Christmas: The Eternal Now
Most of us love Christmas. We all have so many joyful memories of Christmases past, hopes for Christmas this year, and for years to come, God willing. We delight in so much—or most of us may take delight in these things: cold, fresh air; snow that blankets and quiets the earth; bright stars twinkling—or dancing if we drank some nog—in the icy-cold December sky; sleigh bells and Christmas carols; trees and homes decorated with lovely lights; children’s faces aglow with expectation and wonder; Santa traveling far and wide in a single night or two (for the Orthodox, he comes for Epiphany in early January); scented candles, cookies and breads baking; delicious dinners lovingly prepared and eaten among family and friends; a baby waiting for milk and loving hugs. And Mary and Joseph, now in humble statue form, surrounded by their resting creature-friends, receiving with sheer delight the infant Jesus; and the shepherds, the poor of the land, hastening to the stable to behold the Savior who will be “great joy for all peoples.” And for more than 1500 years now, Christmas has been for Christians the Mass of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, humankind’s Savior.
Christmas is all of this, and more: more than words can readily or well express, but which we may feel, or sense, because the More is always pressing in on us. As T. S. Eliot put it so well in his poetic masterpiece, “The Four Quartets”: “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” Not only the Incarnation of God the Word as Jesus of Nazareth, but the process of Incarnation in every moment: God infusing human beings with his divine presence. This process is at least as old as recorded human history, for the awareness of this process forms the decisive spiritual experience of millions of human beings over many centuries and in highly diverse cultures. The ways to express the inbreathing of God into human consciousness vary highly, but the fundamental experience is what it always was. And what is this experience that we celebrate on Christmas, and at every Mass, and in so many prayers and meditations throughout the world?
The Apostle Paul expressed the fundamental experience of divine Incarnation very well: “Now I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” A human being who can embrace and do evil is also capable of receiving God into his heart and mind. “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me?” Jesus asks his disciple, Philip. Mystics throughout the ages, and mystical philosophers, have spent hours in silent meditation to experience and then to share in words, in literature, or in art, the incarnational reality: “I AM with you.”
The birth of Jesus by no means exhausts the meaning and gift of Christmas. Rather, in Jesus we see the fullness of what every human being is and can be. We see humankind in the light of divine reality: here, now, in every moment, “I AM with you to deliver you.” Our hearts can take renewed hope, our spirits soar with joy, because the LORD God is dwelling in and with His people. What has been true for centuries, now reaches fulfillment and bursts into God’s promise for each and for all. The senselessness of life apart from God is overcome, as God enters into the life of every human being—even in the unbeliever, the “infidel,” the unworthy, the unscrupulous, the “untouchable,” the “unredeemable.” God has taken into himself every human being, from the moment of conception through death, into eternity. “God loves us, not because we are good, but because He IS.” The lover and the beloved become one in Incarnation. This sacred marriage of God and human being is what we celebrate, not only on Christmas, but in every breath we take—whether consciously or not.
Our thoughts return to the manger—the scene first described by the evangelist Luke, then made physical for us in the crèche introduced by St. Francis of Assisi—a man in whom God’s presence could be seen, heard, touched—a man whom animals loved to be near, because they, too, know their LORD: O magnum mysterium: “O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear our Savior, Jesus Christ. Alleluia!”
Merry Christmas, and God bless and fill us, everyone!
Advent: Ready or Not
As soon as Thanksgiving is past, we all know that Christmas is near at hand, and then New Year’s. These special celebrations all flow together in our minds in what we call “the holiday season,” probably forgetting that “holiday” comes from “holy day.” Most of us are probably too caught up in time to be mindful of what is genuinely holy, and what is merely passing away, or “secular,” “profane.” Now it is December, and the Church would have us celebrate the season of Advent, the season of waiting for the “Coming of God.” God comes and does not come. Advent is here now, and will be gone in a few rapidly fleeting weeks. And we may wonder, “Where was God?”
