she pay without fail, because she uncovered the pit in which it drowned.  You who uncover this pit, you who do anything by which a man is carnally tempted through you, even if you do not know it, fear this judgment greatly.  And if he is tempted so that he sins mortally in any way, even if it is not with you but with desire toward you, or if he tries to fulfill with someone else the temptation which has been awakened through you, because of your deed, be quite sure of the judgment.  For opening the pit you must pay for the animal, unless you are absolved of it. You must, as they say, suffer the rod, that is, suffer for his sin.  A dog will happily enter wherever he finds an opening.

Inpudicus oculus inpudici cordis est nuncius – Augustine: “What the mouth cannot say for shame, the wanton eye speaks, and is like a messenger for the wanton heart.”  But now, here is some woman who would not for anything desire uncleanness with a man – and yet she does not care if he thinks about her, and is tempted by her.  Yet St. Augustine puts these two both in one pairing: to want, and to wish to be wanted: Non solum appetere sed et appeti velle criminosum – “To desire a man, or be willing to be desired by a man, both are deadly sins.”  Oculi prima tela sunt adultere, “The eyes are the arrows and the first weapons of lechery’s pricking.”  And just as men war with three kinds of weapons – with arrow’s shooting, and with spear’s point, and with sword’s edge – with just the same weapons – that is with arrows from the handling – this stinking whore lechery wars with the lady’s chastity, who is God’s spouse.  First she shoots arrows from wanton eyes, which fly lightly forth like a feathered shaft and stick in the heart.  Next she shakes a spear and advances on her, and with stirring words gives the spear’s wound.  The sword’s blow – that is, handling – is final, for a sword strikes from near at hand and gives the death-blow.  And, alas, it is as good as over for those who come so close together that they handle one another or in any way touch one another.  Whoever is wise and innocent should guard herself from the arrows, that is, guard her eyes; for all the evil that follows comes from the arrows of the eyes.  And is she not most reckless and foolhardy, who holds her head out boldly over an exposed battlement, when someone is attacking the castle with bolts from outside?  Truly our enemy, the warrior from hell, shoots more bolts at one anchoress, so I believe, than at seven and fifty ladies in the world.  The battlements of the castle are her house’s windows and she does not lean out of them lest she have the devil’s bolts in her eyes when she least expects it, for he is always attacking.  She keeps her eyes in, for once she is blinded she is easily felled; blind the heart and she is easily overcome, and with sin soon brought to the ground.

Bernardus: Sicut mors per peccatum inorbem, ita per has fenestras in mentem – “Just as death came into the world through sin,” says St. Bernard, “so through the window of the eye death has her entrance into the soul.”  Lord Christ!  People would shut fast every window of the house if they could shut death out of it, the death of the body – and an anchoress will not enclose her eye-windows against the death of the soul?  And they might quite as properly be called “ill-windows,” for they have done much ill to many an anchoress.

All Holy Writ is full of warnings about the eye.  David says Averte oculos meos ne videant vanitatem (Psalm 118:37) – “Lord,” says David, “turn away my eyes from the world’s wrongness.”  Job says, Pepigifedus cum oculis meis ne cogitarem de virgine, (Job 31:1), “I have made an agreement with my eyes,” says Job, “so that I may not misthink.”  What is he saying?  Do we think with our eyes?  God knows it, he speaks well.  For after the eye comes the thought and after that the deed.  Jeremiah knew this well, who lamented in this way: Oculus meus depraedatus est animam meam, (Lamentations 3:51): “Alas,” he says, “my eyes have robbed all my soul.”  When God’s prophet made such a lament over his eyes, what lamentation and sorrow on account of their eyes do you think comes to many men and to many women?  the Wise Man asks in his book whether anything harms women more than their eyes: Oculo quic nequius?  Totam faciem lacrimare faciet quem vidit (Ecclesiasticus 31:15): “The whole face must flow with tears,” he says, “just because of what the eye sees.”

So for the reasons I have given, in the same way as all the openings of all your windows have been kept closed from the view of everyone, so let them remain closed from now on – and the more tightly they can be closed, the more tightly they should be.  In general, the rule is: God will guard well all those who close them; and all those who leave them open, God will punish and allow to fall into sin, either with their foolish eyes, or their mouth, or their hands.  These and many other such things, unbecoming and unnatural in an anchoress more than in anyone else, would never have happened if she had kept her window tightly shut.  And if anyone contradicts me, I call her conscience to witness fiercely against her, that if she lingers at her window with an eye or a mouth, or ever receives a hand or a foolish word, she is all adorned and falsely tricked out in a spurious sanctity.  Ah, treacherous traitor!  “God, I would not do something evil or dirty to you,” says he or she – but these very people soil themselves and anger God, who sees what treason is inside the foolish heart.  Not only every fleshly touching but even every foolish word is a hateful villainy and worthy of God’s anger, though it grow no further between a man and an anchoress.  Yet through the just vengeance of God is goes further and further, and often – and when one least expects it – turns into that foul sin.  Alas, we have heard of it plenty of times!  Let no one trust in the anchoress who lets in a man’s eye and shows herself.  Above everything that you have written in your rule about outward things, I would have this point, this article about being well-enclosed, best kept.

EVIL: Our Impending Night

The conversation started without referent.

This was something well known to me, conversations beginning without any referent.

My daughter is wont to do that: Just start talking as though we were in the middle of the conversation, throwing out thoughts about and allusions to who-knows-what.  Sometimes, even, in the middle of a conversation, she will just take off down a side alley, one that I hadn’t seen as we passed it by, and start all over on an entirely new subject, while I search desperately about, trying to figure out where I am, what had been said that connected with what she was talking about now.

Except there had been nothing that connected the two trains of thought, unless somewhere deep in my daughter’s brain.  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.

But this was not my daughter. `

But, unlike with my daughter where I would just keep mumbling, Referent!  Referent!  My kingdom for a referent!, I knew exactly where I was in the conversation.

Julia, are things getting worse?

And I said, “Yes.”

I thought so.  Why is it getting worse?

I couldn’t tell the whole truth to him.  So I settled for a piece, a scrap.

Once upon a time, I began, Good could easily get an upper hand on evil because Good always has the ability to band together, to join forces.  Evil, on the other hand, always played their own hands.  Their own games.  Their arrogance always led them to believe that they had the real goods.  And while any evil force could inflict real harm, ultimately Good would get it together and fight the evil force back.

Lately, I’ve noticed that evil has found a way to join forces.

Ah.  I see.

If he did, he saw only a sprout of the growing problem.  One that he could handle.  Accept.  Go on living with.

I haven’t been so lucky, these days.

Visions of what people could call the apocalypse, but what God refers to as a Period of Works and Wonders, (as in Noah’s flood), have been with me for so long, I no longer find any reason to reject them, or respond to them with rolled eyes.

Then came the not-that-distant training in The New Evil.  Gone were my studies of the soul structures of the Big Evils.  Also gone were my studies of how humans are affected by the Evils, are needed by the Evils, respond to the Evils, and are consumed by the Evils.

Nice, simple studies.  Relatively speaking.

Instead comes the visions on the structure of the Army of God: who is responsible for what exactly.  Watching, night after night, their assembling, their maneuvers, their standing in thrall.

Next came the close looking at a brand-new evil form (well, new to me anyway), that I won’t go into here and now.  If ever.

That sort of undermined my confidence (and I never had much to begin with) in thinking that I understood evil.

Then came the gift of learning about The Issue.  What the battle is about.  What it is really about.  And seeing a glowing sword being dropped slowly and gently into my hands.  Which I turned around and laid on the altar.  Giving the power and authority of the battle to The Church.

Last came The Understanding.

Some souls are difficult to define.  I had one before me for years and still I didn’t “see” what I was looking at.  But I am patient and persistent.  Unless I am stomped on in some way, I just stick to what I’ve been assigned.  Like those dogs who sit and wait for their person to return.  Even from death.

I just sit and study.  Until there is a breakthrough.  Or I am broken in some way, and have to make the study in some other way.

(That is one fantastic thing about God: you can’t achieve something one way, an alternate way will always be provided.)

And then I saw it: the structure of the soul like no other.  Well, technically just like one other, but I had never seen that other soul.

A soul without boundaries in this realm, in our realm.  In the realm of God.

Our realm is the realm of God.  Outside the realm of God is nothing.  And beyond nothing is hell.

Two souls found a way to transmigrate from hell into the Realm of God.  One of the bodies that held one of these souls is now dead.  The other is not.

But that soul is nothing to worry about in terms of spiritual warfare.  In fact, I was impressed with how hard the person containing this soul had worked to cause no harm to others.  He had worked hard, he was not completely successful.  I noticed he had a penchant to use those around him to niggle evil here and there, all while seeming oblivious to what was going on.  And yet, the niggling had such a consistency to it.  And they were all “under” him, so to speak.

Anyway.

The real problem, I came to learn, was that this “invasion” of souls had opened a portal.

What I was now looking at was Outside Evil.  Evil from beyond the realm of God.

Evil with a force that made our evils look like schoolchildren in comparison.

Evil that could hook up with the New Evil I referred to above.

Evil that could lie dormant until matters mattered to it.

Evil that can organize.

One thing our evil is characterized by is stupidity.  You can always discern evil by its stupidity.  A good front, sure.  Convincing, alluring, seemingly omniscient.  But once pushed into a corner, it runs out of tricks.  It is reduced to stammering.

Outside Evil doesn’t have that constriction.

So we, all of us, are now faced with an evil that is like a monster truck plowing into a nursery school.  And we’re the preschool students.

Our evil, our good, old evil, we can define.  We can know, in a way.  Aesthetics have been working on the means to combat our evil since the beginning of time.

Strip down (so that you have little that identifies you that can be sensed).

Commit to prayer (strengthening the shield around you, and letting God’s warriors know who you are).

And so a list of their disciplines begins.

But we are not in the desert.  We are not back then.  When the worst we could fear is temptation.

The Outside Evil is almost impossible to define.  To have its parameters perceived.  To have its capabilities described.  We are not about to fight the known.  The ancient.

We get to face, or, in truth, we have begun to face the Unknown.

When I had visions of this time, what I saw was a never-ending rain.  A darkness falling over the Earth.

Now I wonder if what I am seeing is not a physical darkness, but a spiritual darkness.  I am wondering if that darkness is a blinding of our souls, our losing our ability to perceive God.  God in the world.  God in us.  God in others.

And yet we are the hands of God’s army.  We are the hearts of God’s army.

We are the soul of God’s army.

We cannot lose our sight.

We cannot lose our way.

We cannot lose our love for God.

So my two suggestions are these:

First, learn stillness.  Learn it as though your life depended on it.  You will need it for two reasons: (1) to minimize being perceived; and (2) to give you focus when you fall into confusion.  If you can learn stillness now, in the car, holding your child, listening to the complaints of your boss, it will strengthen your soul.

Second, the ancient monks were right.

Pray.

Keep this prayer with you at all times, even if you have to have it tattooed onto your arm.

Our father
Who art in Heaven
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done.
On Earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And deliver us from evil.

Amen.

HOMILY: The Good Shepherd, by James Boyd White

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door,
but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.
But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.
To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice;
and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him,
for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him,
for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them.

Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.
All who ever came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not hear them.  I am the door.
If anyone enters by me, he will be saved,
and will go in and out and find pasture.
The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.
I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.
(John 10:1-10)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always
acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer

In the passage from John, Jesus uses the image of shepherd and sheepfold to describe himself and his relation to his followers.  This is certainly a familiar way to talk, but I think there is something a bit strange here as well.

What most strikes me as odd is Jesus’s central statement that as the good shepherd he will lay down his life for his sheep.

Of course I know that this is meant as an image of selfless love, and that he is really talking about his crucifixion for our sake.  But I cannot help thinking, perhaps in too literal-minded a way, about the sheep.  What happens to them when the shepherd dies?  What kind of shepherd is Jesus actually proposing to be?

The problem is that if a real shepherd dies, his sheep will be without any protection, utterly exposed to the thieves and bandits and wolves of which Jesus speaks.  I think that if we were to go to shepherding school we would be told that it is much better that one or two sheep should be killed than that the shepherd himself should die, leaving them all at the mercy of the enemy.  That seems obvious.

The question all this presents – “What will happen to the sheep when the shepherd has died for them?” – is a real one not only for the sheep, as I imagine them, but for the disciples too, though they do not quite know it yet.  What are they to do when Jesus has died?  This prospect must be frightening to them.  It is a question for us too, as his disciples two thousands years later.

Where does his death leave us, as the sheep for whom he has died?  Who is to care for us?  Where is our shepherd, our sheepfold?

Of course we know that Jesus comes back on Easter, and in this way demonstrates his victory over death, a victory on which we have built our church and our lives.  But we should still ask what this victory means.

It does not mean that Jesus will remain on Earth to the end, protecting his sheep.  We know that he will leave his disciples when he ascends to heaven, and that he will leave us too.  Nor does it mean that we shall be spared the experience of death.  We shall suffer pain, and loss, sometimes beyond our capacity to endure it.  We shall in the usual sense die.

Jesus’s death for us does mean, as we are told by him and by others, that we shall have an eternal life after death.  But this is a most difficult idea to grasp.  In some way it is deeply mysterious, beyond our present knowledge.

This makes me want to ask: Is there another sense in which Jesus achieves a victory over death, one that we can experience directly and immediately?

So let us think for a minute about death.  We know that we shall die, as all organic creatures do; but we also know that this kind of death is an inherent part of the life we have been given.  Death is not in itself an evil.  It is a necessity; in real sense it is also a good thing, necessary to the continuation of life itself.

For life as we know it involves a process of constant renewal, the making of new life.  Of this process death is an essential part.  We must die to make room for others, as our earlier selves must die to make room for the growth of our present selves.  When I watched my daughter being born, years ago, turning from blue to pink as she drew her first breath, I suddenly thought of my mother, who had died fifteen years earlier.  I realized that I could now see her death in an entirely new light: not just as a painful and enduring loss, which is surely was, but as making possible this new and wonderful life before me and the love this life called forth.

So what is the evil of death?  From what do we so deeply want to be saved?

Part of it – a big part – is that it so often comes at the wrong time and in the wrong way to the wrong people.  If a very old and frail person dies painlessly in his or her sleep, we think that not an evil but a blessing.  We would presumably think that in our own case.

What is evil is that death comes with suffering; that it comes to children; that it comes to us when we are not ready for it.  “Not today,” we say, “not this way”; but it happens – in car crashes, or by disease, or by violence.  Death is often random and unfair, untimely and pointless.

Of course it would be terrible to have to say goodbye to life, and to the people we love, before our time, but I wonder if the very worst thing about death is not anything I have mentioned but something else: the way it works away at our minds, like a kind cancer, claiming that our life has no meaning.  Death can strike any of us at random, without justice or sense.  It can fall upon the wholly innocent.  Any one of us can be killed in an auto crash, or contract terminal cancer, or lose our bodily control or our very minds.  When any of those things happens, there is a voice in us that says, “See: What did I tell you?  Life has no meaning after all.  It is just growing and breeding and dying, in an endless and meaningless cycle.  There is no good, no evil; nothing really matters.  The story of life is the momentary survival of the strongest and the luckiest.  But death rules in the end.”

This is the devil speaking; and what makes his voice echo so loudly in our minds is our own fear that it is true.  It is an expression of the great principle of No Meaning.  It is true that when death comes to us we may discover that nothing upon which we have founded our lives has after all any real value: certainly not money, or power, or reputation, or prestige.  All these fade into nothing, and death’s cry of “No Meaning” resonates through our being.   We seem to have nothing with which to face the facts of suffering and death and their claim of meaninglessness.

This is the point at which Jesus speaks to us.  He tells us that if we live in the light of his love, we shall have abundant life – true life, not the kind of death-in-life that we and others have so often experienced.  Our every act of love, given or received, our every moment of selfless concern for another, is a participation in divine love, in a life that can never end.  Every day lived in love with others, every gesture of love, has a significance that can never die.  We know this because we know that when we face death we shall never find ourselves saying that the love we gave or received or shared was meaningless.  As Jesus teaches us, love is the ground of meaning and of life.  It is the only ground.

In our Gospel passage Jesus uses the image of the shepherd to tell us something about the kind of love he offers us and how it has such power.

First, he tells us that, as our shepherd, he knows us all by name.  He knows each of us.  He is the shepherd, he knows us all by name.  He knows each of us.  He is the shepherd not just of a flock, but of each sheep in the flock.  This is new.  The God of the Old Testament was mainly the God of a nation, a whole people.  Our God, Jesus is saying, is not the God of a nation, but a God for every single person.  To him every one of us is real.  We exist for him as individual persons, every one of us.  We can pray to him in our own names.

For Jesus each human soul is of infinite value.  He will never sacrifice one of us for the supposed good of the whole – as Caiaphas will recommend that Jesus himself be sacrificed for the good of the people (John 11:50).  The only sacrifice that Jesus recognizes is the one he himself will make, on behalf of all of us, the sacrifice that will end all sacrifices.

This image of total giving is not what one would learn in shepherding school.  It is not what we would call cost justified.  It is certainly not an image of life as survival of the fittest.  But what Jesus says and does, here and elsewhere, is never meant to be cost justified.  He transforms the image of the shepherd, indeed any image of human life, to mark out wholly new possibilities, not dreamt of in our philosophy.

He also tells us that his sheep know his voice.  I think this is true of sheep.  They do not see well, but can hear each other’s cries and the calls of the shepherd.  For them the shepherd is his voice.  Think of our own experience: we have not seen Jesus, but we have all heard him.  We have heard his Word, as we did when we heard the Gospel read this morning in this very church, and it is his words we are thinking about right now.  We are hearing Jesus’s voice, hearing his voice that does not die, and he is telling us that he knows us by name and loves each of us with an unbounded love.

