TODAY WAS A BIT of a rough one for me: it began at 4AM with the news that my mom was in the hospital (but somewhat ok as compared to last night). Getting to work I was alerted to the news that one of seven speakers I had arranged for Good Friday might not be there for their own family emergency and a parent in the hospital. So with two hours to go I locked myself in my office with a double espresso and composed a backup essay which, thankfully, I didn’t need to deliver. It follows:
In her writings, Saint Catherine of Siena teaches, “All the way to heaven is heaven because Jesus says I am the way.”
Jesus says to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The thief is on a cross… Jesus is on a cross. What can this mean in Paradise? Today.
My road to the fullness of the Catholic Faith is broken. I made choices early in my life to prioritize certain aspects of my experience over my religious faith and, as a result, my faith started to fall apart.
For a long time I doubted things like the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, the sacraments, the Bible, the Church, but – at the same time – I struggled knowing I was making moral choices contrary to the historic teachings of the faith.
At the point (sometime in college) where I realized the only part of the Nicene Creed I could say was the first word – “I” – I left my Episcopal Congregation. Then I journeyed outside of the church denying the faith entirely.
After about ten years something was still missing from my “spiritual but not religious” life.
I returned to a liberal Mainline congregation – where I could still live by my choices. But something was still off and so I went first to Eastern Orthodoxy, finally to the Catholic Church. I walked into this building and this community five years ago.
Leaving liberal, progressive Christianity for the traditional faith, I knew I was making new choices that were contrary to my earlier life. There could be no compromise if my faith was to take priority. Something had to change: I would have to let go of those earlier choices.
This new struggle began, seeking healing from the wounds caused by those earlier choices. Wounds leave scars, tearing muscles, and making one week in certain areas. Moral choices, as Saint Paul says, can sear the conscience so that it becomes nearly impossible to make the right choice again in the future without God’s grace.
When Saint Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ” he means that this life, the choices we’ve made, the choices I’ve made become the cross upon which we nail ourselves; hanging there like the thief begging Christ to remember me in his kingdom.
When walking away from former choices toward Christ becomes our whole way of life he says “today you will be with me in Paradise”.
The former choices, these ways of life that were contrary to the faith, that were actually ways of death become the sacrifice made Thanksgiving.
Eventually, Jesus called me back. My Mom said, “No matter where you went, he never let go of your hand, did he?”
I discovered that she was right: all the time that I was walking – even when I was walking away in pride – I was actually walking towards Jesus.
My Sacrifice, once nailed to the cross, he takes and blesses. All of the broken road turns it into my path to him.
Jesus is our Paradise hanging on the cross and when we hang on the cross with him we are in Paradise today.
All the way to heaven is heaven because Jesus says I am the way.
WITHIN THE JEWISH TRADITION the last prayer one says before dying is called the Shema (or Sh’ma) :
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ יי אֶחָֽד
Hear, Israel, the Lord our God: the Lord is one.
The recitation of this line of scripture, along with some other passages of scripture form the keystone in both the morning and evening prayer services of the Synagogue liturgy. Additionally, it is traditional to recite it just as one is going to bed and, as noted, as the last breath before death.
Before one says the Shema, one says a prayer called the Vidui. It’s a confession of sin and an acknowledgment that, before God, one is entirely without merit. It’s a prayer for mercy and grace in death. Although many of the modern versions include the verse “into thy hands…” it was not always so. In the 16th Century, the “Code of Jewish Law” (Shulchan Aruch) does not have this in the “official” Vidui. And, even in the modern versions that include that verse, it’s in the middle of the prayer – not at the end. And, again, the final thing said is the Shema.
All of that by way of saying that I find Our Lord’s choice of final words to be interesting in that it’s not the Shema. It’s something else.
As I mentioned in the last post in this series, we are meant to rest in the bosom of the Son as the Son rests in the Father. We are all called to this intimacy. The theological description of the Son resting in the Father and of the Holy Spirit proceeding is Perichoresis (from two Greek words meaning “around” and “to go, or come”) or Circumincession (from Latin). It’s often rendered as interpenetration. (Pardon me for ranting a bit: There is a modern etymology that incorrectly links the Greek root words with the word for dancing. This, however, is not valid and is more akin to the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding finding Greek roots for english words or other such bad scholarship such as is found in certain branches of religious studies. End of Rant.) ANYWAY… Perichoresis. When Jesus prays that Christians should be one even as he and the Father are one (John 17:22), this is part of what he means. When he prays that we should be in him (and him in us) as he is in the Father (John 17:23) it’s also talking about perchoresis or circumincession. We move together, we move through and with each other and – my ranting aside – it is rather like dancing when you think about it.
This is what he means when he hands over his Spirit to the Father – this unity, this circumincession. And that brings us back to the beginning.
In saying “Father into thy hands…” instead of merely reciting the Shema, he did it.
This essay is an edited version of last year’s post. I seem to be. on the same track this year.
It is finished.
