100 years ago today, the countries fighting the “Great War,” the “war to end all wars,” signed an Armistice, and fighting ceased. That was 1918. It did not begin again in Europe openly until 1 September 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union both invaded Poland. But already by 1935, as I recall the year, German troops re-occupied the Rhineland unchallenged by the French and British; annexation of Austria, then the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, then the annexation of all of Czechoslovakia followed rapidly. If the Great War ended (and is not seen continuing in the “Cold War” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union for decades), it was not until 1945. What we call “World War I” and “World War II” were clearly two phases in the same horrific conflict between Britain-France and Germany-Austria. Obviously the U.S. entered both wars, quite late, on the side of the Atlantic powers, and Russia first fought with Britain-France until the Revolution of 1917, then fought against Germany until June 1941. As Churchill foresaw, “ally” Soviet Union gradually became the main antagonist to the Atlantic powers as Germany’s fate was sealed. And this is just the European theater.
The world wars, or global wars, that began at least as early as 1914 continue in some forms today, but by no means on the same scale as what happened between 1914-1945. As many realize, if there is another outbreak of global war on a vast scale, the devastation will likely make the horrors of WWI and WWII seem relatively minor. Looking back over the last hundred years, one sees more mass killing and mass destruction than would ever have seemed possible two hundred years ago. When the French Revolution—Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, after so much blood flowed in those European wars, who would have imagined that such a spectacle of murder and destruction was a mere prelude to what would come shortly thereafter.
Armistice day, now our “Veterans’ Day.” The mind sees row upon row of graves in Arlington, or in Normandy, or in Flander’s fields, or mass graves in China, or in Japan… I recall one of the most moving sites I have visited, on the southern end of Okinawa, where tens of thousands of Japanese leapt from cliffs into the sea below rather than be taken captive by American soldiers. Each Japanese prefecture has erected a monument for peace, huge rocks with nothing on them but simple Konji, or Japanese script, with such words as “Peace,” and utter silence. Not a voice is heard as we walked among those memorial rocks. Peace is desired, and yetl, probably to the end of human history, there will be hatred, violence, killing. Armistice Day is a sober reminder that most sadly, there is nor can there be “a war to end all wars,” but only an effort by each and by all to root out the causes of war from one’s own heart. That is the way, the only sure way, as taught by the Buddha about 2500 years ago. A genuine armistice—cessation of arms, of fighting—begins with renouncing all ill-will, hatred, illusion in one’s mind. There is no other way to peace, no other way to a genuine armistice. Anything less is a mere abatement of outward violence as passions seethe.
Shanti, shanti, shanti
Peace to all,
The following letter is part of a dialogue with a young Catholic father who is strongly concerned with the lack of spiritual nourishment in the Church today.
20 June 2018
Dear friend in Christ,
As I wrote in my last memo to parishioners, one’s “spiritual life,” or mental-spiritual development, depends on the efforts a human being makes as trusting in the presence and creative power of God. It does not depend on attending Mass or on the Sacraments, in and of themselves. What the churches offer may invite those present to “participate worthily,” that is, to be attentive and eagerly desire God, and lovingly surrender to the ever-present One, putting His “will” into practice. Put concretely: what happens or does not happen in the mind / “heart” of the participant is what matters in religious services, and not what happens in space-time (externally). What matters is utterly simple: either one is turning towards God, or away from God. All life is either conversion or diversion, epistrophe or apostrophe, using the technical terms developed by the Stoics. As St. Augustine lamented in his Confessions: “Behold, You were within, but I was without….” External worship encourages one to linger “without,” rather than to be present within—present to and with the Presence that we by long tradition call “God.”
The serious problem with Christianity, far beyond clerical abuses of various kinds, is clerical neglect: the failure to help nourish parishioners with healthy, wholesome intellectual-spiritual formation and guidance. One way to put this is simple: Consider your own life, and imagine what your spiritual life would be without the efforts you made to study philosophy (and perhaps theology). I consider my own example, known from within: My family attended religious services weekly as I was growing up, but I am not aware of having received much spiritual or intellectual nourishment through them. The same is true today: other than some “consolation” people may get from attending religious services (and that consolation is of limited value), the benefits that I have seen have come to those men and women who took their own spiritual life seriously, who made a deliberate and conscious effort to study, pray, turn from evil, and do good; very little benefit accrues to those who passively attend any kind of service, whether evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, and so on.
