Come and See – Go and Tell: All Heaven and Hell Breaks Loose

Hope your Christmas day was amazingly wonderful. But Christmas is not over. In the Holy Tradition offered to us by the Holy Spirit, we are just getting started !!!

Today and the next couple of days are very important. The Church desires to share an essential aspect of the character of the saving message of Christmas.

The following is the fruit of my quiet time this morning. It is my meager articulation, of the point the Church has sought, over the centuries to make, so we do not get the wrong idea about Christmas or the gospel. I say meager because you can find, if you do some “googling” a wealth of reflections by the saints on all of this.

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Christmas – December 25
Feast of the Protomartyr Stephen – December 26 (December 27th in East)
Feast of the Holy Innocents – December 28 (December 29th in East)

That may seem strange…

The story says,

[8] And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
[9] And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.
[10] And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people;
[11] for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
[12] And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
[13] And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
[14] “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”
[15] When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
[16] And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
[17] And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child;
[18] and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.
[19] But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.
[20] And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2.8-20)

The shepherds:

  • Were told Good News
  • Invited to come and see the verification – experience the truth – of the Good News apparently without subtracting or adding anything (“as it had been told them”)
  • They went and saw
  • They made known the truth that had been told them and their experience
  • Those who heard it wondered
  • The shepherds returned to their previous occupations filled with praise to God

So, “coming and seeing” results in “experiencing” which results in “going and telling.”

Such are the raw materials of witnessing.

Notice the lack of argumentation and debate and the like and the abundance of wonder and pondering and considering deeply.

All seems well. Everyone is happy. Well, not everyone.

Today is the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr (witness) of the faith. Why the day after the feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?!

Juxtaposition. Remember what St. John says,

[4] In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
[5] The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
[6] There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
[7] He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.
[8] He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.
[9] The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.
[10] He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.
[11] He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. (John 1.4-11)

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was born to reconcile and reunite what had been alienated and divided.

[18] All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;
[19] that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
[20] So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
[21] For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5.18-21)

The Christmas story – narrative witness – is not just one of affirmation. It is one that includes repudiation, rejection, violence. It involves not just birth but death. The fullness of life in the setting in which the Word of God became incarnate testifies to a victory that includes BOTH acceptance and birth, the words of Mary sum up all of them – “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1.38); and rejection and death , the words of St. Luke regarding the reaction of those who heard the witness of Stephen sum up all of them – “when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him” (Acts 7.54).

This is the reason today’s feast of St. Stephen is followed, on December 29th, by the feast of the Holy Innocents – the story of Herod’s reaction to the birth of Jesus Christ and the consequences of it.

St. Cyprian speaks of this mysterious juxtaposition,

The Apostle John said: “Whoever says he abides in Christ, ought to walk even as Christ walked” (1Jn 2,6). Moreover, the blessed Apostle Paul exhorts and teaches us, saying: “We are God’s children; but if children, then heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him that we may also be glorified together” (Rm 8,16f.)… Let us, beloved brethren, imitate righteous Abel, who initiated martyrdom, he being the first to be slain for righteousness’ sake (Gn 4,8)…; let us imitate the three children Ananias, Azarias, and Misael, who… overcame the king by the power of faith (Dn 3)… What of the prophets whom the Holy Spirit quickened to a foreknowledge of future events? What of the apostles whom the Lord chose? Since these righteous men were slain for righteousness’ sake, have they not taught us also to die?

