7LW: Father

JMJ

This is the final post in a series on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post.

Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.

WITH GOD AS OUR Father brothers all are we.” That’s a line from the 1955 song Let There be Peace on Earth, composed by Jill Jackson and Sy Miller. It’s a bit treacly, but it was intended for a children’s choir so that’s ok. It’s the Father line I want to call out. Man is created by God. In that respect, God is our Father as Geppetto can be said to be the father of Pinocchio. God is the Father, in this respect, of all creation: all of existence is equally from the hand of the same God. It matters not if you believe in creationism or some form of theistic evolution where God tends us as we evolve. God is the source of all that is, and so a Father. This is certainly no scandal at all. Addressing the Creator as Father is a concept going way back. In some cultures it’s not only the creator that gets this title, it’s every “elder being” if you will, or anything higher up the spiritual food chain.

Jesus’ experience of God as Father was different though. The clergy and people who came to hear him talk called him out on this. John 5:18 says, “Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.” To use a modern phrase, they saw what he did there. This became a stumbling block for both Jews, who felt it blasphemous against monotheism and, later, for Gentiles who while allowing deities to have children, felt the child of a peasant stock who died a traitor to Ceasar and a common criminal was clearly not one of The Family. But, dear reader, this is not the real scandal, nor even that we Christians worship this dead criminal.

We claim that through this dead criminal we, too, have the same relationship to God. The theological term is “filiation” or “son-becoming”. When the spirit of Christ resides in us we call God by a personal name, Abba. Not a title, not a status, but by relationship which we enjoy by participation in the Body of Christ. That is a scandal. We actually claim a relationship that others – who place themselves outside of the Body of Christ – do not have. We claim kinship with God.

And so this prayer of Our Lord, Father, into thy hands..., must become our prayer at every moment. Over and over we must commend to the Father ourselves and one another and all our lives as the Byzantine Liturgy phrases it. This last word must be our first word and, indeed, our only word. The more we pray it the more we must make use of it to pray it all the more: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.

Spirit here is the Greek word, πνεῦμά, pneuma and it gets used twice in this verse, although we miss it because we’re not reading the Greek. The last word in the verse is ἐξέπνευσεν exepnusen he “breathed his last” one might also render it “he spirited his last” and I think St Luke intends us to hear it both ways at the same time. Jesus is not handing over his “ghost” to the Father: the Son and the Father aspirate the Holy Spirit between them. Jesus is disconnecting here. And he will sink into hell itself to free us all.

We are called to render every breath to God the Father, through the Son (in whose body we participate) in the communion of the Holy Spirit. We are made sons in Christ not as mere creations but as Children of our Heavenly Father.

Sin is a damage to this relationship. I was listening to Gomer and Dave talk about this topic in their episode on Divine Filiation. Gomer pointed out that we’re so used to thinking of Sin as a breaking of a rule: venial sins are little rules, mortal sins are big rules. But sin is a shattering of this relationship of son-ness with Father. It destroys us, literally, as sons of God. We do this in other ways in our culture too: we “identify” as things that are not what God made us to be. In fact, we deny science to do this, and make stuff up. But our pretend “identities” are not who God can save: God can only save who we are, and can only raise us to what he intends us to be: the body of his Son. Our venial sins may never add up to one mortal sin, but they damage us too, our perceptions, our minds, our spiritual vision, can no longer see the road before us. And we all the more easily fall into mortal sin, then.

So every action: every breath you take, every move you make… every step you take must be rendered to God. Into thy hands I commend…

Accompanying

JMJ

WHEN I ENTERED the Church in 2002 my Spiritual Father, Victor Sokolov (may his memory be eternal!) heard my life confession which included my sexual past. He didn’t ask questions as I read off several pages of text I had written up for this. I followed a preparation for confession that I found online, drawn up by St Cosmas Aitolos, a Greek Monk who died in 1779. I remember it mostly because it asks (among all the other questions), “Did I smoke too much?” It seemed funny to me, an ex-smoker, that there must be smoking not-too-much. It’s that question, though, that we’ll keep coming back to. Did I smoke too much? I had been a pack-a-day smoker in college. Although by this time I was pretty much done, sorta, with smoking. When the Confession was over, Father pointed to the pages and said, “Now, burn those and forget that ever happened.” Would that it was that easy for smoking or any of the other sins on the list.

A Spiritual Father (in the Eastern Church) is rather like a Spiritual Director in the west: someone who shines a light on the way, who taps you on the shoulder and calmly suggests another way to proceed. There are some who seem to think they must require “obedience” of their spiritual children, but that’s an unhealthy bond. Fr V told me one “I’m no starets. If you want one of those, go to a monastery.” Starets means “Elder”. What he was, though, was a Father to me who (like all good fathers) was able to let one make mistakes in order to learn how not to make them any more.

