Death Unto Life

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24).

Why does the sower cast wheat upon the ground? Does he do this so that the wheat will die and rot? No, he does this so that it will live and bear fruit. In sowing the seed, the sower does not think about the death and decay of the seed, but rather about its life and yield. Indeed, with joy does the sower sow his seed, not thinking about the death of the seed, but rather about life and fruitfulness.

The Sower is Christ the Lord and men are His wheat. He was pleased to call us wheat. There are many other types of seed on earth, but nothing is more precious than wheat. Why did the Lord sow us throughout the world? So that we should die and decay? No, rather that we should live and bring forth fruit. He alludes to our death incidently. He alludes to death only as a condition for life and multiple yield. The goal of sowing is not death but life. The seed must first die and decay, and He mentions this only in passing because He knows we are fully aware of it. He only reminds us incidently of this, as His Gospel is primarily a narrative of life–about life and about bringing forth good fruit. He speaks to us a great deal about the latter because He knows we are not aware of it and that we are suffocating from ignorance and doubt. Not only does He speak to us abundantly about life, but He also shows us life. By His Resurrection, He demonstrates to us, more clearly than the sun, life and the multitude of fruit. The entire history of His Church is a clear map of life.

O invincible Lord of Life, save us from a sinful death. Deliver us from spiritual death.

To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.

Source: The Prologue, April 9

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On Death

Death is the touchstone of our attitude to life. People who are afraid of death are afraid of life. It is impossible not to be afraid of life with all its complexity and dangers if one is afraid of death. This means that to solve the problem of death is not a luxury. If we are afraid of death we will never be prepared to take ultimate risks; we will spend our life in a cowardly, careful and timid manner. It is only if we can face death, make sense of it, determine its place and our place in regard to it that we will be able to live in a fearless way and to the fulness of our ability. Too often we wait until the end of our life to face death, whereas we would have lived quite differently if only we had faced death at the outset.

There is a patristic injunction, constantly repeated over the centuries, that we should be mindful of death throughout our life. But if such a thing is repeated to modern man, who suffers from timidity, and from the loss of faith and experience which prevails in our time, he will think he is called upon to live under the shadow of death, in a condition of gloom, haunted always by the fear that death is on its way and that then there will be no point in having lived. And death, if remembered constantly and deeply, would act as a sword of Damocles for him, suspended over his head by a hair, preventing the enjoyment of life and the fulfilment of it. Such an approach to the saying must be rejected. We need to understand mindfulness of death in its full significance: as an enhancement of life, not a diminution of it.

Most of the time we live as though we were writing a draft for the life which we will live later. We live not in a definitive way, but provisionally, as though preparing for the day when we really will begin to live. We are like people who write a rough draft with the intention of making a fair copy later. But the trouble is that the final version never gets written. Death comes before we have had the time or even generated the desire to make a definitive formulation. We always think that it can be done tomorrow. ‘I will live approximately today. Tomorrow is when I shall act in a definitive way. It is true that things are wrong, but give me time. I will sort them out somehow, or else they will come right of themselves’. Yet we all know that the time never actually comes.

The injunction ‘be mindful of death’ is not a call to live with a sense of terror in the constant awareness that death is to overtake us and that we are to perish utterly with all that we have stood for. It means rather: ‘be aware of the fact that what you are saying now, doing now, hearing, enduring or receiving now may be the last event or experience of your present life’. In which case it must be a crowning, not a defeat; a summit, not a trough. If only we realized whenever confronted with a person that this might be the last moment either of his life or ours, we would be much more intense, more much attentive to the words we speak and the things we do.

There is a Russian children’s story in which a wise man is asked three questions: What is the most important moment in life? What is the most important action in life? And who is the most important person? As in all such stories, he seeks everywhere for an answer and finds none. Finally he meets a peasant girl who is surprised that he should even ask. ‘The most important moment in life is the present – it is the only one we have, for the past is gone, the future not yet here. The most important action in this present is to do the right thing. And the most important person in life is the person who is with you at this present moment and for whom you can either do the right thing or the wrong’. That is precisely what is meant by mindfulness of death.