The nativity of Christ at once witnessed the martyrdom of infants, so that they who were two years old and under were slain for his name’s sake. An age not yet fitted for the battle appeared fit for the crown. That it might be manifest that they who are slain for Christ’s sake are innocent, innocent infancy was put to death for his name’s sake… How grave is the case of a Christian, if he, a servant, is unwilling to suffer when his Master first suffered…! The Son of God suffered that he might make us sons of God, and the son of man will not suffer that he may continue to be a son of God!… The Maker and Lord of the world also warns us, saying: “If the world hate you, remember that it hated me before you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world… remember the word that I said to you: “The servant is not greater than his lord” (Jn 15,18-20). (Letter 55)

AND, let’s be careful to allow juxtaposition to be an invitation into a life of mystery not an invitation to attempt to solve a contradiction and smooth out the difficult territory (edgy life) into which the “Glad Tidings” of Christmas invite us. To solve it and separate the happy stories from the sad ones would be to oppose the very thing the Incarnation is intended to do, reunite what has been divided and alienated. We have divided the happy and the sad because we cannot conceive what only the eyes of the heart and a heart of love can know and in which it can participate and facilitate; namely that the union of these “opposites” is the key to our salvation (the cross and empty tomb). The angels did say, after all, “I bring you good news of a great joy.” Well, this is the architecture of joy.

The Good News always defies and frustrates our attempts to corral and manage and control it and institutionalize it (the liberal or the conservative versions). It breaks out… The Good News challenges us to lean into juxtaposition not as an example of contradiction but as an example of a new territory in which to live. An new heaven and a new earth in which Mystery is descriptive of what is normal rather than a word we invent for the abnormal or miraculous.

The light shines in the darkness to overcome the darkness. And darkness is dark and does the deeds of darkness.  But, the darkness does not overcome the light. It is overcome by the light. The Mystery of the Incarnation is the Mystery of the recreation of “what is” into a new “what is.” It involves not just Mary and Joseph but Stephen and the Holy Innocents.

The story of the mystery of the Incarnation must include the reaction of evil to it. The joy the angels proclaim to the shepherds and to the world, mysteriously necessitates not just birth but also death. Not just acceptance but the possibility of rejection. The victory of new and abundant life in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ necessitates a life lived in the environment of mystery, wonder, love, and praise which is the messy environment of salvation.

The Jesus Prayer: A Fitting Advent Discipline (updated)

Those of you who know me, know that I am always refining and adding. It seems the Truth won’t let me write something without showing me more as a result of what I wrote. That, then leads me to revise or add to what I previously wrote (or said) so it matches, more perfectly, the Truth. It is a constant process of realizing and revising and realizing and revising — on and on and on… (But then that is the whole journey of transformation in a nutshell, isn’t it?!)

My last blog post is a case in point. So, here, below the dashed line, is my revised (better – more truth filled) version of what I posted yesterday.

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Advent is about yearning. Not superficial yearning. Deep, edgy, risky yearning. An “out beyond,” cost what it will, lead where it may” kind of yearning. Indeed, a yearning that is unceasing.

The Jesus Prayer is the Advent prayer. It has all the qualities just articulated.

The Jesus Prayer is the unceasing prayer of the righteous person. It avails much (James 5.16). I hear in the word “much,” that James intending us to understand him to mean “everything.”

For, indeed, it is the groaning for union with the One who placed the yearning in us by design.

Let me take time and space to unpack all of this.

St. Augustine is most often quoted at this point:

“Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee…”

Another way of saying “union with God” is “Sabbath rest.” For, don’t the Scriptures from Isaiah to Hebrews to Revelation speak of the new heavens and the new earth? Don’t they speak of the “universal shalom” of God? (See Living the Christian Year, by Bobby Gross for the use of this beautiful term.) The prophets and the glorious company of the saints cry out (yearn/groan) for it!

“So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4.9-11)

Again, St. Augustine speaks of this yearning in his reflections on Psalm 38.

