Tax Collectors and Sinners

This reflection was given at Morning Prayer at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on Thursday of the Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time (Cycle II), November 5, 2020. The audio is available here.


“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Friends, consider the scene at the beginning of today’s Gospel. The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to Jesus because they wanted to listen to Him. Interesting group of people, isn’t it? Tax collectors and sinners. St. Luke manages to suggest in four neat words the great mass of unwashed deplorables, the hoi polloi of Israel and Judea, the kind of people Ted Hughes describes rather more colorfully in his translation of Bacchus and Pentheus:

“Children and their teachers, laborers, bankers,
Mothers and grandmothers, merchants, agents,
Prostitutes, politicians, police,
Scavengers and accountants, lawyers and burglars,
Builders, layabouts, tradesmen, con-men,
Scoundrels, tax-collectors, academicians,
Physicians, morticians, musicians, magicians,
The idle rich and the laughing mob!”

“Bacchus and Pentheus,” trans. Ted Hughes, in Tales from Ovid (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997), 68-75

These came to hear the Gospel, the word of life from the lips of the one that some in the crowd whispered excitedly was the “Christ,” the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. But the scribes and Pharisees, the religious élite, draw back. They stand apart from the crowds. These are not their kind of people, after all. And they whisper to one another something altogether different than the crowds, something they mean to be a condemnation of the whole phenomenon of the prophet from Nazareth: “This man, this Jesus, welcomes these sinners!”

If he were a prophet, if he were from God, he would reject them. If he were truly the Son of God, he would be with us. Are we not the teachers of the people? Are we not righteous? Do we not keep the law, fast, tithe, purify our hands? By the very fact that he welcomes them, he rejects us. And if he rejects us, then he rejects the covenant, the temple, the law—he places himself against God!

The seeds of their condemnation of Jesus before Pilate are already planted here in whispers.

For the Pharisees and scribes, after all, the line was clear. Those who do what the law commands are righteous and worthy of reward. Those who do not are wicked and deserving of punishment.

What the Pharisees and the scribes fail to see is that the line was not drawn between these worthy people of God and those tax collectors and sinners. The line is drawn down the center of every human heart. And here is the fundamental difference between the hearts of the Pharisees and the sinners from whom they draw back: the Pharisees are confident in their flesh, that is, in their Jewish bloodline, in the mark of the circumcision which made them members of the people of God, in their tribe, in their status, in righteousness based on the law.

Who could accuse them of any sin? In the reading we heard from his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul says that according to the law, “I was blameless,” and we have no reason to doubt that the Pharisees could say the same. What reason do they have to repent and believe in the Gospel of this preacher from Nazareth? They can stand tall before God and man on the strength of their own conduct.

Not so these sinners. The tax collectors were considered sell-outs and traitors to their own people, more Romans than Jews. These people coming to hear Jesus have no status. They have no dignity. But they see more clearly than the Pharisees, whose deadly pride and self-righteousness has made them blind: this man is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

The Pharisees have confidence in themselves. The sinners can only have confidence in Him.

Dear Christian people, what the scribes and Pharisees whispered with horror and resentment, we proclaim with boundless joy. This man, Jesus, true God and true Man, welcomes sinners!

He does not welcome sin. He cannot, any more than light can welcome darkness: “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). But He is that “light from light, true God from true God,” who goes forth into the world in search of sinners to call us to repentance and bring us back to life. Like the woman in the parable who lights a lamp and overturns the house to find her one lost coin, Jesus is that light who comes forth from God and moves heaven and earth to find one lost soul, that Good Shepherd who will leave the ninety-nine in search of the one whom he has lost. Unlike the Pharisees, this God never writes anyone off as a lost cause: He goes after the lost one until he finds it. And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy.

Imagine the look on the Pharisees’ faces when Jesus turns to them and says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety- nine ‘righteous people’ who have no need of repentance!”

They know he means them. They know he is saying that one of these poor sinners, if he only repents and believes in the Gospel, if he puts his trust in Jesus, the very “face of the Father’s mercy” (Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, §1) and “goes and sins no more,” is a greater joy to God and all His angels and saints than ninety-nine stiff-necked, self-righteous Pharisees. And they hate him for it. One day, they will kill him for it.

But dear friends, we love him for it. Because we are among that crowd of sinners, you and I. We “do not put our confidence in the flesh”; we know we are not blameless; we cannot come to God proud of our own merits. We are the poor and broken ones who come before Him often uncertainly, with our eyes lowered. We have been wounded before. We have been rejected. We know our faults all too well. We worry that we are not good enough for God—or at least that He would prefer to spend His time with holier, better, more perfect people than the likes of us.

But this God of ours does not demand that we be perfect to approach Him. He waits for us with patience. If we are lost, he comes in search of us. And when we draw near at last to listen to Him, He says to us again: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Theological Reflection: Confession

This week, I was approached by a woman at the RCIA who wanted to go to confession right away. Although she did not specify the reason (and of course I did not ask), I surmised that she had felt convicted by what we had been studying in the course of the lesson, and the gentle action of the Holy Spirit had moved her heart to repent and seek reconciliation with God and the Church. When she learned that I was unable to hear her confession right then and there, she asked me to help her make an appointment with the pastor at the earliest available time. 

The urgency of her desire to repent and be reconciled to God made an impression on me. In fact, just the day before, I had been in a similar position, feeling convicted by my conscience of a grave sin and in need of repentance and absolution. Because I am a seminarian and have personal connections with various priests in the vicariate, I was able to text a priest friend, drive out to his parish, go to confession that same hour, and stay for dinner. This woman felt the same compunction of heart, but did not have the luxury I did of such easy access to the sacrament of the Lord’s forgiveness. Although I could have passed her off to the parish office to make an appointment through the usual channels, I went to some extra effort as an intermediary working on her behalf to get her on the pastor’s schedule as soon as possible, following the pastor’s own advice: “Being pastoral means ‘more work for me.’”