My experience over the last 20 years (thank God for his patience) has been that a couple of sins have come back over and over. Smoking is one – although that’s more of a class of sins: damaging the temple of the body that God gave me: bad stewardship of a generous gift. I’ve gone from over-indulgence to judgmentalism and scrupulosity on this, back and forth across a spectrum until I have reached a place where my conscience is at peace both with those who smoke and with the occasional pipe or cigar on my own part: all God’s gifts are good, when used as they should be. Addiction is not using a gift as it should be used. It’s letting passion take over. We cannot heal that, cannot return the gift to its rightful place until we let reason take over our passions and let the virtue of temperance be inculcated in our heart by the Holy Spirit.

The close reader will notice that I used language from the Catechism there. All of our falls from grace function the same way: a good gift from God is used in ways that it should not be, doing so inflames our passions, and quickly the misuse of the gift becomes an addiction. The Catechism uses this language, speaking of Temperance, in ¶2341 while discussing Chastity.

¶2339 Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. the alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end.”

¶2340 Whoever wants to remain faithful to his baptismal promises and resist temptations will want to adopt the means for doing so: self-knowledge, practice of an ascesis adapted to the situations that confront him, obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, and fidelity to prayer. “Indeed it is through chastity that we are gathered together and led back to the unity from which we were fragmented into multiplicity.”

¶2341 The virtue of chastity comes under the cardinal virtue of temperance, which seeks to permeate the passions and appetites of the senses with reason.

¶2342 Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence.

¶2343 Chastity has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfection and too often by sin. “Man . . . day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.”

¶2344 Chastity represents an eminently personal task; it also involves a cultural effort, for there is “an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.” Chastity presupposes respect for the rights of the person, in particular the right to receive information and an education that respect the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life.

¶2345 Chastity is a moral virtue. It is also a gift from God, a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort. The Holy Spirit enables one whom the water of Baptism has regenerated to imitate the purity of Christ.

Rather than rules, the discussion is one of growth, of acquisition of virtue, and of respect for the process working out in the person’s life.

Such sins are another that haunt me. Within a year of confessing to Fr Victor I was living with a partner and had come to terms with the mental and theological gymnastics it took to make that happen. Then I said to Fr Victor I had to leave SF: because this part of my past kept calling me back. Notice please that I didn’t feel a need to do anything except to move away to fix the issue. For a very long time (several years) I was pretty safe in the Mountain Fastness I had selected (Asheville, NC) but the Internet was also getting more and more social. Eventually, I “met” someone online and the whole game was once again afoot.

The life of Saint Mary of Egypt (d. AD 522) is read as part of Matins in the Byzantine and Orthodox churches on Thursday of the 5th week of Lent. 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, St Zosimas, who heard the story from the Saint’s own lips. What follows is not the liturgical text – available online in many places. This is my own retelling. 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 background. I imagine that she was poor because she is not averse to manual labor. She busied herself with spinning flax, basket weaving, and other such jobs. She says 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 and culture marriage often took place at the same age, and in those days life expectancy was not then what it is now. Mary is not a child here. She is a girl in her sexual prime doing what youth often do.

In telling the story, Mary was at pains to say she was not a prostitute. 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 in mid September. Mary asked to go with them not for any pious pursuit, implying rather that it seemed 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-with-benefits, she went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. 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 realized she was not alone and grace cause it to dawn 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 – and she was not held back. She knelt and kissed the holy wood whereupon hung the price of all of our lives and souls and, most dearly, hers.

As 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 reports that 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 another 40 or so 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. She had won her struggle, receiving so much grace from God that she lived in this world partly as the Angels do in the next. She had grown – over decades – into Self Mastery.

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 across 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 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 was moved to tears. 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: in fact I identified “myself” as this very thing. Her story had always told me there was hope, a way out, there was not only the chance of change but also the grace-filled reality of it. Then, one year, doing the liturgical service of a lector, I came to the part where she said, “I am amazed, Abba… that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls. But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him.” And it hit me that I was speaking for myself. I was unable to finish my reading and a friend seeing my distress stepped in while I went to the corner and wept.

Had I really gone (at that point) nearly 15 years since entering the Church without realizing my sins were selfish, causing the fall of others as well as myself?

Yes.

Was God really merciful, desiring not the death of a sinner but his conversion?

Yes. And more.

The Church recognizes that to cut someone off from her sacraments because they are not pure enough is to desire the death of sinner as certainly as it would be to bless them in their sins. Both are taking the easy way out, failing to believe in and support the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those he seeks to convert. Beginning with Fr Victor, no priest has ever sent me away: each instead has called me to conversion in love – even when I refused to understand or pretended to be ignorant of what that conversion meant. This is how Fr V and so many other priests have accompanied me on my journey: carefully making sure I stayed on my journey, although I am no where near finished. They call me to

Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life… though self-knowledge, practice of an ascesis adapted to the situations that confront him, obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, and fidelity to prayer.