The value of the present moment may be realized when someone dear to us has a terminal illness and, more particularly, when we are aware that he or she may be dead within minutes. It is then that we recognize the importance of every gesture and action, then that we realize how slight the differences between what we usually consider the great things in life and those which are insignificant. The way we speak, the manner in which we prepare a tray with a cup of tea, the way in which we adjust an uncomfortable cushion become as important as the greatest thing we have ever done. For the humblest action, the simplest word, may be the summing up of a whole relationship, expressing to perfection all the depth of that relationship, all the love, concern and truth that are within it.

If only we could perceive the urgency of every moment in the awareness that it may be the last, our life would change profoundly. The idle words which the Gospel condemns (Matt 12:36), all those statements and actions which are meaningless, ambiguous or destructive — for these there would be no place. Our words and actions would be weighed before they are spoken or performed so that they might be culminating point in life and express the perfection of a relationship, never less.

Only awareness of death will give life this immediacy and depth, will bring life to life, will make it so intense that its totality is summed up in the present moment. Such precisely is the way in which the ascetics fought against mindlessness, lack of attention and carelessness, against all the attitudes which allow us to miss the moment of opportunity, to pass the other person by, not to notice the need. One of the chief things that we are called upon to learn is awareness – awareness of our own self and of the other person’s situation, an awareness that will stand the test of life and death. All life is at every moment an ultimate act.
–Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (1914-2003)

Source: © 2002 Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh Foundation

Dying, Death, and Grief

What follows are the ruminations not of a bystander but of one who is immersed and invested – the repentant one – Lord, have mercy upon me a sinner.

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Two things we all experience, as human beings, are dying along with the death that attends it and grief. These are common to us all. But, while they are common to us all are they embraced by all as an opportunity for “common-union” with the Lord and with one another?

Perhaps you have asked this question. Perhaps you have asked what the purpose of death and the grieving that accompanies it is in Gods’ sovereign purpose: “If death is conquered and Christ is raised from the dead, then why do we still die?” Perhaps you have wondered how, since, death and our undeniable response of grief is part of our existence, we are to relate to both of them.

These are the questions I ask. These are not questions I am an expert in answering – glibly or otherwise. These questions describe my journey of salvation. A journey I am currently walking. I am a pilgrim. I am a faithful struggler.

Is it an awful thing to suggest such things? Yes, it is an awe-full thing. It is the territory to be journeyed by all who “travail and are heavy laden” by dying, death, and the necessity to grieve. All who profess faith in Christ Jesus must journey through these precincts.

Such questioning is right and proper when accompanied by an open, desirous, and teachable spirit (a repentant heart). Such repentance leads to illumination and bears the fruit of deified life. Or, to put it more specifically, deified dying, death, and grieving.

13 But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; 17 then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18)

So, “All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

The difficulty with our experience of death lies in the fact that what is true in a penultimate sense presents itself to us as what is true in an ultimate sense. We tend to trust what we can measure with our senses and our intellect and our emotions. These measuring instruments provide us with what we consider are a reliable road map for the way to interpret and live the present, the days ahead, and the rest of our life.

However, our Christian tradition speaks a message that is different. The Spirit says that death has been defeated and life is victorious. The Spirit offers us a way to live in the present and journey forward that doesn’t match up with our senses, reason, and emotions.

St. Paul did not see death as an obstacle. He viewed death, however it might come, as being, by the death of Christ Jesus, transformed into an opportunity for the proclamation of the victory of death over life.

This puts us in the position of needing to seek illumination regarding not only death but grieving as well.

Once again, that simply flies in the face of what is true in the limited/penultimate sense. People actually die. If people continue to die then we tend to conclude that the victory of life over death has, somehow, been “postponed” to sometime in the “future.”

But that is not the case. The presence of death in the historical sense is redeemed by God the Father in Christ Jesus and used as an opportunity to make known the mystery of what is true in the eternal sense.

So, the question is not “if” we will die (in the historical sense). Rather, the question is “how” shall we “die.”

By the way, this is not a justification for responding passively to the approach of physical death. No. We fight for life with every heart beat and breathe in the most authentic ways and must make decisions about how to authentically engage in that battle in light of this larger mysterious context.

So the question is not “if” we will grieve (in the historical sense). Rather, the question is “how” shall we “grieve.” Grieving, in like manner, is not only the healthy, life-creating way to engage death but also the journey we take in order to do so. As C.S. Lewis wrote to a friend, “grief is not a state but a process – like a walk in a winding valley with a new prospect at every bend.”