The real problem facing human beings is how to become truly awake and alive in one’s lifetime. Meditation and study, linked with personal discipline, as in the Christian and Buddhist traditions, does far more good than fairly mindless, passive sharing in any religious ceremonies. The example, goodness, love from men and women who happen to be Christian of one sort or another has been highly helpful to me, but such goodness is not directly linked to attending services, or “reading the bible,” as in evangelical traditions. Furthermore, much of the good that can be offered to persons in religious services is lost on social programs and the “social gospel,” which is indeed “no gospel at all.” Clergy have often neglected to assist in the spiritual formation of their people, probably in large part because “one cannot give what one does not have.” From what I hear from parishioners who attend Masses elsewhere when they travel or are away from home, they find little intellectual-spiritual meat in the preaching / teaching, but rather see emphases on outward forms of worship, entertaining music, social action programs, and the like. In the case of Catholic clergy, many do not even struggle to prepare homilies, but download canned “homilies” off the internet, or take them from “homily helps.” Unless the priest or minister is speaking “from faith to faith” (Romans 1), he or she is not “preaching Christ,” and helping to form the hearer, but just amusing, entertaining, perhaps chastising. The word that forms the hearer must grow out of a spirit alive in the now to the presence of God. Otherwise, it is not the “word of God,” but mere human words of more or less mindless chatter. If and only if the one preaching is immediately present to divine Presence is one in truth a “minister of the Word.” In the words of the Apostle, “the written text kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Had I not studied philosophy and sought to practice meditation as a Benedictine monk, and not been blessed to have some truly good examples of right living and practical wisdom in my life, I think that I would have received very little spiritual-intellectual nourishment as a Catholic Christian. What do the churches have to offer to human beings? One often must seek God, loving and doing the truth, despite what is being done in and by the churches. Neither the educational establishments in our society, nor the religious institutions, are now offering human beings much that is truly beneficial. Or to put the matter differently: unless one struggles to learn, and works hard to grow morally, intellectually, and spiritually, one will be unformed, deformed, malnourished. Our schools, universities, churches have largely been failing to do what they ought to do, and generally pretend to do, at considerable expense.
What is a person’s “spiritual life”? What does it mean to be “spiritually alive,” or “awake in one’s lifetime?” I ask the question believing that spiritual life is not only good, but ought to be one’s highest priority. And I ask it now because it is important for each of us to understand a basic truth: you are responsible for you. Another human being can guide you towards the right path, the way of life, but you yourself must make the effort, and you yourself must reject false paths and steadily seek and do the truth. No other human being can live your life for you, cleanse you, “save you.” Not even God Almighty can “save” you, cleanse your inner person, renew your spirit, unless you freely choose to share in what God freely offers from moment to moment.You did not create yourself, but you cannot be whole or happy or truly blessed, unless you develop habits of rejecting evil and doing good, unless you truly seek to know and to do the will of God. To better understand the dynamics of the spiritual life of a human being, let’s suspend for a few moments “God talk,” and examine the human reality in light of the truth of experience.
You say, “I am hungry,” so you feed yourself. You say, “I have toothache,” so you go to a dentist. Now, suppose one feels confused, depressed, anxious? All too often, one wants a quick cure, an immediate solution. Mental and spiritual problems—confusion, sorrow, worry, hatred, ignorance—did not just happen at one time. By various situations, and by many choices, many actions, one becomes what one is, and what one feels inside. A person who squanders much time in entertainment or mindless activities or in drug abuse, who does not discipline himself to rise early, to work hard, to do one’s proper tasks, to spend time in quiet and meditation will, over time, becomes confused, dull of spirit, listless, troubled, anxious, depressed. With the right concentration of one’s energies on such spiritual tasks as doing one’s daily duties, working for the good of others, eating and drinking healthy foods in moderation, getting proper exercise, sitting still in the presence of God or of “no-god,” then one becomes sane, balanced, and more alert. No one can keep eating junk food, abusing alcohol or drugs, not exercising, not nourishing the inner person through disciplined meditation and study and expect to be spiritually alive, awake, and mentally healthy. You become what you do.
Christians have often neglected to develop a proper spiritual-mental life, because they thought it would just happen, or the Church or Bible or God would do it for them. The Church is here to assist you on your path into God; you yourself must make the effort, trusting in the supportive presence of God (called “grace”). Not even the Eucharist works automatically; if you do not truly desire oneness with God even at the cost of dying to your own fleeting desires, how do you expect to “grow in grace,” to “receive the Holy Spirit,” to become truly blessed and happy? Good things in life nearly never happen without much effort. Unless you yourself strive to attune yourself to the all-good mind and will, to refresh yourself in Beauty, why should you expect to be happy and in peace?