As time flies by, and Christmas draws near, the prayers and Scripture readings at Mass tell us to wait in patience “for the Coming of the Lord,” to wait in prayer, to wait in silence. Nature itself tells us to be silent and still, as we in the Northern Hemisphere are in the darkest eight weeks of the year. But our consumer culture, our families, our duties, our habits tell us not to be quiet or still, but to enter into constant busyness and “celebrations.” We probably do not even consciously feel this tension: be still and wait in silence; get hyper-busy shopping, celebrating, drinking, eating…. Time just keeps flowing, carrying all things in its wake. Quoting from Eliot’s “Four Quartets:” “When is there an end to it, the withering of withered flowers?” “Ridiculous the waste sad time, stretching before and after…”
We cannot stop the flow of time, although some foolishly try to do so by wishes, dreams, and sundry magic acts. Time is not our enemy, or evil. For Time brings ever new possibilities; yes, and in time every moment and every thing passes away. Time leaves one little time for consciousness, just time to rush around in a dizzying flurry. How can one break through the passing of time? Not in time, not in the world—“not in this twittering world.” How can one become conscious, and live a more wakeful life? How does a human being break through the chains of bondage to time and passing away? How does one on his or her way to death enter into life? These are the great questions of human spiritual life, and they are implicitly raised in Advent, but rarely addressed carefully. For even the prayers and celebrations of Advent pass away too quickly, leaving but a few fleeting moments for consciousness—if we dare to attend at all. In the familiar words of St. John of the Cross, “Muero porque no muero.” “I die because I do not die.”
Letting the waves pass over one’s head, sitting in silence, is the way to die well before dying. Only by choosing not to attend to the fleeting grindings of time, does one become conscious, awake. There is no other way. Or is there? Pain can be so intense that one has no choice but to have one’s consciousness filled up with pain. Agony does this: it rips one’s mind to mind nothing but the overwhelming agony. And certain mind-altering drugs have the same effect: they fill one’s consciousness with imagined realities, and make all of the real world seem dull, stale, flat, and unprofitable. I wish neither pain, grief, nor drugged realities on anyone. There is a far better way to be ready, to enter into life, even as the body ages in time. It is a way that celebrations alone, however sacred, cannot do for us. Not even the most beautiful Advent and Christmas Masses can wake us up, as long as we do not learn to sit still in the emptiness of silence, awake and alert.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory…then He will say, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father, and inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’”
These words of Jesus, and similar words in this parable or story, are rich in meaning, and deeply appreciated by many of us. “I was hungry, and you fed me.” Christ identifies himself with all of humankind, with every one of us, in our sufferings, and in our kindnesses towards others. And he warns us that he does not find himself in those of us who turn our back on a fellow human being in need. How clear the words, how life-changing the meaning. “LORD, when did we see you hungry?” “Whatsoever you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did to Me.”
This passage, only found in St. Matthew’s Gospel, presents a glorious image of Christ as ruler of humanity. But unlike our human rulers, he is not part of an elite, removed from our daily lives, and sending out his commands for us to obey. On the contrary, He rules from within us, from being one with us, because in this vision of humanity, every human being is a member of the Body of Christ. If this is what we mean by “the kingship of Christ,” know this: it is utterly unlike any political ruler you or I have seen or read about. This is the rightful Ruler of humankind, because He is us, He is not only our “head,” but is present in and with every member, from the greatest to the least. Here is the true human Ruler, who let’s our sufferings be his sufferings, and our needs be his needs. Compared to Christ the true Ruler, every human authority and power is shown to be inadequate—not evil, not to be destroyed, but all are wanting, and sometimes to be pitied in their being “all too human.” Not so with Christ Jesus: He alone is the true Ruler, because He is Everyman written large, in each and every one of us from the moment of conception into eternity.
The title “Christ the King” is misleading, because it falls far too short of the reality of Christ. Jesus Christ the rightful Ruler, because He is one with each and with all of us. He makes Himself one with us. He has assumed our nature, and is taking us into God. In other words, Christ is divinizing us from within, and transforming us into the Kingdom of God. “Who are my brothers and sisters?”
