Thoughts on the First Christmas 

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift was given

That God imparts to human hearts the wonder of his heaven.

                           “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

         There are competing ideas as to the exact date of Jesus’ birth. For the early Church it was tempting to assimilate the Christian story into the Roman holidays, especially the winter festival known as Saturnalia. On the other hand there is an independent tradition deriving from St. Hippolytus that names December 25 as the birthdate of the Savior.

         It’s important not to confuse the noble liturgical commemoration of Christmas with the general merrymaking of the winter festival–a confusion that persists until this day. Like so much in early Christianity the date is imprecise, but we can be sure that the first Christmas celebration grew from the liturgy and its proper celebration of Christ’s birth.

         The actual date of the birth of the Messiah went unannounced and uncelebrated, unless, of course, one claims the advent of the three magi, strange Easterners on tall camels bearing them across the Syrian desert or perhaps up the caravan route from Petra. We are told only that they journeyed long, bearing gifts and following His star. Their presentation of the precious gold, frankincense, and myrrh, as far as we know, was brief and austere, with the magi returning home while their story went on to claim a place in the medieval history of Christmas.             

         Only in its occurrence could the prophetic voice have been justified. The prophet Michah two hundred years earlier had foretold the birth of the Savior in the little town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). And earlier than that, perhaps five hundred years earlier, Isaiah foretold of one who would bear the wounds of his people (42). The great prophets, Jeremiah (31:31-34), Isaiah ( 44:1-9), and Joel (2:28-29) prophesied a new covenant under whose terms God’s people would receive new hearts, their sins forgiven, themselves made fit subjects of the covenant of grace to replace the old covenant–recalled twice in the letter to the Hebrews:  “I will be their God and they shall be my people . . . I will be merciful toward their iniquities and I will remember their sins no more (Hebrews 8:1-12; 10:16-18).

          Those listening might have discerned that things were coming to a head. The normative prophetic tradition had reached a full stop; a bronze plaque affixed to the temple wall declared:  There is now no prophet in Israel.  The priest Zechariah, taking his turn at the altar of incense, was warned by the angel Gabriel that his much-desired son was to receive not a family name but the name John. After that an angel appeared to Mary to explain to her that she was to be the mother of the Messiah, true God and true man, but these things she kept in her own heart.

          There was the expectation that one was coming who would heal the sick, liberate the captives, and give sight to the blind. On a certain day the son of Mary went to the synagogue in Nazareth, asked for the Isaiah scroll, and read aloud:  

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

    because the Lord has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

    to proclaim freedom for the captives

    and release from darkness for the prisoners,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

    and the day of vengeance of our God,

to comfort all who mourn,

    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty

    instead of ashes,

the oil of joy

    instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise

    instead of a spirit of despair.

         Thus began the revolution in the grace-enabled bearing, sharing, and suffering. and praise, marking the days between Jesus’ reading from Isaiah in Nazareth and the day he hung on the cross in Jerusalem. He could have ordered legions of angels to come to his aid, but he did not.  He could have commanded the two swords to free him from the high priests’ officers, but he did not. He could have claimed the title rabbi but he did not. He told his disciples not to construct hierarchies of power as the Gentiles did, but to wash one another’s feet as he had done.

         Out of the body of his teaching emerged the principle: it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict wrong on others. Once, only once, he was indignant at the abuse of his Father’s house. Most suitably the sacrament he left us calls us to share in his suffering as well as in his glory, enabling us by grace to share in his life.  

         Since the early second century the Church has written and spoken as though Jeus had a time and place. He was born in Bethlehem of Judea and crucified under Pontius Pilate. At some point, perhaps in the early third century, perhaps the unremitting pressure from the bodiless, timeless, placeless gnostic connection revived interest in the date of the Savior’s birth.                 

         Not unnaturally, the Church had begun to celebrate the great events of Jesus’ life at times made convenient by the great Roman holidays, though the process remained controversial. The winter festival in December came to be assimilated to the celebration of Christ’s birth. Nine months before Christmas the Feast of the Annunciation marked the appearance of the angel to Mary.    Across the Christian year proper liturgical prefaces for the great events of Christ’s life began to find common usages. Gradually Christmas was celebrated with a solemnity that previously had belonged to the Easter festival.  Perhaps we will never know the date when Christmas was first celebrated with due liturgical solemnity, but whenever that was it meant that at last Jesus Christ had a birthday.