May we have the good sense and discipline to listen to God and to obey regardless of the cost. “Through much suffering one enters the Kingdom of God,” that is, lives in the peace and freedom of God. And Christ Jesus assures us: “Know that I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Several people have said to me recently, “Priests do not retire.” I cannot speak justly for diocesan priests, because I am not one, but for my part, I think that parish priests can and do retire, and in many cases, deservedly so. I am happy for a retiring diocesan priest who served his parishioners for years, who proclaimed Christ faithfully in word and deed, who truly dedicated himself to “the care of souls,” that is, to the spiritual well-being of his parishioners. Such priests—and bishops—deserve to retire, and to continue to serve in a pastoral role if and when they wish to do so. Such service is optional after retirement, and how much one does, and the kinds of work, would depend on the individual priest’s willingness, interests, and health. That they continue assisting with some pastoral duties is not required, but their own personal choice—with the permission of the local bishop, of course.
But I am not a diocesan priest, but a Benedictine monk, who was selected for ordination to the priesthood by my Abbot to serve our monastic community and, at times, to assist others who are linked to our monastery. A Benedictine monastic, male or female, has one primary goal: to seek God with all of one’s resources, with the grace of God, until death. The work of seeking God does not end, and from this task, one does not retire. For those monks who are also ordained as priests, there is always a tension, if not a contradiction, between the life of a monk and active priestly ministry. Normally, the monk seeks God within the walls of the monastery. With my Abbot’s permission, I temporarily served as a Navy Chaplain with Marines and Sailors during the Gulf War because of emergency need. Later he asked me to assist in a parish a few miles from our monastery. Then with his permission, I served as a parish priest in the Midwest, and in 2009 I returned to serve temporarily in parishes in my home state of Montana. I serve here only with the permission of my Abbot, to whom I belong as a monk, and with the permission of Bishop Michael. Whether or not a bishop permits me to function as a priest in his diocese after retirement is his decision.
As of early this year my Abbot granted me permission to remain living outside of the monastic walls, at least “for the duration.” He has the authority to call me back to St. Anselm’s Abbey at any time, and for any reason. As I retire from active pastoral duty, my monastic calling and vows must return to the fore: to give my energies to seeking the presence of the living God. This search requires many hours of solitude, profound peace, contemplative prayer, and nourishing study. Having been formed as a Benedictine monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey (Washington, DC), and having lived the life for years in our monastery, I have a good sense of what is required of me. It will necessitate making considerable changes as I retire from active ministry on 1 July: it will take time and prayer for me to know how best to live as a faithful Benedictine monk.
To help me adjust to returning to the life of a Benedictine, I will in effect be taking a sabbatical, and not be available for pastoral substitute work at least for some time. I must also limit social invitations, as befits a more contemplative lifestyle. The best way to contact me, should you wish to do so, is by email. My iPhone will be turned off much of the time, as required for silence. Furthermore, I have planned day trips to areas in Montana in the summer months to exercise my dogs and me, and to see more of beautiful Montana then active life has permitted. I will also spend time with my brother in Utah, make a quiet retreat on the Oregon coast in the fall, and then visit my sister and her husband in San Diego over the Christmas holidays. I have not seen my family for several years.
As several of you have truly said, I will need to be retired for a while to learn how to handle the changes well. Having worked full time since my student days, and having been busy serving in active priestly ministry since 1991, retirement will require major adjustments, as it does for everyone. Some folks have asked if I will be “bored.” My response is: “Are you serious? I have many interests and hobbies.” More fundamentally, retirement permits one to strive for peace in solitude and silence, as befits a Benedictine. In truth, retirement is a graced time for anyone to seek God; that is our human calling. Furthermore, writing would be a more suitable way to continue ministering to the faithful, as it requires solitude. The LORD will guide me to assist in pastoral duties, such as funerals, at the right time, if it is appropriate to do so. In all things, peace: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Know that you will be with me in my heart and prayer. I will treasure the years we have spent together in this passing light.