“A psalm to David himself, on the remembrance of the Sabbath.
What doth this recollection of the Sabbath mean? What is this Sabbath? For it is with groaning that he ‘calls it to recollection.’ You have both heard already when the Psalm was read, and you will now hear it when we shall go over it, how great is his groaning, his mourning, his tears, his misery. But happy he who is wretched after this manner! Whence the Lord also in the Gospel (Matt v.4). called some who mourn blessed. ‘How should he be blessed if he is a mourner? How blessed, if he is miserable?’ Nay rather, he would be miserable, if he were not a mourner. Such an one then let us understand here too, calling the Sabbath to remembrance (viz.), some mourner or other: and would that we were ourselves that ‘some one or other!’ For there is here some person sorrowing, groaning, mourning, calling the Sabbath to remembrance. The Sabbath is rest. Doubtless he was in some disquietude, who with groaning was calling the Sabbath to remembrance.…”

Our groaning/yearning for Sabbath rest begins now and will never end. We groan in our brokenness for union with God in Christ Jesus. We groan in our union for ever more consummate union with God in Christ Jesus. We will yearn for eternity in our full righteousness for more and more consummate union with God in Christ Jesus, for God is eternally inexhaustible in His knowability. So, our yearning is multifaceted – mysterious. It is our heritage by design. Eternal Sabbath delight. (Heaven will never get boring.)

The Psalmist notes this multifaceted source of our groaning/yearning/longing. Our longing for ever more consummate delight in God begins in our brokenness:

“For thy arrows have sunk into me, and thy hand has come down on me.There is no soundness in my flesh because of thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin… Lord, all my longing is known to thee, my sighing is not hidden from thee.” (Psalms 38.2-3 9)

This longing is unceasing, St. Augustine says:

“’I go mourning all the day long.’ ‘All day long,’ that is, ‘without intermission.’ By ‘all the day long,’ he means, ‘all my life long.’ But from what time hath he known it? From the time that he began to ‘call the Sabbath to remembrance.’ For so long as he ‘calls to remembrance’ what he no longer possesses, wouldest thou not have him ‘go mourning?’ ‘All the day long have I gone mourning.’”

Why an unceasing longing even in our brokenness? The “remembrance of the sabbath” inscription at the beginnning of Psalms 38, doesn’t, I propose, speak only of David’s remembrance of all the sabbaths he enjoyed, but also of the inherent remembrance of the sabbath rest of our lost union with God. Because our “fallenness” does not include the destruction of our yearning for God. It remains like a splinter in the illusion/delusional mind of fallen mankind. This faint echo never leaves us no matter how far we have fallen. Here we begin to turn a corner. In our consideration of The Jesus Prayer, we must now realize that it is the very essence of prayer, and as such, the very essence of the groaning/yearning:

For, indeed, as the elder told the pilgrim,

“…St. Paul clearly states that prayer should precede all actions. ‘First of all, thee should be prayers offered’ (1 Tim. 2:1). The Apostle’s directive indicates that the act of prayer comes first; it comes before everything else. The Christian is expected to perform many good works, but the act of prayer is fundamental because without prayer it is not possible to do good. Without frequent prayer it is not possible to find one’s way to God, to understand truth, and to crucify the lusts of the flesh. Only fidelity to prayer will lead a person to enlightenment and union with Christ… The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness when we do not know how to pray (Rom. 8:26). Consequently, our only contribution toward perfection in prayer, the mother of all spiritual good, is regularity and constancy.” The Way of the Pilgrim (pg.8)

The Jesus Prayer sums up the journey of salvation/transformation; namely the dynamic interplay between revelation and repentance that takes the form of a transformed life. We must, if we are to find and live out our Sabbath rest in Christ, not only come to know the Truth (be confronted with it), but embrace the truth. We must be “disillusioned.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of this in Life Together. St. Augustine spoke of it many centuries before:

