Holy Saturday: The Great Silence

There is a phrase used in monastic life to refer to the period of time between the last hour of prayer, after which the monks retire to their cells, and the first hour of prayer, with which the monks greet the new day, called “the great silence”.

On the practical level, the great silence seems to refer simply to the time when all the work of monastery is accomplished and the monks settle down for sleep.

But deeper than this, the great silence is not just a time of rest, of passivity, but the time where, while human labor ceases, God remains active and working, though unseen and most often unheard, speaking in the stillness with the eloquence of his Eternal Word. The monks rest, knowing that God in the great silence abides.

The practice of silence is considered by the Church’s saints and sages to be an integral reality for our spiritual lives. The soul is fed by silence and the life of the soul dissipates without it. However, the importance of silence in terms of our spiritual lives can at times be overshadowed by words of human creation- even the inspired words of prayer. Consider how much of our prayer is filled with words- we petition, praise, speak and provoke. Words occupy our minds even if our eyes are closed to the printed pages of our prayer books or when our lips do not move. We think in words and one of the most arduous disciplines of the spiritual life is to still all that chattering, both internal and external, and learn to listen, rather than speak. God’s Word’s demands attentiveness and the condition for the possibility of that attentiveness is silence.

An undue attachment and emphasis to words of human creation can inhibit silence. Consider how speech pre-occupies us. “Why won’t he talk to me” is a complaint one hears over and over. “I can’t believe she said that” we protest. Silence is associated with being rude. “Is he ignoring me?” Silence is associated with dangerous tendency towards indifference. Think of the oft used maxim- “Silence=Death”.

But isn’t all this simply evidence of the rapacious desire of the ego for attention? It seems so. If cosmic and geologic history is our frame of reference, it was literally billions of years before a human word was ever heard and the universe moved right along without any help from our vocalizations. Should all human speech cease, the universe would continue unabated, unfazed by our absence. Words might be necessary for us, but not for the world- at least not human words. Our words, no matter how clever or well crafted, are dispensable, relative, passing away.

The scriptures tell us that even holy words, words of prophecy and praise will one day cease. The great coming of God is initiated in the Book of Revelation by a penetrating and deafening silence that overtakes heaven and earth,

And yet, though our words pass away, there remains a Word that is eternally spoken. This Word is Christ. He is the Word through whom all things were made, indicating that he speaks in all that exists. If we want to know what God sounds like, his vocabulary, syntax, grammar, his choice of words, the cadences of his speech and peculiar accent, then we have to listen to the Eternal Word.

The Eternal Word speaks to us first in a language imprinted on creation itself. In every blade of grass, in every bird that takes wing, in the storm at sea and in the azure blue sky, in all this the Eternal Word is speaking his truth about who he is and who we are meant to be.

The Eternal Word became flesh, that is, he took as his own a human nature and became a man. He spoke to us in the language of human speech, though we did not for the most part hear him or believe that what he was saying was true. Many became angry with him for what he said and sought to silence him. This silencing took the form of a cross and a grave. These gestures of our refusal spoke louder than any words.

Yet God cannot be silenced.

The Eternal Word made flesh spoke more eloquently deprived of human speech than in all of his carefully chosen words.

In the hours of Holy Saturday, a great silence overtakes the Church. Our silence commemorates that God in Christ descended to where no human word is uttered or heard- the silence of the grave. Yet even in that silence God is speaking.

In fact, the Eternal Word utters his loudest cry as he moves into death.

He descends to the dead like a great warrior, every step he takes resounding like the waves breaking upon the shore and his every movement reverberating in time and eternity like an earthquake that shakes the foundations of creation. He calls out to the dead by name as he called forth Lazarus from the tomb: “Come forth”!

On this day, in the silence of Holy Saturday, the Eternal Word spoke and death was transformed forever. No longer is death an end, but now by Christ’s command, a way that leads to him.

In these last hours of the great silence of Holy Saturday, when the Eternal Word speaks in the hidden recesses of death, let all mortal flesh keep silent and in this silence, let us be attentive and listen.

