Last night we remembered together the infancy narrative of Jesus. We listened (yet again) to God coming into the world as a child. This morning, John’s Gospel expands this story adding an element of theological significance: The Word was made flesh. The Greek literally means, “pitched his tent among us.” God pitched his tent among us, and put on flesh. He became an icon, an image, a body for our sake. Today is the Feast of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ Our Lord. We celebrate God becoming incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ – not Spirit as software somehow booting up with the body and hardware of Jesus, but Body and Spirit so intricately connected that Christ can only be described as fully human and fully divine. This is good news for us, and what it means is that our very bodies are sanctified and made holy in and by and through Christ. We are made holy because God (and God’s Body) is holy. This is our Christmas gift, and we are to share it with the world as Christ continually (and intimately) shares his body with us each and every time Holy Communion is celebrated. This Christmas, may we all remember the gift that keeps on giving – that is – Jesus Christ Our Lord who in these holy mysteries feeds us with spiritual food made for holy bodies.
An electric anticipation fills the air as we celebrate the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. We can guess what this afternoon, evening, and tomorrow may hold; yet this morning take a deep, collective breath before plunging into Christmas. May I suggest looking to Mary, and observing (with her) how the angelic messenger of God transformed her world from the ordinary into the extraordinary? For a moment, may we too give a loving ‘Yes’ to God, and with Mary stand perplexed and pondering, “What sort of Advent greeting this may be?”
The greeting named Mary “favored one.” This title was such an existential shock to Mary she had no words in that moment. She allowed the angel to proceed with his words while humbleness took over her disposition – Again, “She pondered.” Once the angel finished his divine proclamations, revelations, and prophesies it was Mary who did not let the truth found in these statements overwhelm her. Instead of being called into Heaven, she brought Heaven to Earth with her practicality – “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Didn’t see that one coming, did you angel?) It’s quite possible the angel fumbled a bit, and tried to relate, taking a different approach with his next set of sentences. Perhaps he sat down, took at deep breath, and compared Mary’s miraculous birth with her relative, Elizabeth’s. It may have been a bit of a stretch, but being a good Jewish woman, Mary might have taken the angel’s counsel of her own pregnancy, and compared it to her ancestors Sarah and Hannah. Were impossible pregnancies just something that ran in her family? Again, the answer was ‘Yes’ and in perhaps the most beautiful poetic response to any angel’s musings, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The scripture says that the angel simply went away (possibly relieved). The message was signed, sealed, and delivered. Mary, in that moment gave herself away to something greater than herself. She became a vessel of God – a vessel for God – a vessel to God.
Fun Fact: Mary and Pontius Pilot are the only historical persons besides Jesus who are mentioned in the Creeds of the Church. Where Pontius Pilot would later ask Jesus, “What is Truth,” not knowing that Truth was standing before him, it was Mary who held Divine Truth in her very being, birthing it into a world that desperately needed it. Perhaps this is our calling as well? Sunday after Sunday we gather here on the Lord’s Day proclaiming what we believe (credo).
“We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
What are we to do with this statement?
I think we are to ponder it in our hearts. I think we are to say ‘yes’. I think we are then called to be vessels of the truth. We are to imitate the great saint of Advent – Mary, the Mother of God. When we say Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, we are reminding ourselves to purify our hearts, minds, and bodies so that God’s Spirit will be revealed through us, dare I say, birthed into being through us. Truth is able to make itself known when we say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” When we don’t do this, truth suffers under Pontius Pilate again and again and again. We hold the truth within us instead of giving it away. We allow States, Caesers, Emperors, Kings, Congress and Presidents to possess so called self-evident truths and realities, when the only reality I know of in Heaven and on Earth is Christ. Put Christ up alongside those brothers above, and they pale in comparison. They just don’t hold up. Mary knew this too. Today, choirs across the world sing her song:
He [Christ] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
No Pontius Pilot in history has ever sung that song!
It is only by the merciful rhythm of Christ that we can even begin to dance to this music, to experience its graceful melodies, to have the eternal laugh of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary. What God calls us into during the seasons of Advent and Christmas is none other than history itself. God invites the credo of our hearts to be made manifest in his creation: Spirit with flesh, and flesh with Spirit. When this happens, new music is made. We get to play jazz because we have learned the truth, and the truth has set us free. This is Mary’s eternal song: Playing jazz with a people named Israel, its prophets, and its future apostles all the while Christ is being brought forth, truth is being brought forth, beauty is being brought forth, goodness is being brought forth and we are caught up in the moment, caught up in the history of it all.