“For my soul is filled with illusions, and there is no soundness in my flesh” (ver. 7). Where there is the whole man, there there is soul and flesh both. The “soul is filled with illusions;” the flesh hath “no soundness.” What does there remain that can give joy? Is it not meet that one should “go mourning”? “All the day long have I gone mourning.” Let mourning be our portion, until our soul be divested of its illusions; and our body be clothed with soundness. For true soundness is no other than immortality. How great however are the soul’s illusions, were I even to attempt to express, when would the time suffice me? For whose soul is not subject to them? There is a brief particular that I will remind you of, to show how our soul is filled with illusions. The presence of those illusions sometimes scarcely permits us to pray. We know not how to think of material objects without images, and such as we do not wish, rush in upon the mind; and we wish to go from this one to that, and to quit that for another. And sometimes you wish to return to that which you were thinking of before, and to quit that which you are now thinking of; and a fresh one presents itself to you; you wish to call up again what you had forgotten; and it does not occur to you; and another comes instead which you would not have wished for. Where meanwhile was the one that you had forgotten? For why did it afterwards occur to you, when it had ceased to be sought after; whereas, while it was being sought for, innumerable others, which were not desired, presented themselves instead of it? I have stated a fact briefly; I have thrown out a kind of hint or suggestion to you, brethren, taking up which, you may yourselves suggest the rest to yourselves, and discover what it is to mourn over the “illusions” of our “soul.” He hath received therefore the punishment of illusion; he hath forfeited Truth. For just as illusion is the soul’s punishment, so is Truth its reward. But when we were set in the midst of these illusions, the Truth Itself came to us, and found us overwhelmed by illusions, took upon Itself our flesh, or rather took flesh from us; that is, from the human race. He manifested himself to the eyes of the Flesh, that He might “by faith” heal those to whom He was going to reveal the Truth hereafter, that Truth might be manifested to the now healed eye. For He is Himself “the Truth,” (John xiv. 6). which He promised unto us at that time, when His Flesh was to be seen by the eye, that the foundation might be laid of that Faith, of which the Truth was to be the reward. For it was not Himself that Christ showed forth on earth; but it was His Flesh that He showed. For had He showed Himself, the Jews would have seen and known Him; but had they “known Him, they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory.” (1 Cor. ii. 10). But perhaps His disciples saw Him, when they said unto Him, “Show us the Father, and it sufficeth us;” (John xiv. 8). and He, to show that it was not Himself that had been seen by them, added: “Have I been so long with you, and have ye not known Me, Philip? He that seeth Me, seeth the Father also.” (John xiv. 9). If then they saw Christ, wherefore did they yet seek for the Father? For if it were Christ whom they saw, they would have seen the Father also. They did not therefore yet see Christ, who desired that the Father should be shown unto them. To prove that they did not yet see Him, hear that, in another place, He promised it by way of reward, saying, “He who loveth Me, keepeth My commandments; and whoso loveth Me, shall be loved of My Father; and I will love Him and” (as if it were said to Him, “what wilt Thou give unto him, as Thou lovest him?” He saith), “I will manifest Myself unto him.” (John xiv. 21). If then He promises this by way of a reward unto them that love Him, it is manifest that the vision of the Truth, promised to us, is of such a nature, that, when we have seen it, we shall no longer say, “My soul is filled with illusions.”

Prayer, in its most essential form – the dynamic of revelation/repentance/transformation…, precedes and fills all the spiritual disciplines. Indeed, it fills (or will come to fill over time) to fullness all things in the life of the disciple of Christ Jesus. Hear more from St. Augustine on this matter,

“I have roared with the groaning of my heart.” You observe the servants of God generally interceding with groaning; and the reason of it is asked, and there is nothing apparent, but the groaning of some servant of God, if indeed it does find its way at all to the ears of a person placed near him. For there is a secret groaning, which is not heard by man: yet if the thought of some strong desire has taken so strong hold of the heart, that the wound of the inner man finds expression in some uttered exclamation, the reason of it is asked; and a man says to himself, “Perhaps this is the cause of his groaning;” and, “Perhaps this or that hath befallen him.” Who can determine, but He in whose Eyes and Ears he groaned? Therefore he says, “I roared with the groaning of mine heart;” because if men ever hear a man’s groanings, they for the most part hear but the groaning of the flesh; they do not hear him who groans “with the groaning of his heart.” Some one hath carried off his goods; he “roareth,” but not “with the groaning of his heart:” another because he has buried his son, another his wife; another because his vineyard has been injured by a hailstorm; another because his cask has turned sour; another because some one hath stolen his beast; another because he has suffered some loss; another because he fears some man who is his enemy: all these “roar” with the “groaning of the flesh.” The servant of God, however, because he “roareth” from the recollection of the Sabbath, where the Kingdom of God is, which flesh and blood shall not possess, says, “I have roared with the groaning of my heart.”