There are those in the Church who respond to sexual sins in one of two ways: they either ignore these sins by condoning them or they demand instant resolution and purity. Either these sins do not matter, or else they matter too much. We want someone to be “fixed” before they enter the Church, or we say such language is outdated and must be changed. We want to refuse admittance to those who do not fully understand the consequences of their reception. We deny the power of the sacraments, of Christ himself, working in the lives of the persons so rejected. And we refuse to see the working out of salvation, wanting people to be cured before they ever enter the hospital. Both of these groups are afraid of risk.

Those who fit into the first group often want to justify other things as well: their own sins or other changes to doctrine and tradition. They may disguise it as a need for “justice” but what they want is to be Anglicans who can pick and choose from a list of doctrines as they would from a buffet table at the Golden Corral. They may even want to pick things up for now but put them back later ad libitum. They are afraid to risk the possibility that the ancient ways might be truth – that they may, themselves, be required to follow them. They also fear our secular world’s confusion of “tough love” with hate. Those in the second group are afraid that they will be contaminated by impurity. They are also afraid that by letting in “Those People” the church will be made to change her teaching – as if that was possible at all. They are afraid they will be damned for loving too much as if there was such a thing. For love – real Love – can never be “too much”. Both groups, in their risk aversion, will only love so much: only to a point. Both groups trip up the weaker brother who need conversion and can only get there by love.

We need Christians that will love so much that they teach what the Church teaches, and are not afraid either to say those teachings out loud. Nor are they afraid to forgive those who do not yet fully embody those teachings. We need Spiritual Fathers and Mothers, elder Brother and Sisters in the faith. This is real accompaniment: to walk with, equally guiding and guarding in love, bringing the Christian to self-mastery.

The Undragoning

JMJ

IAM CRUCIFIED with Christ,” said St Paul. “Yet I live, not I but Christ who lives in me.” What is “I” here? Who is crucified? Certainly St Paul had endured a lot in his life after conversion – scourgings, stonings, shipwrecks, hunger, homelessness, long labors. I’m sure there were nights of hunger on the road as well, and times of loneliness. The Epistles document some emotional turmoil as well: riffs with friends and coworkers, trouble with disciples and the Church. If Paul had an Irish mother she would say, “Offer it up!” But Paul says, “I am crucified”. What gets nailed down?

In CS Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader there is the story of Eustace, the boy who was turned into a dragon. Finally, Eustace is saved from being a dragon by Aslan, the savior lion. Aslan takes Eustace-the-Dragon to a lake to bathe and, for a while he lets the dragon wash himself and scrape off the old scales. Then finally, Aslan takes matters into his own paws and begins to rip the dragon-ishness off of Eustace, layer by layer. At the end of the “undragoning of Eustace” he’s a boy again, finally able to rejoin his friends as a human. He’s been helping them as a dragon up til now, though – flying around and lifting heavy things like a dragon can do, starting fires to keep people warm, and the like. But now, as a boy, he can return to them as an equal. Thing was, he didn’t want to be a dragon: although he was one for ever so long. He wanted to be human again.

Only humans can be crucified with Christ: dragons cannot be.

When you were conceived your father’s sperm joined your mother’s egg. They fused together, and in that instant, God created for you a spirit which flamed to life and, from that moment you are half Mom’s DNA and half Dad’s DNA and 100% God’s. This is your heart: it’s always with you. Your beingness is this. In the last day, your body and spirit will still be. This cannot be undone for, for God, un-being is a quality he cannot have. And since your being arises in him, being you shall always be. This is the heart of humanness: this union of spirit and body that is half Mom, half Dad, and fully God. The thing is, from that moment, for all of us, there is something that keeps us from connecting to it, something that keeps us from entering this heart and doing the one thing that we need to do – which is offer it to God. Yes, God is there, dwelling at the core of our being, like it or not, for it cannot be otherwise for any being. (The demons know this about themselves and loathe the knowledge and their very selves.) But God, at the core of our being, waits for us to come to him.

To do so we must be undragoned.

Some of our dragon layers are things we made up: ideas about who we are and how we present ourselves to the world. Some of these layers are things the world did to us: our parents, schools, pop-science, bad theology, and politics. Some of these layers are the results of our sins: fake ideas of self built on false foundations, then facades added, and layers of plaster to hold the facade in place, and huge flying buttresses to hold the plaster, and then finally giant works of art applied to the outside to make everything look pretty. We are Gothic cathedrals of fake selves. When we come to Christ, we hope to worship God in this temple – God welcomes us just as we are! But we soon discover this temple we built is the first thing that has to go. We take some art down, we take some arches away and say, “Now it’s ok”. But God says, “More.” OK, let me open the doors and rearrange the seating. But God only says, “More.”

Eventually, we realize that we must offer the whole thing to the Divine Demolition Artist and he begins to tear it down. Each removal, each destruction will hurt like hell. It will feel like we’re finally being crucified. We’re finally offering everything to God. But dragons (our fake selves) cannot be crucified. Only humans can be. Each removal is only preparation for more demolition, each departure of some well-beloved thing of merely-sinful beauty is only the prepwork.