Perelandra Is CS Lewis’ brilliant and engaging meditation on the Fall. It takes place on Venus in the 1940s where God is making a new race of persons and they are again being tempted to fall away from him. The action plays out through human mediation: God sends an earthman there to act for good since an earthly scientist is already going there in a spaceship, unwittingly to act as the agent of evil. I say “unwittingly” because the scientist believes in nothing: neither good nor evil. The good man sent, Dr Ransom, is a believer in Christianity but it’s not the Christian faith he’s sent to bring to Venus. Over the course of the novel, Ransom actually plays out more of the role of St Michael than of Christ, defending the Venusian Eve from the wickedness and snares of the devil (being mediated by the scientist). Thus, provided with a tempter and a defender, Eve, must undergo the trial and make her choices. No real spoilers here, but there are deep thoughts in the book about what humanity would have been like without The Fall or the need for redemption.
Man is created in God’s “image and likeness”. What does this mean? The Church Fathers have tossed the question back and forth, all the while acknowledging that we are fallen now so we cannot know for certain what it would have been like before. But there are some key signs: like our creator we have Free Will, meaning we can submit to God. Like our creator we, too, are creators. These hallmarks are damaged in the fall. There is a third, I think, and Lewis draws it out fully in Perelandra. As Children of one divine Father, we are meant to be in as intimate communication with him as God the Son is with his Father, offering back our love in the communion of the Holy Spirit and participating in the Divine life, even as we have our own, individual actions and lives here.
We are meant to rest in the bosom of the Son as the Son rests in the Father. We are all called to this intimacy. In the Fall our ability to do so is lost. We hear other communications, other voices – of our passions, from the world around us, from our fallen affections and sex drives, our desires, and temptations. Our communication skills are so damaged that many of us hear those other voices and assume they are god. Some hear those other voices and don’t think of them as divine but follow them anyway. Even the devout are torn: we cannot hear the will of God as easily as we can talk to a friend in Slack or Zoom.
We are lost. We don’t hear God (or we think we do when it’s only an “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato”). Our creative skills turn inward to make golden idols, and our free will is damaged so that we usually pick the wrong things. Yet, God loves us. God dies for us.
It is finished.
This sometimes gets played up like it might mean the debt for our sins is paid by Jesus, or that our redemption is accomplished here – when it’s not: the resurrection and the ascension are both part of our salvation-in-process. Even the second coming is part of the working out of our salvation. Yes, the blood of Christ saves us, but not from some cosmic debt we cannot pay, so God paid himself by his own blood.
It is finished. What? Fr John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death offers an extended meditation on this question: What is finished? He follows the Patristic tradition as does CS Lewis’s work. The Greek word rendered as “finished” gives the clue: Τετέλεσται tetelestai, fulfilled – brought to its proper conclusion or use.
Adam and Eve were not yet adults in the Garden. All of human history was thrown off by, in essence, two teens letting their hormones get the best of them. Think Romeo & Juliet as not a romance but rather, “two teens disobey their parents, do what they shouldn’t do and a lot of people die”. The Garden is not about two adults making choices, it’s about two kids failing to grow up. And we have been only children ever since. You can’t pass on what you don’t have: all of world history has been written by adolescents unable to mature.
The Cross is God dragging us out of puberty into adulthood, bringing us to our Telos. We can freely decide to keep running around doing whatever we want but now we have the option to reconnect to God. To open our hearts to the same level of intimacy enjoyed by the Son with his Father, to have our creativity restored to its rightful use to glorify God, to have our passions put in right order, to have God as our Father, not just our creator. We have the option to grow up.
To be and to be in communion are the same thing: in Christ we have communion restored with each other and with God. We can run away, but we have, now, the option, to become fully human.
It is finished: we’ve been reconnected, rewired. We now have our freedom to respond. Time to grow up, to reach our telos which is only possible through the cross.
T HIS SIMPLE REQUEST of Jesus pulls many into theological arabesques. What is Jesus thristing for? For our faith! For our love! For souls to heal and bring to heaven! None of that is in the text, of course: they arise from meditation on the text as does this essay. Jesus, having hung on the cross for three hours, having been tortured and up all night gave voice to a simple need. It’s not far-fetched to imagine he’s slightly delirious. What is a bit of a surprise is that someone responded to his request. I know it’s a prophetic sign, but you’d be hard-pressed to prove that it’s a sign of anything important.
It’s a root complaint in our world. You can fast for a long while, but you need to drink often. It’s so ingrained that drinking a lot of water can help you fast from food! “You’re not really hungry,” you say to yourself. “Have some water.” Good tap water goes a long way, but something sour (like vinegar and gall) makes it taste much nicer, and makes it all that much more satisfying. There needn’t be anything mystical going on here. The Early Christians recorded this because it happened. Jesus actually said these lines. God said this while dying.
“I thirst,” said God as he was dying.
Having simple, human needs is one thing that God does. Dying is something that God does.