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Wednesday of Holy Week (April 1st, 2015)

One of the great mysteries of Holy Week is the revelation of how God in Christ deals with our refusals, particularly the most terrifying refusal that is the cross. The cross is terrifying because its refusal insists that God die, and not only die, but die in the most horrific manner that we can devise.

The mystery is that such a terrifying response is met with God’s acceptance of what our refusal imposes- God in Christ accepts death, and death in the manner that we devise- death on a cross.

Isaiah foresees all this, God’s acceptance of the cruel sentence of death we impose on him in today’s “servant” text from Isaiah’s great book of prophecy. The “servant”, who is the Messiah (God in Christ) does not offer resistance to those who intend to harm him, to kill him.

Why?

God does this to reveal something of extraordinary importance about who he is and what he wants, particularly how he intends to deal with our refusals and what he reveals is not only important, but also surprising.

Worldly standards of justice would determine that the horror of the cross should be met with an even more horrific wrath, a wrath at the very least equivalent to what we unleash in the cross. If we refuse God should not God refuse us?

The answer to this question is given by Christ on the cross and it is absolutely inexplicable. God doesn’t refuse us, instead he imparts to us a mercy that exceeds the demands of justice, and sets a world gone wrong back right. Through our refusal of God we beg for wrath, but God doesn’t want to destroy us, God wants to save us.

And so, what God does with the cross we impose on him is that he accepts it, and he transforms it, inserting himself into farthest reaches of our refusals, descending himself into the alienation from God that we would impose on ourselves, and from that place, offering us a mercy that is as surprising as it is undeserved. Our attempts to destroy God are foolish and futile, and in the end, God undermines our every attempt to do so because in our efforts we do not destroy him, we only risk destroying ourselves and our destruction is not what God wants.

Thus, God meets our refusals with his mercy. Now we have to decide if we are willing to accept the mercy of God. If we do, then we have to change.

This is the decision that the cross of Christ demands that we make.

You see, the mercy of God is not about evading consequences, but it is the opportunity to set things right. The mercy of God is the gift of another chance, a chance that offers us the possibility of being changed, rather than being ruined.

Would we rather be changed or ruined? Ruined or changed? God shows us in the cross of Christ what he wants. But what do we want?

The Gospel for today presents the sad fact that Judas was not alone in his betrayal of Christ. The fact is that in their disappointment and fear, many of those who were closest to Christ abandoned him in his hour of greatest need. Despite all their protests to the contrary, when the moment came, and the dark shadows descended, many of Christ’s followers ran for the cover of the night.

As it was then, so it is now.

None of us should be so prideful as to place ourselves among the few who remained with Christ as he underwent his suffering and death. The apostle Paul reminds us, lest any of us think more of ourselves than we should, that all have sinned, all have fallen short.

It is only in an attitude of humility that one can truly enter into the mysteries of Holy Week and appreciate their meaning and understand their purpose.

Unless we admit our refusals, repent of our sins, and have for our own the same attitude as that of Christ, “who humbled himself and emptied himself of glory”, we choose to lurk in the dark rather than walk with the Lord Jesus into his light.

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Tuesday of Holy Week (March 31st, 2015)

In the days of Holy Week, the Church presents select passages from the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah. These particular passages are known as the “servant” texts, and in these texts the prophet Isaiah foresees the work of the Messiah and how the Messiah will effect the transformation of Israel.

Remember, the Messiah is a person of extraordinary power, whom the prophets believed would effect the restoration of the Israelites, elevating them to a glory that surpassed the glory of their greatest kings. The Messiah would gather the remnant people of Israel from exile, restore their worship and temple, defeat the enemies of the Israelites and reign forever as Lord of, not only the Israelites, but of the whole world.

How this would be accomplished is described in the “servant” texts of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, and what the prophet has to say is truly surprising. How so? The prophet Isaiah foresaw that the Messiah, the “servant” would accomplish these mighty deeds through a humility before God and man that would manifest itself in suffering and death, and once this suffering and death was accomplished, the Messiah would manifest his true power and the restoration of Israel would be revealed.