“Whatsoever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to Me.” Those words must echo and resound in our hearts, until they form us anew. Do you want to know what God’s will is for you, for the rest of your life? “Whatsoever you did to the least…you did for Me.”
To God be glory and honor, now and forever, with thanksgiving, for He has made us One with Him. Amen.
Few of Christ’s words are so well known by Christians and non-Christians alike, and few of the sayings attributed to Christ have had such an enormous influence on Christian understanding of life, politics, and personal obligations. In its context in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), the saying is even richer and more profound than is generally realized. For most of the so-called “Christian centuries,” however, Christ’s words were used to bolster the Gelasian “doctrine of the two swords,” asserting that each human being must give respect and offerings to both the Emperor and to the Church. According to this teaching of long standing in the Church, human beings must obey and pay tribute to the Roman Emperor and to the Church, represented above all by the Pope in Rome. But Jesus did not say, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to the Church what is the Church’s." Simply put, the Church is not God, the Pope is not Christ, and placing the institutional Church or hierarchs in the position of God is spiritually and politically wrong and dangerous. Nor did Christ intend to fossilize the Roman Emperor into an authority to be ever respected and obeyed; he knew well that all human powers and authorities pass away in time. Jesus was not impressed with the power of Rome, nor with any human authority, civil or religious. So what is the intent of this gospel passage, and what might Christ be saying to us through it?
To interpret these words of Christ, or anyone’s words properly, one must always take into account the context in which they were spoken. In the case of “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” as presented in the Gospels, the context is that of a trap being set for Jesus by Pharisees and Herodians—that is, by the super-pious, self-righteous ones and by the cynical, secular souls of the power elites. These groups hated Jesus, and sought ways to destroy him. Why? He provoked them by his wisdom and his radical reliance on God alone, and Christ challenged everything about their empty lives. Jesus was more than a thorn in their side; they experienced him as a source of destruction for all that they held dear: for the rigorous interpretation of the Law exalted by Pharisees, for pious self-righteousness, and for the power-loving spiritual emptiness of the “powers that be,” represented by the clique around King Herod (“Herodians”). Their question is a genuine search for truth, but a clever trap set to bring down the naked power of Rome on the head of Jesus—to have him killed as a political revolutionary: “Now, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus answers affirmatively, “Yes, one must pay taxes,” then the masses who revere him as a true Man of God will be turned off by his conniving with the hated Roman oppressors. If Jesus answers, “No, do not pay taxes to Caesar, a false god,” then these clever connivers will turn Christ over to Rome for teaching open disobedience and rebellion. And Pilate was all too eager to crucify another rebellious Jew to protect Roman power.
I will save for this week’s homily some fuller comments on Christ’s brilliant answer, and how he side-stepped their trap—and trapped them. Suffice it to note now that Jesus turned the tables onto his slick-wicked opponents, and trapped the rigorous Pharisees in their false-consciousness: they were not truly worshipping God, but money, power, Caesar, and self. For he asked his would-be trappers to bring him a coin, and they produced one quickly, perhaps out of their money bag. Then Jesus asked them a question: “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” They knew well: “Caesar’s.” These men could readily recognize the image of the Emperor, and his name on money, but they could not recognize the Image of God standing right in front of them. The reason these men hated Jesus and sought to trap him was because they were spiritually blind and wicked: their shrunken souls could recognize Caesar and his image on money, but they could not recognize the Presence of God in Jesus Christ—God’s Image in Christ, and in every human being they met. “Blind guides” indeed.
Practical upshot: If the Emperor or the “powers that be” demand your money, pay your taxes. It is just money. And cheating on taxes is wrong and immoral. But give to God what is God’s—your heart, mind, and soul. And one’s faith and love of God are genuine if and only if one recognizes and respects the Image of the living God in every human being one meets. “And who is my neighbor?” asks a man trying to avoid God’s Image in human beings. To whom do you owe respect, kindness, charity, and truth? To Christ, and to every member of his Body—that is, to every one you meet.