As the music of Advent fades, and we turn up the volume on Christmas, may God’s truth reverberate throughout history. The true song is the song of Mary. The true reality is Christ. The true vessel is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We say, proclaim and believe these scandalous things each and every week (for some of us, each and every day). May we use the music of this season to wake us up to these gifts that we have been given so that we may share them with a worn and weary world crying out the eternal question of Pontius Pilate, “What is Truth?” God has an answer to this question. This afternoon, this evening, and for the next 12 days may we celebrate this eternal truth who has come into the world.
Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.
St. Mark’s Gospel
Today, liturgical churches around the globe begin reading St. Mark’s Gospel. This Gospel will be heard periodically throughout the entire year, and it’s a gospel I always enjoy exploring at deeper levels. Two thoughts occurred to me as I was preparing today’s blog. The first has to do with the truth claim that Jesus is Son of God. The second will explore John the Evangelizer as he prepared the way for the Son.
Jesus is the Son of God
Mark’s gospel opens, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” After this sentence, he proceeds to tell his story, but I want to pause for a moment and help us understand just how controversial this opening line would have been when it was first read, performed, or said over 2,000 years ago. Putting the title, Son of God, into the context of the ancient Roman Empire ruled by dynasties of emperors, the ancient Romans would have attributed the title to Caesar. There were certain formalities and rituals that not only held Caesar in high estate, but it was commonly held and believed that Caesar was divine – thus holding the title, the Son of God. So when Mark’s opening lines were read claiming another emperor, ruler, and king, it got people’s attention in the town square, house churches, and eventually within the court of Caesar himself represented through the historical Pontius Pilot. Right off the bat, Jesus was considered an enemy of the state, and a threat to the ruling class. When St. Mark’s gospel was written, Jesus had already ascended into heaven, but his disciples, apostles, and other followers were still around, their very lives being threatened in similar ways because they claimed Jesus was the Son of God – not Caesar. For the early church to preach against Caesar, or the State for that matter, and to claim Jesus Christ as the Son of God or Lord of Lords was to combat Roman idealism and patriotism. The Church countered this ideology in the person of Jesus Christ whose very body was maimed, mutilated, mocked, and destroyed by political, worldly powers only to be raised up by God. Mary, the Mother of God, understood this truth in her own body, and before Jesus was born she sang out, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones… he has scattered the proud in their conceit… and the rich he has sent away empty.
Jesus Christ, as Lord of Lords, chose and chooses powers that the world mocks. He does not give into the temptation of ruling as emperor, or an empire that conquers by force, but rather as a servant who reveals the power of virtue in a song. In other words, Jesus’ choices of virtues are eternal. They outlast this kingdom or that kingdom revealing (again, in his very person) what the true kingdom is like. Let’s now turn to John the Baptist.
Preparing the Way
Preparing a way for this kingdom to come near is something John the Baptist showed others how to do. He does this in two ways, through repentance, and humility. John preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He understood that part of the preparation process was making crooked roads straight, and getting one’s house in order. “Turn away from what you’re doing, and go another way – a way that is more holy awaits you”, he might have said. Furthermore, the very act of repentance that allows forgiveness to be accepted puts one in a state of humility. There’s a realization that, “my life is not all about me.” John showed this type of humility when he proclaimed, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John understood it was his gift to prepare a way for Christ in the hearts of his followers, and within his own heart in order to humbly receive God’s grace found in his Son. That’s the classic Advent message right there: to clean out one’s heart, to make room, and to welcome the Son of God coming into our lives.
So whether it’s a tangible act of resistance toward the State, or a cleaning out of one’s heart, may this season of Advent be for us a holiday counter to the culture, and when necessary, counter to selfish drives, and be a crucible toward setting out on the straight and narrow again as if for the first time.
Reflection on Christ the King Sunday
The past two weeks, we have listened to Jesus teach about the ending of days where Christ will come again in glory. In the parable of the wedding feast, we were reminded to be prepared (Matt 25:1-13). In the parable of the Talents, Jesus taught his disciples to use (not waste) the gifts God has given (Matt 25:14-30). Today’s narrative speaks about Christ coming again in glory, and gets more specific as we imagine what judging the living and the dead potentially looks like.