When our shepherd dies for us he does not leave us abandoned or orphaned, but returns to us, remains with us.

Finally, Jesus says that the good shepherd leads his sheep to the sheepfold.  Where is our sheepfold?  The sheepfold to which Jesus leads us is right here, in this church – in other churches, in any community of Christian faith: in the love and care and respect we have for each other, and for the world.  It is here that we can most completely face the true conditions of our lives, including the uncertainty, pain, death, and grief that are an inherent part of our life.

Here our deaths are recognized and mourned; here our baptisms take place, honoring the births that our deaths make possible; here our weddings happen, too, the weddings that lead to new life; and here we participate in the Eucharist, which binds it all together.

Here death is in a most direct and immediate sense faced and conquered.  For here we are shown that we do not need to be afraid of death; we need not fear its claim that life has no meaning.

Amen.

POETRY: A Homecoming, by Wendell Berry

One faith is bondage. Two
are free. In the trust
of old love, cultivation shows
a dark and graceful wilderness
at its heart. Wild
in that wilderness, we roam
the distance of our faith;
safe beyond the bounds
of what we know. O love,
open. Show me
my country. Take me home.

POETRY: Shepherd Who With Your Tender Calls, by Felix Lope de Vega y Carpio

Translated from the Spanish by Kate Flores

Shepherd who with your tender calls
From deep slumber has wakened me,
You who made of this log the staff
On which your powerful arms are held,

Upon my faith turn your pitying eyes,
For I confess you my love and lord,
And to follow you pledge my word,
Your beauteous feet and calls so mild.

Hear me, Shepherd who dies for love,
Flinch not at my frightful sins,
You to the humbled so much a friend,

Stay, and let my cares be heard. . .
Though why do I ask that you stay for me,
When to make you stay your feet are nailed?

JESUS: The Good Shepherd, by Thomas H. Moore

From The Eternal Shepherd

When Abraham obeyed the call of God to leave Ur of the Chaldees to father a new people in a land “which I will show thee,” he took with him the flocks which were his wealth, and indeed the very substance of his life.  From the very beginning, the Jews were shepherds.  The warm wool tented and clothed them; mutton was the common fare; while the unblemished lamb entered into their sacrifices as gift offered and victim slain, the obvious symbol of their very selves.  Not only did the Jews, like others, think of their leaders as shepherds, but from the earliest times the sons of Israel flocked round Yahweh himself as their pastor.  In so many ways the Chosen People were the sheep of God.

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want
In verdant pastures He gives me repose;
Beside restful waters He leads me;
He refreshes my soul.
He guides me in right paths
For his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley,
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
That give me courage.

The flocks grazing in the valley beneath the shadows of Moab figured in the story of Christ’s birth.  The Baptist saw in him the lamb of God, the innocent victim who would die for sin.  It comes as no surprise to learn that Jesus took advantage of this pastoral background to identify himself as the true shepherd of God’s sheep – indeed, as the shepherd who was the son of God himself.

He chose to do this, most probably, during the Feast of Tabernacles.  All through the celebration, he had pressed the Scribes and Pharisees with unanswerable argument and with a miracle deliberately staged in defiance of their sabbatical laws.  They who would excommunicate in the name of God now found themselves discredited as divine agents in the eyes of the people.  It would not be like our Lord to destroy faith in the old without giving hope in the new.  Each day, more and more must he reveal himself.  Out of the pages of their sacred books, clothed in the oldest symbolism and deepest traditions of their past, he comes to them now as the good shepherd.

“Amen, amen, I say to you, he who enters not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbs up another way, is a thief and a robber.  But he who enters by the door is shepherd of the sheep.  To this man the gatekeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them forth.  And when he has let out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.  But a stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

So does our Lord set the stage, with props old and universally known, for one of the most arming passages in sacred scripture.  His audience could visualize a sheepfold.  There were hundreds of them up and down the valleys of Israel, squares of land fenced with stone and brambles, crude corrals open at one corner to admit a sheep at a time.  Come night, the shepherds would bring their flocks to the fold and bed them down.  Each shepherd in turn would keep watch at the door.  This is the way it was at Bethlehem when the Savior was born; this is the way it has been ever since.  Many shepherds using one fold would know one another.  The sheep knew the shepherd who minded them: the sound of his voice, the step of his boot, the touch of his hand, the peculiar ring of his crook against a rock by the path.  Even at night “in the dark valley” the sheep would know the shepherd’s sound.  Thief or robber disturbing the pastoral quiet must deal with both guard and sheep.  The one would not let him in if he could help it; the others would not follow him out if they could help it; the others would not follow him out if they could help it.  He would not be the true shepherd.

Christ is not the guard who protects the door of the fold; he is the door itself.  No one goeth to the Father save through him.  “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.  All whoever have come [the false messiahs who preceded the advent of Jesus] are thieves and robbers; but the sheep have not heard them.  I am the door.  If anyone enter by me he shall be safe, and shall go in and out [as he pleases], and shall find pastures.”

True shepherds, come to the flock through Christ, will be at home in the fold with the sheep.  The sheep will grow fat in pasturage God prepares.  They have but to follow the true shepherds.  Even at that, they who lead will be pastors in the only way that men can be shepherds to other men – under Christ.  He is not only the door, but, in strict sense, the shepherd.  “The thief comes only to steal, and slay, and destroy.  I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.  But the hireling, who is not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees.  And the wolf snatches and scatters the sheep; but the hireling flees because he is a hireling, and has no concern for the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd.  I know mine and mine know me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep.”

Behind all that Christ is saying in these words are the deep undertones of love which make this passage a favorite with masters of religious art.  What home does not have a picture of the good shepherd and the lamb which, at the moment, needs him most.  The two know one another, even as mother knows child, as child knows mother.  The lamb is safe within the world of his encircling arms.  “As the Father knows me and I know the Father,” says our Lord.  It is that kind of mutual knowledge.

In another, the good shepherd defends the sheep, as did David, from the lion and the wolf.  He lifts it from the briars and off the beetling crags.  He will lay down his life for the sheep because through his death they will live.  In still another, the sacred artist turns to the twenty-second Psalm for inspiration, where the sheep walk with Christ in right paths, feed in green pastures and drink beside still waters, for from the swift stream they will not drink.

“And other sheep I have that are not of this fold.  Them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd.”

The flock of Christ will not be of one nation, as in the Old Dispensation.  It will be broad enough to fill the plains – all the sheep of the world: pagans and Gentiles, wild sheep which Christianity will tame and bring into the pulsing life of the fold.

Not without struggle will Christianity do this.

Two months later, at the Feast of Dedication, Jesus spoke of the sheep again.  It was December now, and the rain had driven our Lord to the shelter of Solomon’s Porch in the temple.  Here he could walk up and down, teaching all who would listen.  A hostile voice rang out in challenge: “How long dost thou keep us in suspense?  If thou art the Christ, tell us openly.”

The answer wold tell the impertinent questioner that our Lord was not only the Messiah, but the Divine Messiah, one in power and essence with his Father.

“I tell you and you do not believe.  The works that I do in the name of my Father, these bear witness concerning me.  But you do not believe because you are not of my sheep.  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me.  And I give them everlasting life; and they shall never perish, neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand.  What my Father has given me is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch anything out of the hand of my Father.  I and the Father are one.”

The argument is clear.  The sheep are as safe with Christ as with God Almighty because in nature, and therefore in power.  He and the Father are one.  This was frank and open speaking, language which every Jew understood.  They were ready to stone Jesus for what to them could be only blasphemy.  He spoke to them again.

“Many good works have I shown you from my Father.  For which of these works do you stone me?”

“Not for a good work do we stone thee, but for blasphemy, and because thou, being a man, makest thyself God.”

The answer which Jesus gave to this did not let them forget the works, the miracles, but urged them to consider his words in their light.  It is silly of them to fly into a rage at his use of the word God.  Scripture had used it of judges, figuratively, because they exercised in a secondary way the power of God to judge men.  As one sent by Heaven.  He had a better right to the name than they.  When a claim is made, look to the evidence of its validity, to the miracles which give the claim substance.  They are divine guarantees that the claim is true.

“If he called them gods to whom the word of God was addressed (and the scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him whom the Father has made holy and sent into the world, ‘Thou blasphemest,’ because I said, ‘I am the son of God?’  If I do not perform the works of my Father, do not believe me.  But if I do perform them, and if you are not willing to believe me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in me and I in the Father.”

So does the Eternal Shepherd answer his enemies, as to his sheep and as to his power to keep them safe, to give them eternal life.  They refuse to listen.  Instead, they try again to seize him for destruction.  But he slips away and seeks refuge beyond the Jordan.  Many follow from the Holy City to hear his preaching.

Across the open space of the Temple, from high within the wall of partition, comes the bleat of a lamb whose blood will soon flow upon the altar of sacrifice.  How defenseless it is!  Forest and plain and even wild desert abound in animals which can protect themselves by strength of fang, by talon and claw, by speed of foot, by cunning, from the remorselessness of enemies.  All save sheep.  From the days of Abel, they have lain down in green pastures under the protecting staff and crook of the shepherd.  There only can they survive.

Fit symbols of men.  All through the gentle words of the Good Shepherd runs the thought of life.  He will give it to his sheep, he will protect his gift in them; he will use his divine power to protect it in them.  He will die so that they may live.  No one else will do this; no one else can do it; only the Good Shepherd.  This is how much we need him.  Only we must know him, we must hear his voice and follow him.  Always there is that, “I know mine and mine know me,” element in the relationship between Christ and his sheep.  So must it be, because the life which he gives and keeps in us is a gift of love; and love is of two.  We must follow him into the green pastures.  Not to follow is to be alone and unloved, a sheep lost in the desert, a lamb left bleeding on an altar where not one stone is left upon stone because they did not know the shepherd who came to the Temple, then left it – to cross over the Jordan.

HOMILY: (excerpt) Christ the Good Shepherd, by St. Gregory The Great

“I am the good shepherd.  And I know my sheep,” (that is, I love them) “and my sheep know me.”  It is as if he said plainly: “Those who love me, obey me.”  For those who do not love the truth do not yet know it.

My dear brethren, now that you have heard of the test I must undergo, consider how these words of the Lord imply a test of your own.  Ask yourselves if you are his sheep, if you know him, if you recognize the light of truth.  What I mean is that you recognize it not simply by faith but by love, I mean, you recognize it not just by belief but by action.  For John the apostle, whose words we have been discussing, also said: “He who says he know God but disobeys his commandments is a liar.”

Consequently, in the passage we were originally considering, the Lord at once adds: “. . .as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” It is as if he said straight out: The proof that I know the Father and the Father knows me is the fact that I lay down my life for my sheep; that is to say, the love which leads me to die for my sheep shows how much I love the Father.”

He goes on to add the following words concerning the sheep: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me, and I give them eternal life.”  A little earlier he said also: If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.”  That is to say, he will go in to faith, and go out from faith to vision, from belief to contemplation, and he will find pasture at the everlasting feast.

So the sheep find the Lord’s pastures; for anyone who follows him with an undivided heart is nourished in a pasture which is forever green.  What are the pastures of these sheep if they are not the deepest joys of the everlasting fresh pastures of paradise?  For the pasture of the saints is to see God face-to-face; when the vision of God never fails, the soul receives its fill of the food of life for ever.

And so, dear brethren, let us seek these pastures and there join in the joy and the celebrations of so many citizens of Heaven.  Let their happiness and rejoicing be an invitation to us.  Let our hearts grow warm, brethren, let our faith be rekindled, let our desires for heavenly things grow warm; for to love like this is to be on the way.

No misfortune should distract us from this happiness and deep joy; for if anyone is anxious to reach a destination, the roughness of the road will not make him change his mind.  The charms of prosperity must not lead us astray; for only a foolish traveler, when he sees pleasant fields on his way, forgets to go on towards his destination.

 

PRAYER: Prayer And Thanksgiving, by Francis of Assisi

All-powerful, most holy, most high and supreme God
Holy and just Father
Lord, King of Heaven and Earth
we thank you for yourself
for through your only Son
with the Holy Spirit
You have created all things spiritual and corporal
and, having made us in your own image and likeness,
you placed us in paradise.
And through our own fault we have fallen.
And we thank you
for as through your Son you created us
so also, through your holy love, with which you loved us,
you brought about his birth
as true God and true man
by the glorious, ever-virgin, most blessed, holy Mary
and you willed to redeem us captives
through his cross and blood and death.
And we thank you
for your Son himself will come again
in the glory of his majesty
to send the wicked ones
who have not done penance and who have not known you
into the eternal fire,
and to say to all those who have known you and have adored you
and have served you in penance:
“Come, you blessed of my Father,
receive the kingdom,
which has been prepared for you
from the beginning of the world.
And because all of us
wretches and sinners
are not worthy to pronounce your name,
we humbly ask that
our Lord Jesus Christ,
your beloved Son
in whom you were well pleased,
together with the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete,
give you thanks
as it pleases you and him
for everything,
he who always satisfied you in everything
through whom you have done such great things for us.
Alleluia!
And through your love
we humbly beg
the glorious mother, most blessed Mary ever-virgin,
Blessed Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael
and all the blessed choirs of seraphim, cherubim, thrones,
dominations, principalities, powers,
virtues, angels, archangels,
blessed John the Baptist,
John the Evangelist,
Peter, Paul,
and the blessed patriarchs, prophets,
the Innocents, apostles, evangelists, disciples,
martyrs, confessors, virgins,
the blessed Elijah and Henoch,
and all the saints who were, who will be, and who are
to give you thanks for these things as it pleases you,
the supreme and true God
eternal and living
with your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete,
world without end.
Amen. Alleluia.

SERMON: A Homily For The Feast Of Epiphany, by John Chrysostom

When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Judea, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying: Where is that is born king of the Jews. For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him.

Isaias had foretold that this would come to pass, saying: The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Madian and Apha: all they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense: and showing forth praise to the Lord. (Isaiah 60:) This is He, Christ the Lord, whom the Magi, having seen the sign of the star, announce as the King of the Jews.

Things unheard of, and exceeding the measure of human astonishment, all took place together at the birth of our Lord. An angel appears and speaks to Zachary, promising that to Elizabeth, his wife, a son will be born, and he, not believing the angel, is stricken dumb: she that was sterile conceives: in the womb of a virgin a child takes life. John, inspired in his mother’s womb, leaps for joy: Christ the Lord New-Born is announced by an angel. He is proclaimed by the shepherds as the salvation of the world. Angels exult, the shepherds rejoice. Upon this glorious nativity joy and gladness rise up both in heaven and on earth.

The new sign of a star in the heavens is pointed out to the Magi; through this sign it is made known to them that the Lord of the heavens is born King of the Jews; He of whom it was written: A star shall rise out of Jacob and a scepter shall spring up from Israel, (Numbers 24:17), so that from the symbol of a star the union of man with the Son of God, of human nature with the divine, might become known.

Thus it was the Lord spoke of himself in the Apocalypse: I am the root and stock of David, the bright and morning star, (Apocalypse 22:16), for in the rising of his own nativity, the night of ignorance being scattered, He shines forth, the bright and morning star, unto the salvation of the world; the splendor of whose light reaching also to the hearts of the Magi, filled them with spiritual light, so that by the sign of the new-risen star they know the Creator of Heaven as the King of the Jews.

The Magi, teachers of a false faith, could never have come to know Christ Our Lord, had they not been illumined by the grace of this divine condescension. Indeed the grace of God overflowed at the birth of Christ, so that each single soul might be enlightened by His truth. The Magi are enlightened so that the goodness of God may be made manifest: so that no one need despair, doubting that salvation through faith will be given to him, seeing He bestowed it on the Magi. The Magi therefore were the first from the Gentiles chosen for salvation, so that through them a door might be opened to all the Gentiles.

But perhaps someone will wonder how it was that the Magi knew of the Lord’s nativity from the sign of a star? In the first place we say that this was a gift of the divine goodness. Then we read in the books of Moses that there was a certain prophet of the Gentiles, Balaam, who foretold in definite words the coming of Christ and His incarnation from a virgin. For among other things he said: A star shall rise out of Jacob, and a scepter shall spring up from Israel. The Wise men, who saw the new star in the east, are said to be descendants of this Balaam, a prophet from the Gentiles. And seeing the sign of the new star they accordingly believed, knowing that the prophecy of their ancestor was fulfilled: in this showing themselves to be not alone his descendants in the flesh, but the heirs also to his faith. Balaam their prophet beheld the star in spirit; with their eyes they saw It, and believed. He by prophecy foretold that Christ would come, they with the vision of faith knew that He had come.

Then they came straightaway to Herod, saying: Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east and have come to adore Him. They sought the Lord Christ, born King of the Jews, among those from whose race they knew that Balaam had prophesied He would come. But the faith of the Magi is the condemnation of the Jews. They believed on the authority of their one prophet, these others refused to believe many prophets. The former knew that through the coming of Christ their magic arts were ended, the latter refused to accept the mysteries of the divine dispensation. They confessed a stranger; the Jews rejected their own. He came unto His own, and his own received Him not. And this same star was seen by all, but not by all understood. As Our Lord and Savior was truly born for all, as man He was born for all men, not by all was He received, nor understood by all. He was understood by the Gentiles, He was not understood by the Jews; acknowledged by the church, He was denied by the synagogue.

When therefore the Magi, after the splendid toil of their long journey, had come to Jerusalem seeking the King of the Jews, immediately, says the Evangelist, King Herod, and with him all Jerusalem, was disturbed by the fervent faith of the Magi. The chiefs of the priests and the scribes of the people are gathered together. They are asked: where Christ should be born. They answer: in Bethlehem of Juda, for so it is written by the prophet: And thou Bethlehem the land of Juda are not the least among the princes of Juda. For out of thee shall come forth, etc. Herod therefore, and the men of Jerusalem, knowingly, they were not ignorant, reject Christ the Lord. For they sought the testimony of the prophets, when they searched out where Christ would be born.