Have you seen how beautiful this world is? I mean really? Yes, there is beauty in a shot of San Francisco Bay from the side of Russian Hill, especially at dawn. But there is beauty in a decayed leaf, or a collapsing squash. Stars collapsing, maggots on corpses, and even ancient skeletons (and by extension, our own) all have their own beauty. A stary night, a rainy afternoon, a Haboob, or a tornado all reveal an intense beauty that – once experienced – leaves us wanting more.
Who among the readers of these pages have one delicacy that they imagine that they would love to eat forever? Fried fish, chocolate mousse, avocado toast, lattes, caviar, fritos with cheese sauce, biscuits and gravy, or caramel corn?
In moments of deepest intimacy or near-spiritual elation, who does not wish to remain there?
Each beauty of our world, each joy, each taste, even each pain, calls from us a visceral response. We are called up and out of ourselves and yet – at that same moment – we are nailed deeply in our souls, rooted in ourselves. We are one with all things and yet isolated, alone, me. There is a moment there where I thirst becomes our own cry. We thirst for more of whatever it is and we are sorry when it has passed without slaking our thirst, our need.
These moments – even the ones that hurt – pull us towards the possibility that there is something more, something that we are craving constantly – even though we cannot name it. We can get caught in a constant round of trying to satisfy our thirst here, in this world. Every dawn over the Bay is beautiful and I have been fully blessed to see dawn here for 25 years. Dawn has happened for millenia continuously on this revolving world. But we want it again.
We thirst for more.
Jesus is that more. All of it poured out filling hearts. Jesus is the more for which we thirst. The greatest beauty, the highest joy, the deepest love is only a sip, a drop of moisture, a hint of the fullness that is Jesus.
And in eternity we may find the slaking of that thirst.
WE HAD A GUEST show up at our homeless ministry. It was her first time. She seemed a little out of it. She seemed more than a little confused. We fed her. Then we closed our doors, as we do at a certain time, and folks left. Guests usually sit at our outdoor tables until Noon or so, so we don’t worry about it. It’s sunny and nearly 85 today. An hour later someone said there was a woman trying to go to the bathroom in our parking lot. So we go out and find her and say this can’t happen. And then we come inside and wonder why she didn’t ask for the restroom downstairs when we were serving folks.
Two hours later she was found still outside in our parking lot… and we walk out to see what was happening. In her slow shuffle, she got to the fence. And called to people outside on the sidewalk. They assumed she was asking for money, but it was something else. We softly directed her through the gate and she asked for help. It dawns on us that she was mostly blind, making her way but suddenly trapped in a strange new parking lot that was surrounded by fences, unable to feel her way out. She wasn’t out of it at all. She wasn’t confused: she wasn’t able to see.
Once we got her on the sidewalk, she practically ran: no shuffle. Back in the world she knew and heading home. I had to run to keep up with her!
Walking back to the office John and Mary came to mind. There is your mother. There is your son.
CAN GOD FORSAKE HIMSELF or can he be forsaken by himself? It always seems that this verse gets called out to prove that Jesus didn’t see himself as God – or that the earliest Christians didn’t see him as God. Then, sometimes, this verse gets thrown around to say the Father somehow abandoned Jesus as if the eternal Trinal Unity of God could sever himself and leave part of himself behind.
Was Jesus abandoned?
The Liturgy of Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox Christians replies loudly NO. At Pascha (Easter) they sing:
In the tomb with the body, in hades with Thy soul as God, in paradise with the thief, and on the throne with the Father and the Spirit, wast Thou, O boundless Christ, filling all things.
At one moment in the Grave, in Hades, in Paradise, on the Heavenly throne. Even the incarnation itself did not part God from himself. The arc of salvation is the Messiah “filling all things”.
So what happened on the Cross?
The Incarnation is a mystery of the faith. The kenosis or self-emptying of the Son is one of the actions of his love for us. In this, he follows what he sees the Father doing: self-emptying to the Son. The Son self-emptying to us.
However, there’s another element here, for the manhood of Jesus was equally real and fully present. Our Lord and Saviour was not only the Divine Logos but also fully human. The feelings of that man are real, are fully human just like yours or mine. To use a sort of psychobabble, his feelings are valid. Jesus said, “I will do this for you” and the resultant feelings are real. Our feelings matter, too: not just our flesh, not just our spirit. Even though he was never abandoned, even though he was always “on the throne with the Father and the Spirit” Jesus’ emotions told him, “this sucks…”
And so, also, with us.
There are times when I can know in my head (even in my heart) that each thing that participates in beingness is doing so through God’s actions. Were I ever abandoned by God I would no longer be. The very act of being alone – which I cannot initiate or sustain – is proof of my being with God. I can know that. But my emotions can run another way, can turn against me can demand I cry out.
My God, why have you abandoned me?
Jesus knew this feeling and, here on the Cross, this feeling is elevated to a Divine state, to one of salvation in process. Your feeling of abandonment can be offered to God, and can even be celebrated as a participation in the passion of Christ.