And who observed and noticed the cause of his groaning? “All my desire is before Thee” (ver. 9). For it is not before men who cannot see the heart, but it is before Thee that all my desire is open! Let your desire be before Him; and “the Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee.” (Matt. vi. 6). For it is thy heart’s desire that is thy prayer; and if thy desire continues uninterrupted, thy prayer continueth also. For not without a meaning did the Apostle say, “Pray without ceasing.”  (1 Thess. v. 17). Are we to be “without ceasing” bending the knee, prostrating the body, or lifting up our hands, that he says, “Pray without ceasing”? Or if it is in this sense that we say that we “pray,” this, I believe, we cannot do “without ceasing.” There is another inward kind of prayer without ceasing, which is the desire of the heart. Whatever else you are doing, if you do but long for that Sabbath, you do not cease to pray. If you would never cease to pray, never cease to long after it. The continuance of thy longing is the continuance of thy prayer. You will be ceasing to speak, if you cease to long for it.

Who are those who have ceased to speak? They of whom it is said, “Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” (Matt. xxiv. 12). The freezing of charity is the silence of the heart; the burning of charity is the cry of the heart. If love continues still you are still lifting up your voice; if you are always lifting up your voice, you are always longing after something; if always longing for something absent, you are calling “the Sabbath rest to remembrance.” And it is important you should understand too before whom the “roaring of thine heart” is open.

Now then consider what sort of desires those should be, that are before the eyes of God. Should it be the desire for the death of our enemy, a thing which men flatter themselves they lawfully wish for? For sometimes we pray for what we ought not. Let us consider what they flatter themselves [in thinking] they pray for lawfully! For they pray that some person may die, and his inheritance come to them. But let those too, who pray for the death of their enemies, hear the Lord saying, “Pray for your enemies.” (Matt. v. 44). Let them not pray for this, that their enemies may die; but rather pray for this, that they may be reclaimed; then will their enemies be dead; for from the time that they are reclaimed, henceforth they will be enemies no longer. “And all my desire is before Thee.” What if we suppose that our desire is before Him, and that yet that very “groaning” is not before Him? How can that be, since our desire itself finds its expression in “groaning”? Therefore follows, “And my groaning is not hid from Thee.”

From Thee indeed it is not hid; but from many men it is hid. The servant of God sometimes seems to be saying in humility, “And my groaning is not hid from Thee.” Sometimes also he seems to smile. Is then that longing dead in his heart? If however there is the desire within, there is the “groaning” also. It does not always find its way to the ears of man; but it never ceases to sound in the ears of God.

The universal, unceasing, every fulfilling and evermore fulfilling shalom of God in Christ Jesus. For this we long, and strive. Behold a mystery. The unceasing prayer – the groaning – is not something we can observe and analyze or judge. Sometimes it is hear with the ears and seen in our very bodies. Sometimes it is invisible to the observer. Yet it pervades us. It pervades the whole universe (Romans 8.22). Its pervasive character within in all creation and even within us personally and corporately is too deep for our words and explanations. We yearn for it and enjoy it and yet yearn for it evermore deeply. We are one with those who have gone before us in the yearning. The prophets and the saints:

“Depart not from me. Make haste to help me, Lord of my salvation” (ver. 22). This is that very “salvation,” Brethren, concerning which, as the Apostle Peter saith, “Prophets have enquired diligently,” (1 Pet. i. 10). and though they have enquired diligently, yet have not found it. But they searched into it, and foretold of it; while we have come and have found what they sought for. And see, we ourselves too have not as yet received it; and after us shall others also be born, and shall find, what they also shall not receive, and shall pass away, that we may, all of us together, receive the “penny of salvation in the end of the day,” with the Prophets, the Patriarchs, and the Apostles. For you know that the hired servants, or labourers, were taken into the vineyard at different times; yet did they all receive their wages on an equal footing (Matt xx. 9). Apostles, then, and Prophets, and Martyrs, and ourselves also, and those who will follow us to the end of the world, it is in the End itself that we are to receive everlasting salvation; that beholding the face of God, and contemplating His Glory, we may praise Him for ever, free from imperfection, free from any punishment of iniquity, free from every perversion of sin: praising Him; and no longer longing after Him, but now clinging to Him for whom we used to long to the very end, and in whom we did rejoice, in hope. For we shall be in that City, where God is our Bliss, God is our Light, God is our Bread, God is our Life; whatever good thing of ours there is, at being absent from which we now grieve, we shall find in Him. In Him will be that “rest,” which when we “call to remembrance” now, we cannot choose but grieve. For that is the “Sabbath” which we “call to remembrance;” in the recollection of which, so great things have been said already; and so great things ought to be said by us also, and ought never to cease being said by us, not with our lips indeed, but in our heart: for therefore do our lips cease to speak, that we may cry out with our hearts (Heb. iv. 9).

What is required is to have the direction (maturing movement) of the groaning be toward Christ Jesus. For this we struggle. For this we yearn. For this, indeed, is the proleptic dynamic of the “upward call.”

Source for the quotes from the writings of St. Augustine can be found here.

The Jesus Prayer: A Fitting Advent Discipline

Advent is about yearning. Not superficial yearning. Deep, edgy, risky yearning. An “out beyond,” cost what it will, lead where it may” kind of yearning. Indeed, a yearning that is unceasing.

The Jesus Prayer is the Advent prayer. It has all the qualities just articulated.

The Jesus Prayer is the unceasing prayer of the righteous person. It avails much (James 5.16). I hear in the word “much,” that James intending us to understand him to mean “everything.” For, indeed, as the elder told the pilgrim,

“…St. Paul clearly states that prayer should precede all actions. ‘First of all, there should be prayers offered’ (1 Tim. 2:1). The Apostle’s directive indicates that the act of prayer comes first; it comes before everything else. The Christian is expected to perform many good works, but the act of prayer is fundamental because without prayer it is not possible to do good. Without frequent prayer it is not possible to find one’s way to God, to understand truth, and to crucify the lusts of the flesh. Only fidelity to prayer will lead a person to enlightenment and union with Christ… The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness when we do not know how to pray (Rom. 8:26). Consequently, our only contribution toward perfection in prayer, the mother of all spiritual good, is regularity and constancy.” The Way of the Pilgrim (pg.8)

Prayer, in its most essential form, precedes and fills all the spiritual disciplines. Indeed, it fills (or will come to fill over time) to fullness all things in the life of the disciple of Christ Jesus.

Behold a mystery. The unceasing prayer – the groaning – is not something we can observe and analyze or judge. It is too deep for our words and explanations. What is required is to have the direction (maturing movement) of the groaning be toward Christ Jesus. For this we struggle. For this we yearn. For this, indeed, is the proleptic dynamic of the “upward call.”