This can take forever. It’s the whole purpose of Purgatory: but we can let God start on this now, if we dare.

In the end, and only by God’s power, we can be fully undragoned. Only then, devoid of our false layers, can we be crucified.

7LW: Telos

JMJ

This is the sixth in a series of posts on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post.

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 intervention: 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 man that is 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 channeled by the scientist). 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 since 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. 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. In the Fall our ability to do so is lost. We hear other communications, other voices – our passions, from the world around us, 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 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. 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 gives the clue: Τετέλεσται tetelestai, fulfilled – brought to its proper conclusion or use.

Adam and Eve were not yet “adult” 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.

The Cross is God dragging us out of puberty into adulthood, bringing us to our Telos. We can decide to keep running around doing whatever we want, or, 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.

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.

7LW: Thirst

JMJ

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. I used this same text last year: but I was limited to a five-minute talk. This is the director’s cut, slightly up-dated because it’s a year later. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post. I’m late on this one. I had a term paper for Church History. Sorry!

I thirst.

MANY OF US as children have woken up at night and asked for a glass of water. Maybe as a parent our child wakes up and asks: Mommy, can I have a glass of water?

These words of our Lord, “I thirst” sound like that same cry.

We wake at night, in the dark, alone, afraid: and we really want Mommy. But “I’m thirsty” is what we say: it makes sense, it’s the feeling we have: our mouth is dry, our throat constricted. As a child, in the night, we don’t have exact words for it so I must be thirsty. But as adults we know what causes it: in the middle of the night, fear is what wakes us up.

No adult says, at that point, “Mommy, can I have some water?” Adults lay in bed and have a panic attack or get out of bed and take more meds: we have to get up to work tomorrow. We deal with the fear in our ways, looking out in the darkness and letting the tapes play over and over in our head.

I thirst.

The eternal, Triune God, in the Second Person in Human Flesh, is crying out because of a dry mouth, part of the whole Flight or Fight thing that the same God built into us for our protection.

This is God’s human weakness. Flight or fight, impossible with both feat and hands nailed down. Unable to even care for one’s needs like a child.

The God who made water. Who made mouths. Who made the nervous system. This God is afraid. This God is thirsty. This God… is about to die.

Was one of the first words ever taught to the Baby, the Word learning words, “yisemeh” – the Aramaic for “Thirsty”? His mother, standing there at the foot of the cross, hears her own baby again crying out “yisemeh”.

There is an icon, much beloved, called “Our Lady of Perpetual Help.” In the East it is called the Theotokos of the Passion. In it the child, Jesus, is held in Mary’s arms. About his head, two angels holding the instruments of the passion fly. One sandal is flopping loose because he didn’t tie it on. The story is that Jesus, the child, had a dream of his passion and cross and, waking up in fear. He ran to his mother for protection.

Eemma…Mommy… Yisemeh!

There is another, not so well known icon, the Akhtyr Icon of the Theotokos. Mary has much the same posture as in the Perpetual help icon, but Jesus is not in her arms.

Yisemeh!

Brothers and Sisters. This is love.

In this time of danger.
In this time of death.
In this time of fear.

God knows… we are all thirsty. We cannot have the chalice. Some of us still cannot even come to mass. We cannot touch to hug, to hold, or shake hands. This is a crucifixion for us. Some do this for safety, but we do not do this out of fear: rather it is out of love for our neighbor, for those who are weakest among us, for those who are most vulnerable.

Our hands are held back, our heart breaks, our love restrains us. Touch – when touch is most needed…

We thirst! We cry out to our mother, the Church who stands by watching and weeping for us.

Our God knows and understands: this is love.

In this time of danger.
In this time of death.
In this time of fear.

Christ our God has been here before us. Become of love, he has faced in mortal flesh, fear and death.

And Jesus has the victory.

We thirst with him today…
He will make us victorious with him.

7LW: Eloi

JMJ

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post. I’m late on this one. I had a termpaper for Church History. Sorry!

My God, My God why hast Thou forsaken me.

ONE Hears That when you die, your “life passes before your eyes”. I have wondered about Jesus’ memory on the Cross. What was he thinking there, at that time. Put aside the spiritual issue of salvation and the theological issues of the God-Man and passion. In the excruciating pain of steal in your hands and feet and side, of raw wood ripping at the open wounds on your back, of the gashes on your head; in the derision of the masses, the blood and sweat burning in your eyes that you cannot touch, the nakedness of your body before gentile soldiers laughing at your circumcision, and your mother horrified before you and weeping, what the actual can you be thinking? Did Jesus life pass before his eyes?

As a human baby with no words and a gelatinous brain, Jesus would have no memory of that first night in the cave, of the angels singing, of the shepherds, of the Magi. My earliest memory is at about 14 months, so I’ll project that on the God-Man as a child: so maybe, by the time Herod dies? Jesus might remember leaving Egypt for Nazareth. Then there are sketchy memories from 1.5 years to 1st Grade. I don’t remember 2nd and 3rd grade at all, although I remember things at home in that time. By 4th Grade, though, I have a more concrete collection of memories and this continues up through college, pretty much, although a friend or two will point out (as I blog) that my memories are not always the same ones they have.