The question is, whether or not we will we live in accordance with God’s embrace and infusion of the event of historical death with eternal life?? Shall we seek to proclaim persuasively in our historical dying that death has been defeated by living out that event with grace, mercy, love, gentleness, self-control, etc.?

Our historical death is not an obstacle to the message of the victory of life over death. Just the opposite. Our grieving is not to be a proclamation that death has won. That would be grieving as those who have no hope. No. Just the opposite. It is, perhaps, the deepest opportunity, in a practical sense, to testify to the fact that life has won and death has lost by using the event of historical death to testify against itself ! !

Be assured, there will come a day in history when this ministry of mysterious proclamation will come to an end and there will be no more physical death. In the meantime we have a ministry of mysterious proclamation to accomplish by the grace of God.

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; 3 and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21.1-4)

And so, in this present time, we approach what is true in the limited sense, the experiences of dying, death, and grieving, with the declaration of what is true in the unlimited sense, the mystery of the victory of life over death, not someday but, rather, beginning today.

And even now the Lord, who is the Coming One is present, along with all who are alive and continue, uninterrupted and completely unencumbered, their ministry in Him. Though they are dead yet they are only “sleeping.” Indeed, they are alive and enjoying the Sabbath rest of Christ Jesus. This “resting in peace” is the quality of life of those who NOW minister, and reign with Christ and by whom we are surrounded and supported.

So, “All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

The question is not just “How then shall we live?” and “How shall we rejoice?” The question is also, “Will we die a healthy, life-creating death?” and “Will we grieve in a healthy, life-creating way?” Or to rephrase it, “How then shall we die (and how then shall we grieve) so those around us might believe that death is conquered?!”

Experience: the Crucible and the Garden

Everyday experience is the revelatory and “terri-fire-ing” crucible in which we are called by the Holy Spirit to repentance. As we answer the call with our “yes,” our judgments and judging are reduced to so much ash and dust. They cease. The crucible becomes the garden in which illumination grows from the “humus” of our previous convictions, by Gods’ mercy, the fertile earth of our humility.

“May He Who rose from the dead, Christ our true God, a good, loving, and merciful God, have mercy upon us and save us, through … the power of the precious and life-giving Cross.” The Divine Liturgy

“Why do you fear then to take up the cross, the way that leads to the kingdom? In the cross you are saved, revived, protected. In the cross you are showered with sweetness from on high, your mind is strengthened, your spirit rejoiced. In the cross is virtue’s sum, and perfect holiness. In the cross alone is the hope of life eternal, the soul’s salvation. So take up your cross and follow Jesus; and you will enter eternal life… For if you die with him, you shall also likewise live with him. If you are his companion in punishment, so shall you be in glory. Everything is founded on the cross… There is no other way to life, nor to true inner peace… Walk where you will, seek what you will; you will find neither a loftier way above nor a safer way below, but only the way of the holy cross.” The Imitation of ChristBook II, ch. 12, by Thomas a Kempis

The cross shows our judgments — our wisdom — to be what it is, silliness, folly, foolishness, and life-robbing.

[17] For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. [18] For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. [19] For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.” [20] Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1.17-20)

Where and when shall this occur?

Experiences of suffering and death are, I am convinced, the best examples.These, and all others in their own way, are the creative edge of God’s saving work into which we are invited to participate as co-creators.

“I thought,” we say, “but know I know.”

“His death has had the very unexpected effect of making death itself look quite different. I believe in the next life ten times more strongly than I did. At moments it seems almost tangible. Mr. Dyson, on the day of the funeral, summed up what many of us felt, ‘It is not blasphemous’, he said ‘To believe that what was true of Our Lord is, in its less degree, true of all who are in Him. They go away in order to be with us in a new way, even closer than before.’” From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II

Leaven of Life or Death?

First the Word of Life and then some reflection which might edify.