This place, Bethlehem, where the Lord was born, had received a name of prophecy. For Bethlehem is interpreted: House of Bread; because the Son of God who was to be born here is the Bread of Life, as He himself said in His Gospel: I am the Living Bread that came down from Heaven. This too is the place that is spoken of elsewhere by the prophet: God will come from the south, and the Holy One from Mount Pharan. (Habacuc 3: 3) These words describe the site and aspect of the place. The words of this prophet agree with the previous prophecy for, after the words of Micheas saying: Out of thee He shall go forth the ruler in Israel, there is added: And his going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity; (Micheas 5: 2) so that, contrary to Photinus, it is not to be supposed that the Lord had a beginning only from the moment in which He was born of the Virgin. For it is clearly shown that He is from the beginning of days, and that He is the Lord, who was born in Bethlehem.

Then the Evangelist continues: Herod calling etc.

Herod the evil king, while he feared for the kingdom which he unjustly held, became the betrayer of the Eternal King. For this Herod was neither of the Tribe of Juda, nor the House of David, and occupied the kingdom of the Jews by guile; and, by favor of the Romans, ruled it as tyrant. Accordingly he began to lie in wait for the Lord, whom he now learns from the Jews is born King of the Jews. He inquires of them the time of the star’s appearance, then sends them on their way to Bethlehem, as if he too desired to come and adore. He pretends solicitude to conceal his treachery. For he had in mind, not to adore, but to slay the Lord.

The Magi meanwhile, guided by the star, arrive at the place where the child was, and there they knew the Creator of Heaven. They sought not the guidance of a man because they had received from Heaven the guidance of a star. Neither could they go astray, who were inquiring for the true way, which is Christ the Lord who has said: I am the way, the truth, the life. With every new wonder the star travels in the sky above them, and for the whole journey does not leave them, and at an equal pace they come together to Bethlehem, and there the star, standing still points out the Lord Our Savior, the only son of God.

The Evangelist relates: And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And entering in to the house ….

Let us now see, after the star had come to rest, after the journey of the Magi, what wondrous dignity accompanies the newborn king. For immediately the Magi, falling down before the Lord, adore Him newly-born, and lying in a manger, and offering gifts they venerate the infancy of a weeping babe. With the eyes of their body they saw one thing, another with the eyes of the mind. The lowliness of the assumed body is before their eyes, yet the glory of the divinity is not concealed. It is a child that is adored. And together with it the unspeakable mystery of the divine condescension! That invisible and eternal nature has not disdained, for our sakes, to take to itself the infirmities of our flesh.

The Son of God, who is the God of all things, is born a man in body. He permits Himself to be placed in a crib, who holds the heavens in His hand. He is confined in a manger whom the world cannot contain; He is heard in the voice of a wailing infant, at whose voice in the hour of His passion the whole Earth trembled. The Magi, beholding a child, profess that this is the Lord of Glory, the Lord of Majesty, whom Isaias has shown was both child and God, and King Eternal, saying: for a CHILD is born to us, and a son is given to us, and the government is upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, God the Mighty, the Father of the World to come, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

To Him the Magi offer gifts, that is: gold, frankincense, and myrrh; as the Holy Spirit had in time past testified concerning them: All they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense: and showing forth praise to the Lord. This prophecy is manifestly fulfilled by the Magi, who both announce the salvation of the Lord, born Christ the Son of God, and by their gifts proclaim Him Christ and God, and King of Man. For by gold the power of a king is signified, by frankincense the honor of God, by myrrh the burial of the body; and accordingly they offer Him gold as king, frankincense as God, myrrh as man.

David also has testified concerning these things, in this way: The Kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents: the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts. And all kings of the earth shall adore Him: all nations shall serve Him. (Psalm 71:10) And that he might show especially to whom these gifts would be offered, he adds: And to him shall be given of the gold of Arabia. The same David in another psalm is not silent regarding myrrh, as when speaking of the passion of the Lord, he says: Myrrh and stacte and cassia perfume thy garments. (Psalm 44:9) Of myrrh Solomon, in the person of Christ, also speaks: I yielded a sweet odor like the best myrrh, in which he evidently testifies concerning the sepulture of His body, which by its most sweet and divine odor has made the whole earth fragrant. Lastly David also is seen to have foretold the Magi in figure, when he said: Ambassadors shall come out of Egypt, Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hand to God. (Psalm 67:32) For since holy scripture often speaks of this world as Egypt, rightly may we regard the Magi as the ambassadors from Egypt, who being chosen as legates for the whole world, dedicate, in the gifts they offer, the will to believe of all mankind, and the beginnings of the faith.

And after they had offered their gifts the Magi were warned that they should not return to Herod, and they went back another way into their country. In this they give us an example of virtue and faith, so that we too, having once known and adored Christ our King, and having forsaken the road that we formerly traveled, that is the way of our past errors, and travelling now another road with Christ as guide, may return to our true country, which is Paradise, from which Adam was driven forth. Of this country the psalmist says: I will please the Lord in the land of the living. (Psalm 114:9)

The Magi being warned return home another way, frustrating the cruelty of the tyrant; and thus the child born king is, by the Magi, made known to men, and the treachery of the tyrant Herod is brought to nothing. That Our Lord and Savior as a child would thus triumph, and in the very beginning of His infancy, Isaias had of old made prophecy: For before the Child know to call his father and mother, the strength of Damascus, and the spoils of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of the Assyrians. (Isaiah 8:4) The gold that was offered by the Magi, and which the Son of God, born a child, has received, is interpreted as the strength of Damascus; the spoils of Samaria are the Magi themselves, whom He has drawn out of the error of the superstitions of Samaria, that is, the worship of idols; and who formerly because of their false religion were the spoil of the devil, now through the knowledge of Christ have become the spoil of God. The kings of the Assyrians means Herod, or at all events the devil, against whom the Magi stood forth as adversaries, namely, by adoring the Son of God, Our Lord and savior, who is blessed for ever and ever.

Amen.

 

SATURDAY READING: Worshiping The Prince Of Peace, or Preemptive War?, by Jimmy Carter

From Our Endangered Values

For months after the terrible terrorist attack in 2001, the American people were inundated almost daily with claims from top government officials that we faced a devastating threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or from large and well-organized cadres of terrorists hiding in our country.  But as was emphasized vigorously by foreign allies and key members of our own intelligence services, there was never any existing danger to the United States from Baghdad.  It was obvious that with the U.N. sanctions, intense weapons inspections, and overwhelming American military superiority, any belligerent move by Saddam Hussein against a neighbor, an overt display of a weapon of mass destruction, or sharing of such technology with terrorist organizations would have been suicidal for Iraq.  Iraq’s weapons programs had already been reduced to impotence before the war was launched to eliminate them.

If Saddam Hussein had actually possessed a large nuclear, biological, or chemical arsenal, then the American invasion would have resulted in hundreds of thousands of causalities, many of them U.S. troops.  There is no evidence that British or American leaders really expected or prepared for this eventuality.  We cannot ignore the development of such weapons in any potential enemy nation or organization, but unilateral military action based on erroneous or deliberately distorted intelligence is not the answer.

Even as a small boy, my ambition was to go to the U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, to become a naval officer, and to devote my life’s career to the defense of my country and its principles around the world.  I left the navy’s Reserve Officer Training Corps for Annapolis in 1943 and continued this professional service until I resigned my commission in 1953.  Except for General Dwight Eisenhower, I spent more years in active military service than any other president since those who had served as generals in the War Between the States.  Although prepared to give my life if necessary as a submarine officer, I joined other officers and men in a common commitment that America’s obvious strength and steadfastness would be a deterrent to war – that we were the ones who were preserving peace.  I never felt that my dedication to military service was a violation of my faith in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Later, as president during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, I was faced with the truly awesome responsibility of protecting my nation and its global interests.  Aware that I was playing the key role in an intense competition between freedom and communism in almost every corner of the world, I realized that any misstep could precipitate a nuclear holocaust.  In addition to our long-range bombers and formidable land-based intercontinental missiles, we had developed a fleet of submarines that were constantly deployed at sea and almost impervious to any Soviet preemptive attack.  With multiple warheads on the missiles of a single ship, we could have destroyed every major city in the entire Soviet Union.

One of the facts that I had to accept from my first day in office was that enemy intercontinental nuclear warheads, once launched, would require only twenty-six minutes to reach Washington, New York, and other American targets.  During this brief interval, it was my sole responsibility as commander in chief to decide on our response.

There has never been any effective means of destroying an incoming intercontinental missile, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the nuclear weapon states specifically prevented attempts to develop such a defense.  Under those circumstances, the only options were to launch a counterattack or to accept the horrible damage without response.  My choice, obviously, was to avoid the possibility of this scenario, known by the appropriate acronym “MAD” (mutual assured destruction), by convincing the Soviets of our ability and resolve to respond, and through effective diplomacy to preserve the peace and protect American interests.

I have cherished a plaque that a cabinet member gave me the day I left office, with a quote from Thomas Jefferson:

I HAVE THE CONSOLATION TO REFLECT

THAT DURING THE PERIOD OF MY ADMINISTRATION

NOT A DROP OF THE BLOOD OF A SINGLE CITIZEN

WAS SHED BY THE SWORD OF WAR

As I described in the previous chapter, current U.S. policy is threatening the effectiveness of international agreements that have been laboriously negotiated by almost all previous presidents.  Perhaps even more disturbing as a threat to the maintenance of global stability is the unprecedented adoption of a policy of preemptive war.  This recent decision is not only a radical departure form historic policies of the United States but also a violation of international laws that we have pledged to honor.  The United Nations Charter grants to sovereign nations the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense, but only in the event of armed attack.  Ignoring even our closest allies, our president has announced a decision that the United States would act as a law unto ourselves and launch preemptive military attacks, while rejecting the standard of “war as a last resort.”

Daniel Webster (who four years later would be named secretary of state) in 1837 said that there must be “a necessity of self-defense. . . instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”  Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, usually a strong supporter of Republican administrations, acknowledged that a policy of preemptive war is revolutionary and “challenges the international system.”

Branding other nations as comprising an “axis of evil” marked them as potential targets and at the same time closed the usual doors of resolving bilateral differences with them through diplomatic means.  Of more immediate and serious concern, the adoption of this radical policy frittered away the almost unanimous sympathy and pledges of support that came to us after the terrorist attack in 2001, now leaving us relatively alone in our long-term and crucial effort to contain and reduce the threat of terrorism.

It became apparent soon after the presidential election in 2000 that some of our new political leaders were determined to attack Iraq.  With false and distorted claims after 9/11, they misled the U.S. Congress and the American public into believing that Saddam Hussein had somehow been responsible for the dastardly attack on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, and that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons and other mass destruction devices and posed a direct threat to the security of America.

Although the deceptiveness of these statements was later revealed, the die was cast, and most of our trusting citizens were supportive of the war.  Exaggerated claims of catastrophe from nonexistent weapons of mass destruction kept the fears alive, with Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly making false statements, such as “Instead of losing thousands of lives, we might lose tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of lives in a single day of war.”  National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice backed him with horrifying references to mushroom clouds over the cities of America, and Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make a conglomeration of inaccurate statements to the world.  The administration later claimed that its information was erroneous, but intelligence sources were rewarded, not chastised.

There is little wonder that, at least for a few months, fearful American citizens and members of Congress supported the unnecessary war despite our nation’s historic policy of relying on diplomacy instead of conflict to resolve disputes and despite the commitment of Christians to worship Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace.  For me personally and for most other Americans, this commitment to peace and diplomacy does not imply a blind or total pacifism.  There are times when war is justified, and for many centuries the moral criteria for violence have been carefully delineated.

As it became more and more evident that our leaders were going to attack Iraq, I decided to write an essay for the New York Times that spelled out the minimal requirements for going to war.  I used the same basic arguments with which Christian leaders (such as Saint Augustine around 400 A.D. and Saint Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century) had addressed this question quite clearly for at least sixteen hundred years, all basing their opinions on New Testament scripture.

Not realizing that the top leaders of the United States and Great Britain had already agreed to invade Iraq almost a year earlier, I wrote these words for an op-ed piece on March 3, 2003:

Just War, or an Unjust War?

Profound changes have been taking place in American foreign policy, reversing consistent bi-partisan commitments that for more than two centuries have earned our nation’s greatness.  These have been predicated on basic religious principles, respect for international law, and alliances that resulted in wise decisions and mutual restraint.  Our apparent determination to launch a war against Iraq, without international support, is a violation of these premises.

As a Christian and as a president who was severely provoked by international crises, I became thoroughly familiar with the principles of a just war, and it is clear that a substantially unilateral attack on Iraq does not meet these standards.  This is an almost universal conviction of religious leaders, with the most notable exception of a few spokesmen of the Southern Baptist Convention who are greatly influenced by their commitment to Israel based on eschatological (final days) theology.

The preeminent criterion for a just war is that it can only be waged as a last resort, with all nonviolent options exhausted.  It is obvious that clear alternatives do exist, as previously proposed by our own leaders and approved by the United Nations.  But now, with our own national security not directly threatened and despite the overwhelming opposition of most people and governments in the world, the United States seems determined to carry out military and diplomatic action that is almost unprecedented in the history of civilized nations.  The first stage of our widely publicized war plan is to launch 3,000 bombs and missiles on a relatively defenseless Iraqi population within the first few hours of an invasion, with the purpose of so damaging and demoralizing the people that they will change their obnoxious leader, who will most likely be hidden and safe during the massive bombardment.

Weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.  Extensive aerial bombardment, even with precise accuracy, always results in great “collateral damage.”  The American field commander, General Franks, is complaining in advance about many of the military targets being near hospitals, schools, mosques, and private homes.

Violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered.  Despite Saddam Hussein’s other serious crimes, American efforts to tie Iraq to the 9/11 terrorist attacks have been unconvincing.

The attackers must have legitimate authority sanctioned by the society they profess to represent.  The unanimous vote of approval in the Security Council to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction can still be honored, but our announced goals are now to achieve regime change and to establish a Pax Americana in the region, perhaps occupying the ethnically divided country for as long as a decade.  For these objectives, we do not have international authority.  Other members of the UN Security Council have so far resisted the enormous economic and political influence that is being exerted from Washington, and we are faced with the possibility of either a failure to get the necessary votes or else a veto from Russia, France, or China.  Although Turkey may still be enticed by enormous financial rewards and partial future control of the Kurds and oil in Northern Iraq, its democratic parliament has at least added its voice to the worldwide expressions of concern.

The peace to be established must be a clear improvement over what exists.  Although there are visions of a panacea of peace and democracy in Iraq, it is quite possible that the aftermath of a successful military invasion will destabilize the region, and that aroused terrorists might detract from the personal safety of our people and the security of our nation.  Also, to defy overwhelming world opposition will threaten a deep and permanent fracture of the United Nations as a viable institution for world peace.

. . . the heartfelt sympathy and friendship offered to us after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even from formerly antagonistic regimes, has been largely dissipated, and increasingly unilateral and domineering policies have brought our country to its lowest level of international distrust and antagonism in memory.  We will surely decline further in stature if we launch a war in clear defiance of UN opposition, but to continue using the presence and threat of our military power to force Iraq’s compliance with all UN resolutions – with war as a final option – will enhance our status as a champion of peace and justice.

THOMAS MERTON: (from) The Seven Storey Mountain

When we went back to New York, in the middle of August, the world that I had helped to make was finally preparing to break the shell and put forth its evil head and devour another generation of men.

At Olean we never read any newspapers, and we kept away from radios on principle, and for my own part the one thing that occupied my mind was the publication of the new novel.  Having found an old copy of Fortune lying around Benjie’s premises, I had read an article in it on the publishing business: and on the basis of that article I had made what was perhaps the worst possible choice of a publisher – the kind of people who would readily reprint everything in the Saturday Evening Post in diamond letters on sheets of gold.  They were certainly not disposed to be sympathetic to the wild and rambling thing I had composed on the mountain.

And it was going to take them a good long time to get around to telling me about it.

For my own part, I was walking around New York in the incomparable agony of a new author waiting to hear the fate of his first book – an agony which is second to nothing except the torments of adolescent love.  And because of my anguish I was driven, naturally enough, to fervent though interested prayer.  But after all God does not care if our prayers are interested.  He wants them to be.  Ask and you shall receive.  It is a kind of pride to insist that none of our prayers should ever be petitions for our own needs: for this is only another subtle way of trying to put ourselves on the same plane as God – acting as if we had no needs, as if we were not creatures, not dependent on Him and dependents, by His will, on material things too.

So I knelt at the altar rail in the little Mexican church of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Fourteenth Street, where I sometimes went to Communion, and asked with great intensity of desire for the publication of the book, if it should be for God’s glory.

The fact that I could even calmly assume that there was some possibility of the book giving glory to God shows the profound depths of my ignorance and spiritual blindness: but anyway, that was what I asked.  But now I realize that it was a very good thing that I made that prayer.

It is a matter of common belief among Catholics that when God promises to answer our prayers, He does not promise to give us exactly what we ask for.  But we can always be certain that if he does not give us that, it is because He has something much better to give us instead.  That is what is meant by Christ’s promise that we will receive all that we ask in His name.  Quodcumque petimus adversus utilitatem salutis, non petimus in nomine Salvatoris.

I think I prayed as well as I could, considering what I was, and with considerable confidence in God and in Our Lady, and I knew I would be answered.  I am only just beginning to realize how well I was answered.  In the first place the book was never published, and that was a good thing.  But in the second place God answered me by a favor which I had already refused and had practically ceased to desire.  He gave me back the vocation that I had half-consciously given up, and He opened to me again the doors that had fallen shut when I had not known what to make of my baptism and the grace of that First Communion.

But before He did this I had to go through some little darkness and suffering.