Autumn, harvest time. In German, the word for autumn is “Herbst,” a word cognate with our word “harvest” (English is a west German language, after all). The readings for these two weeks have at least one clear theme, developed in various autumnal colors: God is looking for a fruitful harvest from his people. And that means: from you, from me. You and I must “bring God’s Kingdom” by faithfully and loving doing what is good, and “speaking the truth from the heart.”
Three of our Gospels often place on Jesus’ lips the symbol, “the Kingdom of God,” or in Matthew’s equivalent, “the Kingdom of heaven.” (As a devout Jew, St. Matthew did not want to take the sacred name of God on his lips, lest he sin). We find in these three Gospels “parables of the Kingdom.” The “Kingdom” is not some earthly ordering of affairs, not “heaven,” not “the Church.” These are three common and widespread misunderstandings of Jesus’ symbol. The phrase is not used by Jesus in St. John’s Gospel; rather, there Jesus speaks of “eternal life,” which does not mean “afterlife,” but “God’s life,” and our life as lived in union with what we call “God.” The “Kingdom of God” means, at various times, God’s Presence among human beings; God’s way of doing things; the mind of the Almighty (His plan for all creation); God’s life shared with his creatures; and so on. It is an extremely rich symbol, but one easily misunderstood. Just keep in mind: wherever you see goodness, beauty, truth, and justice, you are seeing what Jesus points to as “the Kingdom of God” being realized here and now.
Apparently, Jesus agrees with the anonymous prophet known as “Second Isaiah” (chapter 40-55 of Isaiah): “God’s ways are not our ways.” Whereas we expect God to reward those who deserve greater rewards more richly, in the parables we hear this week and next, we are assured that God acts as He wills, and is not limited by our expectations or sense of justice. “Are you envious because I am generous?” Who are we to complain if God chooses to lavish his richest blessings on those who are tardy, who turn their lives over to God even late in life? No one can earn God’s favor; it is freely and generously given.
Clearly, what God is waiting for, and seeking to bring about, is a wholehearted response in each of us, which will “bear fruit richly for the Kingdom.” Those who are slack or lazy or prefer to spend their lives playing around with their toys and games accomplish little good, and do not help to further “God’s way of doing things.” Those who are diligent to use whatever skills, gifts, talents they have for the spiritual and material benefits of others are “children of the Light,” or “sons and daughters of God." Do not be fooled: those who do good, and do it generously, are agents of God’s Kingdom, whether they attend church or not, are ministers or not, or whether they “believe” or not. What God wants is a loving response to His ways, not lip service, and surely not churchy pretense.
Not just our actions, but our inner attitudes must be in harmony with God’s ways, rather than those of covetous or grasping human beings, who are “anxious and troubled about many things.” We hear Christ’s Apostle tell his disciples, “Have no anxiety about anything,” but trust in God and give him thanks. “And then the peace of God, which surprises all understanding,” will keep our hearts and minds in Christ—that is, centered in God’s heart, in God’s Kingdom. The peace that God gives is “the fruit of righteousness,” the inner reward to a human being who does not just “believe,” but who puts into practice what the LORD teaches us in word and by the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. Rightful action and the renunciation of evil and selfish ways brings one into God’s peace.
And if anything looks and feels like the Kingdom of God on earth, it is the heart and soul of a man or woman who simply, quietly, energetically does the will of God—cooperates with the Spirit, who “blows where he wills.” As Jesus prayed before being tortured to death: “Not my will, but your will be done.” And consider the enormous, bountiful harvest of Christ’s righteous deeds, even unto death. So it is in those who live God’s Kingdom here and now.
Our Bishop has asked that we take up a second collection this week-end to raise some money to be sent to the Archbishop of Houston, Bishop DiNardo, who is faced with assisting thousands of needy Catholics in his diocese. My hope is that each of us will make some contribution in check or in cash. We will bundle the offerings and send them to the chancery next week. Please be generous.