The worldly believe that great and mighty deeds are accomplished through acts of power manifested in violence. Isaiah foresaw that God would reveal his power in humility and a love that refuted the violence of the violence of the worldly.

We Christians believe that the Lord Jesus is the Messiah and that through his suffering and death he has effected not only the restoration of Israel, but of the world in a surprising, extraordinary way. The Church believes that the “servant” texts refer to Christ the Lord and what Isaiah foresaw in visions is realized in flesh and blood in the Lord Jesus.

The great mystery of Christ the Lord’s revelation is that he manifests his power, the power of God, not through worldly violence, but through a love that is willing to suffer and die with us and for us. Through this love the fulfillment of the Messianic promises come about and the “servant” texts of prophet Isaiah reach their startling fulfillment.

There is a great foreboding that overshadows the Gospel proclamation for today and tomorrow. The Gospel places emphasis on the sad figure of Judas Iscariot and his betrayal of the Lord Jesus.

The Gospel only hints at the motivations of Judas for his betrayal of Christ, and as if ultimately confounded by his reasoning, surmises that the poor man acted as if possessed by dark powers. It seems that for Judas that the Lord Jesus was a disappointment, a false Messiah, because he would not manifest his power in worldliness, in accord with Judas’ expectations.

Judas wanted the Lord Jesus to act in accord with his expectations, which were worldly expectations serving desires for wealth, pleasure, power and honors. For Judas, the Lord Jesus was merely a tool, a means to his own ends, a ladder that he would climb to achieve his own success.

Judas, angry and disappointed that Christ the Lord would not conform to his expectations, sought to punish the Lord Jesus in the most humiliating and cruel way he could devise.

Our own refusals of Christ might not be as dark and sinister as that of Judas, but that doesn’t mean that our refusals simply do not matter or that their impact cannot be just as severe.

How often do we treat the Lord Jesus as merely a tool, a means to get something that we want?   Do we plot and conspire to use Christ the Lord and his Church as a means to advance our petty causes and worldly agendas?

His refusal to love what Christ loves and serve what Christ serves drove Judas to distraction and then to betrayal, plotting to destroy Christ, he destroyed, not Christ, but himself. What are our own refusals to love what Christ loves and serve what Christ serves doing to our own lives and the lives of others?

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Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (March 29th, 2015)

The language of the Church is the language of mystery, and while this is often taken to mean that the Church speaks in a ways that are incomprehensible or difficult to understand, mystery doesn’t really mean that at all. What it does mean is that what the Church has to say is, more often than not, a provocation to silence. Words give way to rituals and these rituals express truths that are deeper than speech.

So it is especially today. The words of the narrative of Christ’s suffering and death are meant to give way to silence, and that silence is meant to give way to prayer- and that prayer is meant to compel us to a decision.

And yet the Church insists that her priests speak some words in the wake of the proclamation of today’s Gospel. The priests are to say something brief about the awe filled mystery of Christ’s suffering and death. Here goes:

The Gospel present many things about the Lord Jesus and people prefer some things the Gospel presents more then others. Some prefer the presentation of Christ as our brother and friend, a teacher of ethics and commentator on philosophical and religious themes. Others will only listen to the politics, history and culture in the Gospel and little if anything else.

Yet, more important than our preferences is what the Gospel intends to tell us about the Lord Jesus, and what the Gospels tell us is that he is Priest, Prophet and King- how Christ is precisely these three things is what the testimony of the Gospel is all about.

The world has its share of priests, prophets and kings. They exist as overlords in all the great political, economic and cultural systems and they are the great ones who make their greatness felt in the world and in our own lives- the celebrities, financiers and politicians. In the time of Christ these priests, prophets and kings wielded great power and though they look different now, they still rule- for we choose for them to rule over us- and we make this choice out of necessity, self-interest or desire.

In the real, lived experience of the failures of the world’s priests, prophets and kings the Bible presents a people who cries out to God for deliverance and a God who promises to be our deliverer.