This encounter highlighted for me the profound connection between the Sacrament of Penance and the overall process of conversion for candidates, such as this woman, who have previously been baptized in a non-Catholic ecclesial community. To be sure, the guidelines of the Archdiocese of Portland state that “in preparation for reception and completion of sacramental Initiation, and at a time prior to and distinct from the Rite of Reception, [such] candidates, according to their own consciences, should receive the Sacrament of Penance,” since this sacrament “provides grace and help to continuing conversion.”1 The same guidelines indicate that “it is fitting that such candidates celebrate the Sacrament of Penance in a communal setting with other members of the Catholic community, especially during Lent,” which is in fact a normal and scheduled part of RCIA every year in our parish, although “it is also possible to arrange a communal celebration specifically for the candidates, or to allow them to approach the sacrament privately.”2 

To my mind, it seems pastorally desirable to make the latter option as freely available as possible to such candidates. This woman had the courage to approach me and make an appointment, but there may be others who are afraid to do so, or are perhaps unaware that they can even go to confession before they are formally received into the Church. Therefore, as a priest, I would like to let the candidates for RCIA know from day one that if they are baptized, they are invited to approach the Sacrament of Penance at any time. They are free to come to the regularly scheduled confession times of the parish or to approach me any time they see me and ask for a “quick confession.” I would make it my promise to them (and the parish as a whole) that, unless I am directly on my way to a sick call or a meeting, etc., I will always honor those requests. Furthermore, I would make it my goal to be present at the RCIA nights as often as I can, every week if possible, precisely to be available for such requests. (My pastor has been good at being present, but he was not there that night; if he had been, I’m sure he would have heard this woman’s confession on the spot!) It may be more work for me, but it will mean a lot to them. 


Footnotes

  1. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 6.36.4. Cf. Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (1988),482; National Statues for the Catechumenate (Washington, DC: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1986), no. 36; Code of Canon Law, cann. 844 §4, 959.
  2. ALH, 6.36.5.

Live Not By Lies

This reflection was given after Holy Mass at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the feast of St. John Paul II, October 22, 2020. The audio is available here.


The Rule of Saint Benedict begins with this question. “‘Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?’ If you hear this and your answer is ‘I do,’ God then directs these words to you: ‘If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; seek and strive after peace.”

Yet Our Lord in today’s Gospel asks us a very different question: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?” And before we can answer, “yes, Lord, of course!”—”No, I tell you, but rather division.” 

These are difficult, challenging words. 

What we must understand first is that where there is truth, there is always division. Truth is the light which shines through the fog and the darkness of the world, exposing the shadows of error and deception and revealing the shape of things as they really are. But as St. John says, “the hearts of men preferred darkness to light.” So wherever the truth is proclaimed, it is a sword which separates not only what is from what is not, but those who believe it and live by it from those who prefer to live by useful, comfortable, familiar lies. It is, in fact, a bright line drawn down the middle of our households, our families, our society, our nation, our Church, and even (if we are honest) our own hearts.

Of course, truth is more than just a set of propositions to be believed. Truth is, in fact, a person. “Ego sum via, veritas et vita,” says the Lord: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” And as our Holy Father of happy memory, St. John Paul the Great, whose feast we celebrate today, taught us in his encyclical entitled The Splendor of Truth: “Called to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, ‘the true light that enlightens everyone’ (Jn 1:9), [we] become ‘light in the Lord’ and ‘children of light’ (Eph 5:8), and are made holy by ‘obedience to the truth’ (1 Pet 1:22).”

Ah, but now at once we see what it means that the Lord came not “to establish peace … but rather division.” The truth which Jesus Is and was sent to reveal—the truth, for example, that we are made in God’s image, male and female; that we belong to Him; that we are not autonomous and self-sufficient, masters of our own little lives and destinies, but creatures made by the hand of a great Creator, sinners in need of redemption and sheep in urgent danger from the wolves; that God who loves us wills to save us; that we are faced with a grave and urgent choice, whether we are for Him or against Him!— that truth not only divides; it crucifies. “For the hearts of men preferred darkness to light.” 

And so St. Simeon, holding the Christ child in his arms, prophesied to Mary that this baby God was “a sign which shall be contradicted” (Lk  2:34), spoken against.

Now, the disciple is not greater than the master. If we follow the truth, the narrow way which is Christ, we too shall be contradicted. We must expect to be mocked, misunderstood, rejected and abused, to suffer separation even from loved ones, to face slanderous and vile insults and worse from a world which hates us because it hated Him first (cf. Jn 15:18). 

Very well: fiat. Let it be done! But if we leave it at that, it looks like a bleak and lonely road indeed. “This is a hard saying; who can accept it?” So listen again now to the Lord’s words at the beginning of today’s Gospel: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

That urgent fire in the heart of Jesus which he longed to set loose upon the world is the Holy Spirit, that Spirit Who so inflamed the apostles at Pentecost that they went fearlessly to the ends of the earth and gladly accepted martyrdom for the splendor of the truth they proclaimed. That’s why Saint Paul prays that “the Father … may grant you, in accord with the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power through his Spirit.” We need the Holy Spirit, not only to make us strong enough to proclaim the truth and live by the truth, not even just to reveal the truth to us, “the length and breadth and height and depth,” but to transform us into the truth of who we are.