I think those days at the end of August 1939 were terrible for everyone.  They were grey days of great heat and sultriness and the weight of physical oppression by the weather added immeasurably to the burden of the news from Europe that got more ominous day by day.

Now it seemed that at last there really would be war in earnest.  Some sense of the craven and perverted esthetic excitement with which the Nazis were waiting for the thrill of this awful spectacle made itself felt negatively, and with hundredfold force, in the disgust and nausea with which the rest of the world expected the embrace of this colossal instrument of death.  It was a danger that had, added to it, an almost incalculable element of dishonor and insult and degradation and shame.  And the world faced not only destruction, but destruction with the greatest possible defilement: defilement of that which is most perfect in man, his reason and his will, his immortal soul.

All this was obscure to most people, and made itself felt only in a mixture of disgust and hopelessness and dread.  They did not realize that the world had now become a picture of what the majority of its individuals had made of their own souls.  We had given our minds and wills up to be raped and defiled by sin, by hell itself: and now, for our inexorable instruction and reward, the whole thing was to take place all over again before our eyes, physically and morally, in the social order, so that some of us at least might have some conception of what he had done.

In those days, I realized it myself.  I remember one of the nights at the end of August when I was riding on the subway, and suddenly noticed that practically nobody in the car was reading the evening paper, although the wires were hot with news.  The tension had become so great that even this toughest of cities had had to turn aside and defend itself against the needles of such an agonizing stimulation.  For once everybody else was feeling what Lax and I and Gibney and Rice had been feeling for two years about newspapers and news.

There was something else in my own mind – the recognition: “I myself am responsible for this.  My sins have done this.  Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too. . . .” It was a very sobering thought, and yet its deep and probing light by its very truth eased my soul a little.  I made up my mind to go to confession and Communion on the first Friday of September.

The nights dragged by.  I remember one, when I was driving in from Long Island where I had been having dinner at Gibney’s house at Port Washington.  The man with whom I was riding had a radio in the car, and we were riding along the empty Parkway, listening to a quiet, tired voice from Berlin.  These commentators’ voices had lost all their pep.  There was none of that lusty and doctrinaire elation with which the news broadcasters usually convey the idea that they know all about everything.  This time you knew that nobody knew what was going to happen, and they all admitted it.  True, they were all agreed that the war was now going to break out.  But when?  Where?  They could not say.

All the trains to the German frontier had been stopped.  All air service had been discontinued.  The streets were empty.  You got the feeling that things were being cleared for the first great air-raid, the one that everyone had been wondering about, that H. G. Wells and all the other people had written about, the one that would wipe our London in one night.

The Thursday night before the first Friday of September I went to confession at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then, with characteristic stupidity, stopped in at Dillon’s, which was a bar where we went all the time, across the street from the stage-door of the Center Theater.  Gibney and I used to sit there waiting for the show to end, and we would hang around until one or two in the morning with several girls we knew who had bits to play in it.  This evening, before the show was out, I ran into Jinny Burton, who was not in the show, but could have been in many better shows than that, and she said she was going home to Richmond over Labor Day.  She invited me to come with her.  We arranged to meet in Pennsylvania Station the following morning.

When it was morning, I woke up early and heard the radios.  I could not quite make out what they were saying, but the voices were not tired any more: there was much metallic shouting which meant something had really happened.

On my way to Mass, I found out what it was.  They had bombed Warsaw, and the war had finally begun.

In the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, near the Pennsylvania Station, there was a High Mass.  The priest stood at the altar under the domed mosaic of the apse and his voice rose in the solemn cadences of the Preface of the Mass – those ancient and splendid and holy words of the immortal church.  Vere dignum et justum est aequum et salutare nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere, Domine sancte, Pater omnipoens, aeterne Deus.

It was the voice of the church, the bride of Christ who is in the world yet not of it, whose life transcends and outlives wars and persecutions and revolutions and all the wickedness and cruelty and rapacity and injustice of men.  It is truly meet and just always and in all things to give Thee thanks, Holy Lord, omnipotent Father, Eternal God: a tremendous prayer that reduces all wars to their real smallness and insignificance in the face of eternity.  It is a prayer that opens the door to eternity, that springs from eternity and goes again into eternity, taking our minds with it in its deep and peaceful wisdom.  Always and in all things to give Thee thanks, omnipotent Father.  Was it thus that she was singing, this church, this one body, who had already begun to suffer and to bleed again in another war?

She was thanking Him in the war, in her suffering: not for the war and for the suffering, but for His love which she knew was protecting her, and us, in this new crisis.  And raising up her eyes to Him, she saw the eternal God alone through all these things, was interested in His action alone, not in the bungling cruelty of secondary causes, but only in His love, His wisdom.  And to Him the church, His bride, gave praise through Christ, through whom all the angelic hierarchies praise Him.

I knelt at the altar rail and on this the first day of the Second World War received from the hand of the priest, Christ in the host, the same Christ who was being nailed agin to the cross by the effect of my sins, and the sin of the whole selfish, stupid, idiotic world of men.

There was no special joy in that weekend in Virginia.  On the Saturday afternoon when we started out from Richmond to go to Urbanna, where Jinny’s family had a boat they were going to sail in a regatta, we got the news about the sinking of the Athenia, and then, that evening, I suddenly developed a pain in an impacted wisdom tooth.  It raged all night and the next day I staggered off to the regatta, worn out with sleeplessness and holding a jay full of pain.

Down at the dock where there was a gas-pump for the motor boats and a red tank full of Coca-Cola on ice, we stood out of the sun in the doorway of a big shed smelling of ropes and pitch, and listened to a man talking on the radio from London.

His voice was reassuring.  The city had not yet been bombed.

We started out of the cove, and passed through the mouth into the open estuary of the Rappahannock, blazing with sun, and everybody was joking about the Bremen.  The big German liner had sailed out of New York without warning and had disappeared.  Every once in a while some high drawling Southern female voice would cry:

“There’s the Bremen.

I had a bottle of medicine in my pocket, and with a match and a bit of cotton I swabbed the furious impacted tooth.

Nevertheless, when I got back to New York, it turned out that the war was not going to be so ruthless after all – at least so it seemed.  The fighting was fierce in Poland, but in the west there was nothing doing.  And now that the awful tension was over, people were quieter and more confident than they had been before the fighting had started.

I went to a dentist who hammered and chipped at my jaw until he got the wisdom tooth out of my head, and then I went back to Perry Street and lay on my bed and played some ancient records of Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman’s trumpet player, and swabbed my bleeding mouth with purple disinfectant until the whole place reeked of it.

I have five stitches in my jaw.

The days went by.  The city was quiet and confident.  It even began to get gay again.  Whatever happened, it was evident that America was not going to get into the war right away, and a lot of people were saying that it would just go on like this for years, a sort of state of armed waiting and sniping, with the big armies lined up in their impregnable fortified areas.  It was as if the world were entering upon a strange new era in which the pretense of peace had defined itself out into what it was, a state of permanent hostility that was nevertheless not quite ready to fight.  And some people thought we were just going to stay that way for twenty years.

FORGIVENESS: Finding The Room To Forgive

Ash Wednesday, February 10

That long ago.

An assignment in forgiveness.  Except, for me, the assignment was narrowed.  I was to focus on my unforgiveness, my refusal to forgive.

And I initially thought, this is good.  This is healthy.  Like fasting for the body.  A deep cleansing.

That’s because I thought that this was just going to be an expansion of those aspects of forgiveness that I’ve worked with nearly all my life.  What I know.  Just more.  Bigger.

Improved.

Huh.

It turns out that forgiveness for those big things that have happened to us in our lives isn’t the worst expression of letting go.  Because, I have discovered, big things give you room to move around.  They give you memories that you can finger.  They give you big emotions that you can express in tears, or words, or just sadness.  And they give you time.  Big things don’t just happen to you in the moment that they happen to you.  They plant roots, gripping your essence, and then they grow and bud and flower, so that you can see their reality manifest in your life.

Ah, you can say.  I did this because I’m still afraid of that.  Oh, look, I’m stuck here because I don’t trust myself in this situation.

Defining.  Big hurts can define you, and you can recognize that definition and realize that you are, yourself, an editor of your life, and you can start to erase some of the lines and redraw yourself, your relationship with the world.

You can take a breath and realize that some parts of that big experience are now gone forever.

Forgiveness with room to grow.  Room to heal.  Room to smile again.

I began my Lenten forgiveness work with a series of visions.  I stood in a room.  Darkened.  Around me were a set of doors.  All locked.  From the other side.  No keys.

And that was the problem: no keys.

No keys for access.

No keys for knowing who is on the other side of the door.

No keys for understanding.

Trust me when I tell you, it is a waste of effort to guess what you are dealing with when you are faced with locked doors.

Logic goes to those “big” people.  Those who threw their lance and managed to wound you.  And rode away victorious, which could be, in fact, the biggest wound of all.

But those people don’t lock their doors against you.  They don’t care who you are or how you are or what happened to you.

Or, at least, they don’t care about their wounding you.  You can try to work out a dance where they admit their wrongdoing, and you find a way to see the situation from their side; but if this is what is needed to forgive, there would be very little forgiveness in the world.

We are clever enough to figure out how to forgive without the other person having to feel sorry for their sins and make amends.

For those big things that we can see in our minds and feel in our hearts.  The ones that are so big that they give you the room to view them like works of art, standing and brazenly exposing themselves.

So, after a few weeks of facing the doors and having absolutely no clue as to how to open them, or talk to the people on the other sides of the doors, I just decided it was time to brush my teeth.  Or wash dishes.  Or listen to Shakespeare sonnets.

Anything but that.

Then something happened.  And even I knew it was nothing.  Well, almost nothing.  No big deal.

And yet to this no-big-deal my reaction was an erupting volcano of rage.

If I talked to myself, I could easily imagine myself ranting and arguing and explaining and blaming.

It took a lot of my energy.  It took a lot of my thoughts.  It took a lot of my time.

For pretty much nothing.

Something stupid.

This was right before Easter.

And I knew that I couldn’t present myself to God on Easter with such a soiled mind.

With such an angry heart.

So I wrote about it.

Writing helps me to define things.

And so I found in this small incident the key to the first door.

My grandmother.

Now I would imagine that what she had done to me was something so horrific that I had forgotten all about it in order to suppress the pain and anguish.

Except while it’s true I did suppress the memory of the incident in order to suppress the pain and anguish, my grandmother had not done anything to me.  At least not initially.

Unforgiveness comes from having no room to move within a wound.  When that hurt is painted on you and becomes your skin.  When the consequences of the hurt become your own thoughts.

I wanted to talk to her about a problem I was having with a prayer that we recited every time we were in church, at Mass.  Well, by “we,” I mean the congregation.  I had become so upset with the prayer, I had stopped saying it.

My grandmother, a devout Christian by all appearances and behavior, didn’t know what I was talking about when I raised the issue with her.

As she shuffled in the kitchen, cooking supper.  Always a good time to talk with her.  She wouldn’t have anything else on her mind except how long she would overcook the vegetables, and find ways to ruin the meat.

Except the boiled potatoes.

They were always cooked right.

What are you talking about, Julia?

That prayer.  That prayer.

What prayer?

I’m someone who doesn’t give up on conversations easily.  I always feel that the failure to communicate is mine.  So I try harder to express myself.

So I tried harder.

The harder I tried, the less comprehension my grandmother professed.

The point of no-return for the fall came when I turned the conversation around back onto me.

Perhaps it was a look in her eyes.  That look was often in her eyes as they looked on me.

Perhaps it was the shrug of her shoulders that told me she was forgetting that I ever bothered her.

The mirror.

That she held up that day.

Or that I held up for myself.

If she doesn’t even recognize the prayer I’m describing, and I’m obsessing over this prayer, who am I? 

Or, more significantly, more to the point of my existence,

What kind of freak am I?

Who else thinks about this prayer?

No one.

Who else even thinks about the meaning of the prayers they say?

Absolutely no one.

The mirror that she held up that day, framed by her incomprehension and frustration with me, reflected nothing.  There was no one in the mirror.

How do you get away from that kind of experience?

You don’t.

How do you get enough distance between you and it to have some perspective, some room to change the dynamic?

You don’t.

A wound with no room.

Realizing the nature of my unforgiveness, I easily found the keys to the other five doors.

And I got to see that they, too, were portraits of minute occurrences that had held up the same mirror: the mirror of nothingness.

And gathering the six wounds together, I could see that such an experience, for me, anyway, was the means of telling me that I was not welcome there.

Not surprising, anyway, was that three out of the six people were priests.

Priests who had held up the mirror showing me that I was nothing to them.  That they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see who I am, and as a result made me feel unwelcome in my own church.

Close wounds.  Intimate wounds.

I found that the pain of seeing no one in the mirror, held up after I said something to someone, was too much for me.  I was a girl when this began.

Feeling unwelcomed was disorienting and disturbing.

So I learned not to speak about anything to anyone.

I couldn’t stop being myself.  But I could stop telling people what I thought about.

Really thought about.

So there was this revelation.

Then, there was my telling two people I care for about how Shakespeare in his King Henry VI, Part 1, makes Joan of Arc the queen of zombies (literally, she calls up the fallen French soldiers and offers them her own blood if they will fight again – the power of zombies (they refuse)), and the other things he does to her (like making her beg for her life by saying that she’s pregnant – by three possible men), I got to hear my friend say, Good for Shakespeare!  She was a nut-case.  A freak.

And my other friend, saying, Right on! or some such enthusiastic hoorah.

And I’ve still said nothing to either of them.

The reason we forgive is so that we can breathe when the wound is poked, is deepened.

So that we can turn away from the thrust and know that all is right with God and the world in spite of the nip of flesh that has just been lost to you.

Amen.

REFLECTION: Jesus, the Prince of Peace, by John Dear

From John Dear on Peace

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
(Isaiah 9:6-7)

Today there are so many areas of injustice it’s hard to know where to begin.  Racism, sexism, poverty, and oppression flourish around the world.  We cannot personally solve every injustice, but we can’t just sit back and allow injustice to continue.  Whether we struggle for an end to racism or sexism, for the rights of the people of Sudan or the homeless, for an end to torture, or for a living wage, we can make a positive contribution that will move us all toward social, racial, political, and economic justice. (Living Peace)

⊹ ⊹ ⊹

The inner life of peace means acting from a deep conviction about who we are, that each one of us is a beloved child of God, a human being called to love and serve other human beings.  Living from this conviction does not mean we ignore our emotions – quite the contrary.  In fact, as we go forward into the world, to places like death row, soup kitchens, or war zones, we touch the pain of the world and feel the full range of human emotions, with sorrow and anger, as we experience the pain of human tragedy and injustice.  In 1985, while living in a refugee camp in El Salvador’s war zone, I felt terrible sorrow, grief, and outrage as I witnessed the death and destruction around me, but I also felt  a great inner peace because I clung to my faith in the God of peace, who seemed palpably present in the suffering people around me.  Deep down, I rested in God’s peace and even felt joy while I endured and resisted the horror of war with the refugees around me. (Living Peace)

⊹ ⊹ ⊹

I remember one Catholic mother who came to Ground Zero to find closure over the loss of her son, hoping the trip would bear her along.  She gazed over the towering wreckage and wept awhile.  Then, back on the boat, she looked ;me in the eye and whispered, “I have no room for anger.”

I was astonished at her strength.  The ground rules had been set by our president, and the media had made things clear: This woman’s role was to call for blood.  She was supposed to be angry and vengeful.  But no, this mother kept her heart to herself and let it lead the way, a path forged by grief, conscience, and love.  “I feel only compassion for the families of the hijackers,” she said.  “Imagine what suffering they must have known to produce such violence.  What must their families be going through?”  With that, she rejected out of hand any sort of retaliation.  “Bombing Afghanistan will never bring my son back,” she concluded, stating what no one else dared to state.  “It will only add to my grief.”  Hers was a greatness I rarely encountered in anyone during those days. (A Persistent Peace)

⊹ ⊹ ⊹

Companionship with Jesus is the essence of the matter.  There’s no denying the truth of John’s Gospel: “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own, neither can you unless you remain in me.  It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you,” (John 15:4, 5, 16).  I take this to heart and try to keep it close.  I do it through time-honored ways: daily meditation, Bible study, life in community, service, sacraments, and solidarity with the poor.  My disciplines still teach me about Jesus and fortify my discipleship to him. (A Persistent Peace)

⊹ ⊹ ⊹

Most of us admire Jesus, but none of us want to undergo what he suffered, to make that journey to Jerusalem and that last, uphill climb to Calvary.  In this age of pop stars and movie celebrities, we are, at best, fans of Jesus, not followers.  But discipleship means walking in his footsteps from Galilee to Tabor then to Jerusalem, where Jesus turns over the tables of imperial injustice and faces arrest and execution.   We may go to church, we may read the Gospels, we may respect his teachings, but to follow Jesus faithfully means to turn toward our own modern-day Jerusalems, resisting systemic injustice, putting down our swords, forgiving those who hurt us, and taking up the cross of nonviolent, suffering love in the struggle for justice and peace.

Since Jesus defended the poor, confronted injustice, challenged the ruling authorities, and broke every unjust law, his journey could only lead to a showdown with the imperial powers.  Because we are his followers, our Gospel journey to peace and justice will also get us in trouble.  Our discipleship to Jesus will lead us to love our neighbors, love our enemies, defend the poor, denounce injustice, break unjust laws, oppose war, and confront institutionalized violence with active nonviolence.  Discipleship will disrupt our lives and take us down a path not of comfort and consolation but of pain and sacrifice.  At some point, we too will want to climb a mountain in search of prayerful solitude with our beloved God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote long ago that the problem with Christians today is that we do not want to pay the price for following Jesus.  We want “cheap grace,” not the costly grace of the Gospel.  Because we want cheap grace, we end up with all the trappings of church, power, ritual, and religious legalism, everything but Jesus and a living discipleship to him here and now in our own lives. (Transfiguration)

POETRY: Wherefore The Scars Of Christ’s Passion Remained In The Body Of His Resurrection, by Theodulf of Orleans

Translated from the Latin by Helen Waddell

When Christ came from the shadows by the stream
Of Phlegethon,
Scars were upon his feet, his hands, his side
Not, as dulled souls might deem,
That He, who had the power
Of healing all the wounds whereof men died,
Could not have healed his own,
But that those scars had some divinity,
Carriage of mystery,
Life’s source to bear the stigmata of Death.