Hear St. Augustine on this matter,

“I have roared with the groaning of my heart.” You observe the servants of God generally interceding with groaning; and the reason of it is asked, and there is nothing apparent, but the groaning of some servant of God, if indeed it does find its way at all to the ears of a person placed near him. For there is a secret groaning, which is not heard by man: yet if the thought of some strong desire has taken so strong hold of the heart, that the wound of the inner man finds expression in some uttered exclamation, the reason of it is asked; and a man says to himself, “Perhaps this is the cause of his groaning;” and, “Perhaps this or that hath befallen him.” Who can determine, but He in whose Eyes and Ears he groaned? Therefore he says, “I roared with the groaning of mine heart;” because if men ever hear a man’s groanings, they for the most part hear but the groaning of the flesh; they do not hear him who groans “with the groaning of his heart.” Some one hath carried off his goods; he “roareth,” but not “with the groaning of his heart:” another because he has buried his son, another his wife; another because his vineyard has been injured by a hailstorm; another because his cask has turned sour; another because some one hath stolen his beast; another because he has suffered some loss; another because he fears some man who is his enemy: all these “roar” with the “groaning of the flesh.” The servant of God, however, because he “roareth” from the recollection of the Sabbath, where the Kingdom of God is, which flesh and blood shall not possess, says, “I have roared with the groaning of my heart.”

And who observed and noticed the cause of his groaning? “All my desire is before Thee” (ver. 9). For it is not before men who cannot see the heart, but it is before Thee that all my desire is open! Let your desire be before Him; and “the Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee.” (Matt. vi. 6). For it is thy heart’s desire that is thy prayer; and if thy desire continues uninterrupted, thy prayer continueth also. For not without a meaning did the Apostle say, “Pray without ceasing.”  (1 Thess. v. 17). Are we to be “without ceasing” bending the knee, prostrating the body, or lifting up our hands, that he says, “Pray without ceasing”? Or if it is in this sense that we say that we “pray,” this, I believe, we cannot do “without ceasing.” There is another inward kind of prayer without ceasing, which is the desire of the heart. Whatever else you are doing, if you do but long for that Sabbath, you do not cease to pray. If you would never cease to pray, never cease to long after it. The continuance of thy longing is the continuance of thy prayer. You will be ceasing to speak, if you cease to long for it.

Who are those who have ceased to speak? They of whom it is said, “Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” (Matt. xxiv. 12). The freezing of charity is the silence of the heart; the burning of charity is the cry of the heart. If love continues still you are still lifting up your voice; if you are always lifting up your voice, you are always longing after something; if always longing for something absent, you are calling “the Sabbath rest to remembrance.” And it is important you should understand too before whom the “roaring of thine heart” is open.

Now then consider what sort of desires those should be, that are before the eyes of God. Should it be the desire for the death of our enemy, a thing which men flatter themselves they lawfully wish for? For sometimes we pray for what we ought not. Let us consider what they flatter themselves [in thinking] they pray for lawfully! For they pray that some person may die, and his inheritance come to them. But let those too, who pray for the death of their enemies, hear the Lord saying, “Pray for your enemies.” (Matt. v. 44). Let them not pray for this, that their enemies may die; but rather pray for this, that they may be reclaimed; then will their enemies be dead; for from the time that they are reclaimed, henceforth they will be enemies no longer. “And all my desire is before Thee.” What if we suppose that our desire is before Him, and that yet that very “groaning” is not before Him? How can that be, since our desire itself finds its expression in “groaning”? Therefore follows, “And my groaning is not hid from Thee.”

From Thee indeed it is not hid; but from many men it is hid. The servant of God sometimes seems to be saying in humility, “And my groaning is not hid from Thee.” Sometimes also he seems to smile. Is then that longing dead in his heart? If however there is the desire within, there is the “groaning” also. It does not always find its way to the ears of man; but it never ceases to sound in the ears of God. Source

 

Advent – The Mysterious Threefold Coming of the Lord

Advent is not just about the upcoming coming of the Lord. It is about “the comings” of Lord. St. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of “threefold coming of the Lord.”

It is my understanding, though it be through a glass darkly, that each of these comings carries with it an aspect or dimension of the fullness of the “new heaven and a new earth” spoken of in both the Old and New Testaments:

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;
And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.” (Is. 65.17)

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, … the first things have passed away… And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Rev. 21.1, 4, 5

But what does that mean?! St. Paul speaks of it as a “mystery” that, at one and the same time must be spoken of and yet cannot be expressed (1 Co. 15.51-55). It is necessary to use language (words and images and actions) that point – that are iconographic.