—Fr. Wm. Paul McKane, OSB (Benedictine monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey)
Perhaps the most accessible truth of the Christian faith to discuss intelligently is the Holy Spirit. Let’s begin with the words themselves. The words “Holy Spirit” or “Spirit of God,” or “the Spirit,” are symbols in our English language for the Hebrew ruach (breath; spirit), and the Greek word pneuma (breath, spirit). The connection between breath and spirit is still found in English words. Consider, for examples, “inspire” and “expire.” To “inspire” literally means “to breathe [life] into” someone, or to help bring the Spirit of God into another’s mind or heart. The word “expire” means both “to breath out,” and “to breath one’s last,” that is, “to give up the ghost,” to give up the spirit, to die. Where there is life, where there is breath, there is the creative Spirit of God. “The Spirit gives life,” life eternally.
What do discerning Christians mean when they speak of “the Holy Spirit?” They are not talking dogmatically, although there is the dogma of the Holy Trinity in the background, which we respect. When Christians speak of “the Holy Spirit” or “the Spirit,” they typically mean an experience of the presence of God in their soul or mind. The Spirit is the direct presence of the world-transcendent God, the One who brings all things into being. In the New Testament documents, the “Spirit” is used especially by three authors: the Apostle Paul; the evangelist Luke; and the evangelist John. (“Holy Spirit” or equivalents occur throughout the New Testament to a lesser degree.) As I have often explained, in the usage of New Testament authors, when they wish to communicate the experience of God as personal, they symbolize the experiences as “Christ,” or “Christ Jesus,” or “the Risen One,” and so on. When they write about their experiences of God as impersonal—as that which enlivens, enlightens, or cleanses, heals, teaches, guides, forgives, comforts, gives peace, and so on—they usually use the term “holy Spirit,” or equivalent. But we know from the Gospel accounts that while the LORD was embodied as Jesus, He is often credited as the source of enlightenment, healing, peace, forgiveness and so on. After Christ’s death and Resurrection appearances, the impersonal experiences of God are credited to “the holy Spirit.” So the distinction is approximate, not complete: Christ is personal—“I love you,” “I have chosen you,” and the Spirit is impersonal: “I was lifted up in the Spirit,” “it is the Spirit who gives life,” and so on. As for “the Father,” the symbol reminds the believer that there is always far more reality to the depth of divinity than anyone could ever experience, no matter how life-changing the conversion or manifestation of “the Spirit,” or of “the Risen Christ.” God remains ever beyond human grasp and comprehension. Self-enclosed experiences are gnostic, not Christian.
What is the Holy Spirit? That is the question that slipped from my lips during a discussion with one of the greatest philosophers of the past century, whom I was questioning as I worked on my doctorate on “The Experiential Foundation of Christian Political Philosophy.” To my question “What is the Holy Spirit?,” the philosopher answered with a question that penetrated my heart: “What do you think is moving you to ask your questions?” As a member of a doctrinal Christian church, I had been told that asking questions showed “doubt,” or “a lack of faith.” On the contrary: to ask spiritual questions, life questions, real questions, is precisely the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart and mind of a human being; not to question shows a lack of faith. What a relief to hear this insight, which served to release me from doctrinal imprisonment. The hallmarks of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, self-control, and so on; and if one encounters an open mind, someone searching for truth about God and human being, then one is meeting a foremost activity of the Holy Spirit: asking the right questions.
When young people ask us questions that are genuine questions, and not mere quibbling or game-playing, do we realize that they are moved by the Holy Spirit? Or when you say to God, “Do you love me?,” do you wonder, “Am I asking this question of God, or is God asking it of me? Or both at once?” If you ask God in prayer, “LORD, what would you have me do?,” you are motivated by the holy Spirit. If you think you have God figured out, or that the Bible or the Church has “all the answers,” and you refuse to question and to search, then you are thwarting the liberating action of the Holy Spirit in your life. Are you living by the Spirit, or by the flesh—that is, by trusting in God’s presence, or by your own fleeting desires? The Spirit ever draws one beyond the bounds of a self-contained, self-centered existence into “the freedom of the children of God,” into ever expanding horizons. Life without self-imposed boundaries is the realm of the Holy Spirit. To enter into it is to enter into “heaven,” the Kingdom of God, eternal happiness. Amen!
Is Jesus Christ present or absent? If present, in what way(s) is Christ present? If absent, where is he? Where has Christ gone? Does he live “up in the sky with the angels,” or somewhere in the abyss of space, on a strange planet? These questions are those of a child or of a fundamentalist, not of someone mature in Christ. But the question, “How is Christ present, while being absent in body?” is indeed a good and fruitful question. “Seek and you will find.”