By these same scars his men
Behind the very body that they knew,
No transient breath,
No drift of bodiless air,
And held him in their hearts in fortress there.
They knew their Master risen, and unfurled
The hope of resurrection through the world.

By these same scars, in prayer for all mankind,
No transient breath,
No drift of bodiless air,
And held him in their hearts in fortress there.
They knew their Master risen, and unfurled
The hope of resurrection through the world.

By these same scars, in prayer for all mankind,
Before his Father’s face,
He pleads our wounds within his mortal flesh,
And all the travail of his mortal days:
For ever interceding for His grace,
Remembering where forgetfulness were blind,
For ever pitiful, for ever kind,
Instant that Godhead should take thought for man,
Remembering the manhood of His Son,
His only Son, and the deep wounds he bore.

By these same scars his folk will not give o’er
Office of worship, whilst they see,
Passion, thy mystery:
In those dark wounds their weal,
In that descent to hell their climb to the stars,
His death, their life,
Their wealth, his crown of thorns.

PRINCE OF PEACE: Jesus And Nonviolence — A Third Way, by Walter Wink

From Peace Is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence

Many of those who have committed their lives to ending injustice simply dismiss Jesus’s teachings about nonviolence out of hand as impractical idealism.  And with good reason.  “Turn the other cheek” suggests the passive, Christian doormat quality that has made so many Christians cowardly and complicit in the face of injustice.  “Resist not evil” seems to break the back of all opposition to evil and to counsel submission.  “Going the second mile” has become a platitude meaning nothing more than “extend yourself,” and rather than fostering structural change, encourages collaboration with the oppressor.

Jesus obviously never behaved in any of these ways.  Whatever the source of the misunderstanding, it is clearly neither in Jesus not in his teaching, which, when given a fair hearing in its original social context, is arguably one of the most revolutionary political statements ever uttered:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matthew 5:38-41)

When the court translators working in the hire of King James chose to translate antistenai as “Resist not evil,” they were doing something more than rendering Greek into English.  They were translating nonviolent resistance into docility.  Jesus did not tell his oppressed hearers not to resist evil.  That would have been absurd.  His entire ministry is utterly at odds with such a preposterous idea.  The Greek word is made up of two parts: anti, a word still used in English for “against,” and histemi, a verb that in its noun form (statis) means violent rebellion, armed revolt, sharp dissension.

A proper translation of Jesus’s teaching would then be, “Don’t strike back at evil (or, one who has done you evil) in kind.”  Do not retaliate against violence with violence.”  The Scholars Version is brilliant: “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.”  Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than the anti-Roman resistance fighters.  The only difference was over the means to be used: how one should fight evil.

There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and (3) the third way of militant nonviolence articulated by Jesus.  Human evolution has conditioned us for only the first two of these responses: flight or fight.

Neither of these alternatives has anything to do with what Jesus is proposing.  It is important that we be utterly clear about this point before going on: Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil.  His is a third alternative not even touched by these options.  Antistenai cannot be construed to mean submission.

Jesus clarifies his meaning by three examples.  “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  Why the right cheek?  How does one strike another on the right cheek anyway?  Try it.  A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent.  To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks.  Even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of exclusion and ten day’s penance, (The Dead Sea Scrolls).  The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the right hand.  What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight.  The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her “place.”  One normally did not strike a peer thus, and if one did, the fine was exorbitant.  A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors.  Masters back-handed slaves; husband, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.  We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal.  The only normal response would be cowering submission.

It is important to ask who Jesus’s audience is.  In every case, Jesus’s listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor, but their victims.

Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek?  Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate.  The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again.  Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect.  I deny you the power to humiliate me.  I am a human being just like you.  Your status does not alter that fact.  You cannot demean me.”

The second example Jesus gives is set in a court of law.  Someone is being sued for his outer garment.  Who would do that and under what circumstances?  The Old Testament provides the clues.

When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge.  You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you.  And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge; when the sun goes down, you shall restore to him the pledge that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you.  You shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. (Deuteronomy 24:10-13, 17)

Only the poorest of the poor would have nothing but an outer garment to give as collateral for a loan.  Jewish law strictly required its return every evening at sunset, for that was all the poor had in which to sleep.  The situation to which Jesus alludes is one with which all his hearers would have been all too familiar: the poor debtor has sunk even deeper into poverty, the debt cannot be repaid, and his creditor has hauled him into court to try to seize his property by legal means.

Indebtedness was the most serious social problem in first-century Palestine.  Jesus’s parables are full of debtors struggling to salvage their lives.  The situation was not, however, a natural calamity that had overtaken the incompetent.  It was the direct consequence of Roman imperial policy.  Emperors taxed the wealthy ruthlessly to fund their ward.  Naturally, the rich sought non-liquid investments to secure their wealth.  Land was best, but there was a problem: it was not bought and sold on the open market as today but was ancestrally owned and passed down over generations.  Little land was ever for sale, in Palestine at least.  Exorbitant interest, however, could be used to drive landowners into even deeper debt until they were forced to sell their land.  By the time of Jesus we see this process already far advanced: large estates (latifundia) owned by absentee landlords, managed by stewards, and worked by servants, sharecroppers, and day laborers.  It is no accident that the first act of the Jewish revolutionaries in 66 C.E. was to burn the Temple treasury, where the record of debts was kept.

It is in this context that Jesus speaks.  His hearers are the poor (“if any one would sue you“).  They share a rankling hatred for a system that subjects them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, and finally even their outer garments.

Why then does Jesus counsel them to give over their inner garment as well?  This would mean stripping off all their clothing and marching out of court stark naked!   Put yourself in the debtor’s place, and imagine the chuckles this saying must have evoked.  There stands the creditor, beet-red with embarrassment, your outer garment in one hand, your underwear in the other.  You have suddenly turned the tables on him.  You had no hope of winning the trial; the law was entirely in his favor.  But you have refused to be humiliated, and at the same time you have registered a stunning protest against a system that spawns such debt.  You have said in effect, “You want my robe?  Here, take everything!  Now you’ve got all I have except my body.  Is that what you’ll take next?”

Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell not on the naked party, but on the person viewing or causing one’s nakedness, (Genesis 9:20-27).  By stripping you have brought the creditor under the same prohibition that led to the curse of Canaan.  As you parade into the street, your friends and neighbors, startled, aghast, inquire what happened.  You explain.  They join your growing procession, which now resembles a victory parade.  The entire system by which debtors are oppressed has been publicly unmasked.  The creditor is revealed to be not a “respectable” money lender but a party in the reduction of an entire social class to landlessness and destitution.  This unmasking is not simply punitive, however; it offers the creditor a chance to see, perhaps for the first time in his life, what his practices cause, and to repent.  Far from collaborating in injustice, the poor man has used the law, aikido-like, to make an exploitative law a laughing stock.

Jesus’s third example, the one about going the second mile, is drawn from the very enlightened practice of limiting the amount of forced labor that Roman soldiers could levy on subject peoples.  Jews would have seldom encountered legionnaires except in time of war or insurrection.  It would have been auxiliaries who were headquartered in Judea, paid at half the rate of legionnaires and rather a scruffy bunch.  In Galilee, Herod Antipas maintained an army patterned after Rome’s; presumably it also had the right to impose labor.  Mile markers were placed regularly beside the highway.  A soldier could impress a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go farther carried with it severe penalties under military law.  In this way Rome attempted to limit the anger of the occupied people and still keep its armies on the move.  Nevertheless, this levy was a bitter reminder to the Jews that they were a subject people even in the Promised Land.

To this proud but subjugated people Jesus does not counsel revolt.  One does not “befriend” the soldier, draw him aside, and drive a knife into his ribs.  Jesus was keenly aware of the futility of armed revolt against Roman imperial might and minced no words about it, though it must have cost him support from the revolutionary factions.

But why walk the second mile?  Is this not to rebound to the opposite extreme: aiding and abetting the enemy?  Not at all.  The question here, as in the two previous instances, is how the oppressed can recover the initiative, how they can assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time being be changed.  The rules are Caesar’s, but not how one responds to the rules – that is God’s, and Caesar has no power over that.

Imagine then the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack (sixty-five to eighty-five pounds in full gear), and you say, “Oh, no, let me carry it another mile.”  Why would you do that?  What are you up to?  Normally, he has to coerce your kinsmen to carry his pack, and now you do it cheerfully and will not stop!  Is this a provocation?  Are you insulting his strength?  Being kind?  Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to make you go farther than you should?  Are you planning to file a complaint?  Create trouble?

From a situation of servile impressments, you have once more seized the initiative.  You have taken back the power of choice.

These three examples amplify what Jesus means in his thesis statement: “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.”  Instead of the two options ingrained in us by millions of years of unreflective, brute response to biological threats from the environment – flight or fight – Jesus offers a third way.  This new way marks a historic mutation in human development: the revolt against the principle of natural selection.  With Jesus a way emerges by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored:

Jesus’s Third Way

  • Seize the moral initiative
  • Find a creative alternative to violence
  • Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
  • Meet force with ridicule or humor
  • Break the cycle of humiliation
  • Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position
  • Expose the injustice of the system
  • Take control of the power dynamic
  • Shame the oppressor into repentance
  • Stand your ground
  • Force the Powers to make decisions for which they are not prepared
  • Recognize your own power
  • Be willing to suffer rather than to retaliate
  • Cause the oppressor to see you in a new light
  • Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
  • Be willing to undergo the penalty for breaking unjust laws
  • Die to fear of the old order and its rules

MEDITATION: The Prince of Peace, by Jonathan Holt Titcomb, Bishop of Rangoon

From Before the Cross

In His days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth. (Psalm 72:7)

What a contrast between the reigns of David and Solomon!  I see the former reaching his throne through suffering and persecution, and then occupying it in perpetual warfare against his enemies.  I behold the latter inheriting his throne without a struggle, and occupying it as a Prince of Peace.  He builds a magnificent temple for the glory of God, without the noise of a chisel or hammer; he reigns amidst a profusion of wealth for which there was no parallel in history; and he speaks, both as prophet and king, with a wisdom which was never equaled by man.  Thus conflict and bloodshed came first, and afterwards the peace and glory!

My soul, contemplate this picture; for is it not a portrait of thy suffering, conquering, and all-glorious Savior, whose kingship united within itself the double fulfillment of these experiences?  Yes, blessed Jesus, thy cross was the road to thy crown!  Let me love thee, and embrace thee with eternal gratitude, because thou wast first the man of sorrows, in order that thou mightest afterwards be the Prince of Peace; building up a temple of living souls with the noiseless touch of thy gentle Spirit; spreading out treasures and riches of grace for thy people; and speaking to us all with the voice of infinite and never-ending wisdom!  This is peace indeed.  But it is peace purchased by thy precious blood!  “Transported with the view, I’m lost in wonder, love, and praise!”

Yet when I look back on the age of Solomon itself, how can I suppose that any such thoughts as these were in the minds of God’s covenant people?  The most I can see is that, as certain Psalms throw a light of mysterious suffering on the promised seed, reflecting, as it were, the character of David, from whose house He was to spring, so other Psalms, written in Solomon’s reign, threw rays of coming glory and peace upon the portrait, intimating that these results should follow after the conflict had ended in victory.  The revelation, indeed, was so far clear, that peace and righteousness, glory and dominion, throughout all nations, should be the final outcome of the Redeemer’s mission; and that all these blessings should alone be brought about through victory over the opposition of an ungrateful world.  That opposition, however, was doubtless anticipated from the forces of heathendom.  Little did the people of Israel at this time dream that the Messiah would come to his own, and that his own would receive him not.  Still, the principle was laid down that he should rule at last as Prince of Peace, through triumph over mental, moral, and physical suffering.  Possibly some of the more spiritual may have even penetrated the idea of his having to endure a temporary death.  For they could not have supposed that David spoke of himself when he said, “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.”  But, be this as it may, the real doctrine of the cross was not yet given to the people.  The teaching of the Spirit, that there is finished and perfect peace through the blood of the cross, was still hidden in the background.  There it lay, embedded beneath poetic imagery, but too obscurely to be interpreted, too vaguely to be understood.  Pardon and peace, for the present, circled themselves only around obedience to the legal sacrifices.  And though the hope of something better rose beyond, the reality was not seen.

Oh that my privileges may never rise up to condemn me!  How can I “escape,” if I “neglect so great salvation”?

PRAYER: A Prayer For Peace In Syria, by James Martin, SJ

From America Magazine

O Prince of Peace, we come before you sinful and sorrowful.
We know that we are all guilty of hatred and contempt,
and yet we ask for your mercy and forgiveness.

In Syria, millions of our brothers and sisters are suffering greatly.
And it seems that their suffering may be increased by people
who themselves wish to bring peace to this land.

We know that it is you who turn our hearts to peace,
and so we ask you to turn your eyes to Syria,
so near the towns and villages where you grew up and ministered,
to look upon that Holy Land, and bring an end to violence.

Help us do all that we can, physically, morally, legally,
to support dialogue, foster reconciliation and promote justice.
End the terrible violence directed against so many Syrians
from so many places, and turn their hearts to forgiveness, compassion and love.

Open our own hearts to the needs of the millions of refugees.
Help us to see that they are our brothers and sisters in crisis,
for you were a refugee yourself once,
along with Mary and Joseph.

Most of all, let us not bring more violence and suffering
upon a people who have already suffered immensely.

Bring them peace, O Prince of Peace.

Amen.

EASTER: Saved By A Rockette — Easters I Have Known, by Kathleen Norris

From The Cloister Walk

Let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten your labors.  You should sing as wayfarers do – sing, but continue your journey.  Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable.  Sing, but keep going. (St. Augustine)

A dark plaid, deep reds and browns.  My favorite dress.  Soft cotton, no scratchy lace.  Buster Brown shoes.  An occasion; my mother has set my hair in rags overnight and in the morning she lets me brush out the curls.  Then we go to a department store in downtown Washington, DC, where along with other children, I have tea and cookies with the Easter Bunny.  I have the photograph to prove it.

I love singing in the cherub choir at the First Methodist Church in Arlington, Virginia.  In the picture I pose before the altar, hands pressed together, eyes closed tight as if I am praying hard.  But I am thinking about the way I look, in the starched white collar and big black bow tie, my arms like angel wings in voluminous pale blue sleeves.

⊹ ⊹ ⊹

Much is made of new things.  The electric stove, on which I promptly burned the palm of my right hand.  The television.  There’s a story on television that I like very much, because it is the same story I hear at Sunday school.  I love Jesus; I love to sing about him.  But now the story changes; something new, as dark as the clouds behind Jesus’s face.  He is nailed to a cross; he is going to die.  I have never seen a movie in which someone dies, and I do not like it.  Especially Jesus.  How can I sing about him any more, if he dies?  I run into the kitchen, where my grandmother Norris is cleaning a fish.  I am in tears.  It is Good Friday, she tells me, good because it’s the day Jesus died, because he died to take away my sins.  I don’t know what this means; I am transfixed by the fish’s eye.  Something is wrong here, very wrong.  I go to my room, climb inside my wardrobe, and shut the door.  I am going to stay there a long time.  I am not going to come out, ever.  The grown-ups have gone crazy, or they’ve lied to me, they’ve kept it hidden, what a terrible world this is, where Jesus dies.

We each have a purse and matching hat.  White gloves, socks with lace cuffs.  Crinolines under stiff cotton skirts that make us feel important.  Patent leather Mary Janes.  My two little sisters and I pose for a photograph before leaving the church.  We stand by the station wagon.  “Robin’s egg blue,” my mother had called it.  I like to think of the car as an egg, my family hatching through the doors.  For my youngest sister, it is her first purse.  It distracts her.  She swings it back and forth, hitting us on the knees.  Quit it, we say.  Shush.  Stand still for the picture.

Sunrise at Punchbowl cemetery.  My father’s band is here, the 7th Fleet Navy Band, and also the church choir he directs in downtown Honolulu.  That’s why I’m here, to sing in the choir.  It feels odd to be singing so early, to be up before the sun.  It is hard to imagine all this death; I have not lost anyone to death, except the collie we named Lady.  Her death seemed so large, I felt the need to do something.  I set my toy ironing board up in the back yard and covered it with one of mom’s old tablecloths.  Death was hungry, and I couldn’t do enough.  Not just dog biscuits and Lady’s collar, but some of my things, my favorite marbles, and a Golden book – Scuffy the Tugboat – and a copper bracelet that I bought with my allowance on vacation the summer before; it all went on the makeshift altar.  I couldn’t do enough.  Death was empty, and I tried to fill it.

I remember one morning when our neighbor came over as we were eating breakfast, still in her nightgown, her thin hair in rollers, gray at the roots.  Out of breath, she said, Harry’s collapsed, and my father ran next door and called the ambulance and missed a whole morning of work.  After school that day, a new phrase, “dead on arrival.”

I remember the front page of the newspaper on that day the plane crashed in Rio de Janeiro with members of the U.S. Navy Band on board.  Everyone died.  My father’s face turned ash-white; he looked old, not like my dad any more.  He had known all the people on that plane.  He cried, and my mother cried.  She told me that if we had stayed in Washington, my father would have been on that plane and he would be dead.  I could not imagine this.

The men’s voices drone, I am sleepy and hungry.  The soldiers’ white crosses are beautiful in the morning light.  Such a peaceful place, such terrible deaths, and so many.  Easter Sunrise Service.