We are indeed made for peace, but that peace comes only from living in the truth of who God is and who we are, and becoming through obedience who we are meant to be. 

To seek and strive after that peace means to seek and strive after and live by the whole truth of Christ. We must “live not by lies”: not by the lies of the world, not by the lies of the Devil, not even by the lies which make up our false selves. We must renounce all such lies, be divided from them, to live in the truth. And only obedience to the truth, in the end, will set us free to live the life of God. 

Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Thou spirit of truth. Come and teach us all things. Come, transform us. Come, unite us to yourself.

Theological Reflection: Holy Matrimony

When I told my pastor last week that we were doing a module on matrimony, he shared with me about a delicate issue which often comes up in his work preparing couples for marriage. Cohabitation is not only extremely widespread in our day and age, among Catholics as well as non-believers; it is commonly understood in the secular culture to be the “responsible choice,” a prudent way to test your compatibility with your partner in the close quarters of common life, a kind of trial run before “tying the knot.” Most young people of my own generation would not dream of getting married without first having lived together as a couple. Father Nelson remarked that he often struggles to know exactly what to say to these couples, who come in good faith asking to be married in the Church, yet who have sometimes already been living together for months or years. The pastoral judgment required is whether to insist that the couple separate, at the risk of driving them away, or allow them to continue living together (emphasizing the need for them to live as brother and sister in perfect continence) and risk their falling into grave sin, as well as jeopardizing the future health and longevity of their marriage.

Although cohabitation per se is not a sin, Father Nelson mentioned that couples who live together before their wedding day may be less free in giving their consent to the marriage as a result of their cohabitation. Even if they live together chastely, the lives of a couple cohabiting before marriage necessarily become more “entangled.” They have the same residence; they share common possessions, and perhaps finances and debts. There may be a concern on the part of one or the other party of where they will live or how they will get by financially if the relationship should fail. It is, moreover, a matter of fact that most cohabiting couples are also fornicating couples (the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults actually defines cohabitation as “involv[ing] the serious sin of fornication”1) and that “many children are born to these relationships, which are not founded on a permanent commitment.”2 All these factors and more can weigh on the minds and hearts of the cohabiting couple and tip the scales of their discernment toward marriage, such that one or both may no longer find themselves entering into the matrimonial covenant in utter freedom. 

Their prior living situation would also appear to shift the meaning of the sacrament from the beginning of a new life together as husband and wife to the mere “ratification” or “blessing” of an existing de facto union. Our Holy Father of happy memory, Saint John Paul II, stressed the following “basic principle: in order to be real and free conjugal love, love must be transformed into one that is due in justice through the free act of marital consent.3 Apart from the risk of diminished freedom, which can put the validity of the marriage itself in doubt down the line, another subjective danger to the cohabiting couple is that the habits of mind they will have undoubtedly formed during their time cohabiting before marriage will then carry over into their married life as husband and wife, blurring “the essential difference between a mere de facto union—even though it claims to be based on love—and marriage, in which love is expressed in a commitment that is not only moral but rigorously juridical.”4 An unmarried couple living together are free to separate at any time if the relationship becomes difficult or inconvenient (albeit to the great psychological harm of the abandoned spouse and any children of the union5). Human nature being what it is, the couple who have become habituated during their period of cohabitation to thinking “in the back of their minds that if things become really difficult, they can always go their separate ways”6 are naturally more likely to divorce.

If a cohabiting couple came to me as a priest for marriage preparation, I would apply the official pastoral guidelines of the Archdiocese of Portland: “Absent children, [cohabiting] couples should ready themselves for marriage by a time of domestic separation. Where a cohabiting couple already has children, the good of the young may require the couple to remain living together, but in chastity and continence.”8 If there are other special circumstances which make separation difficult or impossible in a particular case, I would allow them to continue living together (as brother and sister) as they prepare for marriage, but this would be exceptional. In general, I would require them to separate. I would take special care to impress upon all such couples (1) the need to be able to give their utterly free consent to the marriage and (2) the reality that, once married, their relationship will be permanently and essentially different. To this end, I would lead them through an examination of conscience to help them see if anything about their living situation is placing undue pressure on one or both of them to marry. I would also tell them unequivocally that cohabitation is by no means a kind of “trial marriage,” but a poor facsimile of married life which, far from preparing them well for their future as a couple, tends to set a couple up for future failure. I would tell them the best thing they can do for their marriage is to separate and “practice chastity until they are sacramentally or canonically married. They will find this challenging, but again, with the help of grace, mastering the self is possible — and this fasting from sexual intimacy is a strong element of spiritual preparation for an enduring life together.”9


Footnotes

  1. United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006), 410, at https://www.usccb.org/sites/default/files/flipbooks/uscca/files/assets/basic-html/page-438.html.
  2. Archbishop Alexander K. Sample, “Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia in the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon” (May 4, 2017), 6, at https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/14211/documents/2017/5/050417%20AL%20Guidelines%20with%20Letter.pdf.
  3. Pontifical Council for the Family, “Family, Marriage, and ‘De Facto’ Unions” (July 26, 2000), §22, at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/family/documents/rc_pc_family_doc_20001109_de-facto-unions_en.html.
  4. John Paul II, “Discourse to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota” (January 2, 1999), qtd. in “Family, Marriage, and ‘De Facto’ Unions,” §22.
  5. Cf. Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D., “The pope seems to be missing the real dangers of cohabitation. It’s time for the Church to get serious” (November 18, 2016) at LifeSiteNews, https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/cohabitation-unions-a-risk-to-marriage-adults-and-children.
  6. Kansas Catholic Conference, “A Better Way: A Pastoral Letter to the People of God in the Province of Kansas Addressing Cohabitation before Marriage” (June 4, 1998), ed. Damian Lenshek, 8, at https://www.kofc.org/un/en/resources/cis/cis308.pdf.
  7. According to a study reported in American Family Association Journal, July 1993, couples who cohabited before marriage had a 50 percent higher chance of divorce than couples who did not cohabitate.
  8. Sample, “Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia,” 7.
  9. Ibid.