There are a few interesting scenes to consider in today’s story as it describes God’s final judgment. The first has to do with exactly who is being judged. Verse 32 describes God judging “all the nations”, then separating the “people one from another” like a shepherd. We might ask, “Does this shepherd-like judge separate the people as individuals, and/or does he separate the people into their respective tribes/nations thus judging the people as a whole?” These are important questions to consider, and I wonder if Jesus’ disciples had similar questions as these? For example, the disciples were still part of the nation of Israel even though they were also individual disciples in Jesus’ inner circle. As part of Jesus’ disciples they would have fed the hungry, gave the thirsty something to drink, welcomed the stranger, put clothes on the naked, took care of the sick, and visited those in prison (v. 35-37). But if God also judged the nations, how would the rest of Israel hold up? In other words – and as a whole – how did Israel take care of the least of these?
The second interesting detail within this scene has to do with faith and love. St. Matthew’s gospel has always focused on right living as prescribed in Jesus’ teaching (Orthopraxy). In comparison, St. John’s gospel has a focus on right belief in Jesus as Lord (Orthodoxy). Some scholars have said that the community who composed The Gospel of Matthew was a community that had become too focused on orthodoxy, and had grown weary of waiting on Jesus to come again. Perhaps giving a prescriptive description of the judgment would have awakened this community out of their stupor, and set them back on the way to actually following the teachings of Jesus (i.e. feeding, welcoming, clothing, caring for, and visiting one’s neighbor in need). These actions (or inactions) of the faithful were to be the merits in which they would be judged; however, it is interesting to ponder God as a judge of the nations that have no belief system in any of this – yet, and at the same time – feed, welcome, cloth, care for, and visit those in need. This begs the question, “Do we (as followers of Jesus) do these good things because we want to be judged as righteous before God?” Or, “Do we do these things out of the gifts that we have been given?” Put differently, “Do we do the right things out of love, or out of fear?” Pope Benedict XVI answered in this way,
[T]he profession of faith in Christ demanded by the Lord when he sits in judgment is explained as the discovery of Christ in the least of men, in those who need my help. From here onward, to profess one’s faith in Christ means to recognize the man who needs me as the Christ in the form in which he comes to meet me here and now; it means understanding the challenge of love as the challenge of faith.
I can’t help but think that these parables and narratives found in Matthew 25 are there to give us a snap shot of where we are on our spiritual journeys. Bill Brosend, in his commentary of Jesus’ parables writes this,
The three stories in chapter 25 are about the consequences of actions, or, more often, inaction. The foolish maidens not only could not light their lamps; they failed to join the bridal procession in a ridiculous midnight search for oil. The third servant in the parable of the Talents buried his master’s money, and perhaps sat on it like a brooding hen…The “goats” in the third narrative saw human need, but failing to recognize in whose image the needy were created did nothing to relieve that need.
Again, thinking about these stories as a snap shot of where we are on the spiritual path, you may ask yourself, “How am I doing?” “How are we doing – as a parish, as a diocese, as a denomination, city, state, and country?” If we are to follow Jesus out of love and not fear, how can our love grow deeper and wider within ourselves so that that same love extends into the image of God found in the stranger, the neighbor, the other?
If we are honest with ourselves, and stay true to the teachings found within this narrative, I believe we can judge (right now) whether we are a sheep or a goat, and whether our nation (right now) is a sheep or a goat. The truth may be within us – in that – we have the potential to be both: Sometimes we are sheep. Sometimes we are goats. Sometimes we are righteous. Sometimes we are unrighteous. Again, the key is love – not fear. As followers of Jesus we are to walk in love as Christ loves us, not walk in his love out of fear of his judgment (Eph 5:2). As followers of Jesus we are given a spirit of love, not a spirit of fear (2 Tim 1:7). Fear blinds us to the truth that we are all one in Christ Jesus. Fear won’t allow us to experience the dignity found in every human being. The bottom line is this: If we are loving our neighbors, we are loving God. In today’s narrative, Jesus equates the two, and by doing so gives us a measure of his teachings through our thoughts, words, and deeds; our faith and actions; our understanding and modes of operation. After pondering this text all week, it still brings up many questions. As I continue to seek and serve Christ in my neighbor, I pray that God’s grace will lead me deeper into the love and knowledge of him whom I serve, that is Christ – Christ the King.