Spring break, spent with friends from college.  My favorite was at Montauk, walking in cold sand, watching the sun come up.  Easter is a blank space on the calendar, and I barely remember the Easters of my childhood.  Once, though, my mother and I are visiting her parents in Lemmon, and we go to church on Easter Sunday with my grandmother.  I grumble over having to dress up and deliberately sing flat on the hymns, until my mother jabs me with her elbow.

After college, Manhattan, my first apartment.  My roommate and I furnish it mostly with hand-me-downs from her family’s home on Long Island.  The necessity of buying things – even salt and pepper shakers, or a small Oriental carpet – terrifies me.  It seems risky, this pretense to adulthood.  One Thursday night in spring, my roommate brings home some mescaline, a gift from another Julliard student.  I am not much for drugs, except for a little pot, but I agree to take it with her on Friday night after work.  For a time, it is a giddy high, and pleasant; from our little balcony we watch the lights change along West End Avenue and are unaccountably amused.  But then she says something that seems sharp to me, and I’m afraid to reply.  The clouds rolling in from the west, along the Hudson River, come too fast.  They roil, coiling like snakes about to strike.  As if they would tell me something, but in a language I don’t know.

I can’t look at her face, or my own face in the mirror.  I can’t sleep; thoughts come too quickly, one one another.  If I were a machine, I’d be a ticker-tape printing.  I wonder if I am a ticker-tape; if everything about me, everything I thought I knew, is false.  My life a pretense, an evasion – thoughts tick away, too fast – me as I want to be, not as I am.  I get up, turn on a light, but don’t dare go outside.  I sit at the card table we use for meals.  I sit, holding on.  I know that if I let go, even once, I will go to the balcony and jump to my death.  I don’t know why this should be so, but it is so.  I sit for hours.

When it grows light outside, I get up and go to the bathroom, clinging to the walls, still afraid to let go.  I imagine that I am on a space walk, and my tether must not break.  I am afraid to wake my roommate, afraid that she’ll be angry.  I lie down in bed but am afraid to sleep. Later, she wakes up and wonders if she should take me to a hospital.  No, I say.  She cuts a grapefruit and hands half of it to me.  I begin to cry, because I think she hates me, but now she wants to feed me.  Not like the Jimmy Cagney movie, I say, where he grinds the grapefruit into a woman’s face, and I am crying.  It’s a bad trip, she says.  And I say, I guess so, and for the rest of the day she mothers me, watching me and feeding me and not going out, because she’s afraid to leave me alone.  All that Saturday, we watch old movies.  She makes popcorn and hot chocolate.  We watch Kirk Douglas in Ulysses, which I think is the story of Jesus.

On Sunday I am better, but still shaky.  You have to pull yourself together, she tells me.  You can do it.  We had planned to walk to a friend’s apartment, a horn player who lives with a woman named Barbara, a Rockette.  As frightened as I am, I am not going to pass up the chance to meet a Rockette.  The windows of the building across the street from her apartment are blind eyes that spark with malice; watching us, and mocking.  It is difficult to be with people; the words they use, everything they do, has too much meaning; inside the poem of their lives.  I can’t keep track of my own.  I want to sleep.  I am a graceless guest.  I spill half a plate of food on the floor.  No matter, she says.  Barbara is a cheerful woman, and a good cook.  She fills my plate again and says something that makes me smile for the first time in days.  Happy Easter, she says.  On Monday I am afraid to put on a pair of shoes.  I stare at the shoes in my closet and am afraid of them all.  I have to force myself to get dressed and take the bus to work.  It is weeks before I can ride the subway without an offhand temptation to throw myself on the tracks.  I write to a friend, “I think I need to live better, but I have to do things step by step.  It is the journey of the embryo.”

I am working for the South Dakota Arts Council in a junior high school.  An irrepressible seventh-grade boy who has for days been writing passionate poems about motorcycles and TransAms says to me during last period on Friday afternoon: “This is the best week we ever had in school.  You’re here.  At noon on Tuesday in the gym we had a guy from the L.A. Lakers. And on Thursday some convicts from the State Pen came to talk to us.  And next week we’re off, for Easter.”

One bright Sunday morning, my husband and I are awakened by a knock on our bedroom door.  It’s a small town, and sometimes we wake to find a friend sound asleep on the living room sofa, having wandered in after the bars closed.  but it’s unusual for anyone to be knocking on our bedroom door.  “Dave?  Kathleen?”  We recognize the voice, a cowboy friend, and we reply, sleepily, “Just a minute,” as we untangle bedsheets and pull on bathrobes.

He’s standing in our kitchen, a half-empty bottle of Canadian whiskey in one hand, a plastic bucket in the other.  He says, “We had some yearling bulls that we had to cut to go to grass, and I thought, I sure would hate to see these big nuts go to waste.  I cleaned ’em up; they’re ready to cook.”  Our friends love my husband’s cooking, but this is the first time he’s been asked to prepare rocky mountain oysters for breakfast.

David decides to stir-fry them in the wok.  I pour whiskey into three glasses and toast some of my home-made bread.  There’s buffalo berry jam that my grandmother made, the last jar we have.  “Hey, it’s Easter,” I say, “let’s celebrate,” and we have ourselves a feast.

It’s Palm Sunday at the abbey.  The monks have invited their guests to join them in the procession into church.  Four girls, their catechism teachers, and myself.  It’s a rag-tag procession, and the children wave their palms self-consciously.  No matter.  It will have to do.  The hour is on us.

At Mass I stand alongside the youngest girl.  She stares at the celebrant as if at a flame, her eyes wander around the great candy box of a church, its pretty angels and painted vines, lilies spinning around the Christ Child.  She seems to be too young for first communion, but she’s careful to do what everyone else does, which is mostly standing still.

Yet we move, and change.  Her life crosses mine, and there is no name for it.  The quantum effect.  Communion.  At about her age I refused to believe that Jesus dies; I wonder if I believe it yet.  I wonder what she knows of death, if she, too, will run from pain, to a dark beyond telling, if she will find God there, for the touching and tasting.

The girl stares at her hands where bread has fallen as if from Heaven, and looks around wildly, face aflame.  “Do I eat this?” she wonders, half-aloud.  “Yes,” I whisper.  “Yes.”

It’s been a rough winter.  Medical, financial, emotional disaster that somehow we’ve come through.  After weeks on the road as an artist-in-schools, I feel ready for a Holy Week, my first experience of the Roman Catholic Easter liturgy.  My husband is at home, writing; he’ll be better off, he says, knowing that I’m here.  My “I-survived-Catholic-school-and-won’t-go-near-a-Mass-ever-again” husband thinks I’m where I belong.  He may be right.

Good Friday is stark, solemn, final.  But on Holy Saturday the world seems expectant again.  I’m delighted to find that the long story-telling session of the Vigil contains some of my favorite images from childhood – the parting of the Red Sea, and passage through the desert, following a fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day.

The Vigil moves us through the night.  I try to keep in mind what one monk has said to me, about not letting the self-voice take all the room inside me.  Somewhere, Thomas Merton says that “simplicity is completely absorbed in listening to what it hears,” and for much of the night, I am a simple-minded listener.

Another monk, a liturgist, has suggested that I sit in the choir loft so that I have a good view of everything.  Two monks join me there, and as there are three bells, they say, and only two of them, would I take one bell at the Gloria?  In the chilly tower, they give me the rope for the smallest bell, which is probably the only one I can handle.  “Be careful not to tip it,” one monk says, demonstrating.  It is hard to see; his black habit merges with the shadows.  There is no electricity in the bell tower, only the light of the full moon.

We return at the close of the Vigil, near midnight, and ring the bells for a long time.  Through the frosty glass I can make out the lights of cars on the Interstate in the distance; I wonder if they can hear the racket we’re making, if someone is wondering what the bells are for.

Afterwards, the abbot invites me to the Easter party – beer, popcorn, candy, and good conversation until one in the morning.  True celebration; maybe these people can enjoy Easter because they also observe Lent well enough to be happy to see it go.  I have such a good time that I spend the rest of the night dreaming it all over again.  This time there’s a monk at the party I’ve never seen before, and when I introduce myself, I’m surprised to see that he’s wearing gold vestments.  He seems amused to meet me, amused also at my confusion.  “Oh, I’m here all the time,” he says, waving his right hand as if this is of no consequence.  “You just don’t see me.”

I wake refreshed, truly glad for the first time in months.  At a late breakfast, the monks grumble over a full-page spread on the monastery in the local paper.  “They make it look like we’re spiritual all the time,” one says.  “Next time they come, we should make them take a picture of our pool table.”  “I could always have them help me check the pregnant cows,” says the farm manager.

There is much teasing of one monk who’s been misquoted, so that he seems to be denying the Resurrection; the theologians of the monastery busy themselves with determining exactly which heresy is implicit in his remark.  The reporter has also garbled the monastery schedule, so that it sounds as if the monks sleep all day and go to church all night.  “Whatever,” says the liturgy director, glancing at his watch.

PRAYER: A Change Of Words

When the visions came, right before the beginning of Lent, I was neither surprised nor upset by them.

There would be a change in the way my day was laid out.  No longer would there be periods of prayer throughout the day.  No time would be given to morning prayer, blended with the first period of contemplative prayer.  Or for the playful time that I called noon prayer: listening to scripture, reading thoughtful bits by a wide range of writers, listening to music.  No rosary. No compline.  No Thomas Merton.

Instead, there would be study.  One of the studies would be forgiveness, with an emphasis on those people for whom I carry unforgiveness like stone pillars encircling my heart.  Then there would be an even more intense, more focused, more disruptive study.

Instead of prayer this Lent, I got to plow up my soul.

And so, I thought, there it is.  Something different.  But it’s Lent, so what does one expect?

And with this shrug, I began my two studies.

It took a little bit, but when it took, after this little bit, I felt the shock profoundly.

A discipline of prayer, it seems, isn’t just about commitment or surrender or discipline, even.  It’s about having a blanket of warmth and love wrapped around you throughout the day.  God’s arms. I discovered that even the intercessory prayers I made at morning and evening prayer (and sometimes noon prayer, and even now and again at compline) were prayers that I was deeply attached to.  It turns out that, for me, they weren’t just exercises of “doing something for these people and God,” but that they were whispers of love.

Please God, watch over. . . .

Please God, heal. . . .

Please God, stop the. . . . 

And without these regularly breathed connections to those I love, to those I pray for because I have been asked to pray for them, and to those suffering around the world and even to the world herself, my heart began to break.  I could feel the separation become more and more real as the long days of Lent elapsed.

One day, I looked down and realized that I still kept all my prayer material (the prayerbooks, the Bible, the notebooks and binders of prayers, the book of poems) exactly where I had always kept them.  Right there, on the right side of my large work table, where I could put my hand down and pick them up whenever I needed them.

But I was brave.  I didn’t cry as I reshelved them all, put them back in their official places.  If I weren’t using them, then they belonged with the other books that I wasn’t using constantly through the day.

I didn’t cry then.  I was brave.

The notebook that held the material for one study, and the book on forgiveness took their place.  They seemed so modest compared to the former pile.  So streamlined.  So empty.  Empty of solace.  Empty of beauty.  Empty of warmth.

Study for Lent.

I never imagined how difficult it would be to set aside those things that wrapped me in the arms of God.  In fact, I used to complain, inwardly (and sometimes outwardly, to be honest), that when I prayed a noon mediation that began with the suggestion that, breathing deeply, I should come into the awareness of how the love of God surrounded me, I could never feel it.  And yet here it was.  The absence of certain, specific words revealed what I thought I hadn’t felt since I was a child.  It had been there all along.  The presence of God’s love, and my feeling it.

Perhaps there are feelings that we don’t perceive.  Don’t allow ourselves to perceive.  Or have become so part of us that we no longer can identify them.

It was only to be for 40 days.  But each day started to feel like 40 days.  Long steps.  Behind the plow.  Pushing with all my might.  Gaining very little ground.

The study on forgiveness went from a dedicated pond of reflection and meditation, to a drip of annoyance and short-tempered harrumphs here and there.

The other study became a strain.  An effort that I pushed through, easily letting myself off the hook when it took of shape of incomprehensibility and I just let it stay at that.  I had plenty of time when I could go over the material again and again.  But, no.  There were other things I could do now.  Other parts of my life I could pay more attention to.

My eyes saw the material.  They recognized the words.  Knew that they were reading a language that they knew.  What did it matter that the combination of words became a surreal dance of ideas that only teased me with their meaning and mocked me with their intensity and obscurity?

Pushing the plow in my soul.  Finding the seemingly immovable rocks embedded in the soil.  Feeling even more deeply my frailty and stupidity.  Not really knowing what was expected of me.

And all because I stopped saying my daily office and took up two spiritual studies instead.

So it came as no surprise to me when one day I just started to cry.  Because I had had a passing thought of the prayerbook I used.  And a sweet melody of one of the intercessory prayers I said every morning drifted past me.  And I knew that I could not reach out and grab it and hold it to my heart.  That I had put it aside for just a few days.

I have, from a very early age, been surprised by who I am.  How I function so completely differently from almost everyone around me.

But nothing surprised me so much as feeling this grief.

Nothing has allowed me to see my own shape, to know the lay of my heart and soul.

It was a fast.  Nothing but a fast.

A fasting from certain, well-worn forms of prayer.

But more than food, even, perhaps more than anything else, it was a fast from who I am.  What I do.

A waiting.

Painful and long.

Lent may be over now, but the studies continue.  Because I neglected the study on forgiveness, it still lies before me.  And the other study was extended.  It will last through the weeks of Easter.

But, slowly, like a victim recovering from a serious accident, I start to pray again.  I am doing one period of contemplative prayer.  It feels like being allowed to bathe again after traveling in the desert.

More will come slowly.  Like a blind man finding himself in a new room.  Working out how the furniture is arranged.  What sits where.

And wondering what to do next.

I imagine I’ll recover from the shock of the loss.

And perhaps I’ll one day even recover from the shock of realizing how shocked I was by such a little change.

Amen.

EASTER: Easter Sermon, by St. John Chrysostom

Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

POETRY: I Am Their Father, Says God, by Charles Péguy

(Translated from the French by Julian Green.)

I am their father, says God. Our Father who art in Heaven. My son
told them often enough that I was their father.
I am their judge. My son told them so. I am also their father.
I am especially their father.
Well, I am their father. He who is a father is above all a father. Our
Father who art in Heaven.
He who has once been a father
can be nothing else but a father.
They are my son’s brothers; they are my children; I am their father.
Our Father who art in Heaven, my son taught them that prayer.
Sic ergo vos orabitis. After this manner therefore pray ye.
Our Father who art in Heaven, he knew very well what he was doing
that day, my son who loved them so.
Who lived among them, who was like one of them.
Who went as they did, who spoke as they did, who lived as they did.
Who suffered.
Who suffered as they did, who died as they did.
And who loved them so, having known them.
Who brought back to Heaven a certain taste for man, a certain taste
for the Earth.
My son who loved them so, who loves them eternally in Heaven.
He knew very well what he was doing that day, my son who loved
them so.

When he put that barrier between them and me, Our Father who art
in Heaven,
those three or four words.
That barrier which my anger and perhaps my justice will never pass.
Blessed is the man who goes to sleep under the protection of that
outpost, the outpost of those three or four words.
Those words that move ahead of every prayer like the hands of the
suppliant in front of his face.
Like the two joined hands of the suppliant advancing before his face
and the tears of his face.
Those three or four words that conquer me, the unconquerable.
And which they cause to go before their distress like two joined and
invincible hands.
Those three or four words which move forward like a beautiful
cutwater fronting a lowly ship.
Cutting the flood of my anger.
And when the cutwater has passed, the ship passes, and back of them
the whole fleet.
That, actually, is the way I see them, says God;
During my eternity, eternally, says God.
Because of that invention of my Son’s, thus must I eternally see them.
(And judge them. How do you expect me to judge them now.
After that.)
Our Father who art in Heaven, my son knew exactly what to do
In order to tie the arms of my justice and untie the arms of my mercy.
(I do not mention my anger, which has never been anything but my
justice.
And sometimes my charity.)
And now I must judge them like a father. As if a father were any good
as a judge. A certain man had two sons.
As if he were capable of judging. A certain man had two sons.
We know well enough how a father judges. There is a famous
example of that.

We know well enough how the father judged the son who had gone
away and come back.
The father wept even more than the son.
That is the story my son has been telling them. My son gave them
The secret of judgment itself.
And now this is how they seem to me; this is how I see them;
This is how I am obliged to see them.
Just as the wake of a beautiful ship grows wider and wider until it
disappears and loses itself.
But begins with a point, which is the point of the ship itself.
So the huge wake of sinners grows wider and wider until it disappears
and loses itself.
But it begins with a point, which is the point of the ship itself, and
it is that point which comes towards me,
Which is turned towards me.
It begins with a point, which is the point of the ship itself.
And the ship is my own son, laden with all the sins of the world.
And the point of the ship is the two joined hands of my son.
And before the look of my anger and the look of my justice
They have all hidden behind him.
And all of that huge cortège of prayers, all of that huge wake grows
wider and wider until it disappears and loses itself.
But it begins with a point and it is that point which is turned towards
me.
Which advances towards me.
And that point is those three or four words: Our Father who art in
Heaven;
verily my son knew what he was doing.
And every prayer comes up to me hidden behind those three or four
words.—
Our Father who art in Heaven.—And behind (these words) widens
until it disappears and loses itself.
The wake of innumerable prayers
As they are spoken in their text for innumerable days
By innumerable men,
(By simple men, his brothers.)
Morning prayers, evening prayers;
(Prayers said on all other occasions);
On so many other occasions during innumerable days;
Prayers for noon and for the whole day;
Prayers of monks for all hours of the day,
And for the hours of the night;
Laymen’s prayers and clerics’ prayers
As they were said innumerable times
For innumerable days.
(He spoke like them, he spoke with them, he spoke as one of them.)
All of that huge fleet of prayers laden with the sins of the world.
All of that huge fleet of prayers and penances attacks me
Having the spear you wot of,
Advances towards me having the spear you wot of.
It is a fleet of freighters, classis oneraria.
And a fleet of the line,
A combat fleet.
Like a beautiful fleet of yore, like a fleet of triremes
Advancing to attack the king.
And what do you expect me to do: I am attacked
And in that fleet, in that innumerable fleet
Each Our Father is like a high riding ship
Having itself its own spear, Our Father who art in Heaven
Turned towards me, and coming behind this selfsame spear.
Our Father who art in Heaven, not so smart after all. Of course,
when a man says that, he can get behind what he has said.