Theological Reflection: Confirmation & Holy Communion

In the Liturgical Handbook of the Archdiocese of Portland, great care is taken to emphasize the unity of the sacraments of initiation. For example, our parishes are instructed that “in teachings, discussions, and publications regarding First Holy Communion, it must always be clear that the candidates are, by Baptism, already members of the Body of Christ and living in communion with the Lord. They are to be welcomed into full Eucharist sharing,”1 which, as the Catechism teaches, “completes Christian initiation. Those who have been raised to the dignity of the royal priesthood by Baptism and configured more deeply to Christ by Confirmation participate with the whole community in the Lord’s own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.”2 The First Holy Communion of children or new converts is to be understood as the crowning glory of their Christian initiation: the grace given in baptism, brought to “completion” in Confirmation3 and restored in the Sacrament of Penance4 is all for the sake of that “communion in the divine life”5 given in the Most Holy Eucharist.

Last weekend, I was able to participate in a Mass at which three of our young parishioners received the Sacrament of Confirmation. They were the last of this year’s cohort of confirmandi, who have been receiving the sacrament in groups of two and three at various Masses (to avoid large gatherings) since the spring. Closer to Advent now than Easter, I joked with them that they were coming in awfully late in the game! Later, however, after reading Mr. Clark’s comments about the restored order of the sacraments of initiation practiced in the Diocese of Honolulu, I reflected that all of our confirmandi come in rather “late in the game.” In the Archdiocese of Portland, children are to be enrolled in catechetical programs preparing for their First Communion “when they approach the age of reason,”6 which is understood to be at “the completion of the seventh year,”7 while “young Catholics who were baptized as infants are confirmed in the freshman or sophomore years in high school.”8 In practice, this means that our young people receive Holy Communion at age seven and Confirmation around age fourteen or fifteen – some seven or eight years later! 

The great delay seems to contradict the logic, described in the above quoted passages, by which Christian initiation presses on from one’s Baptism as an infant through Confirmation, by which the baptismal grace is completed, toward the sacramental union of one’s First Holy Communion, the telos and climax of the whole process. When I brought this up with him, my pastor commented that Confirmation is sometimes treated as a “carrot,” a prize which can be dangled in front of parents to entice them to bring their children back to Mass and enroll them again in religious education classes. Sometimes, he said, the families disappear after their children’s First Communion and we don’t see them again until Confirmation. There is a fear that if we were to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation practiced in the early Church, with Confirmation preceding First Communion, those families would never come back again! 

Apart from the questionable practice of withholding the graces of the sacraments from young people who need them in an effort to manipulate their parents into coming to Mass (if this is in fact the motivation of some), I can’t help but wonder whether part of the reason for these families’ disappearance in the first place might not be our own inconsistent sacramental logic. By and large, the Christian faithful understand the supreme importance of Holy Communion. When their children are admitted to Communion at age seven, but Confirmation is delayed until almost a decade later, they may wonder how important Confirmation really is. Taken out from its natural place leading up to and preparing for Communion, it seems a bit like a vestigial organ, of uncertain necessity. This may lead to the invention of new meanings for the sacrament in an effort to justify its continued importance, such as “marking the ‘coming of age’ of a candidate,”9 an interpretation which the Archdiocese has lately condemned.

The decision to restore or not to restore the ancient order is entirely up to the Archbishop. I know he has discussed it with his Presbyteral Council. As a priest, however, I can be mindful about teaching the people in my sacramental preparation programs about the ancient order of the sacraments, the essential unity of the three sacraments of initation, why we presently celebrate Holy Communion “out of order” (due to Pope Pius X’s desire for children to receive Communion at an earlier age), and why Confirmation is still necessary even after First Communion for the completion of baptismal grace. I also want to be careful never to treat Confirmation as a “carrot,” as my pastor said. If families are disappearing from Mass after their children receive their sacraments, then I want to visit them, like a good father, and ask them what happened. If we have an epidemic of disappearing families, then there are surely urgent problems in the liturgy, catechesis, adult faith formation, or the life of the community which need to be addressed and reformed. 


Footnotes

  1. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 10.12.2.
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1322.
  3. “Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace” (ALH, 9.1.4). Cf. also CCC, 1285.
  4. “This sacrament [Penance] is rooted in baptismal grace and leads toward complete reconciliation in the Eucharist” (ALH, 10.11.10).
  5. CCC, 1325.
  6. ALH, 10.10.4.
  7. ALH, 10.6.2.
  8. ALH, 9.8.6.
  9. ALH, 9.1.5.

Time is Life

“The saying ‘time is money’ is familiar, but a more correct version of it would be ‘time is life.’ Our life is measured out in time. What we spend time on is what we spend life on. Père Ghislain Lafont applies this truth to prayer:

I remember that one day a novice came to ask me: ‘But what does it mean to give oneself to prayer? What is praying?’ I proposed to him this definition: ‘To pray is to give time to God.’ Time, that is, a quantity measurable on one’s watch, because I believe that time is life. A man who uses his time to pray . . . truly shows to what point this activity directly ordered to God is important to him. It is a manner of laying down one’s life.”

—Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass

Theological Reflection: Baptism

This morning at St. Mary’s, we celebrated the rebirth of three infants by water and the Holy Spirit. The ceremonies of Baptism were celebrated beautifully and with great joy by the families and their loved ones in attendance. Among the many splendid rites, I was especially struck today by the anointing with chrism upon the newly baptized infants’ heads. At once, the fragrance of the chrism seemed to fill the church and, since I was carrying the jar of oil and the cotton balls used by the priest for the anointing, lingered also on my hands for hours after. One child had been crying frantically since the water was poured over her head, but when she was anointed with the chrism, she became calm. The exultant prayer of the Bride in the Song of Songs came to my mind: “Draw me: we will run after thee to the odor of thy ointments!” (Song 1:3).1 Is there any odor more beautiful in the world than the smell of this Chrism of salvation, by which the Bridegroom of souls first draws us to Himself and makes us His own?

St. Thomas teaches that “in the sacrament of Baptism something is done which is essential to the sacrament, and something which belongs to a certain solemnity of the sacrament … The use of water in Baptism is part of the substance of the sacrament; but the use of oil or chrism is part of the solemnity.”2 Although inessential, strictly speaking, to the valid and licit celebration of the sacrament, it is most fitting that the newly baptized infant be anointed with chrism to signify outwardly the glorious, hidden reality of his new identity in Christ. The ritus explanativi provided before this anointing in the Rite illustrates well its theological meaning: “As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as members of his body, sharing everlasting life.”3 The use of sacred chrism here in particular, since it is employed also in the ordination of priests and the consecration of bishops, churches, altars, chalices and patens, emphasizes that the child has been set apart (analogously to the way that priests, churches, and sacred vessels are “set apart”) by Christ himself to be a part of “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people” (1 Peter 2:9). By the “sheer gratuitousness of this grace of salvation,”4 the newly baptized child will forever be numbered among those blessed ones to whom the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom proclaims the mysterious words: “Holy things are for the holy!”

Sacred chrism, being a mixture of oil and balsam, also bears its own innate symbolism:

Olive-oil, being of its own nature rich, diffusive, and abiding, is fitted to represent the copious outpouring of sacramental grace, while balsam, which gives forth most agreeable and fragrant odours, typifies the innate sweetness of Christian virtue. Oil also gives strength and suppleness to the limbs, while balsam preserves from corruption. Thus anointing with chrism aptly signifies that fulness of grace and spiritual strength by which we are enabled to resist the contagion of sin and produce the sweet flowers of virtue.5

I wonder how much of this beautiful symbolism is understood by the Catholic parents and godparents who witness the anointing! Despite the otherwise excellent way in which the priest led the people through the Rite today and catechized them about its meaning, this anointing was given with no further explanation than the Rite itself provides. As a priest, I would like to preach often on this sacred anointing, since it expresses so much of what is given invisibly in Baptism and also of the future glory for which Baptism prepares these children: “However young, they are bathed in [Christ’s] light, his heavenly grace and his peace. Moreover, by making in Baptism as it were his or her first steps along the path of faith, the child is directed toward growth by grace in human and spiritual maturity so as to attain ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4:1) and, knowing and loving him, to inherit his promises.”6 I would like the parents to smile and give glory to God in their homes when they catch the odor of the sacred chrism on their newly baptized little ones, recalling with holy awe that He Himself has now set their son or daughter apart, like themselves, “as members of his body, sharing everlasting life.”


Footnotes

  1. The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate with Annotations, References, and an Historical and Chronological Table (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950).
  2. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 66, a. 10, at New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org.
  3. Ordo baptismi parvulorum (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2003), no. 62.
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1250.
  5. Patrick Morrisroe, “Chrism,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 3 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908), at New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org.
  6. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 7.1.7.

Like a Thief in the Night

This reflection was given at Morning Prayer at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the feast of St. Monica, August 27, 2020. The audio is available here.


“Behold, I am coming like a thief,” says the Lord to St. John. “Blessed is the one who watches and keeps his clothes ready, so that he may not go naked and people see him exposed” (Rev 16:15).

And again: “If you are not watchful, I will come like a thief, and you will never know at what hour I will come upon you” (Rev 3:3).

How striking, that Our Blessed Lord now compares Himself to a thief! Let us take care to understand him rightly. The thief of souls, after all, is the Devil, who climbs into the sheepfold “to steal and slaughter and destroy” (Jn 10:10). He comes in the dead of night while the hired men are sleeping; they leave the sheep and run away at his approach (v. 12). But Our Lord, the Good Shepherd, comes so that His sheep “might have life and have it more abundantly.” He “lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11).  

It should surprise us that our Shepherd now tells us He is coming “like a thief.” Indeed, the whole point is to surprise us. St. Augustine says, “The Lord comes in two ways. At the end of the world he will come to all generally; likewise, he comes to each man at his own end, namely in death … and he wished both to be uncertain.” St. Jerome adds, “The Lord wished to set down an uncertain end … so that man would always be awaiting it.” “Stay awake! For at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Mt 24:42,44).

“Christ, therefore, compares Himself to a thief, not as regards the act of stealing, but as regards silence and secrecy” (Cornelius a Lapide). 

But why does the Lord will to keep us in suspense? Why will “neither the day nor the hour” be revealed until the Son of Man appears (Mt 25:13)? Why will the rightful King of Heaven and Earth return at His Second Coming to claim His kingdom “like a thief” rather than the conqueror He Is?

One possible answer, proposed by the great Scripture commentator Cornelius a Lapide, is so “that the uncertainty may be a keen and never-failing stimulus to us in the practice of every virtue. For … if men knew when they were most likely to die, at that time only would they seek to repent, and they would make a show of diligence around that hour. Therefore, in order that they might be diligent, not only at that time, but continuously, throughout their lives … God caused them not to know the day or hour.”