 The ultimate gift being Christ himself.
 Joseph C. Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004, pg. 208-9.
 William F. Brosend, Conversations with Scripture: The Parables, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, 2006, pg. 68-9.
Earlier this Fall I came upon an old commentary on St. Matthew’s gospel by the great 13th-century theologian, Thomas Aquinas. In Aquinas’ book, he takes the early church fathers and mothers’ own commentary of this gospel, and lays them side-by-side. Today, I wanted to look briefly at Matthew 25: 14 -30 through the interpretive lenses of these early fathers and mothers, trying to put some of their teachings into the context of our culture today.
What struck me about these early writings were the various interpretations on the literal number of talents, and what their spiritual meaning could possibly point. For example, the 5 talents were theologically represented as humanity’s 5 senses. From our senses, we are able to experience the world; and yet, without the acknowledgment of God’s spirit within our senses (i.e. our bodies) we cannot possibly experience the kingdom of God. The doubling of the 5 talents into 10, mystically represents an infusion of this spirit with flesh. Put theologically – the 10 talents represent an incarnational faith. Put philosophically – they represent the good life.
The 5 talents were also interpreted as the 5 Books of Moses. Keep in mind this is Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus was often represented as “the new Moses”. Jesus Christ, as the very incarnation of Torah and Spirit, revealed to all that his Spirit and resurrected flesh was the way, the truth, and the life.
2 Talents and the 1
The early church teachers taught that the 2 talents represented understanding and action, while the 1 talent represented understanding only. This is a significant teaching because faith requires both. It requires an understanding of the law and the commandments of God on one hand (i.e. Torah), and on the other it activates the spirit of the law through thought, word, and deed. What the early church fathers and mothers were trying to teach – and quite possibly what Jesus was trying to teach – was that faith does not end with understanding – It begins there, and action follows.
With Great Gifts Come Great Responsibility
One of the final teachings on this passage within this ancient commentary has to do with responsibility. Responsibility was placed on those who had been given much, and were represented in the persons with the 5 and 3 talents. When the responsible faithful start to understand much has been given, and much can be taken away (think here the story of Job) those 5 talents begin to take shape, and lead with a posture of humbleness, humility, and prayer. Perhaps those with the 5 talents could also be interpreted as the Church, and how it proclaims God with us in a different way (i.e. no longer in the physical body of Jesus, but in the resurrected spirit of Christ). The Church (as the spiritual body of Christ) further proclaims the resurrected Jesus will come again in glory judging the quick and the dead. Finally, within this proclamation of the church are the 2 talents calling on those individual members who make up the Church helping them to understand the commandments of God, and to act on them accordingly – mainly loving neighbor as self, or loving the other as we have been greatly loved by God.
Quite a lot of burying one’s talents in the earth is going on right now in popular culture – Is it not? What many of us thought were great men of talent, buried their talents in the desires of the world, and are now making excuses and/or apologizing for their pridefulness, lust, and deceit. We are tempted to go along with their excuses because of the great works they have given us – in politics, comedy, movies and music; however, these men that were once considered bigger than life now seem fearfully small when their actions are put against the light of truth.
So much is being uncovered right now. So much that has been drowned through the years is bubbling up to the surface. As Christians, we are called to forgive knowing that judgment is for God – and God alone. We can hold steady to the Rock of our Salvation. We, as the Church, can counter the culture by infusing spirit with flesh and flesh with spirit. In other words, we can pray – not only with our lips – but in our lives. By giving up ourselves to the service of Christ, and by walking before God with humbleness and gentleness of heart.
We could proclaim the cerebral Amen, and stay fixed to our comfortable pews once a week, or we can translate Amen into tangible acts of mercy, goodness, and justice. This ebbing and flowing of Amen and action, action and Amen mimics the very movement of God made flesh – Torah with Spirit, Understanding with Action, Repentance with Forgiveness.