The oldest Christian documents (the letters of the Apostle Paul, the Gospels, other NT epistles) do not ask these questions directly or as boldly. Rather, they begin with real experiences, and express their experiences of God in Christ in the symbolic language of the New Testament. There is no way to speak of non-physical, non-existent reality except in symbols; and one without experience of their truth may misunderstand the symbolic meaning or consider them to be “meaningless.” In fact, the symbolic language of spiritual experience is precise within its own kind, and is highly meaningful, as generations of the faithful will attest based on their own faith and love in Christ Jesus.
Here are some typical symbolic formulations about the murdered and living Christ: “This Jesus whom you crucified is not here [in the tomb]; He is risen.” “Jesus Christ is Lord of the dead and of the living.” Or in words attributed to the Resurrected, “Behold, I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.” The expressions of faith in Christ as risen from the dead, as God’s means of ruling over human beings (hence, called “Lord” or Ruler), and as present with his disciples are abundantly found in the earliest Christian writings, long before doctrines had been formulated and fixed, as in the Nicene Creed (321). “For me to live is Christ; to die is gain.”
The fundamental experience of the risen Christ is always paradoxical: for Christ is both absent and present at the same time. He is absent physically, so that one cannot see a body or hear his voice with one’s ears; but He is present in spirit in the depths of the believer, who has opened himself up to the presence of the living God. The presence of the Risen Christ is variously symbolized as the “I AM with you,” as “Christ is in you,” or in the more impersonal symbol of “the Spirit of Christ is in you.” In other words, although Jesus is not physically present, He is very much spiritually present and active in the hearts and minds of the faithful who open their hearts to the LORD’s presence. Indeed, this opening of the mind and heart to Christ is what is meant by “conversion,” by “coming to faith.” Faith is not a belief about Jesus, but fundamentally a loving surrender right now to His presence. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone opens the door [of the heart], I will come in and commune with him, and he with me.” The faithful also understand Christ to be sacramentally present in the proclaimed word and in the Eucharist. “Take and eat; this is my body, which is for you; do this in memory of Me.”
These are the issues at stake in the symbolization of Christ’s “Ascension:” not only is Christ risen and alive, but He is active as the presence of the living God who liberates, sanctifies, guides, heals, challenges, rules over those who obey Him. Do not look for a body floating around in space, or for the “Son of God” living on a planet somewhere. These childish beliefs serve to keep God away, to live an autonomous life without the indwelling God. Rather, listen for the “still small voice” of the One who communes, heart to heart, with a trusting and loving human being. It is really that simple. Visual arts portray Jesus as a body disappearing behind clouds, but visual arts must use the physical to disclose the spiritual. Music is less hindered by physical representation. In the music of Schütz or J. S. Bach, for example, one encounters the risen and glorified Christ directly in sound, without being masked by clouds. In their glorious compositions, they directly communicate Jesus Christ. “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” And Christ most surely does enter into the mind that is still seeking, who knows it does not know, and longs for a deeper communion. The Risen Christ does indeed come to “the poor in spirit,” to those who question, seek, stay awake, are attentive, listen. Or Christ can ask, “Have I been with you for so long, and yet you do now know me?”
REVISED from April 21, 2018
The ancient Hebrew Scriptures (our “Old Testament”) provide rich symbols for the Reign of God over His people: God is “the King,” in the sense of the rightful ruler by whom all human rulers are measured, and found wanting; God is “the Holy One of Israel,” the true standard, fulfillment, and joy of His people, who liberates from evil and sin; and God is the Good Shepherd, who guides and nourishes His people, even as He punishes and destroys those who betray and mislead His people. In chapter 10 of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus applies the symbol of “the Good Shepherd” to Himself, as He works for God, under God, with God, and is in truth the embodiment of God in humanity: “I AM the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep.” Good shepherding is personally costly; otherwise, it is spurious.