God keeps his promise and in an extraordinary move that was totally unexpected, he accepts a human nature with all its implications and reveals himself to be the one true Priest, Prophet and King.

This was supposed to be what we wanted, what we longed for, what we prayed for- but as God in Christ lived among us, the reality of the kind of Priest, Prophet and King he is, became more distressing and problematic. Why? Because it became clear that if we accepted him as our priest, prophet and king- not only would we have to change, but the world would have to change, and if this change happened a lot of people would have an awful lot to lose- or so they believed.

There was just too much to risk in terms of change and so the worldly powers, (priests, prophets and kings), conspired with dark spiritual powers, and answered God in Christ’s invitation of deliverance with a sentence of torture and death, which oddly enough, he accepted.

Because the Lord Jesus is God, he knew that we couldn’t really kill him, and he used that sentence of torture and death as a means of revealing the truth about the world’s priests, prophets and kings that we so often prefer to rule over us. He showed us that too many of them, compromised by sin and self-interest, deliver us into the tyranny of idols, flatter us with lies, and rather than offering their lives to us as servants of what is good, true and beautiful, they become taskmasters, taking away our lives, threatening us with death if we do not comply with their demands.

If we prefer worldly priests, prophets and kings, what we get are idols, lies and death. That’s the judgment of the cross on the world and on us.

That’s what Christ’s Cross reveals about worldly priests, prophets and kings, but this is not the only revelation of his Cross- there is something else.

Christ’s Cross also reveals what we receive if we prefer God in Christ as our priest, prophet and king. If we do, we get a priesthood that leads us into true worship, a worship that invites us to receive the divine life and presence of God- not idols. If Christ is our Priest, we receive a route of access to the one, true God that frees us from the tyranny of false gods.

If we prefer Christ as our Prophet, we get a prophecy that tells us the truth and a Prophet who delivers us from, not only the lies of the false prophets of the world, but from our own self-deception.

And if we prefer Christ as our King, we get a King, a King who, unlike the kings of the world doesn’t just take life, but gives us life- and gives us, not just any life, but his own divine life.

Our refusal of Christ looks like the cross. Our acceptance of Christ looks like a life that is willing to change.

What kind of king do we want or do we prefer? Or priest for that matter? Or prophet?

Do we want the Lord Jesus? Or are the kings, priests and prophets of the world- the celebrity, the politician or financier- the idol-makers, the liars, and the death-dealers, what we really want?

Today, we are provoked to silence, and in that silence invited to pray. Why the silence? Why the prayer? Because we are all being compelled, by the cross of the Lord Jesus, to make our decision.

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Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent (March 28th, 2015)

The prophet Ezekiel offered the Lord’s word of truth to the Israelites during the darks days leading up and the after the year 587 BC.

In that year, the last remnant of the Kingdom of David came to a terrifying end. The armies of Babylon invaded, ransacked the city of Jerusalem, desecrated and destroyed the temple, murdered the royal family and enslaved the survivors of this catastrophe. Those who managed to escape were scattered. The dreams of the Israelites to be great and mighty nation like other nations ended in a nightmare.

Ezekiel saw and experienced all this for himself, a fact that makes his words in today’s scripture very strange. He speaks of a new moment for the Israelites, pronounces that the terrors of the past will give way to new possibilities. Despite all appearances to the contrary, God has not abandoned his people- what was lost will be found, what was destroyed will be restored, what was desecrated will again be sanctified. The Israelites, despondent and scattered, will be raised up and gathered together to become again one, holy people.

And God will again dwell with his people.

The glorious vision of hope during dark time and in the face of a terrifying catastrophe is presented by the Church in the hours before the Church will commemorate Passion (Palm) Sunday is meant to correlate in our minds the memory of the dark days of 587 BC and the devastating loss of everything the Israelites held to be important with our memory of the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus.

The suffering and death of the Lord Jesus is a catastrophe in which a darkness seems to envelope not only humanity, but God in Christ. The cross seems to be the end, for how could God still love us, forgive us, when humanity shows itself capable of such a terrifying refusal of God.