On most days when I read the news, I am struck not only by the 7 deadly sins that cover most of the front page every morning; I also become anxious as to how rapid and liquefied society has become. Classic institutions, morality, tradition, and even reason seem to be evaporating before our eyes. I once believed that politics could solve many of societies ills because politics had traditionally relied on an informed public, and the art of reasoned argument. Emotionalism, relativism, and the loudest voices in room have now destroyed this classical construct. Historically (at least in the West), politics has been infused with a morality and ethics held together by Judeo-Christian teachings and values. And what about the institutional church? If the Church is to survive and give an answer to the polarities of politics, it is to do the responsible thing and not be anything else than the Church – The Church of Jesus Christ. It is to hold up for the world the life, love, and light of Christ found in the Gospel, Holy Eucharist, prayer, and spiritual action – with God’s help.
Honestly, there are some days when I want the Church to be like Noah’s ark who brought in all those creatures in order to save them from the flood – In order to save them while the rest of the world destroyed itself (See here Rod Dreher’s argument for this approach). Then there are times when I want the Church to embrace its newfound role – that is – a subculture that counters the ways of the world by injecting the world with its Divine Truth with a hope that one day God will make all things new. On my better days, I believe our work as the Church of Jesus Christ is a bit of both: It holds to its three-fold ministry of scripture, tradition, and reason while at the same time recklessly scatters the love of God to an un-loving world.
Right now, in our time and place, we have great responsibility and knowledge, understanding and Spirit that are counting on us to invest – invest in the eternal attributes of God, the eternal teachings of God, and the eternal gifts of God that make us people of God. Jesus Christ is still on mission. He’s still calling disciples, and he still upholds his promise that he is with us – even to the end of the age. In this age, may we never forget these promises, and at the same time may we never forget that our Amens are constantly calling us to Action – with God’s help.
Today’s Gospel focuses on two things: Preparedness and Intimacy.
Five of the bridesmaids were prepared to participate in the wedding banquet. Five were not. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches what preparedness “looks like” in the form of new commandments. A good Jew would have followed Holy Torah starting with The Ten Commandments. Jesus took this Divine teaching a step further, and gave us the Spirit behind the commandments that are captured ever so beautifully in The Beatitudes and The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5). In other words, to follow God is to be prepared by following his commandments, and living into the graceful Spirit found within them. But wait; there’s more!
Jesus offers himself fully to us – his life, death, and resurrection. This truth is captured ever so eloquently each and every time Christ offers his Body to us during Holy Communion. Like a bride offers herself to her husband, and a husband offers his body to his bride, Christ offers his very flesh to us in this very intimate act of communion and consummation.
We are wise when we recognize this intimacy, and commit fully to Christ’s redeeming love by accepting his grace as well as living into his Holy Commandments. We are unwise when we expect intimacy, yet are not committed to everything that goes along with the graces found in intimate relationships.
All are invited to the intimacy of the wedding banquet. Don’t be turned away for lack of wisdom.
Art evokes many things: Truth, beauty, goodness – emotion, controversy, pleasure, and contemplation. Artists can be a bit more complicated. They can be mystics, manic-depressives, manipulators, or murderers. They have been lovers, fighters, pedophiles, perverts, and prodigies.
Often times we equate the work of art to the artist (think Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel) but this oversimplifies the complexities of the human condition. Michelangelo, for example, not only painted and sculpted masterfully, he also ate, drank, slept, had relationships, emotions, and longings. By virtue of being human he also made mistakes. You might say Michelangelo was flawed even though his work (arguably) was not.
The same line of thinking could be said for all mankind. No matter what one’s vocation may be, that vocation does not ultimately define a person – it’s simply a part of the person, an extension of the (flawed) self. For example, popular characters from the Bible – Moses, King David, and the Apostle Paul – were all murderers in their lifetimes; yet, for billions of Jews and Christians these are three of the most respectable men in the Bible. Moses freed a people, King David ruled with valor, and Paul wrote masterful letters to the early Christian communities. Again, these were flawed individuals, but (arguably) their life’s work was not.
Could we not make the same argument for the founders of this country? They most certainly were flawed, but their life’s work was not. Taking down statues, plaques, stained glass, and other works of art that depict the founding fathers forgets the complexities of being considered great (and flawed) all at the same time.
- Augustine was a sex addict; yet because of his work is now a saint. Should we burn his writings?