Jesus has a human memory. What passes through his mind now? Does Jesus think back and wonder, Where did I go wrong? Were things much simpler in Egypt? Things were easier in Nazareth. I was making good things happen in Capernaum.

I have a tendency to flash back to earlier times and think, “What if I could go back there and fix this?” The other day I had sort of a mental flashback to the mid 90s when the tv show Absolutely Fabulous was very popular. It was also controversial because it was too dark and a bit risque for television. I was not a fan because it highlighted all of our darker sides and created anti-heroes out of the two main characters and, eventually, out of literally all the show. But that’s nowhere near as dark as the evening news, now. Remember when times were that simple? Everything has been downhill since AbFab. Actually, for me, the proper time of TV is in the 70s, with MASH, Mary Tyler Moore,and All in the Family. Maude was pretty brilliant, too. And all of those were pretty risque for their time. But in today’s world of fantasy fetish porn Game of Thrones and sex-murder cult American Horror Story, and death soap-operas, Walking Dead and True Blood (you can tell when I stopped watching current TV now) even the cop dramas of the 70s feel like Sunday School material.

Times were simpler then – and for me. The worst I had to worry about was, Had I done my homework and will Mom notice I only rinsed the dishes and wiped them before I put them away? Time to watch Mork and Mindy!

Why did I ever leave Nazareth? Right now, pierced hands and feet, blood, sweat and tears, what is going trough Jesus mind?

Before college, the summer after graduation, I had a breakdown. Mom found me sitting in a dark office crying. The last thing I wanted to do was leave home. I think it’s the last time I remember being “Mom-ed” as she came over and held me, and just let me cry. 39 years later, I know things were simpler before that time. Mom’s computer on which I typed all my college term papers, was orange text on a black screen. Although it was only set up to be a word processor, I could make it do other things by writing programming in basic. To the amazement of my mom’s boss, the list of all 6 digit numbers that could be pulled in the lottery filled pages and pages of text proving, “the lottery is a tax on the mathematically challenged.” We still pull only 6 numbers (some things never change) but no one bats an eye at a $4,000,000 pot anymore.

I could have stayed in Bethany. Lazarus is a good friend, no one would care if I took up fishing with Peter… but I don’t like fishing. I could have stayed wood working with Dad.

But I have this thing to do.

College was a huge mistake – expensive, unneeded, and undirected. My 30 years in customer service have taught me much more than all the classes I took except for my classes in Western Civ and Religion. I learned how to research and argue my points in those classes – skills that I have needed all along. And, in a class on Judaism, I learned that Jesus would have been able to eat cheeseburgers – because the whole meat and dairy thing wasn’t a thing yet. Even ancient religions evolve.

Lazarus makes good cheeseburgers.

We all have this mission though. St Thomas refers to the processions of the Word and of Love in God. The Word proceeds from the Father, and the Love proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Word incarnate in the world, the Love flowing out through all of us who are now the Body of the Son. We, too, process. Mission is the action of Love in the world through the Body of the Word.

Nothing is simple. At all. We try to discern through consolations, though peace, through “knowing this is the right thing to do…” but that’s not the answer. I should go until God tells me to stop… would have had Jesus not on the cross. Goodness gracious, I would still be in the 70s watching Brady Bunch and eating Pilsbury Food Sticks. (I used to twist together the orange and chocolate ones.)

If we rip out our desire for peace, for comfort, for consolations that make us feel good, though, where does that leave us? We bravely walk forward on Mission and God never tells us to stop.

And then we die.

And still we die.

Did Jesus remember everything or was some of it a bit fuzzy now, and more so with the lack of oxygen. Did he realize the only way forward is to just keep walking?

And die.

I don’t hear Jesus’ cry as one of despair or even loss. It’s a teaching moment.

This is where all of us humans end up – sometimes daily. We have to reach a point beyond which all we have is faith.

Then we have to keep walking as we realize the only choice is turning back (not possible, really, and still likely to lead to death) or go forward (and die).

Let’s roll.

The Mystery of Relationship

JMJ

This is part of a series of posts on the invocations of the Jesus Psalter. There is a menu of these posts at the bottom. The invocations will be considered thematically.

Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, grant me grace to fear thee
Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, grant me grace to love thee

THERE ARE SEVERAL Of the invocations that ask for the “grace” to do something. As a Protestant I learned that grace stands for “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”. You can cringe for a few moments now, I’ll wait. That constant idea that God beat up Jesus for Us comes to haunt us though – even Catholic cannot get away from it. The image of the old school teacher Nun telling St Bernadette how stupid she is, or the idea that telling a lie is pushing one of the thorns deeper in Our Lord’s head on the Cross… we fail to understand what “because of our sins” means here. We fail to understand Grace, Fear, and Love as well.