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Mark 8.1-21

[1] In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him, and said to them,
[2] “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days, and have nothing to eat;
[3] and if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way; and some of them have come a long way.”
[4] And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these men with bread here in the desert?”
[5] And he asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven.”
[6] And he commanded the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd.
[7] And they had a few small fish; and having blessed them, he commanded that these also should be set before them.
[8] And they ate, and were satisfied; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.
[9] And there were about four thousand people.
[10] And he sent them away; and immediately he got into the boat with his disciples, and went to the district of Dalmanu’tha.
[11] The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him.
[12] And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.”
[13] And he left them, and getting into the boat again he departed to the other side.
[14] Now they had forgotten to bring bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.
[15] And he cautioned them, saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”
[16] And they discussed it with one another, saying, “We have no bread.”
[17] And being aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?
[18] Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?
[19] When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.”
[20] “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.”
[21] And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

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Bread nourishes and nurtures. By the right relationship we foster with it we are not only fed but encouraged as well. The first aspect is easy to understand. Of course bread nourishes. But, how does it nurture? Bread presupposes a baker and a host. Bread is a provision proceeds from someone to desires to feed to the one who is in need of nourishment. So, the bread nurtures a sense of care and compassion – love. Not only that but the eating of the bread is occurs, ideally, in community. “Let us break bread together.” The eating of bread is a giving and receiving between the provider and the recipient AND an opportunity for those who need the bread to communion with one another. All of this is nurture.

Physical bread consecrated by and to God accomplishes this. This is bread in fullness. This is Eucharistic bread. It is not “merely bread” or even “special bread.” It is “God/bread.”

This is the leaven that saves – Sincerity and Truth – the outpouring and inpouring of love. The yeast that saves. (1 Co. 5.8)

The “leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod,” does none of these things. Indeed, it does the opposite of all of them. This leaven is based on merit. It is always testing and seeking to condemn. It is about proving something to someone in order to gain acceptance. It is a symbol of corruption and the contagion of death.

Jesus warns the disciples regarding this leaven. It looks good on the outside but is rotten on the inside. It promises to nurture and nourish but never satisfies the need for either. He promises, over and over, to provide grace to not only remember the warning but fast from sin and death and feast on righteousness and life.

The “leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” is the desire to gain nourishment and nurture from being relevant, spectacular, and powerful to prove something. Shockingly, Jesus is not out to prove anything to anybody.  Jesus is out to love and, in so doing, save the world and everyone in it. For those who have eyes to see, these “signs” are the signs of the Messiah. They are signs that proceed from love and are love instead of signs that originate from a desire to prove something and convince the unconvinced.

Tests to qualify in sight of another vs. the outpouring of love that simply testifies of Truth. The question is not if Jesus does or does not perform signs. The question is why and from where do they proceed? The biggest difference possible. The difference between heaven and hell.

The invitation and mandate for us is to seek the Messiah not the signs. If we spend our time as “sign seekers and inspectors” we will miss the Messiah. For those who are truly seeking God and His salvation, the words and actions of God confirm what they already have concluded, this is the Messiah of God. They will receive the Messiah. The need is to need God so much that His simple appearance as “He Who Is Who He Is,” is enough. The need is to trust God not a specific form and shape of sign – spectacular, relevant, and powerful. After all, some of the most significant signs God has offered have not been spectacular, relevant, and powerful as we measure them. And, those, if we look at our life with clarity, are the ones that have served to save us.

The true signs are the ones, we realize, through which we were nourished and nurtured by the very Body and Blood of Christ Jesus – “the bread of life … the fountain of immortality. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia ! !”

Let us embark, this Lenten season, on a pilgrimage of fasting from the leaven of the Pharisees, hidden in the patterns and practices of our everyday life and seek to feast on the leaven of immortality by searching for it in the present patterns and practices of our everyday life and new patterns and practices offer to us by the Holy Tradition. Let us embark on this Lenten season not to perform signs that prove, but to engage in practices that bear the fruit of the release of the love of God that has been poured into our hearts.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Here is a an edited version of a homily for the Nativity, by St. Basil the Great. I cannot find the full text online. If any of you know a website where it can be found so we may be blessed by the full text, attach the link in the comments section.

Merry Christmas.

God on earth, God amongst us! It is no longer the God who gives the Law amidst lightning and thunder, at the sound of the trumpet on the mountain wrapped in smoke (Ex 19.18), at the heart of a fearful tempest (Ex 19.18), but he who converses gently and kindly with his brethren in a human body. God in our flesh! This is no longer he who only acts at certain times, as with the st basil the greatprophets, but he who assumes human nature completely and who, through the flesh that is our own, raises all humanity to himself.