- Lewis Carroll was a pedophile; yet because of his work his stories are read in nurseries around the world. Should we ban “Alice” from “Wonderland”?
- Martin Luther once suggested a child with a mental disorder be drowned because he had no soul. Should all Protestant Christians return to “Mother Church”?
- Jesus Christ often told parables where many of the characters were slaves. Should we edit these stories out of the Bible because Jesus did not object?
Why do we leave the statues, plaques, stained glass, and other works of art that depict the founding fathers up? I would argue – You leave them up because of grace – amazing grace, dare I say?[i] You leave them up to help people and parishioners remember that great women and men make mistakes – sometimes huge – yet grace and mercy are still available. And if grace and mercy are still available to them, then they are available to us as well. Personally, I like remembering flawed people because I am a flawed person. I especially enjoy remembering them and their work knowing that they were sinners just like me; and yet, by the grace of God they were also loved.
As a Christian, I don’t define myself solely on who I am, but whose I am. In other words, I am a child of God. That is what ultimately defines me. The same can be said for Moses, Augustine, Washington, Jackson, or Lee. We can choose to label them good or evil, but ultimately they too are children of God – warts and all. As citizens in our country debate tearing down, building up, or leaving art where it stands, consider your own flawed nature compared with the goodness of God. Nobody stacks up; therefore, it is by grace that we can all be called children of God.
[i] Slave ship captain, John Newton, wrote the song “Amazing Grace”. Should we get rid of his music in our churches too? Sterilizing history is a slippery slope. At what point do we cross the line?
Friday was The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Below are some musings on the subject; but first, take a look at the exorcism portion of the liturgy in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. This section, found in the Book of Common Prayer is sometimes called the renunciations and affirmations section of the baptismal rite.
Q. Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
A. I renounce them.
Q. Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
A. I renounce them.
Q. Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
A. I renounce them.
Q. Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
A. I do.
Q. Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
A. I do.
Q. Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
A. I do.
When a priest is ordained, he takes vows to be pastor, priest, and teacher. All three constructs aid the archetype of priest; however, I’ve come to believe there is one underlining metaphor that unites these offices. A priest is a journeyman – not in the sense of journeying alone – but rather, as someone who ‘journeys with’. A priest has been called (by Christ and His Church) to journey with others; and not as the hero, but as a companion along The Way. Put differently, and in the context of parish life, the priest accompanies his parishioners along the hero’s pathway.
I am at my best when I see the parishioners I serve as heroes. I can easily forgive in this mindset. I remember compassion. I do not forsake love. You might say a priest is more Sam Gamgee rather than Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings. Sam was right there by his friend’s side every step of the way. He spoke as needed, but knew the supremacy of silence. He evoked the power of metaphor at times, heard confessions, and gently corrected his hero when necessary. In a variety of situations and quests evil was fought, spirits were restored, and persistence remained.
Although priests are as much flesh and blood as the next person, scripture and tradition teach that there are also spiritual companions to help guide and protect along The Way. Actually, that’s putting it nicely. Angels (who we are celebrating this feast day) are better described as warriors, or maybe even secret-service agents that shield and defend us from the powers and principalities that corrupt our world. Humanity has always had a fascination with good and evil. Judeo-Christian thought has classically personified it. Roman Catholic Bishop, Robert Barron says this about evil incarnate:
“What are his usual effects? We can answer that question quite well by examining the names that the Bible gives to this figure. He is often called diabolos in the Greek of the New Testament, a word derived from dia-balein, to throw apart, to scatter. God is a great gathering force, for by his very nature [God] is love; but the devil’s work is to sunder, to set one against the other. Whenever communities, families, nations, churches are divided, we sniff out the diabolic. The other great New Testament name for the devil is ho Satanas, which means “the accuser.” Perform a little experiment: gauge how often in the course of the day you accuse another person of something or find yourself accused. It’s easy enough to notice how often dysfunctional families and societies finally collapse into an orgy of mutual blaming. That’s satanic work. Another great biblical name for the devil is “the father of lies.” Because God is Truth, truthfulness—about oneself, about others, about the way things really are—is the key to smooth human relations. But how often we suffer because of untruth!””
St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans suggested that nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels [fallen or otherwise] nor rulers…nor powers…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39). In other words, evil (like death) has lost its sting; yet, that’s not the end of the story. As Christians, we remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory (BCP, 368). We’re still living in the midst of the first two statements, and until Christ comes again [whatever that looks like], those powers of evil (which paradoxically have no power at their root) still persist to tear us (and our world) apart.