The refusal of God is what the cross displays to us- the cross is what that refusal looks like. Our refusal to love what Christ loves and serve what Christ serves looks like the cross.

Yet in that refusal God in Christ surprises us with an offer of grace that is as undeserved as it is unexpected. God offers us another chance. He is willing to forgive us and our refusal of his love is met with a love that is stronger than our resistance, stronger than our refusal, stronger than even death.

Ezekiel’s vision of God offering his people another chance, foreshadows what God imparts to us through his experience of the cross. The suffering we impose on Christ with our refusal he transforms through the power of his will to love us and in doing so gives us even more than what the prophet Ezekiel describes in his vision.

In the cross, God in Christ reveals that God dwells with his people in body and in blood, in life and in death.

Today’s Gospel testifies that Christ’s death will have a purpose- and though worldly powers think they know what the purpose of Christ’s death will be, they do not know what God is doing and why.

Worldly powers think that the purpose of Christ’s death will simply be to prevent the loss of those things that worldly people prize above all- wealth, pleasure, power and honors. They feared that if Christ lived they would lose their worldly treasures, and if he died, their worldly treasures would remain secure. They were wrong.

Many today, in their worldliness, surmise that Christ’s death was about nothing but politics or culture. They are wrong too.

The worldly do not understand the purpose of Christ’s death- that Christ’s death is a revelation about God- a revelation about who God is and what God is all about.

Precisely what God reveals in Christ’s death is absolutely shocking, so much so, that many cannot, will not, believe it to be true.

But the revelation of God in Christ’s death is true- as true as the word of the Lord revealed to the prophet Ezekiel.

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Solemnity of the Annunciation (March 25th, 2015)

The literary works and culture influence of JRR Tolkien continues unabated. He is perhaps the most influential Catholic, at least in terms of arts and letters, from the last century, his works constituting the conditions for the possibility for the popular genre of fantasy fiction.

In his own fiction, particularly his magnum opus entitled “The Lord of the Rings, a small band of reluctant heroes struggle against all odds to defeat dark and dangerous powers hell bent on the destruction of the world. This evil is ultimately subverted and defeated by creatures that one would least expect- not the great and mighty (who are easily enticed to wicked deeds) but by the small and seemingly insignificant.

The small and insignificant move almost unnoticed in the territories under the thrall of dark powers, and through their insertion into enemy occupied territory, they overcome the evil that threatens and destroys.

Tolkien was a devout Catholic and his faith is hidden in his works of fiction. One small detail, often missed by many, is the significance of the date March 25th– which he identifies as the day that the dark powers were defeated.

March 25th is the day set aside by the Church for the commemoration of the Annunciation. This solemn feast, hidden this year amidst the mysteries of Lent, celebrates the conception of Christ in the womb of his Mother. God, in Jesus Christ, accept a human nature and in doing so inserts himself in an extraordinary way into the experience of being human (including the experience of gestating in the womb!). Christians believe that in God’s acceptance of a human nature in Christ, he hallowed, sanctified, the entirety of human existence- from our earliest beginnings to our natural end.

But also, the Solemnity of the Annunciation is a celebration of God’s victory over the powers of evil. Sin, death and the devil have laid waste to the world and rendered us prisoners. In his acceptance of a human nature, God in Christ sneaks into enemy occupied territory, and from his position, embedded with us in a world under the thrall of dark powers, he enacts his victory.

God in Christ becomes seemingly small and insignificant, and as such it seems on the level of appearances that he would be no match for the dark powers. He takes the lowest placed, embeds himself among those considered too insignificant and powerless to matter. Yet in the unfathomable surprise of God’s revelation in Christ his power is manifested while hidden in weakness.

The lesson here is profound. Christ is our victory. The Annunciation signals the end of the reign of the evil one and the ensuing triumph of the Kingdom of God. Battles with the evil one remain to be fought, for the most part waged in our hearts, and in our resistance to all that refuses to love what Christ loves and serve what Christ serves, but with the revelation of Christ in our flesh, God’s victory is now assured.