How is it that light has come into all of us by means of one alone? In what way is divinity present in the flesh? It is like fire in iron…: while still remaining in place, the fire communicates its own proper ardour to the iron. It is not at all made less by this but it wholly fills the iron to which it communicates itself. In the same way God, the Word who “dwelt among us”, did not go out from himself; the Word made flesh underwent no change; heaven was not deprived of him who contained it and earth welcomed him who remains in heaven…

Enter fully into this mystery: God has come in the flesh to put to death the death concealed within it. Just as drugs cure us once they are assimilated by the body, so the darkness of a house is dispersed once the light comes into it, and so, too, the death that kept us in its power has been destroyed by the coming of our God. As ice formed during the night melts under the heat of the sun’s rays, so death has reigned till the coming of Christ. But when the Sun of justice arose (Mal 3.20), “death was swallowed up in victory” (1Cor 15.54); it could not withstand the presence of the true life… Let us sing glory to God with the shepherds, let us dance together with the angels, “for this day in David’s city a Savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord” (Lk 2.11)… Let us celebrate the salvation of the world, the birthday of all humanity.
Source: Saint Basil (c.330-379), Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, “Homily for the Nativity of Christ,” 2.6

Variations on a Theme of Sin and Death, by the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve – Opus Infinitude

I attended a winter semester graduation celebration yesterday. On the wall of the apartment where the festivities were being held was a framed quote from a Bob Dylan song: “The times they are a-changin’,” released on January 13, 1964 by Columbia Records. It was a song of its time — the 60’s.

But, as I considered the occupants of the apartment upon whose wall the quote and album cover photo was a-hangin, I reminded myself that these 20-something’s are the children of the teenagers of the 60’s ! ! Mind/time-warp. Wait, this should be MY apartment ! ! Those would have been MY sentiments during MY teenage years, not THEIR sentiments during THEIR early twenties. I kind-a thought, “Hey, get your OWN folk-rock and roll icon, this one is OURS ! !”

So, I wondered, “ARE the times a-changin’?” OR have the times stayed the same and the same underlying constant has been identified by them in the 2nd decade of the twenty-first century that was identified by us in the 1960’s? Perhaps, the poster DID belong on the wall after all.

Hmmm…. That’s really deep, man ! !

Things have not gottin’ worse. We have just moved to another verse. (Hey, that rhymes, man.) But, the same old song. Louder? Yes. Making a difference in more lives quicker? Oh yes. And, little or a lot more of this or that? Yes. But, the same song.

There IS a reason to keep all those old clothes and that old car. It and they will come back in style someday ! ! The OLD and the NEW speak of something changeless deep down below. Because this is the case, the Gospel is “the best news not just good news” not matter what era, nation, tribe, or language or circumstance in which it is faithfully preached and humbly received.

We can still pray the same prayers and read the same scriptures because the basic reality of sin and death has not changed. AND, the once-for-all victory of Christ Jesus does not have to be repeated to respond to something “new” from the sin and death factory of the evil one. And, it is not possible, by our own efforts, to come up with a way to relegate the saving work of Christ Jesus to the category of irrelevant. We will never get ahead of the curve of sin and death on our own. Christus victor yesterday, today, and forever — once for all — in response to the same sin and death under whose influence we have been living from near the beginning.

All of this impinges on our shallow definitions of “old” and “new” and “change” and “progress.” And that is good, because hidden in those shallow definitions are misappropriations and the perpetuation of false understandings of the Truth, Way, and Life — Christ Jesus.

Anyway, here is a quote that reflects on what it is that is at the “heart of the matter.”

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“Many complain against technology.
Many accuse modern technology for all the woes in the world.
Is technology really to blame, or those who create technology and use it?
Is a wooden cross to blame if somebody crucifies someone on it?
Is a hammer to blame if a neighbor breaks his neighbors skull?
Technology does not feel good or evil.
The same pipes can be used for drinking water or the sewer.
Evil does not come from unfeeling, dead technology, but from the dead hearts of people.”
Source: St. Nikolai Velimirovich, From the Complete Works of Bishop Nikolai [in Serbian], Book 12

Participate in His Death to Participate in His Resurrection

From a treatise On the Holy Spirit by Basil the Great

When humankind was estranged by disobedience, God our Saviour made a plan for raising us from our fall and restoring us to friendship with himself. According to this plan Christ came in the flesh, he showed us the gospel way of life, he suffered, died on the cross, was buried and rose from the dead. He did this so that we could be saved by imitation of him, and recover our original status as children of God by adoption.