This is true, and profitable to remember. “Time flies; keep death before your eyes.” As a wise old priest I know told me not long ago, “I don’t have any more time to waste.” Neither do I. Neither do you, no matter our age, our health, our plans for the future. In the same vein, a traditional Catholic prayer worthy of daily meditation reminds us:

“Remember, Christian soul, 
that thou has this day, and every day of thy life: 
God to glorify,
Jesus to imitate,
A soul to save,
A body to mortify,
Sins to repent of,
Virtues to acquire,
Hell to avoid,
Heaven to gain,
Eternity to prepare for,
Time to profit by,
Neighbors to edify,
The world to despise,
Devils to combat,
Passions to subdue,
Death, perhaps, to suffer,
Judgment to undergo.”

But something, perhaps, is missing from this sober interpretation. Let us consider one small detail, easily overlooked, from the Lord’s revelation to St. John: “Blessed is the one who watches and keeps his clothes ready.” Recall the parable we heard last week about the man who comes to the marriage feast without his wedding garment. This garment represents nothing other than charity, that garment which every Christian is to put on over all his other virtues and good works, which binds them all together. 

We cannot enter eternal life if we are not clothed in charity. Therefore, the Lord reminds us again today of the urgent need not only to stay awake and keep watch “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), but to remain in His love (Jn 15:9), dressed in the spotless white garment of salvation, ready for the summons to the wedding feast! 

This, in fact, is the difference between the anxious fear of the servant, striving for perfection because he is afraid that his Lord will catch him in some fault and reject him when He comes, and the longing of the Bride for her Bridegroom, who seeks to make herself pure and spotless for her Beloved—not because she fears rejection, but because her love for Him spurs her on to nothing less. 

She it is who cries out with such wild joy in the Canticle of Canticles: “The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills. Behold, he stands behind our wall, looking through the windows, looking through the lattices!” (Cant 2:8-9). 

And this is the voice of the Lord, who comes “like a thief,” peering in through her window in the dead of night: “Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come. For winter is now past, the rain is over and gone …  Show me thy face, let thy voice sound in my ears: for thy voice is sweet, and thy face is beautiful” (Cant 2:10-11, 14). 

Why does the Lord keep us in the dark? To spur us on to practice virtue and seek perfection, yes, but perhaps also to inspire in us a greater desire for His coming. 

“At the end of life,” says St. John of the Cross, “we will be judged on love alone.”

Listen to the words of Saint Monica at the end of her earthly life. “Son,” she said to her dear Augustine, whose conversion she had won by many tears and long years of suffering, “as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world. I did have one reason for wanting to live a little longer: to see you become a Catholic Christian before I died. God has lavished his gifts on me in that respect … so what am I doing here?” (Confessions, IX, 10) 

In my short time here at St. Mary’s, I have met already several faithful, older people who have asked me the same question. Just five days after she posed it, Saint Monica passed from this world into the eternal life to come. Perhaps the Lord was waiting only for this last, most perfect sigh of the saintly mother’s heart: the realization that she wanted nothing now but Him alone.

“After telling about her death, her sorrowing son adds: We did not think that hers was a death which it was seemly to mark with repining, or tears, or lamentations, seeing that she died not sorrowfully … because we knew what her life had been, her faith unfeigned, her sure and certain hope.” (Roman Breviary at Matins, third lesson on the Feast of St. Monica)

Let us, then, dear friends of Christ, taking Saint Monica as our model, stay awake, and wait upon the Lord, clothed in the garment of charity and fired by love’s urgent longings, so that when He comes and knocks, at a day and hour we cannot now predict, we may be ready at once to open the door and go away with Him. “Truly, the LORD is waiting to be gracious to you; truly, he shall rise to show you mercy. For the LORD is a God of justice: blessed are all who wait for him!” (Isa 30:18) 

The Wedding Garment

This reflection was given at Morning Prayer at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the feast of St. Bernard, August 20, 2020. The audio is available here.


“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Mt 22,1). There is “a great mystery” echoing in these words: do you hear it? “I speak in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5,32), the great mystery of the love of the Bridegroom and the Bride thrilling through the very heart of God and down through the history of creation and salvation. For who else can this beloved son of the king be, the Son for whom His Father prepares a joyful wedding feast, but Our Lord Jesus Christ? And who else can His bride be but the Church, whom He “loved” so much that he “handed himself over for her to sanctify her … that he might present to himself the Church in splendor” (Eph 5,25-26), St. Paul says, as His own spouse?

In his magnificent poem, “Romance of the Creation,” St. John of the Cross, the great poet of divine love, imagines an eternal dialogue between the Father and the Son:

“I wish to give You, My dear Son,
To cherish you, a lovely bride,
And one who for Your worth will merit
To live forever by Our side.

And she will eat bread at our table
The selfsame bread on which I’ve fed:
That she may know the worth and value
Of the Son whom I have bred,
And there enjoy with Me forever
The grace and glory that You shed.

‘Thanks to You, Almighty Father,’
The Son made answer to the Sire,
‘To the wife that You shall give Me
I shall give My lustrous fire,

‘That by its brightness she may witness
How infinite My Father’s worth
And how My being from Your being
In every way derived its birth.

‘I’ll hold her on My arm reclining
And with Your love will burn her so
That with an endless joy and wonder
Your loving kindness she may know.’

‘Let it be done, then,’ said the Father,
‘For your love’s surpassing worth.’
And the moment he pronounced it
Was the creation of the Earth.”