Grace is God: Grace is God’s divine presence acting in our life. Because God is infinitely simple, two possible to separate God’s grace from God. This is divine simplicity: we cannot separate God’s actions from God’s person, from God’s very self. God acting in your life is not an abstract but his presence. When we ask for the grace to do something we are not asking for some sort of superpower like x-ray vision or being able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound. By asking for Grace we are opening our self to participation in the Divine action in the world. So what then is this grace to fear? And why do we contrast it with this grace to love? Do we contrast these?

One wants to call to mind 1 John 4:8, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” So how can we pray for the grace to fear and then as part of the same prayer, ask for the grace to love? Would they not cancel each other out?

If you are married or in a relationship at this time, think back. If you’ve ever been married or dating someone, you can think back as well: to your first date. In fact, if we’re honest, the first five or six dates will probably fit this pattern. How long did you date before you were comfortable with, pardon me, farting in front of them? I mean we all do so – we’re humans, we eat food, gas happens. But there’s a fear of doing so in public, in front of strangers. Some scientists think that in terms of social evolution, these released body scents were a way of saying “we’re all safe here” and so the fear may not be humorous so much as an unwillingness to include strangers in a cloud of knowing and being known. But, silliness aside, we hate to do so on dates. Even though, at some point, it happens.

A less silly thing: how long did you date before you stopped cleaning your apartment when they came over?

This is fear.

I don’t mean that you were afraid they’d find out you farted or had a messy apartment. Rather you were afraid to hurt the new relationship by being too – what? – too human? too normal? too natural? too “me”?

As stilted as that part of the relationship seems, it’s also the part that gets turned into Romance Novels and RomComs, into comedy routines and famous country music duets. We know that we all grow out of this stage, but there’s something real and endearing about it. And, when we’ve been married for 50 years and have long ago stopped worrying about farting in front of each other, we still clean the house for a romantic dinner.

This balance of love and fear is the mystery of relationship not just with our lover or our friends, not just with other humans, but also with God.

Jesus is our Creator, our King, and our Judge. Jesus is also our Brother, our Saviour, and our Friend. We enter into relationship with him only aware of all of these aspects. One dursn’t fart in front of King. One cares not if one farts in front of a friend. (Carsn’t should be a thing…) One holds on to both of these aspects in all of life. Fear and love balance out, in a way. Our sins should horrify us, as the Act of Contrition say, not only because we are afraid of the pains of Hell, but “because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.” And each of these can be real, fear and love, God our Judge, and our Friend is the same person.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), but wisdom doesn’t stop there. She draws us closer and closer to God until his perfect love drives out our fear entirely. As in any healthy relationship, we cannot skip over the awareness that we can break it – but as the love grows more closely to wrap us ever deeper, we also find that we become like our beloved. Until we are like the two elders sitting on a park bench in June, quietly holding hands.

But if one farts, they will still giggle.

Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, esto mihi, Jesu.

Jesus Psalter Menu
Introduction
The Mystery of Mercy
The Mystery of Relationship
The Mystery of Reality

7LW: Behold

JMJ

This is the third in a series of posts on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post.

Behold Your Mother.

IWONDER ALWAYS Why Jesus took this moment to address his Mother as “woman”. In the gasping asphyxiation of the Cross, was woman easier to say and be heard than mother? Was Attha (woman) a mishearing of Amma (mother) pronounced when one gasps? What is clear though is that in the next line he calls this woman Mother giving her to John the Beloved and through him to us.

Over the Altar of Byzantine Churches there is often an icon called Our Lady of the Sign: Mary with her arms raised in intercession while Our Lord, from within her womb as a child, raises his hands in benediction over the Altar and the unbloodied sacrifice of the Eucharist. Mary is a sign of the Whole Church, raising our hands in prayer at the altar while Christ, our God, blesses the world.

What does it mean to have Mary as our Mother, to have the Church as our Mother?

For 2,000 years each of us have wrestled with the meaning of this question. The Church Fathers are very clear: “He who does not have the Church as his mother cannot have God as his father.” (St Augustine.) Behold your mother.

How each of us hears this command to “Behold” will be predicated on our journey to her. For some our mother will look like calm statues of Our Lady of Grace that can be ignored or sat in a corner while life goes on. For some she will look like Our Lady of Guadalupe, gazing out at us with the eyes of our own people, even though our people are ignored or even oppressed by the Church. For some our Mother will stand with open arms like the Miraculous Medal, while for others she will be so angry as to cry in silence like Our Lady of La Salette. She may be a beautiful woman radiating peace like Our Lady of Lourdes, or she may reveal hell to us, like Our Lady of Fatima. Going further back – especially if we’re not from these parts – Our Mother may seem like a stern Queen or a giggling maiden.

What each of us sees in our Mother the Church, our Mother Mary, we will also see in our own hearts.