To attain holiness, then, we must not only pattern our lives on that of Christ by being gentle, humble and patient, but we must also imitate him in his death. Taking Christ for his model, Paul said that he wanted to become like him in his death in the hope that he too would be raised from death to life. We imitate Christ’s death by being buried with him in baptism. If we ask what this kind of burial means and what benefit we may hope to derive from it, it means first of all making a complete break with our former way of life, and our Lord himself said that this cannot be done unless we are born again. In other words, we have to begin a new life, and we cannot do so until our previous life has been brought to an end. When runners reach the turning point on a racecourse, they have to pause briefly before they can go back in the opposite direction. So also when we wish to reverse the direction of our lives there must be a pause, or a death, to mark the end of one life and the beginning of another.

Our descent into hell takes place when we imitate the burial of Christ by our baptism. The bodies of the baptized are in a sense buried in the water as a symbol of their renunciation of the sins of their unregenerate nature. As the Apostle says: ‘The circumcision you have undergone is not an operation performed by human hands, but the complete stripping away of your unregenerate nature. This is the circumcision that Christ gave us, and it is accomplished by our burial with him in baptism.’ Baptism cleanses the soul from the pollution of worldly thoughts and inclinations: ‘You will wash me,’ says the psalmist, ‘and I shall be whiter than snow.’ We receive this saving baptism only once because there was only one death and one resurrection for the salvation of the world, and baptism is its symbol. Source: Atwell, Robert (2011-09-08). Celebrating the Seasons (Kindle Locations 4293-4311). Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition.

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 Kingdom Road Trip or “Lets Go Riding in the Car Car”

When the Lord invites us to follow Him, he gives us the grace to put aside everything that might keep us from doing His will. That provision sets us free. And yet, there are dangers that go along with being “free in Christ.” The celebration and love of our own life as an outrageous gift from God is one of those areas of danger.  But, how odd. The gift of our own life can become that which robs us of the very same life. So, we must be discerning, lest the very gifts of God become the means for our relationship with him going awry as a result of our freedom in the Lord.

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Galatians 5.1, 13-15

[1] For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
[13] For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.
[14] For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
[15] But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another.

John 12.23-28

[23] And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.
[24] Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
[25] He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
[26] If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.
[27] “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour.
[28] Father, glorify thy name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

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“The Death of the Saints is New Birth”

The body of man is a very frail thing. Sickness may consume it, wild beasts may devour it, the fire may burn it, the water may drown it, the air may infect it, a snare may choke it, the pricking of a pin may destroy it. Therefore when our temporal life shall end, we cannot tell.

The principal cause why we know not the time of death, is even the grace of God; to the intent that we by no occasion should linger the amendment of our lives until age, miles coverdalebut alway fear God, as though we should die tomorrow.

If an old silver goblet be melted, and be new fashioned after a beautiful manner, then is it better than afore, and neither split nor destroyed. Even so have we no just cause to complain of death, whereby the body being delivered from all filthiness, shall in his due time be perfectly renewed.

The egg shell, though it be goodly and fair-fashioned, must be opened and broken, that the young chick may slip out of it. None otherwise doth death dissolve and break up our body, but to the intent that we may attain the life of heaven.

The mother’s womb carrieth the child seven or nine months, and prepareth it, not for itself, but for the world wherein we are born. Even so this present time over all upon earth serveth not to this end, that we must ever be here, but that we should be brought forth and born out of the body of the world into another and everlasting life. Hereunto behold the words of Christ: ‘A woman when she travaileth, hath sorrow because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.’ Namely, like as a child out of the small habitation of his mother’s womb, with danger and anguish is born into this wide world; even so goeth a man through the narrow gate of death with distress and trouble out of the earth into the heavenly life.

For this cause did the old Christians call the death of the saints a new birth. Therefore ought we to note well this comfort, that to die is not to perish, but to be first of all born aright. Robert Atwell, Celebrating the Seasons. Excerpt from “A Treatise on Death,” by Miles Coverdale, (1488 – 1569).

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“I will follow you wherever you go”

“’Give me more light as evening falls.’ O Lord, we are now in the evening of our life. I am in my seventy-sixth year. Life is a great gift from our heavenly Father. Three-quarters of my contemporaries have passed over to the far shore. So I too must always be ready for the great moment. The thought of death does not alarm me… My health is excellent and still robust, but I cannot count on it. I want to hold myself ready to reply “adsum” at any, even the most unexpected moment. Old age, likewise a great gift John XXIIIof the Lord’s, must be for me a source of tranquil inner joy, and a reason for trusting day by day in the Lord himself, to whom I am now turned as a child turns to his father’s open arms.