Several of you have voiced your concern that we raise money to assist those whose lives, homes, farms, ranches, livestock have suffered from fires in Montana. I fully understand your concern, and encourage us to respond. If any of you wants to assist me with that collection, and advise me on to whom to send it, we will gladly take up this collection in coming weeks. I will email our Pastoral Center (chancery) in Great Falls, as they may well know how to use such funds to assist the needy right here in fire-and-drought-ravaged Montana.
Furthermore, as of last evening, there was a devastating earthquake in Mexico, and some of you may be inclined to assist in some way. And now, very pressing indeed, will be the devastation about to overtake much of the state of Florida, and perhaps Georgia and the Carolinas. We may be asked to give an offering to assist in these states as well. Our finance council will discuss ways to help.
We also offer our prayers, asking that lives be spared, and that all the people involved heed the requests or demands of state and local authorities to evacuate threatened areas. As we pray, we must act to the best of our ability. So if possible, we will be ready to assist in some practical / financial ways.
God bless and keep us all safe and in His peace.
"Who Do You Say That I AM"
Jesus searchingly asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” The episode in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) in which Jesus asks this questions occurs within a fairly long and complex narrative. For our present purpose—which is more for meditation or reflexion—I will not engage in a scholarly interpretation, but bring out some of the meanings which the evangelist seems to be intending. In other words, why does Matthew report this question with its context? What is he saying to us, and why? Homilies this week-end and next will present, I hope, more insights into Christ’s Question than can be offered here.
A master teacher asks a probing question to guide his hearer, his disciple. Christ is the master Teacher and the master questioner. He does not crank out facile answers, but leaves his hearers wondering and seeking the truth by means of questions and provocative stories—often, in his justly famous parables. Heard well and properly, the parables lead one to make a firm decision for or against God. The questions open up a mind to reality, to being examined and searched by God: “Why you are afraid? Don’t you have faith?” “How long have I been with you, and yet you do not know me?” “When the Son of Man returns, will he find any faith on earth?” And today’s great question, the decisive one: “Who do you say that I am?” The answer we give is the life we live—or seek to live.
Jesus is not looking for “the right answer,” for a correct, churchy formulation, such as “You are the Second Person of the Trinity,” or “You are true God and true man,” or even “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” The formulas may be true enough, within the limits of words, and if properly understood; but Christ is looking for far more than words: He is seeking to cause a revelation. Yes, Jesus Christ has come to us, not to cause a revolution in society, but to provoke a revelation in his hearer. By his question, Christ is verbally laying his hand on the heart of his disciples, and seeking to pull back the veil that keeps them from seeing the truth of reality. He does not credit this divine action of unveiling or revealing to himself, but He credits the working of the unknown God, through the word of Christ, in the depth of his hearer’s heart: “No human being has revealed this to you, but my Father.” “The Father” is Jesus’ name for the unknown God, the depths of divinity beyond anything that can be known, felt, seen, experienced in any way. Beyond the Christ who questions you, is the unbounded One, that which simply is, the I AM.
The I AM indeed: for what “the angel of the LORD (Yahweh)” does to Moses at the burning bush, Jesus is now doing in the minds and hearts of his chosen disciples. The kind of response Moses gives to the Presence is extremely rare in human history, and so it is even among the disciples of Christ. For only one man speaks up, only one enters into the divine-human dialogue which Jesus instigates. The other 11 disciples remain silent; whether or not their minds have been unveiled on this occasion, we do not know. Perhaps, at this point, their inner hearts remain veiled. Why? The mystery of divine election (choice) is at work. Christ invited each man to open up to the truth of who he is, but on this occasion, only one responds, only one enters into the process of revelation. Jesus acknowledges this revolution of revelation: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for no human being revealed this to you, but my Father. And I tell you, you are Petros (Peter, Rocky), and on this rock foundation (petra), I will build my Community.” On what foundation is the community of Christ founded? Not on the man Peter or on any particular human being, but on the process of revelation in a human being—on the unveiling that takes place, not in a book or in an institution, but in a human being.