You can – like Jesus – even blame them on God. This is the point, actually. Our feelings are not sins and yet they are very real. It’s what we do with them that is crucial. As Jesus said in the garden, “If it is possible, please take this away from me… but not my will. Rather, Father, may your will be done.” So he says here, “I feel abandoned. But I’m still trusting you, Father.” That should be us: and yet it takes a lot of faith to do it. If we find ourselves trying to pull away – letting our feelings get the better of us – we need to turn it all over to God again. But our feelings then become our Cross. We’re called to bear our cross including our feelings, but even if we fall under them we need to keep going.
Today there is a great drive to give into our feelings which largely means to run away from pain and things we’re afraid of.
Her life is read liturgically in the Byzantine and Orthodox churches at Matins for the Thursday of the 5th week of Lent. In practice, this means Wednesday night of that week. Like many saints so well-loved, she is treated as family and called “Our Mother” and “Holy Mother Mary of Egypt”. Her life was written down by St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (634–638), from older stories passed down in his monastic community. The original reporter was the monastic elder, Zosimas, who heard the story from the Saint’s own lips.
What follows is not the liturgical text, available online. This is my own retelling. I heard and read this story often in the Orthodox Church, where I also had a chance to venerate a relic of St Mary. It’s ingrained in my heart.
Saint Mary was born sometime in the early to mid 5th century. We know nothing of her family or her background. I imagine that she was poor because of what follows. She is not averse to manual labor nor does she rank as a very high-class courtesan. What she does say is that at the age of 12 she discovered sex. Mary went off to the big city of Alexandria and began to enjoy herself. At this time marriage often took place at the same age, and in those days life expectancy was not then what it is now. Mary is not being a child here. She is a girl in her sexual prime.
Mary was at pains in the story to say she was not a prostitute. She busied herself with spinning flax, with basket weaving, and other manual labor, this suggests that she was poor because she was willing to do this work. She did not want to sell what she enjoyed as she did not think it was fair to be paid for it. She lived this life for 17 years in Alexandria. “This was life to me,” she says. “Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.”
One day Mary saw a group of young men getting ready to get on a boat. In response to her questions about where they were going and why, the men explained that they were going to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, which happens every September. Mary asked to go with them not for any pious pursuit and implying it sounded – to her – like a fun idea to be the only woman on a boat filled with young men. On the boat ride and during their time in the city of Jerusalem leading up to the feast day, there was nothing she didn’t do. She says that sometimes she even had sex with the young men when they were not willing to do so.
Then came the feast. With all of her new friends she went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem but no matter how many times she tried to get in, she was prevented from entering the church. It was not that the crowds prevented her: she would shove along with everybody else. Yet each time approaching the door she found force holding her back and pushing her off to the side until finally she was alone on the porch of the church, looking at the open door, unable to enter.
Then she turned and saw an icon of Mary the Mother of God. She was not alone and it dawned on her why she could not enter. So she prayed and asked the Blessed Virgin to help her enter the church. If she could but enter the church and venerate the Holy Cross, she prayed, she would make amends and change her life, embarking on the path of repentance for the rest of her days. Then, in her greatest Act of Faith, she turned and walked into the church.
She knelt and kissed the holy wood whereupon hung the price of all of our lives and souls and, most dearly, hers.
Then she left the church. Someone thought she was a beggar and gave her coins, which she used to buy a small amount of food. Then, hearing a voice promise her comfort, she went to the Jordan River and crossed it into the desert, which for the next 17 years became the arena of the Angelic Conquest of her passions.
Mary’s emotions would sometimes stir her; sometimes lust would catch hold of her, sometimes her cravings for food would drive her wild, and sometimes she would find herself singing songs that she used to sing about sex and vulgarity. At these times she would throw herself on the ground and beg for God’s mercy where she would wrestle with the demons that tormented her. There she would beg to be freed from her passion. After her long battle, one day there came from God an inner peace.
She had lived alone for 47 years when she met Fr Zosima, a priest from a monastery on the Jerusalem side of the Jordan River. He was wandering through the Jordan desert on his Lenten fast.
The priest reported that when he begged her to pray for the Church and she hovered above the sandy floor of the wasteland while praying. She was illiterate and had never been taught scripture yet she could quote it fluently. From her inner sight, she knew Fr Zosima’s name and that he was a priest. After 17 years she had won her struggle, and then for 30 more years, receiving so much grace from God that she lived partly in this world as the Angels do in the next.
She asked the priest to meet her after Easter with the Holy Eucharist. As he came to her from his monastery, he saw her walk on the water, crossing the Jordan to receive the Eucharist from him and then walk back across the water.
A year later, when he went to find her, he found her body lying on the sand. Unable to dig into the hard ground to bury her, he prayed. A lion came and helped him dig.