The poem continues to describe in dazzling splendor the creation of the heavens and the earth, the stars, the oceans, the heavenly hierarchy of angels – last of all, the human race. And this is the wedding which the eternal Father has prepared for His Only Son: the union of our humble human nature with His own divine glory:

“Then, to a deathless music sounding,
Bride to Bridegroom will be pressed,
Because He is the crown and headpiece
Of the Bride that He possessed.

To her beauty all the members
Of the just He will enlace
To form the body of the Bride
When taken into His embrace.

Tenderly in His arms He’ll take her
With all the force that God can give
And draw her nearer to the Father
All in one unison to live.

There with the single, same rejoicing
With which God revels, she will thrill,
Revelling with the Son, the Father,
And He who issues from Their will,

Each one living in the other;
samely loved, clothed, fed, and shod.
She, absorbed in Him forever,
She will live the Life of God.”

Dear friends of Christ, realize the height of the glory for which you were made, and to which we are all invited! The Father sent His servants, the apostles and prophets, and in the end His Son, to gather us in to the feast – not only to witness this union – but to become the Bride. Little and lowly though we are, we were made from all eternity for union with God. 

It was for this that you were clothed in white on the day of your baptism and instructed to “keep it spotless until you arrive at the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you may be rewarded with everlasting life” (Rite for Baptism of Children).  And this white wedding garment signifies nothing else than charity, as the Apostle says: “Over all these [virtues and good works] put on love, that is, the bond of perfection” (Col 3:14). Love is a bond; it unites the lover with the beloved. And it is love, and only love, which will unite us to God. 

Now we understand why this poor man who came improperly attired to the wedding is punished so harshly by the king. It’s not a matter of violating the dress code. “He [who] enters in to the wedding feast, but without the wedding garment,” says Gregory the Great, “has faith … but not charity” (Catena Aurea). I’m sure it will not come as a surprise to you to hear that there are many in the Church, in the pews, even in the seminaries and the holy priesthood, who have faith, but lack love. Faith is good and necessary, indeed indispensable—by faith we come to believe in the love God has for us—but as the Apostle teaches, “if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing“ (1 Cor 13:2). Faith is a means to an end; it is a stepping stone to charity. In heaven, faith and hope will pass away; love alone, “the greatest of these,” remains forever, because love alone unites us to God.

“Many are called, but few are chosen,” says the Lord. All are invited, we might say, but some do not wish to come. Others come only so far, but lack the resolve to come all the way: “I will answer the invitation and come into the hall, into the Church, but I will not put on the garment of charity which Our Lord offers.”  Why? 

Here Saint Bernard, whose feast we celebrate today, may be of some help to us. The Church honors Saint Bernard with the title of “Doctor Caritatis,” the Doctor or teacher of charity. Saint Bernard distinguishes four stages of the growth of love in us; we might call them four steps in putting on the garment of charity.

In the first stage, which he calls “carnal love,” we are drawn to the love of Our Creator simply by considering all the gifts He has freely given us, His creatures: free will, self-awareness, hearts capable of loving, an intellect to comprehend the truth, the beauty of the world, the love of our families. One need not even be a Christian to love God with this kind of love. But it is more about the gifts than the Giver.

In the second stage, as we come to know God better by faith, we begin to love Him for what more He can do for us. This is the way children in the faith love the Lord. Saint Bernard calls this stage “mercenary love” because it remains self-interested: “It is weak, for if this hope [of gain] is removed, the love may be extinguished, or at least diminished. It is not pure, as it desires some return.”

But gradually, over long experience and many trials and failures, our love is purified. We begin to love God with what St. Bernard  calls “filial love,” that is, as sons and daughters love their Father, for His own sake, because He is good and beautiful, trustworthy and true. This is more and more an unselfish love, indeed a self-forgetful love, for the more our hearts are occupied in loving God, the more they expand and take on the dimensions of His love. This is the love that regards our neighbors and even our enemies as ourselves. This is the love of great martyrs and saints. 

Yet there is even a fourth stage of the growth of love in us. Saint Bernard simply calls it “pure love.” The characteristic of the fourth and most perfect stage of love is that we “learn to love ourselves for God’s sake. This is to love the self that God desires, to love God’s will for the self: and so it means the final purging of the will from self-aggrandizement and desire for control. It is ‘to be emptied out of oneself, to be brought almost to nothing’ (X. 27), to accept the reality of God as entirely definitive of one’s identity. The self has no other will than God’s. Its only prayer is: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Dr. Margaret Turek, Notes on Monastic Spirituality)

You may notice this is precisely the opposite of our culture’s present obsession with self-care and self-esteem. The wisdom of the world holds that we must love and provide for ourselves before we can love anybody else. So long as we continue to make the anxious cravings of our hearts the primary object of our concern, our love remains weak and imperfect. The wisdom of God, which is folly and a stumbling block to the world, but to us our salvation and our hope, is that if we are ever to learn to love ourselves in truth, we must first fall in love with God in a quite absolute way, such that we abandon everything to Him. In the beauty of His eyes, we will see ourselves reflected, and come to love ourselves there, as He loves us.

“This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?” Yes, the ideal is high, and this is why many refuse. It is one thing to believe, another to surrender oneself to a love as demanding and all-consuming as this. But if we strive to advance in love and place our trust in Him, throwing ourselves confidently on His mercy as often as we fail, the Father looks on our feeble efforts with great tenderness and will soon lift us up to the heights of perfection. And the reward for which we strive is the greatest of all, the only reward any lover worth the name has ever sought: to possess the Beloved and to be possessed by Him forever. 