EASTER: A Faith That Loves The Earth, by Karl Rahner, S.J.

From The Mystical Way in Everyday Life

It is difficult to express in worn human words the mystery contained in the joy of Easter.  If the mysteries of the gospel can enter the smallness of our human comprehension only with great difficulty, putting them into human words involves even greater difficulty.  The Easter message is the most human message of Christianity.  It is the reason we have such a hard time understanding it.  For what is the most true and obvious, in short, the easiest, is also the hardest to live out, to do, and to believe.  This is the case today because we have accepted the silent and hence undisputed assumption that religion is solely about a deep feeling of the heart and an advanced spiritual life, which we have to attain by ourselves and which, as a result, suggests that the thoughts and sentiments of the heart stand in stark contrast to reality.

But Easter says: God has done something.  He has.  And his deed has not simply touched the heart of this or that person in some subtle way, so that it now trembles a little before the unspeakable and the unnamable one.  God has raised his son from death.  God has made what was dead alive.  God has conquered death.  God has done something and declared victory in a place that has nothing to do with one’s interiority, in a place that despite all the praiseworthiness of reason makes us most ourselves, in a place of Earthly reality, far away from all mere thought and spiritual disposition, namely, where we experience what we are: children of the Earth who have to die.

We are children of this Earth.  Birth and death, body and Earth, bread and wine are our life; and the Earth is our homeland.  In the midst of all that, of course, there is a secret essence of spirit, of subtle, tender, seeing spirit who looks toward eternity, and the soul, which infuses everything with life and lightness.  But the spirit, or the soul, has to be present, has to be where we are, on this Earth and in the body, clothing them with its eternal gleam instead of acting like a pilgrim who, ghostlike, wanders across the stage of the world once while remaining misunderstood and out of place there.  We are too much children of the Earth to be able to leave the Earth behind completely.  And if Heaven is to help us make life on Earth bearable, then it will have to bend low and appear as a blessed light above this Earth and break forth as a gleam from the Earth’s dark center.

We are of the Earth.  We can become disloyal to it because of our stubbornness or self-aggrandizement, which would not be proper for the children of this humble, serious Mother Earth; or we can be loyal because, after all, we have to be who we are, meaning that we are united with Earth’s secret pain, which we feel deep inside our own being.  The Earth, our great mother, is also concerned.  She suffers from her impermanent nature.  Her most joyous feasts can suddenly become like the start of a funeral, and when one hears her laughing, one is afraid that beneath the laughter weeping will suddenly arise.  She brings forth children who die, who are too weak to live forever and have too much spirit to do without eternal joy, because they can, in contrast to the animals of the Earth, see the end even before it has come and are not mercifully spared the conscious experience of this end.  The Earth births children of immense appetites, and what she gives them is too beautiful to be ignored by them and too little to ever satisfy them.  And since the Earth is the place of this unhappy incongruence between the great promise that keeps on calling and the meager gift that does not satisfy, she also becomes the vast field of her children’s guilt, so that they try to rip from her more than she is able to give.  She may argue that she has become this way only through the original guilt of the first person on Earth, Adam.  But it makes no difference: She is the unhappy mother now, too alive and too beautiful to be able to send her children away from her so they might acquire for themselves a new home of eternal life and too poor to fully meet their longing, a longing she herself has bequeathed to them.  Most of the time, she manages neither one nor the other, since she is always both life and death, and the muddy mixture she hands her children in the form of life and death, rejoicing and mourning, creative deed and repetitive labor is called our everyday life.  Thus, we are here on Earth, our permanent home,and yet that is not enough.  And the adventure of leaving this Earthly home is impossible not because of our cowardice but rather on account of our loyalty to who we are.

What should we do then?  We should hear the message of the resurrection of the Lord!  Is Christ the Lord risen from the dead or not?  We believe in his resurrection, hence we confess: He died, he descended to the dead, and the third day he rose again.  But what does that mean and why is this message a blessing to the children of the Earth?

He who is both the son of God and a human being has died.  The one who has died is both the eternal fullness of divinity, which is sovereign, unlimited, and blessed as the word of the Father before all time and the child of the Earth as son of the blessed mother.  The one who has died is, therefore, both the son of God’s perfected nature and the child of Earth’s poverty.  But to have died does not mean (as we might think along the lines of non-Christian spiritualism) that his spirit or his soul, the receptacle of his eternal divinity, has escaped from this world and this Earth and has fled to the distant land of God’s glory beyond.  It cannot mean this simply because the body that is related to the Earth has demonstrated that a child of eternal light cannot be housed in Earth’s darkness.

We may say that he died, but we need to add immediately that he also descended to the dead and rose.  We need to add this in order to free his death from overtones of fleeing the world, overtones that we are inclined to add.  Jesus himself said that he would descend into the heart of the Earth, namely to the heart of all Earthly things, where everything is interconnected and one, to the seat of death and Earth’s impermanence.  This is where he proceeded to go in death.  By the holy strategy of his eternal nature, he allowed himself to be conquered by death so as to be swallowed up by it and to thereby reach Earth’s very center, where he could, amidst all that gives birth and forms the world’s common root, infuse it forever with his divine life.  Especially because he died, he belongs to the Earth, for putting someone’s body into Earth’s grave means that the person (or the soul, as we would say) who has died enters not only into relationship with God but also into that final union with the mysterious ground of being, where all space-time elements are tied together and have their point of origin.  In his death, the Lord descended into the lowest and deepest region of what is visible.  It is no longer a place of impermanence and death, because there he now is.  By his own death, he has become the heart of this Earthly world, God’s heart in the center of the world, where the world even before its own unfolding in space and time taps into God’s power and might.

And he rose from this heart of all Earthly things where ultimate union and utter nothingness could no longer be distinguished and from which emanates the entire course of the world.  He rose, not in order to go away in the end, not so that the pains of death could give birth to him anew, leaving the Earth’s dark womb in hopelessness and void.  No, he is risen in his body.  That means: He has begun to transfigure this world into himself; he has accepted this world forever; he has been born anew as a child of the Earth, but of an Earth that is transfigured, freed, unlimited, an Earth that in him will last forever and is delivered from death and impermanence for good.  He is risen to show not that he is leaving the tomb of the Earth forever, but that this very tomb of the dead – which is the body and the Earth – has been completely transformed into the glorious, incomprehensible home of the living God and the divine soul of the son.  By rising, he has not left the dwelling of the Earth, since he still has his body, though in a final and transfigured way, and is a part of the Earth, a part that still belongs to the Earth and is connected to Earth’s nature and destiny.  He is risen in order to reveal that by his death there remains forever implanted into Earth’s narrowness and pain, within her heart, the life of freedom and blessedness.

What we mean by Jesus’s resurrection and thoughtlessly consider his private fate is, in fact, in terms of the totality of what is real, the first indication that behind this so-called experience of an event (which we consider so important), the true and decisive nature of things has actually changed.  His resurrection is like the first erupting of a volcano, which shows that the fire of God is already burning inside the world and its light will eventually bring everything else to a blessed glow.  He is risen to show that it has already started.  The new forces of a transfigured world are already at work at the heart of the same world that forced him there in death; new forces are conquering impermanence, sin, and death at their core; and it will take only a little time in history, which we call post Christum natum, until everywhere – not just in the body of Jesus – what has happened will become visible.  Because he did not begin to heal, save, and transfigure the world on the level of surface appearances but at its innermost root, we creatures living on the world’s surface think that nothing has happened.  Because the waters of suffering and of guilt are flowing where we are, we assume that they have not yet been stopped deep down at their source.  Because malice is still carving big letters onto the face of the Earth, we conclude that love has died at the deepest core of nature.  But all of that is illusion.  And we consider that illusion to be life’s reality

He is risen because by death he has conquered and delivered Earthly existence at its very core.  And, in rising, he has retained this core.  And so he has remained.  When we confess him as risen to God in Heaven, we are saying that he is withdrawing from us his concrete transfigured humanity for a little while, and we are saying, moreover, that there is no longer a chasm between God and the world.  Christ is already at the very heart of all the lowly things of the Earth that we are unable to let go of and that belong to the Earth as mother.  He is at the heart of the nameless yearning of all creatures, waiting – though perhaps unaware that they are waiting – to be allowed to participate in the transfiguration of his body.  He is at the heart of Earth’s history, whose blind progress amidst all victories and all defeats is headed with uncanny precision toward the day that is his, where his glory will break forth from its own depths, thereby transforming everything.  He is at the heart of all tears and all death as concealed rejoicing and as the life that gains victory by its apparent death.  He is at the heart of one’s handing something to a beggar as the secret wealth that is bestowed on the giver.  He is at the heart of the miserable defeats of his servants as the victory that is God’s.  He is at the heart of our weakness as the power that is allowed to appear weak because it is invincible.  He is even at the heart of sin as the patient mercy of everlasting love that remains until the end.  As the most secret law and the innermost nature of all things, he is what still triumphs and prevails when all other laws appear to be dissolving.  He is with us like the light of the day and the air to which we pay no attention, like the secret law of a movement, a law that we do not grasp because the duration of the movement that we can experience is too short to allow us to detect its underlying formula.  But he is here, the heart of this Earthly world and the secret seal of its everlasting promise.

Therefore, we children of the Earth may love the Earth, should love her, even where she is terrifying and tormenting us with her poverty and death-dealing impermanence.  Since he has entered her forever through death and resurrection, her misery has become what is only preliminary and serves merely as a test for our faith in Earth’s innermost secret – the risen one.  That this is the hidden meaning of Earth’s poverty is generally not our experience. . . but our faith can blessedly defy experience.  It is a faith that can love the Earth since she is, or will become,the body of the risen one.  Therefore, we do not have to depart from her, for God’s life dwells in her.  If we are looking for the God of eternity (and how could we not be?) and for an Earth that is accommodating as she is and meant to serve as our eternal chosen home, then this is the one way to find both, for in the resurrection of the Lord, God as shown that he has adopted the Earth forever.

In a play of words that is hard to translate, an ancient father of the church once said: Caro cardo salutis, the flesh is the connecting point of salvation.  The place that is safe from all the pain of sin and death is not the beyond, but lies in the one who descended and lives in the innermost nature of our flesh.  The most sophisticated religion aiming at escape from world could never bring down from the distant heights of eternity the God of our life and of Earth’s salvation, and neither could it go to him in the beyond.  But he himself has come to us. And he has transformed what we are and what we should always regard as the faint Earthly remainder of our spiritual existence: the flesh.  Since that time, Mother Earth has brought forth only children that will be transfigured, for his resurrection is the beginning of the resurrection of all flesh.

One thing is necessary, though, for this irreversible deed of his to become the blessing of our life.  He also has to burst open the grave of our heart, to rise from the center of our being where he is power and the promise.  There he is still in the process of doing this.  There it is still Holy Saturday until the last day, which will be the day of Easter for the entire cosmos.  Such a resurrection happens in the freedom of our faith.  Even there it is his deed.  But it is his deed occurring as ours: as a loving faith that allows us to be brought along on this unimaginable journey of all Earthly reality headed toward its own glory, a journey that started with the resurrection of Christ.

 

EASTER: Urbi Et Orbi Message, by Pope Francis

From I Ask You to Pray For Me

Dear brothers and sisters in Rome and throughout the world,

Happy Easter!  Happy Easter!

What a joy it is for me to announce this message: Christ is risen!  I would like it to go out to every house and every family, especially where the suffering is greatest, in hospitals, in prisons. . . .

Most of all, I would like it to enter every heart, for it is there that God wants to sow this Good News: Jesus is risen, there is hope for you, you are no longer in the power of sin, of evil!  Love has triumphed, mercy has been victorious!  The mercy of God always triumphs!

We, too, like the women who were Jesus’s disciples, who went to the tomb and found it empty, may wonder what this event means.  What does it mean that Jesus is risen?  It means that the love of God is stronger than evil and death itself; it means that the love of God can transform our lives and let those desert places in our hearts bloom.  The love of God can do this!

This same love for which the Son of God became man and followed the way of humility and self-giving to the very end, down to hell – to the abyss of separation from God – this same merciful love has flooded with light the dead body of Jesus, has transfigured it, has made it pass into eternal life.  Jesus did not return to his former life, to Earthly life, but entered into the glorious life of God, and he entered there with our humanity, opening us to a future of hope.

This is what Easter is: it is the exodus, the passage of human beings from slavery to sin and evil to the freedom of love and goodness.  Because God is life, life alone, and we are his glory: the living man.

Dear brothers and sisters, Christ died and rose once for all, and for everyone, but the power of the Resurrection, this Passover from slavery to evil to the freedom of goodness, must be accomplished in every age, in our concrete existence, in our everyday lives.  How many deserts, even today, do human beings need to cross!  Above all, the desert within, when we have no love for God or neighbor, when we fail to realize that we are guardians of all that the Creator has given us and continues to give us.  God’s mercy can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones.

So this is the invitation which I address to everyone: Let us accept the grace of Christ’s resurrection!  Let us be renewed by God’s mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives, too; and let us become agents of his mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation, and make justice and peace flourish.

And so we ask the risen Jesus, who turns death into life, to change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace.  Yes, Christ is our peace, and through him, we implore peace for all the world.

Peace for the Middle East, and particularly between Israelis and Palestinians, who struggle to find the road of agreement, that they may willingly and courageously resume negotiations to end a conflict that has lasted all too long.  Peace in Iraq, that every act of violence may end, and above all, for dear Syria, for its people torn by conflict and for the many refugees who await help and comfort.  How much blood has been shed!  And how much suffering must there still be before a political solution to the crisis will be found?

Peace for Africa, still the scene of violent conflicts.  In Mali, may unity and stability be restored; in Nigeria, where attacks sadly continue, gravely threatening the lives of many innocent people, and where great numbers of persons, including children, are held hostage by terrorist groups.  Peace in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the Central African Republic, where many have been forced to leave their homes and continue to live in fear.

Peace in Asia, above all on the Korean peninsula: may disagreements be overcome and a renewed spirit of reconciliation grow.

Peace in the whole world, still divided by greed, looking for easy gain, wounded by the selfishness which threatens human life and the family, selfishness that continues in human trafficking, the most extensive form of slavery in this twenty-first century; human trafficking is the most extensive form of slavery in this twenty-first century!  Peace to the whole world, torn apart by violence linked to drug trafficking and by the iniquitous exploitation of natural resources!  Peace to this our Earth!  May the risen Jesus bring comfort to the victims of natural disasters and make us responsible guardians of creation.

Dear brothers and sisters, to all of you who are listening to me, from Rome and from all over the world, I address the invitation of the Psalm: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.  Let Israel say: ‘His steadfast love endures forever.'”

Greeting

Dear Brothers and Sisters, to you who have come from all over the world to this square at the heart of Christianity, and to you linked by modern technology, I repeat my greeting: Happy Easter!

Bear in your families and in your countries the message of joy, hope, and peace, which every year, on this day, is powerfully renewed.

May the risen Lord, the conqueror of sin and death, be a support to you all, especially to the weakest and neediest.  Thank you for your presence and for the witness of your faith.  A thought and a special thank-you for the beautiful flowers, which come from the Netherlands.  To all of you, I affectionately say again: May the risen Christ guide all of you and the whole of humanity on the paths of justice, love, and peace.

PRAYER: Easter, Our Marriage Ceremony, by Hippolytus

You have protected us, Jesus, from endless disaster.
You spread your hands over us like wings.
You poured your blood over the Earth,
Because you loved us.
The anger which we deserved you turned away from us
And restored us to friendship with God.

The heavens may have your spirit, paradise your soul,
But the Earth has your blood.
We celebrate the coming of your Spirit always:
The Spirit leads the mystic dance throughout the year.
But Easter comes and goes
Power came from Heaven to raise you from death,
So that we and all creatures could see you.
All living things gather round you at Easter.
There is joy, honor, celebration, delight.

The darkness of death is driven away.
Life is restored everywhere.
The gates of Heaven are thrown open.
In you, risen Jesus, God has shown us himself,
So we can rise to him as gods.
The gates of hell are shattered.
In you, risen Jesus, those already dead rise to life,
Affirming the good news of eternal life.
Now your promise has been fulfilled.

Now the Earth is singing and dancing
Easter is our marriage ceremony.
At Easter, dear Jesus, you make us your brides.
Sealing the union with your Spirit.
The great marriage hall is full of guests,
All dressed for the wedding.
No one is rejected for want of a wedding dress.
We come to you as spiritual virgins,
Our lamps are fresh and bright, with ample oil,
The light within our souls will never go out.
The fire of grace burns in us all.

We pray you, our sovereign Christ,
Stretch out your strong hands over your whole church
And over all your faithful people.
Defend, protect, and preserve them,
Fight and do battle for them,
Subdue the invisible powers that oppose them.
Raise now the sign of victory over us
And grant that we may sing the song of triumph.
May you rule for ever and ever.

Amen.

SERMON: Easter — Not Magic But Mystery, by J. R. Burkholder

We are standing in the darkness before the dawn – facing the tomb.  It is empty.  Where is the light of Christ?

From the very first, men and women have been baffled by the claim that Jesus was risen from the dead.  “He is not here, for he is risen.”