Any one who goes by the name of “pastor” or “shepherd,” working in Christ’s body, and particularly in the churches, must seek to “shepherd My people rightly,” seeking their spiritual well-being, and not “fleecing” them for money or for benefits, as the prophet Ezekiel strongly warns. What is it that keeps a pastor or shepherd from fulfilling God’s will and the divine assignment to “shepherd My people”? A pastoral letters attributed to the Apostle Paul warns, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” And we should add to that: the love of power, the desire to dominate others, utterly betrays genuine pastoral ministry in the Church. Examples of such betrayals can readily be found in the history of the various churches, and are usually not hard to find—even as “evil loves to hide,” and is often shamelessly covered up by those in high places. To any priest or minister who has fleeced Christ’s people, rather than diligently sought to build them up in faith, hope, and love, the biblical warnings are strong. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus most sternly warns: “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” False shepherds, fake pastors, parents or teachers who betray their sacred trust, all stand warned by Jesus Christ Himself. And this warning to those who work under Christ for the well-being of His people is an essential part of Christ as the Good Shepherd. For the Good Shepherd shows most of us to have been less than good shepherds, and often as derelict of duties, fleecers, abusers, even destroyers of human beings.
The Good Shepherd is the just Judge: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (II Cor 5:10). Because the Good Shepherd is the measure of humanity, each of us must ever examine himself or herself in light of Christ. We must not presume that we will be let off lightly because we were “ordained,” or called “priest” while on earth—or granted the gift to be a parent or teacher. On the contrary, Christ warns us: “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48). Woe to me if I have lead anyone in our parishes astray. It will not go well with me in eternity if I have chosen ill-begotten gain and the lust to dominate others, or to use others for my benefit, rather than continually and faithfully seek the spiritual well-being of those entrusted to my care.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd remains the model and the measure of the Church. When we spend ourselves in lovingkindness for others, when we seek the genuine well-being of ourselves and of each other, when we speak the truth regardless of the cost to us personally, when we restrain ourselves from evil and do good, then Christ’s rule as Good Shepherd is effective in and through us. But when we in the Church deceive people, and lie, and steal from parishioners, or cover up crimes, or neglect the spiritual welfare of those in our care because we are too much “in love with the world,” then we must know and understand with shocking clarity that the “day of the LORD will suddenly overtake us,” and we risk having Christ declare: “Get away from me, you evil-doer, into the everlasting fire” (cf. Matthew 7:23). Brothers and sisters, each of us stands warned. And this warning is part of the role of “shepherding my people rightly.” Despite churchianity, it is not all sweetness and flowers.
May the all-good God have mercy on us, and help us genuinely to repent, change our ways, and seek the spiritual and human well-being of one another. The Good Shepherd demands this action of us.
Fortunately, we will not have to know what our life would be like if Christ had not died for us—because in fact he did die for us, and lives fully in the reality we call God. But If we do not entrust ourselves lovingly to the crucified-Resurrected Christ, then the effects of his death for us are greatly diminished. To the extent that we surrender to Christ and live his love faithfully, then his death for us has great effects. What would our life be, if we did not live and die with Christ? We would live empty lives, and perish into nothingness. That unfortunately appears to be the fate of many in our society today; many have lost living faith in Christ. “They are in love with the world,” and with themselves.
“In the world you have tribulation, but take heart, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16). All of the suffering, sin, evil that one experiences in life in the world cannot undo the victory that Christ gained for each and for all. “Sin has no more dominion over us” (Rom 8). “Death is swallowed up in life” (I Cor 15). The reign of evil is intensely portrayed in the narratives of Jesus’ passion; Christ suffers horrible ravishes of evil done by his fellow human beings. To those who seize Jesus to deliver him over to Pilate for death, he declares, “This is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Lk 22). To us still undergoing the trials of life, Christ says, “Take heart, for I have overcome the world,” and all means everything that evil can do to destroy you eternally. We die in the body, we live in the Spirit.
The Resurrection of Christ is not some external event that happened in time. Jesus’ suffering and death were indeed in time. What we know of the Resurrection is not some temporal or external event at all, but what was experienced out of time by certain chosen men and women. On this point, the Apostle Paul is clear and concise: “God revealed His Son in me.” This experience, and others like it in Peter, John, Mary Magdalen, is short-handedly called “the Resurrection of Christ.” How it happened, or even what happened, or when in measured time, no one knows. What we believe and know is grounded firmly on the apostolic witness of those who experienced Christ alive and as fully one with God after he had been tortured to death. “Christ is truly arisen, and has appeared to Simon” (Lk 24) That is what makes an apostle: one who experienced the Risen Christ in his psyche (consciousness) and who was then sent out to proclaim the Risen One from his or her own experience. And that is why we call the Church “apostolic.” Our faith in Christ alive and as fully one with God is grounded firmly and until death on the experience of the Resurrected which the apostles were privileged to have. “As of one untimely born, Christ appeared also to me,” the Apostle Paul insists to the wavering Christians in Corinth (I Cor 15).