It is also, it seems to me, important to point out that this is, astonishingly enough, nothing more than what the universe in its entirety and in its particularity, supposed to do normally.

This turns all our definitions of normal upside down. What is normal, when it appears and is experienced, is spoken of by us as “out of the ordinary” or “miraculous.” But, it is the other way around.

A good example of this upside down way of misunderstanding and understanding is the season of Advent’s message of the “threefold coming of the Lord.” The “in breaking” or manifestation of the “new heaven and new earth” was, is, and will be occurring. (See, words fall short…) This draws us away from thinking, speaking, and acting as if the new heaven and the new earth spoken of in Scripture is “out there somewhere” or completely “yet to be.” If we relegate the fullness of the coming of the Lord totally to the future, the past, or even the present, we will miss the coming of the Lord. (Yikes. That shorts out all my circuits, inside and outside, physical and spiritual…)

We live in a world that views and responds to truth all wrong (at least most of it). What is more, we are still, internally, using upside down ways of viewing and responding to reality. So, we are being invited to live “in but not of” the world. So, it is going to always be expected (yearned for) by us but astonishing (surprising) when it actually occurs and when we realize it has already occurred but we did not have eyes to see it.

William Law speaks of the new heaven and the new earth as being kind of inbreathed with love. Each and every aspect of the spiritual and material are expressions, according to their kind, as manifestations of the love of God – of God Himself.

Nothing wills or works with God but the spirit of love, because nothing else works in God himself. The almighty brought forth all nature for this end only, that boundless love might have its infinity of height and depth to dwell and work in, and all the striving and working properties of nature are only to give essence and substance, life and strength, to the invisible hidden spirit of love, that it may come forth into outward activity and manifest its blessed powers, that creatures born in the strength, and out of the powers of nature, might communicate the spirit of love and goodness, give and receive mutual delight and joy to and from one another.

All below this state of love is a fall from the one life of God, and the only life in which the God of love can dwell. Partiality, self, mine, thine, etc., are tempers that can only belong to creatures that have lost the power, presence, and spirit of the universal Good. They can have no place in heaven, nor can be anywhere, but because heaven is lost. Think not, therefore, that the spirit of pure, universal love which is the one purity and perfection of heaven and all heavenly natures has been or can be carried too high or its absolute necessity too much asserted. For it admits of no degrees of higher or lower, and is not in being till it is absolutely pure and unmixed, no more than a line can be straight till it is absolutely free from all crookedness.

All the design of Christian redemption is to remove everything that is unheavenly, gross, dark, wrathful, and disordered from every part of this fallen world. And when you see earth and stones, storms and tempests, and every kind of evil, misery, and wickedness, you see that which Christ came into the world to remove, and not only to give a new birth to fallen man, but so to deliver all outward nature from its present vanity and evil and set it again in its first heavenly state. Now if you ask how came all things into this evil and vanity, it is because they have lost the blessed spirit of love which alone makes the happiness and perfection of every power of nature. (The Spirit of Love: Part 1, by William Law)

Church Year and Rhythms of Grace

I love the Church year. Its rhythms and themes mysteriously penetrate me from beyond and well up from within me at the same time. But, why should that surprise me. The life of Divine/human union is, by definition, the life of paradox.

I believe we were/are designed by God to receive indications of Truth through a sensitivity to the rhythms of His grace imbedded in the fiber of the created order and our own unique image bearing soul/body life. I, personally, cannot comprehend certain aspects of God’s will and the specific ways in which I need to adjust my life without the Church Year.

When I embrace the Church Year, the Holy Spirit transforms me in ways that make the rhythms of grace that I experienced as forced into rhythms that, mysteriously, are becoming more and more unforced. A reflection that touches on one of these rhythms can be found here.

Jesus said/says,

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion?
Come to me.
Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.
I’ll show you how to take a real rest.
Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it.
Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.
I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.
Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
(Matthew 11:28-30 – The Message)