Thus the Gospels tell of mixed and contradictory emotions – fear and great joy, (Matthew 28:8) – and diverse responses: when the eleven came to Galilee, (28:17), we are told that some worshiped and some doubted.

Luke’s account puts it even more bluntly; the words of the women witnesses “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them,” (Luke 24:11).

In John’s Gospel we walk through the struggle of doubting Thomas  – and who doesn’t at some point identify with Thomas?  Why should anyone dare to believe that the tortured victim of imperial execution was brought back to life?

Yes, from the beginning, Christians have struggled to make sense of this resurrection claim that stands at the very center of the faith proclaimed.  Thus it is not surprising that in our quest to understand and explain, we look for analogies in the natural world.  Our folk wisdom likes to link Easter with spring festivals: the gray Earth’s rebirth from dark winter toward sunshine and verdant green, the pictures of baby bunnies bringing eggs, and seeds sprouting, and all that – even though the analogies fall short and may even mislead.

At another level, we look for literary and artistic ways to capture and restate the awesome claim.  Last year our Easter service drew extensively on C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, with its death and rebirth of Aslan.  Through those events the dark forces of evil were overcome by light, love, and truth.  I thought it was a marvelous attempt to get our attention and challenge our thinking in new ways, by an imaginative retelling using materials from another medium.

But my euphoria about that whole event was shaken when a week or so later I learned that some newcomers to Assembly, some specially invited guests on that occasion, were confused and troubled.  What in the world is going on?  Evil witches and strange lions were not at all what they expected from a Christian service on Easter Sunday!

On telling stories

Many folks are bothered when similarities are observed between biblical stories and myths or fairy tales from other sources.  Must not the gospel truth be kept on a high and holy and unique level?

But Frederick Buechner, who is both storyteller and Christian minister, suggests that the two realms are not really that far apart.  The world of fairy tales, he says,

is a world of magic and mystery, of deep darkness and flickering starlight.  It is a world where terrible things happen and wonderful things, too.  It is a world where goodness is pitted against evil, love against hate, order against chaos, in a great struggle where often it is hard to be sure who belongs to which side because appearances are endlessly deceptive.  Yet for all its confusion and wildness, it is a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good, who live happily ever after, and where in the long run everybody, good and evil alike, becomes known by his [or her] true name. (Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale)

Buechner continues: “That is the gospel, this meeting of darkness and light in the final victory of light.  That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, the one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is the claim made for it that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still.”  Frederick Buechner as Christian witness insists that the truth claim is unique, even though the form and style of Biblical narrative may share the characteristics of the realm of imagination.

Paul the apostle insisted on that truth claim also: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins,” (1 Corinthians 15:17).

We tremble and stutter before that truth, because we don’t know how to handle it.  Yes, even Paul struggled to tell it. Just read 1 Corinthians 15, a marvelous glimpse into the workings of an inspired mind trying to make sense of something too big to handle.  Clearly he was utterly convinced of the truth but frustrated in his effort to express it helpfully.  He tries analogies – seed dying and sprouting from the ground, celestial and terrestrial and spiritual bodies – but they break down.  In the end, no categories are adequate to this ultimate expression of God’s power.  In the end, Paul simply but eloquently calls it a mystery.

And ever since, we believing souls who have experienced that victorious mystery keep grasping for ways to communicate it.  The wisest among us have from the beginning acknowledged that they cannot really comprehend it; they can only point with awe and wonder.

Just a few days ago, at the slide presentation of the passion of Christ in art forms, I learned that it wasn’t until more than ten centuries after the fact that Christian artists dared to try to present in graphic form the moment of Christ’s resurrection.  And even though the viewer is overwhelmed by the blaze of glory in such a masterpiece as Matthias Grünewald’s triptych at Isenheim, one wonders if perhaps that sacred moment is best left without eyewitnesses.  “He burst from the fetters of darkness that bound him, resplendent in glory, to live and to save.”

By whatever means, we who have been claimed by that truth are challenged, obligated in fact, to keep trying to tell it like it is.

The continuing resurrection

We quoted Frederick Buechner as saying the gospel is different from fairy tales because of its truth claim: it happened and it keeps happening!  But there is another difference from the realm of fantasy and magic.  Not only does the gospel of the resurrection keep happening – but it is also out of control.  That is, it is out of our control.  Try as we might, we cannot manipulate the resurrection.

This contrasts sharply with the idea of magic, familiar to us from the land of fairy tales.  Magic at its heart means power and control.  The magic wand, the magic token, is a tool to be grasped and used.  Many classic tales of fantasy revolve around the struggle to claim and possess that coveted magic symbol – the ring, the amulet, the magic charm.

But resurrection in Christian experience is not a magic power; it is a gift, a surprise.  It is not something that can be grasped; rather, it grasps us.

From the beginning it was a surprise.  We know that the basic idea of bodily resurrection at the last day was a common belief in first-century Judaism, although it was not shared by all.  So when Jesus talked of rising from the dead, it was most likely understood as that event at the end of history, the last day, the end of time.

The surprise was that on Easter Sunday, Jesus had been raised, but the world had not come to an end!  The disciples had to come to terms with something utterly unexpected, out of their control.

As missiologist Lesslie Newbigin puts it: “The final victory is God’s and not ours.  In what seems like defeat, the victory of God is actually won.  There is a new life, one that does not end in death but begins from death.  It is therefore a life that death cannot touch.” (Mission in Christ’s Way: A Gift, A Command, an Assurance)

Let’s think further about that statement: the victory, the power, the glory is God’s, not ours.

It is not ours to hang on to.  We cannot grasp it; we cannot manipulate it; we cannot use it.  But the constant human temptation is to try to do so.  That’s the way of magic.  Early in Luke’s account of Christian mission, (Acts 8), there is a brief, strange story about Simon, a man who amazed the crowds with his magic.  He heard Philip preach, he believed and was baptized.  But like a lot of believers since, he got it wrong.  He thought the power of the gospel, the power of the Spirit, the power of the resurrection, was something you could use for your own gain.  Peter had to straighten him out: “May your silver perish with you!” (Acts 8:20)

Too much of church history has been tarnished with that same greediness.  Misguided believers, even well-known leaders, have grasped for power and control in Earthly terms.  They have wanted to manipulate the Spirit for their own gain.  Or sometimes the intent was to do good things such as healing, but their mistake was to think they could control the power of God.

So often we want to force God to play our game.  But the real power of the resurrection comes when least expected, and not in ways controlled by human wills.  We can’t force God’s hand.  God takes time to do God’s work, in God’s own time, in a way that only God understands.

In other words, God does not play by our rules.  God is much more subtle than that.  Glenn Tinder observes that the problem with most unbelievers and even many Christians is their assumption that God is simple-minded and one-dimensional.  “We readily grant that a great writer such as Joyce or Proust is infinitely subtle and resourceful in fashioning a novel,” he writes, “but we assume that in fashioning human history God will be heavy-handed and obvious.” (The Subtleties of God/Gospel Herald, March 27, 1990, 232)

We want God to play by our rules, to lay out the plot in simple terms and then follow it.  The disciples knew, or thought they knew, how the story would have to unfold.  The messiah would indeed become king.  Hear the plaintive words of the witness on the road to Emmaus: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” (Luke 24:21) – and of course that he would do it in the way any normal king would.

But God is much more subtle, and for those whose eyes are opened by resurrection vision, there can only be awe and exclamation: Oh, the power, the richness, the glory, the mystery!

Moral purpose

We have claimed that the resurrection mystery can’t be captured, that it can’t be held, just as Jesus couldn’t be held by the grave but burst forth into life – and into our lives.  The risen Christ offers vision and moral purpose – a new capacity to live the life of faith.

Colossians 3:1 speaks of this resurrection power in the life of the believer: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on Earth.”

Set your minds: imagine!  Yes, imagination is a powerful tool for moral awareness.  Paul in Colossians goes on to characterize the shape of the Spirit-filled life, the resurrection life: Put to death the old.  Put on the new nature.

One important aspect of that new nature is moral vision, the capacity for awareness.  From a writer in a symposium on morality: “I keep finding that I have been immoral when I have been incapable of awareness. When have I been more aware, and when have I been less aware of the human soul, mine or other people’s?  In my youth I was so unaware not only of other human souls, but also sublimely unaware of the heart of darkness in my own soul.” (Philip P. Hallie, “Comments in a Symposium on Morality,” The American Scholar 34 (1965), 365)

Stanley Hauerwas, noted theologian and ethicist, makes his own confession of limited moral vision.  Coming from a working-class, hard-knocks Texas frontier family, he was enabled to go to college and then on to Yale Divinity School – a whole other moral and intellectual world.  During the second year at Yale came the family news that his father was working all winter in his spare time, making a gun.  Stanley writes:

I thought that was fine, since it certainly had nothing to do with me.  However, that summer my wife and I made our usual trip home and we had hardly entered the door when my father thrust the now-completed gun into my hands.  It was indeed a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.  And I immediately allowed as such, but I was not content to stop there.  Flushed with theories about the importance of truthfulness and the irrationality of our society’s gun policy I said, “Of course you realize that it will not be long before we as a society are going to have to take all these things away from you people.”

Morally what I said still seems to me to be exactly right as a social policy.  But that I made such a statement in that context surely is one of the lowest points of my “moral development.”  For I was simply not morally mature enough or skillful enough to know how to respond properly when a precious gift was being made. (A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic)

To put on the new nature is to enable a change of vision, of awareness.  To see in the light of resurrection is to be able to both give and receive love.  Thus it is that the awesome mystery of power and glory can be focused in simple, basic human relationships.

Remember that the first resurrection was revealed only to those who had followed: “not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses,” (Acts 10:41).  They were not expecting it.  In Paul’s list of witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15, the language is significant: “He appeared.”  He was seen.  The chosen witnesses were passive; the risen Christ appeared, not as a result of their quest or their claim, for they had given up and gone home.  And then: he burst from the fetters – a mystery, a gift of grace!

“If, then, you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”

Amen!

EASTER: The Exultet

(The Easter Proclamation)

Rejoice Heavenly powers!
Sing choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God’s throne!
Jesus Christ, our King is risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!

Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,
radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes forever!

Rejoice, O Mother Church!
Exult in glory!
The risen Savior shines upon you!
Let this place resound with joy,
echoing the mighty song of all God’s people!

It is truly right that with full hearts and minds and voices
we should praise the unseen God, the all powerful Father,
and his only Son,
Our Lord Jesus Christ.
For Christ has ransomed us with his blood,
and paid for us the price of Adam’s sin to our eternal Father!

This is our Passover feast, when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain,
whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.

This is the night when first you saved our fathers:
You freed the people of Israel from their slavery
and led them dry-shod through the sea.
This is the night when the pillar of fire
destroyed the darkness of sin!

This is the night when Christians everywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.

This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.

What good would life have been to us,
had Christ not come as our Redeemer?

Father, how wonderful your care for us!
How boundless your merciful love!
To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.

O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!
Most blessed of all nights, chosen by God
to see Christ rising from the dead!

Of this night scripture says: “The night will be clear as day:
it will become my light, my joy.”
The power of this holy night
dispels all evil, washes guilt away,
restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy;
it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles Earthly pride.

Night truly blessed when Heaven is wedded to Earth
and man is reconciled with God!
Therefore, Heavenly Father, in the joy of this night,
receive our evening sacrifice of praise, your Church’s solemn offering.

Accept this Easter candle, a flame divided but undimmed,
a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God.
Let it mingle with the lights of Heaven and continue bravely burning
to dispel the darkness of this night!

May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all mankind,
your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

STATIONS OF THE CROSS: Concluding Prayer, by Henri Nouwen

From Walk With Jesus

Dear Jesus,

You once were condemned; you are still being condemned.  You once carried your cross; you are still carrying your cross.  You once died; you are dying still.  You once rose from the dead; you are still rising from the dead.

I look at you, and you open my eyes to the ways in which your passion, death, and resurrection are happening among us every day.  But within me there is a deep fear of looking at my own world.  You say to me: “Do not be afraid to look, to touch, to heal, to comfort, and to console.”  I listen to your voice, and, as I enter more deeply into the painful, but also hope-filled lives of my fellow human beings, I know that I enter more deeply into your heart.

My fears, dear Lord, of opening my eyes to my suffering world are deeply rooted in my own anxious heart.  I am not sure that I, myself, am truly loved and safely held, and so I keep my distance from other people’s fear-filled lives.  But again you say: “Do not be afraid to let me look at your wounded heart, to embrace you, to heal you, to comfort and console you. . . because I love you with a love that knows no bounds and poses no conditions.”

Thank you, Lord, for speaking to me.  I do so desire to let you heal my wounded heart and, from there, to reach out to others close by and far away.

I know, Lord, that you are gentle and humble of heart and that you call out: “Come to me, you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.”

As your passion, death, and resurrection continue in history, give me the hope, the courage, and the confidence to let your heart unite my heart with the hearts of all your suffering people, and so become for us the divine source of new life.

Amen.

LENT: The Resurrection Faith, by Evelyn Underhill

From The Fruits of the Spirit (Letter to the Prayer Group, Eastertide, 1941)

I am writing to you at the moment in the Christian year when, as it were, we pause and look back on the richest cluster of such spiritual facts ever revealed to man.  Paschal Time, to give its old name to the interval between Easter and Ascension, marks the end of the historical manifestation of the Word Incarnate, and the beginning of His hidden life within the church.  But the quality of that hidden life, in which as members of the Body of Christ we are all required to take part, is the quality which the historic life revealed.  From the very beginning the church has been sure that the series of events which were worked out to their inevitable end in Holy Week sum up and express the deepest secrets of the relation of God to men.

That means, of course, that Christianity can never be merely a pleasant or consoling religion.  It is a stern business.  It is concerned with the salvation through sacrifice and love of a world in which, as we can all see now, evil and cruelty are rampant.  Its supreme symbol is the crucifix – the total and loving self-giving of man to the redeeming purposes of God.

Because we are all the children of God we all have our part to play in His redemptive plan; and the church consists of those loving souls who have accepted this obligation, with all that it costs.  Its members are all required to live, each in their own way, through the sufferings and self-abandonment of the cross; as the only real contribution which they can make to the redemption of the world.  Christians, like their Master, must be ready to accept the worst that evil and cruelty can do to them, and vanquish it by the power of love.

For if sacrifice, total self-giving to God’s mysterious purpose, is what is asked of us, His answer to that sacrifice is the gift of power.  Easter and Whitsuntide complete the Christian Mystery by showing us first our Lord Himself and then His chosen apostles possessed of a new power – the power of the Spirit – which changed every situation in which they were placed.  That supernatural power is still the inheritance of every Christian and our idea of Christianity is distorted and incomplete unless we rely on it.  It is this power and only this which can bring in the new Christian society of which we hear so much.  We ought to pray for it; expect it and trust it; and as we do this, we shall gradually become more and more sure of it.

STATIONS OF THE CROSS: Fifteen — Jesus Rises From the Dead, by Henri Nouwen

From Walk With Jesus

The Indian people of South America radiate deep inner joy and peace.  The straw crosses they have woven symbolize their hardships and struggles.  The long palm leaves that they flourish manifest their sense of victory and triumph.  Yes, there is sadness, but gladness too.  Yes, there is grief, but joy as well.  Yes, there is fear, but also love.  Yes, there is hard work, but celebration follows.  And, yes, there is death, but also resurrection.

The smiles breaking through the weathered faces of the women and men walking in procession speak of a deep faith in the resurrection.  It is a faith that not only trusts that life is stronger than death, but also offers a foretaste of the joy that will last forever.  The eyes of the poor can suddenly become luminous with hope and open up horizons far beyond the limited vision of a self-preoccupied humanity.  The poor of the world carry in their hearts a resurrection faith, a faith that knows that all that is created is created not to be wasted, but to be transformed into a new Heaven and a new Earth.  The beautiful smiles on the faces of the poor of Bolivia, Peru, Nepal, Pakistan, Burundi, the Sudan, and all over the planet, offer glimpses of the reality of the resurrection.  These smiles come from the depths of hearts that know of a love that is real and everlasting.

On the morning of the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome found the tomb empty and heard a young man in a white robe say: “He is not here.”  Two of the disciples, Peter and John, entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying on the ground and also the cloth that had been over Jesus’s head.  Mary of Magdala heard him call her by name, and Cleopas and his friend recognized him at Emmaus in the breaking of the bread.  In the evening of that same day, he came and stood among his disciples, saying, “Peace be with you,” and showed them his hands and his side.

As these things took place, new words broke out of the silence of Holy Saturday and touched the hearts and the minds of the men and women who had known and loved Jesus.  These words were: “He has risen, risen indeed.”  They were not shouted from the rooftops or carried around the city on big placards.  They were whispered from ear to ear as an intimate message that could be truly heard and understood only by a heart that had been yearning for the coming of the kingdom and had recognized its first signs in the words and deeds of the man from Nazareth.

All is different and all is the same for those who say, “Yes,” to the news that is whispered through the ages from one end of the world to the other.  Trees are still trees, rivers are still rivers, mountains are still mountains, and people in their hearts are still able to choose between love and fear.  But all that has been lifted up in the risen body of Jesus and placed at the right hand of God.  The prodigal child is placed in the loving embrace of the Father; the little child is put in its mother’s arms; the true heir has been given the best robe and a precious ring, and brothers and sisters invited to the same table.  All is the same, and all is made new.  As we light our lives with a resurrection faith, our burdens become light burdens and our yokes easy yokes because we have found rest in the gentle and humble heart of Jesus that belongs for all eternity to God.

It is now time to speak again, quietly but confidently.  New words emerge from the silence.  Good news is brought to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the favor of the Lord is proclaimed.

And so the smile of God and the smile of God’s people reach each other and become one in the undying light that shines in the darkness.