These days, a preacher (especially in The Episcopal Church) may get a scoff or two preaching a sermon on angels and demons. “How silly”, they might say. “Fr., haven’t you heard of myth and metaphor?” But I say unto you, “Haven’t you heard of Holy Eucharist, Confession, prayer, the Bible, and spiritual direction, to name a few?” Classically, these have been the tools of spiritual warfare within the world of the Christian. These gifts of the Church not only open us up to God’s love, grace, and goodness; they also protect us from evil like a devouring lion scattering and tearing our souls, communities, and families apart. We have Christ. We have His Church. We have the Angels. We can call on God’s Spirit to help us discern. We can use the sacraments and spiritual tools of the Church to strengthen us. We can call on St. Michael and his army to defend us. All of this is orthodox. It’s nothing new, but modernity casually puts it aside.
As I look around the catholic church today, I often wonder if we have forgotten how to see. Are we invested in too much of the modern spirit that we forget the Spirit of God? Are we so set on ‘not offending’ that we mirror the culture instead countering it? Are we so immersed in the ideology of inclusion and tolerance that we have forgotten Love? Love in the sense that not every idea, behavior, or thought should be given equal value or consideration. Put Biblically, we must practice discerning the spirits. We cannot do this on our own. We need the sacraments. We need prayer. We need study. We need God’s help.
In the story of Jacob’s ladder, we find Jacob wrestling with the angel. Afterwards he proclaims, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” That may be postmodernity’s mantra. God isn’t in the sacraments. What you need is additional counseling. God isn’t in nature. You only need to study biology. God isn’t real. Mankind created Him. But aren’t these classic temptations from the ‘father of lies’…who desires to violently divorce, separate, dis-order, to set one against the other and God?
Let me go on record and say: Good is real. Sin and evil are real. They reside in us, and in the world. To give into the modern religion of relativism is to claim that there is no Truth, and taking this ideology to its final argument will show that there is no meaning to life. This leaves one in a state of perpetual nihilism that is very hard to overcome. As Christians we claim that these dualities (good and evil; black and white) are finally reconciled in and by and through Christ. We are made one in His Love. In the end, we are not separated because of His Love. Remembering this oneness, and living into this Truth gives us (and the world) hope. It may be an audacious hope, but our faith tells us it’s there.
I started out this blog by musing on the metaphor of a priest as journeyman. Together, let us journey with one another with God in our hearts, and all the angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven forever defending us, protecting us, and fighting always for the Good.
 Bishop Robert Barron, Word on Fire Ministries, https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/revisiting-the-spiritual-warfare/448/
~Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.~1Kings 19:11-13
A Responsorial Psalm
The wind is my breath, says the LORD.
It is partially me, but not all of me.
The earth quakes at my presence
Because I AM its Creat-or.
The earth is my crea-tion.
Fire is a technology of creation,
And like the earth and wind it is not me.
It is my crea-tion.
Earth, wind, and fire.
Even though all three are my creations;
And they are good, I AM ultimate Good.
All will pass away, but I WILL remain
Like the sheer silence that is there,
But isn’t there, so I AM.
Man is tempted by creation
And the technologies grounded in creation.
The temptation is to worship them like Baal
And to try and possess them as if they are man’s.
Creation cannot be possessed; it is gift.
Can you capture the wind?
Can your feet remain steady while the earth quakes?
Are you not burned by fire?
Man is also tempted by the gods
Even though the masks of old have
Long been removed.
Choose now whom you will serve.
Make steady your mind;
Shield your face, yet keep your eyes open.
Put good things (but not The Good)
Out of your mind. Exit your silos and
Leave your caves. You fall in love with
Your own voice that echoes off their walls.
Follow me to the edge and listen. Listen.
There is truth in the world. But I AM ultimate Truth.
You will find me when you find Love;
You will recognize me when you experience Beauty;
You will fall to your knees when you discover
The sheer sound of silence. I AM in it all; yet beyond it all.
There are no words;
There are no technologies;
There are no-things that can capture me.
Listen for me. Listen to me. Listen with me.
And when you listen know that I will not
Ask little from you, but much.