My poor life, now such a long one, has unwound itself as easily as a ball of string, under the sign of simplicity and purity. It costs me nothing to acknowledge and repeat that I am nothing and worth precisely nothing. The Lord caused me to be born of poor folk, and he has seen to all my needs. I have left it to him… Truly, “the will of God is my peace” (Dante Alighieri). And my hope is all in Jesus’ mercy…

I think the Lord Jesus has in store for me, before I die, for my complete mortification and purification and in order to admit me to his everlasting joy, some great suffering and affliction of body and spirit. Well, I accept everything and with all my heart, if it is for his glory and the good of my soul and for the souls of my dear spiritual children. I fear my weakness in bearing pain; I implore him to help me, for I have little faith in myself, but complete faith in the Lord Jesus.

There are two gates to paradise: innocence and penance. Which of us, poor frail creatures, can expect to find the first of these wide open? But we may be sure of the other: Jesus passed through it, bearing his Cross in atonement for our sins, and he invites us to follow him.” Blessed John XXIII (1881-1963), pope, “Journal of a Soul,” June 1957.

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“O Holy One, give the spirit power to climb to the fountain of all light, and be purified.  Break through the mists of the earth, the weight of the clod, shine forth in splendor, thou that art calm weather, and quiet resting place for faithful souls.  To see thee is the end and the beginning, thou carriest us, and thou dost go before, thou art the journey, and the journey’s end.” Boethius (c. 480-525)

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When I was a child, my parents and godparents used to pile into the car, during the summer, and go for a Sunday drive. We would spend the afternoon picking blackberries and walking in the piney woods. There is a song I learned in elementary school that seems appropriate to add at this point. Here is a portion of it.

Brrrm brm brm brm brm brm brm, brrrm b’ brrrm,
Brrrm brm brm brm brm brm brrrm b’ brrrm,
Brrrm brm brm brm brm brm brrrm b’ brrrm.
Brrrm brm brm brm brm brm brrrm.

Take me riding in the car, car;
Take me riding in the car, car;
Take you riding in the car, car;
I’ll take you riding in my car.

I’m a gonna send you home again;
I’m a gonna send you home again;
Boom, boom, buhbuh boom, rolling home,
Take you riding in my car.

I’m a gonna let You blow the horn;
I’m a gonna let you blow the horn;
A oorah, a oorah, a oogah, oogah,
I’ll take you riding in my car.
“Riding in My Car, by Woody Guthrie

It was during those Sunday afternoon rides along the roads of East Texas that I learned the practical meaning of the Scriptural readings I had heard that morning during Holy Communion. I heard what it meant to faithfully struggle in the midst of everyday life to “go the distance” and “keep the faith” and “finish the race” from men and women who had lived the Great Depression and World War II. We have our struggles too. They are just as significant and provide the opportunity to fashion us into what it means to be an everyday saint.

We human beings are a pretty dynamic bunch. We have the capacity to exhibit incredible “durability and flexibility.” We can adjust and maintain our emotional balance in the midst ofokies seemingly impossible circumstances. I have seen stories of stamina, perseverance, resourcefulness, and hope. People who have lost their whole family in a heartbeat are, mysteriously, able to reach out to others who have lost less providing strength and hope for those who have none.

And yet, at the same time, we are incredibly “fragile and delicate.” In the midst of the fairly mundane and ordinary events of everyday life, let alone the major disasters, we find ourselves on the ragged edge in each and every moment, unable to take another step.

We cannot successfully “go it alone”. We need to let God and others care for us and we need to be one of those whom God chooses to enlist to care for another who also needs someone.

We are strong. We are weak. Not one or the other, but both. We have the ability to be both strong and weak at the same time! That is our blessing and it is, potentially, our curse. Human life is, therefore, a risky business. Of course, we are not sand dunes. We have the added dynamic character of being able to choose to be strong when it is called for in the face of our own weakness and weak in appropriate ways so that, by the grace of God, we might finish the race that is set before us.

Lets answer the invitation Jesus offers to go for a ride in His car car…