The Golden Legend is a collection of the Lives of the Saints, compiled around 1260 by Jacobus de Voragine, a Dominican priest from Genoa. In it are hundreds of stories collected from around the Church. The entry on St Mary the Egyptian closes with these words:
And Zosimus returned to his abbey and recounted to his brethren the conversation of this holy woman Mary. And Zosimus lived an hundred years in holy life, and gave laud to God of all his gifts, and his goodness that he receiveth sinners to mercy, which with good heart turn to him, and promiseth to them the joy of heaven.
Then let us pray to this holy Mary the Egyptian that we may be here so penitent that we may come thither.
Every year during Orthodox Lent, when the Life of St Mary of Egypt would be read in liturgy, I saw in her so much of my own journey: the discovery of sex, the enjoyment of sex, and the life of someone devoted to finding “every kind of abuse of nature”. This was life to me. Her story told me there was hope for a way out, there was not only the chance of change but also the grace-filled reality of it.
In the Byzantine rite, this Vita is read liturgically during the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete at Matins on the Thursday before the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It’s a long text. Reading the Canon and this vita together makes this one of the longest services of the Byzantine Liturgical Year. (Only the Paschal vigil service with 15 readings and a Divine Liturgy of St Basil is longer.)
The last time I was appointed to read a portion of the Vita, written by St Sophronius, I was unable to finish when, reading this paragraph, I was overcome:
Shamelessly, as usual, I mixed with the crowd, saying, `Take me with you to the place you are going to; you will not find me superfluous.’ I also added a few more words calling forth general laughter. Seeing my readiness to be shameless, they readily took me aboard the boat. Those who were expected came also, and we set sail at once. How shall I relate to you what happened after this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls.
My friend, Fr A, had to step in and finish reading for me while I went to the corner and mourned my sins. Look, it’s a long text. I’m not going to torture you with it. But I suggest you read The life of our holy mother, Mary of Egypt nonetheless. Bookmark it. It might take a while. Prayerfully move through it. You may find some portion of your journey there. Or you may not. I don’t care what orientation you feel you have, or what your life looks like even now. If you find yourself somewhere in the middle of her story and crave, deeply, to also find yourself in the end of her story, reach out. Let’s see what we can do to help each other.
BY WAY OF disclaimer, this admission: Pope Francis has stepped out to consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and this seems to me a good thing. As the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, the whole world is his See, and he can make Eucharist with all that is his – as each servant of Christ is called to do. By that confession or what follows I hope that my opinion of the sitting Patriarch of Moscow would become clear as well.
Some think that the consecration will result in some sort of “automagical” end to the war or maybe some other apocalyptic event. But I think not. This event reads as the Pope asserting pastoral authority over a people seemingly abandoned by their own Pontiff, who, by throwing himself into the vanguard of someone we think of as a political bad actor, seems to have offered not only a pinch of incense to Caesar but also turned traitor against his own brethren in the name of that same Caesar. The sitting Patriarch of Moscow deserves to be removed from office if you ask me. The Holy Father is doing what he can, short of declaring the See of Moscow to be vacant – an act which neither side of the Great Schism has ever done. If you’ve never noticed: neither Rome nor Constantinople has ever tried to elect a successor to the See of the Opposition. There’s no Catholic Ecumenical Patriarch and no Orthodox Bishop of Rome. (This tacit agreement to let each other run their own show is a huge sign of hope to me!)
Orthodox Bishops around the world have made it clear that they reject the Patriarch’s actions. But, in doing so, they reveal to the west how messy Orthodox Ecclesiology can be. Yet – the rule of glass houses applies here – what makes this action any different from how certain bishops and priests reject our Holy Father as either too liberal, too conservative, or too vague? Rejoicing because secular politics is ripping up the Church is not a good look for us. Taking sides in a dispute internal to the Orthodox Church seems tone-deaf on our part, or else imperialistic: do we want them to fall apart?
The Pope is giving Russia and Ukraine – and by proxy all of us – a call to behold your Mother. Jesus says, “Behold your mother.” Yet the Pope is also unveiling (the real meaning of apocalypse) exactly how messy the Church is. As Mary is our Mother, so also is the Church. If the Pope is calling us to see one, we must see the other as well. Spiritually the Church is a spotless bride adorned as for her wedding. But. Look. Let’s be honest: to human eyes, the Church can be more like Stella Dallas than Stella Maris.
When I left the Episcopal Church, I looked briefly at the Catholic Church but thought I saw many of the same problems I was fleeing in ECUSA: sexual issues, feminism, bad theology, wonky liturgy. The Orthodox Church seemed a safe haven. I needed to be there for 3 years or so before I saw my mistake. After 10 years there the Apocalypse had shown sexual abuse, issues around the understanding of sex and the two human genders, wonky theology and ecclesiology, and even a form of the Liturgy Wars. Hearing of the sexual antics of monastics in a monastery I had – pardon me – idolized even before I became Orthodox was the last straw in a lot of ways. As news of the sex scandal breaks (over and over, it seems) and as political infighting becomes the main soundtrack, maybe casting it all aside seems like a good idea. But that would be to betray our divinely appointed mother.