“Because I live, you also live,” declares Jesus in St. John’s Gospel. The living Christ inbreathes his life, power, divinity into the heart, mind, soul of the believer. To have faith in Christ is to open oneself up to the presence of the same God, the unknown One whom Jesus called “the Father,” and to carry that presence into the world through one’s prayer, thoughts, actions, self-giving love unto death. And then one is sure of this: “Death is swallowed up in life.”
Blessed Easter to each and to all, for “Now is Christ Risen from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Christ is the revelation of the unknown God.
We have been proud of our parishioners at St. Mark’s, St. Mary’s, and Holy Trinity for their high rate and quality of attendance at our Holy Week liturgies in the past six years. Fortunately, most of our people seem to understand that Holy Week, if properly and prayerfully celebrated, is the best that the Catholic Church has to offer the faithful. Whereas every Mass centers on the death and Resurrection of Christ, and the presence of God in the faithful by the Holy Spirit, it is during the liturgies of Holy Week that the mystery of Christ is carefully and quite fully presented, from the reading of the entire Passion narrative on Passion (Palm) Sunday, through the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the remembering of the death of Jesus for all of us on Good Friday, and then the announcement of the Resurrection of Christ at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night. Easter Masses conclude the celebration, and continue for weeks. For the faithful who attend, they hear the entire Passion narrative from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, and then on Good Friday, the Passion according to St. John. We listen, we think about what we are hearing, and we give thanks to God for what He has done for us in union with Christ Jesus. That is the core of Holy Week.
On Passion / Palm Sunday we attentively listen to the Passion of Christ, this year, according to St. Mark. The drama of God acting for us in Christ, and humanity suffering in and with Jesus, is told by the Jewish Christian, Mark. The conniving, power-loving rulers of this world have their day, and deliver Jesus over to have the flesh torn off his body (scourging), and then spikes driven through his wrists and feet, until he bleeds to death or suffocates. We see the invisible God in the humanity of Jesus must witness how our Lord is tortured, and how much he bears willingly for each of us and for all. The story is agonizing for those who love Christ—and it is liberating for the faithful. Jesus offers himself on behalf of all—not just “for many”—even for his torturers, and for the Romans and religious leaders who conspired to have him brutally murdered. For you. For us.
Holy Thursday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, allows us to hear and to see acted out Christ’s own interpretation of his suffering and death. By the Eucharistic meal and by the Lord washing his disciples’ feet, we see God giving himself to us in Christ. We see what true faithfulness looks like: not ideologically loaded teaching, not digressions on social problems, but direct speech to your heart: “This is my body, broken for you.” Here Christ interprets for us what he achieves on the cross: he brings us into the covenant God made with the Chosen People through Moses, now deepened and broadened as every human being is included in Christ’s will to give his life for all. On Good Friday no Mass is celebrated in honor of the death of Jesus. Instead, we listen to the reading of St. John’s Passion, we show our gratitude for Christ as we venerate the cross, and we receive the sign and instrument of Christ’s all-inclusive, eternal covenant through holy communion.
The Easter Vigil is truly the climax of the Church year, the single most significant celebration in the Catholic Church. We begin in darkness outside, reminding us of the spiritual darkness in the human soul without the light of Christ. The Easter candle is lit, Jesus is proclaimed as “Christ our Light,” and the faithful process into the church to proclaim the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. For us. For all. Adult converts are received into the Church on this night. We renew our vows to be faithful to Christ unto death, and receive His promise for each of us to share eternally in His love and life. What more, or what better, could be offered to us in life? “Apart from You I want nothing at all; God is my hope and my joy.”
The Easter celebration continues on Sunday, then through the entire Easter season, and indeed, on every Sunday of the year. “Christ is Risen from the dead. Alleluia, Alleluia.” That means, “Praise the LORD!” “O give thanks to the LORD for He is good; for his mercy endures forever.” For you. For me. For all.
Our common reading assignment for this Holy Week will be to read slowly, in quiet at home, the Passion narrative in the Gospel of St. John, chapters 18:1-20:31, which includes a brief account of resurrection experiences. For as we hear at the Easter Vigil, “if Christ had not been raised, what good would life be?”