I desire your life not as a slave but as liberation.
My creatures and creation are partial.
I AM absolute. Do not divide me up but
Seek my unity found in my life-giving Love.
Do you not remember my Son, the Beloved, and
How he walked in Love? By his very gait he
Welcomed the earth as his own.
With his calm stride he brought ease to the tempest, and
In his touch brought fire to the dis-eased.
He did not worship earth,
Wind, and fire. He did not bow down
To hunger, eros, or power. He revealed
These aberrations as idols and
Illumined the heart readying it for repentance.
If you cannot remember my Son,
then at least my Spirit?
My Holy Spirit continues to move in His Bride
–The Church – and yet her Body has become divided.
She has left the opening of the cave
Where she once listened for my voice and has
Retreated back into its chamber.
Why do you withhold my Truth from the world?
Why do you admire the ringing of your own voices?
Have you forgotten sheer silence?
I have not forgotten you. I AM with you.
I AM waiting for you. Come back out and
Into the open. I will no longer distract you
With earth, wind, and fire – I never have.
These were gifts as you are gifts to me.
Come back out to me and quiet rest I WILL give.
In Rod Dreher’s new book on Christian ecclesiology, The Benedict Option, remembering the holiness of order paves the way for Christians to direct their lives through regular prayer, fasting, repentance, and the holy sacraments. These ancient practices are orthodox, but Dreher argues that Christians have forgotten that these practices are vehicles that point to the Divine. They are holy technologies that ground the practicing Christian in faith, hope, and love.
Intentional community is where Dreher spends the bulk of his book. Here, he lifts up the importance of orthodox teaching, preaching, theology, and liturgy in today’s churches. Also, nothing is left out for the individual, family, or community; all aspects of life are to be ordered around following Jesus Christ. Anything other than a reordering of one’s life to Christ calls into question one’s seriousness toward Christianity, its tenants, and its founder.
The ongoing metaphor of the book is found in the story and image of Noah’s Ark. The church, Dreher argues, is both “Ark and Wellspring – and Christians must live in both realities. God gave us the Ark of the church to keep us from drowning in the raging flood. But He also gave us the church as a place to drown our old selves symbolically in the waters of baptism, and to grow in new life, nourished by the never-ending torrent of His grace. You cannot live the Benedict Option without seeing both visions simultaneously” (238). The church as Ark is to keep the orthodox teachings and liturgies alive and well, and not to water down theology for the sake of progress. The church stands as a symbol counter to the culture around it. If the church simply mirrors society, it ceases to be the church. The church as “a place to drown our old selves” is an aged old teaching, first by Jesus Christ himself, then by St. Paul. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39). The dying to self metaphor is more clearly in Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life…” (Rom 6:4).
Christianity has always been a religion of paradox; the main paradox being that dying to self brings newness of life through Christ’s resurrection. I believe Dreher is arguing that life is found in Christ through the church and through the Spirit’s holy ordering. The world has forgotten the ordering; thus progresses along with an eventual death by nihilism and narcissism in its various forms and technologies (i.e. individually, corporately, institutionally, and systematically). This begs the question: Is God’s creation good? Well, it certainly was “in the beginning,” but what and how do we experience goodness now? Jesus famously said, “None is good but God…” (Mark 10:8). This may be our answer, and ultimately Dreher’s point: If nothing is good but God, why not order all aspects of our lives toward the entity that created goodness? After all, is God not the creator of truth, beauty, and goodness?
How one responds to Dreher’s questions (and thesis) will depend on one’s theology, the church one attends, and even how one reads the Bible, and taking Dreher at his word is to fall in line with one expression of Christianity over another; however, in a world that is more and more polarized, knowing what “the other side” says, or has been saying for millennia is important when approaching the debate table. After all, what brings all Christians to the table in the first place is Christ, and arguing over what is best in any given tradition may ultimately be a matter of unity over and above uniformity. I would recommend this book to both my conservative and liberal Christian friends. It’s an honest look on how Christians can live into the goodness of God with the gift of the church, community, and prayerful discipleship. I agree with Dreher that many have forgotten what relationship with God, self, and neighbor looks like, and it is up to Christians to get this ordering right. It’s an option worth considering. It’s an option worth practicing. It’s an option worth living, even in the midst of death.