In you, in me, either the unveiling of our heart takes place to see and to communicate with the living God in Christ, or it does not. What matters is not information, but formation: One must be formed by Christ’s word, and respond with a quiet openness that allows the unknown God to pull back the veil covering the human heart from divine reality. When the unveiling occurs, then one enters into “the Kingdom of God,” that is, then one lives in God and for God. And that is a real spiritual revolution.
Perhaps to save time during our divine liturgies (Mass), the readings selected for our hearing are often highly abbreviated, often neglecting their original context. As heard at Mass, these readings have some meaning, and some spiritual value for the person who is attentive and thinks about what was proclaimed. It would be far better if our parishioners were accustomed to reading the entire passage from which the abbreviated reading was drawn, but rarely have I heard of anyone making the effort. Still, I recommend the practice: read the excerpted passage in context.
The story of Elijah on Mount Horeb, which we hear read at Mass this week-end (the first reading appointed for the 19th Sunday of ordinary time, Year A) is so truncated that much of the intended meaning and significance is lost. On the other hand, the few sentences which we hear read are rich in meaning, for one who makes the effort to understand them and apply them to his or her own spiritual life. Again, I must wonder: How many of our parishioners make this kind of effort? In truth, I do not know, but few usually admit to “hearing the word” in what was read or proclaimed. If we are not attentive to the stirring of the silent Word, how do we tune in to God?
The excerpt is from chapter 19 of I Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures, and is part of the Elijah cycle which has been preserved for many centuries. Although chapter 19 does not stand alone, at least if one reads it closely, one should gain insights into what the anonymous author of the text is trying to communicate to his readers. Indeed, without reading the chapter in the original Hebrew, but in several respectable English translations, much comes across: chapter 19 of I Kings is, among other things, a profound insight into healthy spirituality. At the same time, it eclipses and surpasses the kinds of interpretations that one can receive from the stories of Moses on Mount Sinai. (Note: Sinai and Horeb are the same mountain, as named differently by the two Israelite kingdoms). Or in other words, the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb tells us what is especially significant in the Book of Exodus’ account of Moses on Mount Sinai. In reading the story of the Exodus, it is easy to become fascinated by the spectacular, and miss the “sound of silence,” the darkness and quiet in which God communicates Himself to Moses. It is precisely this kind of communion with the unknown God that comes to the fore in the story of Elijah on Horeb.
The prophet Elijah bears his name meaning “Yahweh is my God.” Elijah is the true successor to Moses—not the kings of Israel and Judah, and not various religious voices and practices that led the Chosen People into worship of false gods. What is at stake is the truth of God and the truth of human existence under and in God. The people have been led astray, deceived by the failed institutions of kingship and priesthood. The prophet Elijah becomes the one place where God breaks in and acts decisively—not a Temple or a king, however exalted. Elijah fled to Horeb, driven by his fear of death as threatened by Queen Jezebel; out of fear Elijah loses sight of his vocation as prophet. So in fear Elijah fled into the wilderness—away from political and priestly institutions—and sat to rest under a broom bush—a reference back to the bush out of which God addressed Moses in “the burning bush.” But now the angel of the LORD sends Elijah on a 40-day journey up to “the Mountain of God,” Horeb / Sinai.
On Mount Sinai / Horeb, Elijah hears the word of the LORD addressing him with the penetrating question:`Why are you here, Elijah?’” The fleeing prophet responds: “I am moved by zeal for Yahweh, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.” “Come out,” Yahweh called, “and stand on the mountain before YHWH.” And then “the LORD passed by,” with mighty wind, earthquake, and fire, but Yahweh was in none of these. “And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound [or, a still, small voice]. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantel about his face and went and stood at the entrance of the cave” (I Kgs 19, New JPS translation).
After telling several parables to his disciples, Jesus asks, “Do you understand all these things?” “Yes,” they replied, in their all-too-quick fashion. In truth, has anyone really understood well and completely the meaning of Christ’s parables of the kingdom? One understands by living them well. Whom do we know who has lived the gospel well, but Christ Jesus, and his blessed Mother—and various saints, all to some imperfect yet beautiful degree. As Origen wrote (184-253 AD): “Jesus is himself the Kingdom.” Do you know of a better Kingdom of God than the fullness of God’s presence in Jesus Christ, and hence to a degree, in us, the body of Christ?