This post is not about the scandal that may thus arise any more than it’s about Putin’s ecclesial shenanigans. It’s about our mother, the Church.
And she’s a bit messy. You may even say tawdry. She’s filled up with mere human beings who are all sinners. Left to our own devices she’s bound to end up with a torn dress, with bruised muscles, with a black eye now and then.
But she’s trying very hard to get sainthood out of us anyway.
The consecration of Russia and Ukraine – and all of mankind – to the Heart of the Immaculate Virgin is a reminder that while we have a mother here on Earth we have a pure mother in Heaven as well. One who prays for us, one who sits at the side of her son offering intercession for us along with all the saints; and through her Son to the Father. The Church Militant is both an expression of her intercession as well as a foretaste of what Mary is. Only by God’s grace can we move there, only by God’s grace can she – the Church – move there. The process of ecclesial reform is first and foremost the process of making each of us holy. We cannot fix the Church – she fixes us – and when we are healed so will she be. We are the Church. Those public sins we did not commit damaged souls as surely as the private ones we did.
Behold your mother: she’s a bit of a mess but she has one thing to do. She’s going to get you holy and, by a grace-filled sort of transubstantiation, when you are holy she will be too.
TODAY.How hard it is to imagine this. Today in paradise. Sometime in the distant future or, perhaps, sometime in the distant past, certainly. But today? Hardly. Of course, the Wise Thief is about to die, so that makes sense, right? Your going to die and you’ll be with me in paradise after you die. And the Greek does say that after a fashion. But what it really says is, “Today with me you will be in paradise.” It’s a subtle change, but it’s important. Not, “today you and I will be in paradise together” but rather “today, by means of me, you will be in paradise.” That’s an important change for two reasons:
First, I think we usually imagine this as being a change in “spiritual location” for both Jesus and the thief. Jesus is not saying we’ll be here (on earth) for a little while and then “we’ll go to heaven by and by when we die”. In fact, the Creed says Jesus descended from the cross into Hell. This is where the harrowing of hell takes place – from Friday at Sunset and through the course of the Holy Shabbat. Jesus is making a different promise to the thief here. The second reason this is important is related to modern soteriology: the Wise Thief is the only person promised anything like “paradise” after death. Look through the New Testament. Although there are lots of conversations about salvation, none of them talk about “going to heaven after you die”. None of the evangelists promise “life after death” as a way to get converts.
My final presentation in New Testament class was research on the Lake of Fire in St John’s Apocalypse. If it had been longer (my presentation timed at just under five minutes) it would have been called a “deep dive” but that pun would not have worked too well. How is the Lake of Fire linked with Jesus’ promise to be with him in Paradise?
The Lake of Fire is only mentioned four times in the Apocalypse:
Revelation 19:20: The beast and the False Prophet are thrown in. No previous discussion or description happened.
Revelation 20:10 The devil is cast in.
Revelation 20:14–15 Then Death and Hades go in. Wait, hell goes into hell? Then “anyone not found written in the Book of Life.”
Revelation 21:8 A list of sorts of people get tossed in as well. There are three classes of Christians and four classes of nonbelievers: – cowardly. Are these people who walked away when persecution arose? – faithless. People who walked away just because? – detestable. Unclear – perhaps heretics? – murderers – sexually immoral – sorcerers – idolaters – liars
The lake is described as burning with fire and brimstone or sulfur. I think that detail is important, but we’ll get back to that.
The first appearance of fire in the Apocalypse is as something flashing from Jesus’ eyes in 1:14: “His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire.” This description is repeated in 19:12 (His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns). Fire is, somehow (in some way) tried to Jesus here. But that link between God and fire is throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. There are two words, a Hebrew one for most of the Old Testament and an Aramaic one for Daniel:
esh: a fire (Strong’s #784) Original Word: אֵשׂ (Hebrew) Part of Speech: Noun Feminine Transliteration: esh Phonetic Spelling: (aysh) Definition: a fire
nur: a fire (Strong’s #5135) Original Word: נוּר (Aramaic) Part of Speech: Noun Transliteration: nur Phonetic Spelling: (noor) Definition: a fire
Daniel uses his word 17 times. Most are talking about the “Firery Furnace” into which people have been tossed. The Hebrew word gets used 377 times. It’s a normal “fire” in Genesis 22:6, but of the first 17 times it’s used in Genesis and Exodus, 11 times it is the fire of God. 19 times in Deuteronomy it is the fire of God. This goes on! 2 Samuel 22:9, 2 Kings 2:11, 1 Chronicles 21:26, 2 Chronicles 7:1, Nehemiah 9:12… gracious. It’s constantly on fire here. There is a flaming torch (God) there is a flaming bush (God), there is a pillar of fire (God), a river of fire, a throne of fire, and wheels of fire. God shows up as fire. Flashes fire from the sky in Sodom, Egypt, and on the prophets of Baal. God has a fire that goes before him consuming foes (Psalms 97:3), and God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24). This last we hear repeated in Hebrews 12:29, which we might see as a bridge between the fires of the first testament and those of the second one.