Tolkien’s day of victory for his fantasy world was no accident. In his decision to choose this day for the day of victory he was calling our attention to the triumph of Christ’s power in the real world. That day of Christ’s triumph is today (March 25th)- when after long years of defeat, God arrived and turned the tide of battle in our favor- a battle that would be won, not with the weapons of worldly might, but by his will to love us, and through the power of that love, he still fights by our side and leads us to victory.

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Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent (March 26th, 2015)

This morning’s scripture from the Old Testament Book of Genesis takes us back to the dawning of God’s revelation, back through the ages to the time of the patriarch Abraham, the progenitor of the Israelites.

In this story Abraham, is summoned, by God, into a relationship that is called a covenant. This relationship or covenant gives rise to a mission and to set him apart for this mission, God gives him a name, and assures him that fidelity to his God-given mission will have a positive effect- Abraham will be the father of a great and mighty nation.

This story is signaling to us that the Israelites begin, not with politics or with culture, but with a relationship, a covenant with God.

In the revelation of Christ the Lord we come to understand that God’s purpose in the covenant with Abraham was to create a people who would be the bearers of his divine life into the world. This divine life reveals itself in all its fullness in the divine person of Jesus Christ. In Christ, the God of Israel accepts a human nature and becomes an Israelite. It is as an Israelite that God in Christ reveals himself to the world.

In his revelation to the world, Christ extends the relationship or covenant that is given to Abraham to the world. This is what the Church is all about. The Church is the gathering of the nations into a relationship or covenant with God. What Abraham received as a promise, is fulfilled in the Church. Through Baptism, God summons us into a relationship or covenant with him, and through the other Sacraments, particularly the Blessed Sacrament, this relationship is ratified and intensified. Through our Baptism we are given the name of Christian- that is, we become “Christ-bearers” and through Baptism and through each of the Sacraments we are sent out on mission.

Keeping the covenant that we have been summoned by God to receive results in the increase of the Church- it is our fidelity to the covenant that enables the Church to flourish and grow. If we do not keep the covenant that we receive from God in Christ through the Sacraments, the Church will falter and diminish.

There is a logic in the popular culture that measures the success or failure of the Church in relation to the trends determined by politics, economics and culture- by wealth, pleasure, power and honors.

Inasmuch as the Church conforms to these standards, indeed gives sanction to them, the Church is promised success. This logic is the logic of worldliness and is in fact the very thing that breaks the covenant. In fact, one of the primary concerns of the Bible is how Israel is time and time again diminished and subverted by strategies that promised the Israelites worldly success.

Our relationship with God in Christ is not a matter of conforming to worldly expectations or giving sanction to worldly causes.

Our relationship with God in Christ is about fidelity to him, loving what he loves and serving what he serves. It seems absolutely counter-intuitive to worldly minds, but the Church increases inasmuch as it is faithful to Christ and diminishes inasmuch as it conforms to the standards of worldliness. The increase may not be in wealth, pleasure, power and honors, but inasmuch as the Church is faithful, the Church increases in holiness, and becomes ever more like Christ- this is what the mission of the Church is all about.

The Gospel for today places emphasis on the identity of the Lord Jesus as God and this is very important for us to remember as we make our way to the events of Holy Week. We will have little or no appreciation for the mysterious events the Church recalls in ritual, story and song during the days of the Holy Week if we do not understand and accept the identity of the Lord Jesus as God.

What is happening during Holy Week is a revelation of God. The drama of Christ’s passion and death is not merely a human drama in which Christ suffers and dies as a result of political, economic or cultural powers. Christ’s passion and death is not merely a human drama, but a “theo-drama”- which means that God is revealing who he is in an extraordinary way.

Today’s Gospel indicates that in the midst of God’s revelation in Christ, many refused to accept or understand his revelation. As it was then, so it is now.

In fact, it was precisely because of our refusal of Christ and what that refusal does to us that made it necessary for us for God to reveal himself in the manner that he did.

The mysteries of Holy Week are God’s revelation, his answer, to all of our refusals to love what he loves and serve what he serves.

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