“The Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” Jesus shows us what is of ultimate value or worth in human life: discovering God in Him, loving Him, following Him, obeying Him, rejoicing in Him. “My happiness lies in God alone,” sings the Psalmist, who has found in God alone his pearl of infinite value. Whoever finds God, finds the Pearl of great price. Whoever does not find God, however rich or powerful, comes up empty.
But here is the uniqueness of finding God: the One who is found is found to be ever with, in, and beyond the one finding. The God who is found is utterly inexhaustible, a spring of pure water ever flowing up out of the depths of the unseen earth. “The one who seeks, finds.” And the person who truly finds finds that he must keep seeking, as St. Anselm teaches. And he must keep loving following, obeying, or what he has found will be lost again. It is not that this Pearl of great price is slippery, like an eel; rather, we are inconstant, unsteady in our love affair with the all-loving One. And so we must seek to fall in love again and again—just as two married folks must keep striving to love each other ever afresh, here and now, and not say with Pushkin: “I loved you once, I love you still—perhaps.” That is not love, nor is it the way of life for one who keeps falling in love with the God who “loved His own in the world, and loved them to the End” (John 13).
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new; late have I loved You. Behold you were with me, but I was not with you.You were within, but I was without, spending myself on these things that ultimately do not satisfy, and would not be at all if You did not will them to be.” The true lover of God, like St. Augustine in his Confessionsparaphrased here, knows that he has “only just begun,” and in truth does not love as he knows and wants to love. And yet, even to taste, even to begin to live God in Christ, the Pearl of infinite value, one begins to leave the world of passing things and enter into communion with that which simply is.
“He who begins to love begins to leave. Many there are who are leaving Babylon, and yet they do not know it. And yet they are leaving by the affections of their heart” (Augustine on the Psalms). “Ubi caritas et amor, Dei ibi est.” “Where charity and love are, there is God.” One who loves has indeed found the Pearl of great price, “the many-splendored thing.”
Parables of the Kingdom
Coming attractions at our week-end Masses: For the next three week-ends, we will hear three “parables of the Kingdom” from Matthew 13; then on 6 August, the Feast of the Transfiguration; then the following week, the story of Jesus walking on the water. All of this material is highly significant not only within the New Testament and early Christianity, but through the centuries, and in the life of the Church. My task will be to take each lesson as it comes, and seek to help make it meaningful for our parishioners. We will try to understand the LORD’s teaching together. It is not easily understandable, because Christ is leading us into the mystery of God; or rather, into a life well lived in tension toward the unknown God whom he calls “my Father.” As I have often done, we must move towards a true understanding dialectically: that is, warding off misunderstandings, and using misinterpretations to help us arrive at a deeper or better grasp of what Christ is telling us here and now. One learns to discern the truth by seeing and breaking from error. This process is never-ending, because our minds are limited, our understanding always fallible. The search for the truth of God is always greater than, and encompasses, any results one discovers along the way. If one is not seeking, wondering, exploring, then one is stagnating.
There is nothing stagnant about the “Kingdom of God.” This symbolic phrase, used by Jesus to speak about the reality and ways of God in our lives, is dynamic, creative, freeing, challenging, demanding, consoling, guiding. It is, among other things, a way to speak about God’s providential care for his creatures, for us. God’s way of doing things is not identical with our ways. Whereas human beings gravitate to the powerful, the famous, the wealthy, God’s way is to seek out the lost, the lowly, the humble, those rejected by fellow human beings. Whereas we human beings seek status, wealth, or power, the Kingdom of God—God’s way of acting—is life-giving, affirming, able to “tear down the mighty and lift up the lowly.” (Are you lowly enough to be reached by God?).
God’s way brings judgment only to bring peace, to heal, never to condemn and lock up in a hell of human imagination.