Behold your Mother, Jesus says to us. We may see a mother like one of the ancient Goddesses, or we may see a mother like a mid-century Sitcom. We may see Boadicea or we may see Olivia Hussey. We may see a strident ruler like Victoria or an outdated stereotype like Bea Arthur. What we see when we behold our mother, though, will tell us more about ourselves than about either Mary or the Church – for they are the same.

The Church is the Body of Christ, born of Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit. This is no more a metaphor, no more a symbol, than the Eucharist. Our Mother stands across time and eternity, across space and heaven and yet is here, in the in the present, in the person sitting next to you in pew and in your own heart. CS Lewis’ Uncle Screwtape lets us into the secret:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew…. 

….Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His ‘free’ lovers and servants—’sons’ is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to ‘do it on their own’. And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt….

Behold your Mother. That is, Homer. Or the Church.

See, the issue is that “Our Mother” really is that blundering idiot sitting in the pew next to you, socially distant and holding to the Amen far too long at the end of every prayer or corralling six kids who will not sit still, or wearing all the wrong clothes for Mass. Did they bother to shower before coming from their overnight gig?

Behold your mother.

This is God saving the world and you have but one duty: give your life away for them as Jesus did.

Even if Mom is a bit tarted up with felt banners.

The Virtual Field Trip

JMJ

HOMEWORK for Church History class with Dr Kevin Clarke. The assignment was to select some art from the Web Gallery of Art, to learn how to use that tool, and to write a brief comment, including why this art, something learned about the artist, and how to use it in a parish ministry. I tended to feel like I was writing for the BBC’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” I noted to Dr Clarke that I’ve not had to do this sort of work since failing “Art in the Dark” at NYU in 1983. I hope this is better…

This was the first time I’ve seen the wings closed (as far as I know). Ornate altars like this were often closed in Lent and Advent. The presence of the Annunciation icons on the outside of the closed wings struck me because the Annunciate is always in Lent. Advent, too, is a good time to see these images. 

I would use this in a discussion of liturgical art: why we veil statues in Lent/Holy Week.

This factoid has endeared him to my heart: he signed some art ALS ICH KAN (As I (Eyck) can), a pun on his name, which he typically painted in Greek characters. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_van_Eyck  retrieved on 7 March 2020).

In the Biblical text, Judith is alone with the general passed out. In this image, she is not alone so I had to look that up. 

Turns out that showing Judith with her maid was an iconographic tradition intended to distinguish her from Salome. Wikipedia says, “In European art, Judith is very often accompanied by her maid at her shoulder, which helps to distinguish her from Salome, who also carries her victim’s head on a silver charger (plate). However, a Northern tradition developed whereby Judith had both a maid and a charger, famously taken by Erwin Panofsky as an example of the knowledge needed in the study of iconography.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_beheading_Holofernes retrieved on 7 Mar 2021.)

This would be useful in a discussion of the “other books” which don’t get so much playtime – even in the liturgy. Also, this would go well in a discussion of the place of women in our tradition.

In researching Caravaggio I found discussions of his presumed “sexuality” to be very interesting. Calling the artist “gay” or “queer” seems to reveal more about the attitudes of the writer as there was no such category of human being in Caravaggio’s culture or the Church’s understanding. I can imagine a very adult class on this topic: eroticism in art, or in the Church’s art. The artist’s use of chiaroscuro can be contrasted with the ample light used for the same effect in the work of the next artist, Fra Angelico.

This image caught my eye because of the ways it does not follow the iconographic tradition. Normally Jesus is depicted holding the Virgin’s soul while surrounded by angels as if he is standing outside of time. However here he is clearly standing next to the Apostles, in the world, as it were. I’m not certain of the artist’s intent, but the idea of Jesus coming to his mother’s death in this world is very moving.

Bl. John has a feast on the OP calendar which has three alternative readings for the Office of Readings on 18 February. The third one, “especially for prayer with a group of artists,” says the Blessed’s art depicts …[t]he ideal world, radiant with the aura of peace, holiness, harmony, and joy. Its reality lies in the future when ultimate justice will triumph over a new earth and new heavens. Yet this gentle and blessed world can even now come to life in the recesses of human souls, and it is to them he offers it, inviting them to enter in. It is this invitation which seems to us to be the message of Fra Angelico entrusts to his art, confident that it will thus be effectively spread... If its content and aim are such as Fra Angelico gave his painting, then art rises to the dignity almost of a minister of God, reflecting a greater number of perfections. We should like to point out to artists, who are ever dear to us, this sublime possibility of art. 

(The Venerable Pope Pius XII, opening an exhibition of art by Fra Angelico at the Vatican on 20 April 1955. Quoted in, Liturgy of the Hours – Propers for the Order of Preachers Revised Edition, 2019, Dominican Liturgy Productions, Oakland, CA.)

I would use this painting in a class on the evolution of the iconographic tradition a discussion point: he is only one generation after Giotto and the latter’s work is more like traditional icons. 