Isaiah reports (33:14) The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? Indeed it is terrifying. Who of us can live in the consuming fire? Wait, why do we have to? Don’t we get a pass because of our baptism? Well, no. For the ones who dwell with “everlasting burnings” are exactly, “He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil” but suddenly the image changes and “they are the ones who will dwell on the heights, whose refuge will be the mountain fortress. Their bread will be supplied, and water will not fail them.”
Water? Food? Were we not discussing fire?
Time for another set of images.
Also in Heaven, there is a glassy sea. That may mean the sea is made of glass, but I’m going with “placid sea” because in other places in the Apocalypse there is an Ocean as well. There is a river of the water of life, there is the living water rising from within Jesus – and from within the believer. God is not only a pillar of fire, but also a pillar of cloud. There is the crucial clue, pardon the pun. It’s something to do with God being fire and water, qith God being either fire or water (bother, actually). Who can live in the consuming flames? Those who are just – who have been washed in the living waters.
There is a way where the presence of God is as refreshing as living water for some and as deadly as a fiery furnace for others. Better, using the images from Daniel: the fires of the divine furnace are somehow bedewed by the presence of one like the Son of Man walking with us.
I mentioned this story in an earlier post on Hebrews (where God is a consuming fire): Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, insofar as I can, I say my prayers, I keep my little fast, and I pray and meditate… Now what more shall I do?” The elder stood up and stretched his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of flame, and he said to him, “If you wish, become all fire.” Here, the fire is within us, God’s fire becomes us.
And that’s what it means to be in Paradise: to be in the presence of God and to not be destroyed by the fires.
Unfortunately, for all most all Americans, Christian or not, to be saved means “going to heaven.” There is no scriptural reason to hold that meaning. None. At all. Period. Nothing in the Bible makes any sense if that’s all that “paradise” means. Where is paradise? Where is hell? Is there anywhere an omnipresent God is not?
There is only one eternity – equally true for me, for you, for Ivan the Terrible, for Adolf Hitler, for Mother Theresa, and for your great-grandma Mae. The answer is totally the same for everyone:
We will all spend Eternity with God. Eternity is that omega point where our human, fear-based self-shielding mechanisms of time, space, sin, self-interest, ignorance, and doubt all collapse into the event horizon of God’s very beingness, from whom nothing can escape, by whom all things are known, and in whom all things live and move and have their fullest being. We discover that the very fire in our being that animates us is our participation in God – as it is for the demons. They know this already and it burns them even as they live. We will see it fully then… will it burn? Or will we burn alive?
There is no place else to go, nowhere to run in eternity where God is not. There is no place to run here in Space-Time, either, if you really want to know. It is our delusions that allow us to think that we’re safe from him. We can ignore him for a few minutes, hiding behind fig leaves, as he walks in the evening crying out, “Earthling, where are you?”
Eternity with God is not “salvation” though, except in the abstract: certainly Jesus didn’t send Bartimaeus there when he said “you’ve been σῴζωed – sozoed.” Nor did he send anyone else to “the Gold Streets of Glory, halleluia!” when he said to the woman at his feet, the lepers, the bleeding woman, the Syrophoenician woman, the Centurion, “Your faith has sozoed you.” Neither is it what St Paul and the other Apostles mean when they say, preaching, “You and your whole household can be sozoed this night…”
In the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, σῴζω – sozo is used for the word הושִׁיעַ, hoshia. Both mean “to save”. And the Hebrew is related to Jesus’ own name, Yeshua. There is our clue, really: think of it that way for just a moment and it will make sense:
Being “saved” means being “made more like Jesus”.
No one will be excluded from God’s presence – but to see God is to be plunged into what? “Our God is a Consuming Fire.” The only Human who can be there is Jesus, who is God, himself. To be saved… to be brought into communion-via-likeness with Jesus… is to stand alive in the Fountain of Life itself, to be made like the Burning Bush: raised to a fullness of Beauty unimagined, burning and yet not consumed.
Dante takes us so close to heaven:
This heaven has no other where than this: the mind of God, in which are kindled both the love that turns it and the force it rains.
As in a circle, light and love enclose it, as it surrounds the rest and that enclosing, only He who encloses understands. … Like sudden lightning scattering the spirits of sight so that the eye is then too weak to act on other things it would perceive,
such was the living light encircling me, leaving me so enveloped by its veil of radiance that I could see no thing.
As he is ending his glorious quest Dante links heaven with us here, on earth: we are being made ready, turned…
The Love that calms this heaven always welcomes into Itself with such a salutation, to make the candle ready for its flame … But already my desire and my will were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed, by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.