Lord Jesus, in your Most Holy Name, grant that every one of us gathered here today in your Church may come to the wedding banquet clothed in the garment of pure love. May all of us, whom you have called, find the way to light, to love, to life. 

The Seven Promises to “Him Who Conquers” in the Revelation of St. John

The revelation given to Saint John opens with seven messages to seven particular churches in Asia Minor. The evangelist is instructed by the Son of Man to “write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter” (Rev 1:19 RSV2CE).1 These messages, recorded in chapters two and three, have several features in common. Each is addressed to “the angel of the church” of that place (2:1).2 Each begins with a different phrase identifying the divine person who addresses them, such as “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (2:8) or “the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (2:18). Presumably these seven unique identifying marks given to the churches differ according to the particular church to which the Son is speaking, since He to whom David sang, “O Lord, you search me and you know me” (Ps 139:1-2) surely knows how best to disclose His identity to each individual church and each member thereof.

That there are seven titles given, however, would also seem to express something of the inexhaustible plenitude of the divine being which is at once revealed and hidden by each of them, since “Revelation uses numbers symbolically—that is, qualitatively rather than quantitatively” and “seven and ten normally represent completeness.”3 The mystery of “Him who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4) is infinite, utterly beyond our comprehension; He is glimpsed only “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) in the symbolic words and images of the titles He Himself has revealed to his servant John. The seven titles, even taken together, cannot begin to exhaust the mystery of God’s being, but they point to the perfection of that being which is beyond words.

Each of the seven messages to the churches also ends with a particular promise to “him who conquers” (ὁ νικῶν). This victorious one shall ”eat of the tree of life” (Rev 2:7); he will be given “the crown of life” (2:10), “hidden manna and a white stone” (2:17), and “the morning star” (2:26-28); he shall be “clothed in white garments” (Rv 3:5), made “a pillar in the temple of my God” upon whom is written “the name of my God” (3:12), and finally “sit with me on my throne, as I also have conquered and sat with my Father on his throne” (3:21). Each of these promises may be uniquely suited to the hearers of the message in that particular place; Ephesus, for example, was the site of the Temple of Artemis, who was frequently depicted in art as a fruitful tree, and it is to Ephesus that the promise to eat of the tree of life is given.4 Each of the promises, however, according to our limited human powers of comprehension, must also express aspects of the one infinite and ineffable mystery which is promised to all. Like the divine names, they do not exhaust the mystery; they point to its “unspeakable majesty and grandeur.”5

What is the essence of this gift which stands behind the seven promises? St. John of the Cross takes up this question in his commentary on the Spiritual Canticle, a love song he composed in mystical ecstasy expressing the romance between the soul, conceived as Bride, and God the Bridegroom. Near the end of the Canticle, the bride sings:

There you will show me
what my soul has been seeking,
and then you will give me,
you, my life, will give me there
what you gave me on that other day.6

These words are spoken as she looks forward to her entry into eternal beatitude, “the consummation of the love of God, which she had always been seeking.”7 This consummation is twofold. God will show her that which she has long sought, “that is, to love God as purely and perfectly as he loves her.”8 He furthermore will give her a gift which, St. John says, is nothing less than “essential glory, consisting in the vision of God’s being.”9 Interestingly, the soul avows that God has given her this gift already “on that other day,” which is taken to mean “the day of God’s eternity … in [which] God predestined the soul to glory, decreed the glory he would bestow on her, and gave it to her freely from all eternity before he created her.”10 

As to the nature of this gift, this essential and eternal glory which God bestows and has bestowed and will bestow on his chosen and beloved bride, the “one who conquers,” St. John says it “is in point of fact the vision of God, but that which the vision of God is to the soul has no other name than ‘what.’”11 It is sheer, indescribable beatitude. He proceeds to quote “what Christ said of it to St. John seven times in the Apocalypse with many expressions and words and comparisons, for this ‘what’ cannot be understood by one word, nor at one time, for even with all these terms it still remains to be expressed.”12 As St. John of the Cross enumerates them, each of the seven promises seeks to express more perfectly what was inadequate in the last; “everything he said falls short of the mark,”13 and so another and another is added, like a lover’s stammering to express the unspeakable praises of her beloved. These promises, in the end, “cast the ‘what’ in very perfect terms, but they still do not explain it. This is a peculiarity of a thing that is immense: All the expressions of excellence, grandeur, and goodness are fitting, but do not explain it, not even when taken together.”14 

One thing more remains to be revealed. Who is the one who conquers, to whom the indescribable gift is given? In the Spiritual Canticle of John of the Cross, it is the lover, the bride. This insight accords perfectly with the theology of John the Evangelist, who elsewhere writes, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments … for whatever is born of God overcomes (νικᾷ) the world; and this is the victory (ἡ νίκη) that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes (ὁ νικῶν) the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:3-5). Faith in Jesus, shown forth in a life of love and obedience to His commandments, conquers the world and wins the indescribable prize of love’s consummation: everlasting life in union with Him.


Footnotes

  1. The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament: Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010). 
  2. Cf. also Revelation 2:8, 12, 18 and 3:1, 7, 14.
  3. Peter S. Williamson, Revelation, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 28.
  4. Cf. Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 495, fn. on Rev. 2:7.
  5. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 38:8,in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991), 621.
  6. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, 38:1, in Collected Works, 618.
  7. SC, 38:2, in CW, 618.
  8. Ibid.
  9. SC, 38:5, in CW, 620.
  10. SC, 38:6, in CW, 620.
  11. Ibid.
  12. SC, 38:7, in CW, 620.
  13. SC, 38:8, in CW, 621.
  14. Ibid.