These two works come together because my piety leans heavily on the Incarnation as revolution: the God who feeds us all is fed by the virgin whom he made, God the Word who cannot speak, God the creator of all who has dirty diaper; the God of life who dies, the king who is willingly wounded by his subjects. This humble submission of God to the need for his creation’s salvation is very moving to me.

I was intrigued at the idea of tempera painting being moved from wood to canvas. That led me down a rabbit warren of artistic trivia! 

I’ve never been clear if Dürer was a Catholic or a Protestant – his works seem popular with both groups. So reading up on this was another trip down a series of tubes. The Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent says this theory is rejected (https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05209c.htm retrieved on 7 March 2021.) Sed Contra, the Lutherans claim his as their own, for ex: I think it can be safely said that Dürer, at the end of his earthly life, was steadfastly in the Lutheran camp. – Deaconess Carolyn S. Brinkley (https://lutheranreformation.org/history/four-holy-men-albrecht-durers-confession-faith/)

Certainly, for much of his life, he was Catholic, though. It is a profoundly Catholic sensibility that he brings to Protestant Bibles using his engravings. It would be interesting to use his work along with Leonardo’s in a discussion of how Catholicism might reach out – artistically – to evangelize Protestants. 

7LW: Today

JMJ

This is the second in a series of posts on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post.

Today you will be with me in Paradise.

PUT YOURSELF ON THE CROSS next to Jesus there. We want to imagine our self as, perhaps, “The Wise Thief” and we impart all virtue to him and pray we can be like him. The Byzantine Liturgy has a hymn called an Exapostalarian sung on Good Friday, “The Wise Thief, thou didst make worthy of paradise in a single moment,” but put yourself in the theif’s place. I mean really.

When you’re honest with yourself, do you recognize your sinfulness? I mean really honest with yourself. I don’t mean, right now, while you’re reading these words but rather, over all the course of your life, are you honestly aware of all the missteps? And, perhaps, if you are like me, you not only have “missteps” but outright rejections or even betrayals that weigh on your mind, your heart. Do you lay awake at night and say, “What was I thinking?” Are there times when you point at your misspent youth and chuckle and say “Wow, I was a fool.” But then other times you wonder, “Did I break everything then? Was I such a fool that that can’t be fixed”

We might look at ourselves in the mirror of our lives and see, in the past, was I so in the employ of darkness that even now I cannot enter the light.

And Jesus whispers to us, “Today you shall be with me.”

Imagine hearing these words – entirely unexpectedly – after having said, “I deserve this.” That’s exactly what the Thief said, “I totally messed up and I deserve this crucifixion. I deserve this public humiliation. I deserve this pain. I deserve this blood. This suffocation.” So, the thief knows exactly the kind of man he is. “Today…”

Is there doubt now? For knowing who you are, what you are, what you were in the past, what you may even now crave to still be… of course there is doubt.

CS Lewis puts this doubt even into Narnian Paradise where a dead Calormene soldier (the “bad guys”) finds himself in the Heavenly garden at the end of The Last Battle. I don’t want to unpack the theology because there is a controversy that is not the point of this essay, but – even standing in Paradise – the Wise Calormene doubts he should be there.

Is that you? It’s me.

How can this God who knows not only everything I ever did – or even ever will do, who knows how I rejected him, blasphemed him, denied him in public (and in private); how can this God whose very pains, wounds, suffocation, and bleeding were, in ways I cannot understand, caused by my actions say to me, “Today.”

This is the cost of love: not Jesus’ pains, but you letting go of your doubt. That is the cost of Love. If you love Jesus, it’s ok to be honest about yesterday but also to let go of your doubts about today.

Trust is such a hard thing to gain, but even harder to extend. We sort of want a vengeful God. We want him to be judgy and spiteful. Of course we usually want that directed at others, at our enemies, but in our more self-reflective moments that same vengeful and spiteful God should be directed at us, right? For, in the first person, if anyone deserves that treatment it’s me.

When the Wise Thief heard the word today what did he think? Did he leaned back and relax on the wood of his cross? I doubt that. The nails were still as painful the air still as hard to grasp in lungs constricted by crucifixion. Did he suddenly wonder if he was crucified next to a crazy man? Paradise in the middle of all of this? Scripture doesn’t say. We should not interpolate.

But for me, for you, we have both heard the word today, just now. And like the thief we have the rest of our lives before us to contemplate what that means.

Denial of the reality can sound like we’re being spiritually mature. We can make a “humble brag” and say something pious like Domine, non sum dignus as we thumb our chests. But God wants to move us one step further along. It’s not enough to be aware of your sins, to know that you deserve what’s coming to you. When Jesus prayed, a moment ago, “Father, forgive them.” He included you.

And now he offers you Paradise.

Not pie in the sky by and by when you die. But Today. We see heaven each time we see Mass. We touch eternity each time the host enters our body. Will you deny it or open up to it?

Trust is hard to earn – but even harder to extend. Really. Paradise. You need only trust and it’s yours. Today.