We want seriously to think that “I’ve found the only way into heaven”. We want to think “We can keep out the wrong sort of people.” I know one pastor who keeps a gun in his pulpit because he thinks the wrong sort of people will try to stop him from getting into heaven. Even Dante put the wrong sort of people in other places. But that was humorous and educational. We need to stop imagining heaven like an old Simpsons Episode:
Oh, my friends, I have no doubt that God will call all men to himself – he is doing so now. Not everyone will want to be there. We have to be saved – to be made as much like Jesus as possible. We are working out our salvation here, now – working out our transformation into Jesus. When the opening of our presence to God’s Being is at the fullest, some of us will have been prepared and some will fight it off. In that Divine Light our only defence will be to self-destruct as we burn. Or we can live there forever – only if we, even now, are being turned like a wheel, being brought up to speed, by the Love which moved the Sun and other stars.
WHAT DID YOU GIVE UP FOR LENT? Don’t tell me – you’re not supposed to tell folks. But what was it? Do you think of it as a struggle or a punishment to do so? Are you making a sacrifice for God? Or are you doing something to make up for your sins? What is fasting about? If you follow through on “just the rules” there is both fasting and abstinence: we’re supposed to eat less, and not eat certain things. And then something else (TV? Chocolate?) sort of creeps in because we know we can substitute something else for the food thing. So, if I give up my phone for a couple of hours a day, then I can keep eating hamburgers, right?
Why do we fast?
In the east and the west, Christians used to have a more strict fast: generally, all animal products were removed from the diet (there were some exceptions for Sundays and feast days). Additionally, the amount of food was limited: one meal a day, only eaten late in the day. The timing was relative to the liturgical practice: you only take communion after fasting. So Mass or (in the east) the Divine Liturgy were postponed until very late in the day. In the west you said Mass in the afternoon. In the East, communion came with Vespers. You ate only after communion.
Why? What’s wrong with meat or cheese or even wine? Nothing at all. Why do we do it then? Can’t we replace giving up wine (how much do we drink anyway?) with no chocolate? And who fasts until 3 in the afternoon? Pshaw. That’s all just showing off. Works don’t make us more holy. God loves us as we are. Those last two sentences are totally true. They are not modern. All of the Church Fathers – including those who wrote the rules about fasting and abstinence – would agree that rules don’t make us holy and God loves us fully even if we eat hamburgers on Good Friday. So what’s this about?
Look at the rules: – Don’t eat until late in the day. – Don’t eat more than once. – Don’t eat animal products. – Don’t drink alcohol.
Who would those rules affect? Farmers? Peasants? Homeless? Not really at all. Many if not all of these folks were lucky to eat – usually bread and maybe veggies – after working all day. These rules would affect the rich. In fact, these rules would force the rich from your local officials all the way up to the emperor (if he were pious) to live – at least a little – as if they were poor. When coupled with the traditional command to give alms during Lent, this all begins to make sense. Lent is a spiritual practice of solidarity with the poorest in our Christian family. It’s not enough to be in solidarity as such – this is not about political action per se – but it is exactly a political act in itself. It is acting in a way contrary to the world: my riches mean nothing to me. I give them up, even if only for a time, to live in solidarity with the poor. If you realize that the most ancient Christian traditions did not only fast/abstain in Lent, but several periods throughout the year as well as every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, suddenly it’s nearly 50% of the time was some form of Lent, some form of solidarity with the poor.
What made me realize this was a comment about feasting. The rules about fasting only cut out feasting foods. The issue, for us moderns, is that we feast all the time. We have meat all the time. We have fats and adult beverages whenever we want. We have no idea what it means to feast because we don’t have fasting days anymore and – more importantly – we don’t have normal days where it’s mostly a fast. Feasts are not special because every meal is a sumptuous feast from our bagel and coffee to our late-night snack of ice cream. Even our standing in front of the fridge in a daze eating leftovers out of Tupperware with our fingers is feasting.
This is why it’s important not to imagine giving up TV or sweets is the same thing.
Fasting and abstaining are intended to make us uncomfortable, are intended to be hard, not because of our sins but because of our comfort, because of our ease.
The patristic teaching on these practices included the counsel to take what you do not spend on your feasting foods and hand it directly to the poor. What a concept! Fasting leads directly to charity. Abstinence leads to liberation.
Pray Give up costly things Give your money to the poor Pray.
This is not only a problem in the West, even the Orthodox have forgotten the “fasting” part of the equation. A priest commented to me “We too are supposed to only eat one meal a day, but we ignore that part…” They pretty much eat all they want, just vegan. So you can have all the soy ice cream you like. And, as one layman joked, “Who cares if you can’t eat steak. Lobster is fine.” (Shellfish is poor people food…)
If you think, though, that this is about the rules as such, or that fasting is some Mediaeval (and mistaken) idea about paying God back for our sins, then, of course you would get rid of this. You might even quote scripture:
This is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)
But these are not conflicting: these are the same thing. You can’t share your bread if you eat it…