The Adventure of Living

‘Out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.
Here it is back.’
His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant!
So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant
and gather where I did not scatter?
Should you not then have put my money in the bank
so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?
Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten.
For to everyone who has,
more will be given and he will grow rich;
but from the one who has not,
even what he has will be taken away.
And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

Matthew 25:24–28

Called the Parable of the Talents because talents were a unit of economic measure preferred by the Authorized or King James Version as well as the Douay-Rheims, the story is among the best-known in the New Testament.  Its fundamental meaning is its blessing of the idea of life as adventure, specifically a moral adventure.  For the talent stands for many things: for ability, which is distributed unequally, and particularly for grace, while remembering that grace is not a quantity.   The parable can even be used to bless capitalism, which is the economic policy of adventure.  One imagines talents however one wishes as long as one recognizes that they are gifts from God the giver who expects a good return, who gathers where He did not sow.  

There is good news and bad.  The good news is the reward given the successful, to those who successfully put their talents at interest is the approval of the Master of the fields.   Also good news is the reward granted even the person who was given two talents. The master of the field recognized from the beginning that there were those who would try hard but come in second.  The kingdom of the new heart is not only for spiritual heroes, the five talent investors, but for Christians who try hard but do not make the first cut.

All this seems reasonable, perhaps even to people who do not believe.  It is when we come to the third man that our expectations are challenged.  He was as far as we know harming no one when he received the gift of one talent.   He was probably not an expert in investments.   He quite reasonably thought that he would just sit on his talent until the Master returned to pick it up, undamaged, its value intact.    But instead of a kind thank you from the Master, the third man is, upon his lord’s return, bound and cast into outer darkness, one of Jesus’ images of hell.    

Whatever a talent is in the story—and it may be many things—it presupposes the greatest gift, the gift of life. Be it so, the gift of life, like all of God’s gifts, the covenants, even the Incarnation, unsent for, obtruding itself upon a quietly dying world, belief in which divides mankind: even if we are not recipients of five talents or two, we are recipients of that one most precious gift.   It may be that on bad days we claim that we did not choose to be born.  But the gift of life like all of God’s gifts, like the covenants, like the Incarnation, is given not at our request  but at the time and in a way that expresses the perfect Providence of God and effects His will, not ours.

Given that we have received a gift we did not ask for, it is important to notice that a further apparent injustice done the third man will be the fact that the Master is expected to return, asking what each of the three recipients of His generosity has done with the gift conferred. For the gift is given on the divine hope and  expectation that the Giver will receive in  return a soul perfected in love for Him.   At the great final examination there will be no opportunity to re-schedule, to delay, or to take an alternative course.  

Perhaps it is true that at the beginning of the great opportunity called life—a gift we cannot decline–we take  up one of two attitudes; either gratitude or something else.   Gratitude may lead us through the Great Thanksgiving that is the Eucharist to the threshold of the throne of God.    The something else; willful neglect of God, cynicism, unbelief, idolatry of some pleasure or temporal good will be the implicit rejection of the Master’s command that, putting aside other fears and aspirations, we grow day by day toward the light that He is.  Only then can we be welcomed with the Master’s words, “well done.”

But there is one other chapter in this story.  The reward for undertaking the adventure, beyond the approval of the Master and His words “Well done,” is more responsibility.  “You have been faithful over a few things; I will make you master over many things.”  So those who used the gift well will not rest on their laurels but will be given more: talents, grace, responsibility

The ‘world,’ in the sense in which New Testament writers condemn it, is always opposed to the moral adventure that is the Christian life.   One of the most telling and important of the Lord’s sayings is a perfect analogy to the famous Parable of the Talents,   Jesus said he who would save his life will lose it, while he who is willing to give up his life will save it into eternity (Luke 17:33).   This is the advice the third man  needed but did not hear and did not obey.  And remember the figure of the seed, which planted in the ground only to die will be reborn in ever greater life. This, too, the third man ignored.    

And the third man keeps ignoring it, believing that one can stand aside, behaving as though they have not received the gift or denying its supreme value, pretending that it does not exist and encouraging the illusion that the Giver requires no accounting for the gift given.   The compelling lesson of the Parable of the Talents is the good news that those who take the risk and show the increase are welcomed into the pleasure of the Master, who will reward them by giving them more responsibilities.  Secondarily, entering the race for human goodness is not an optional activity. Doing nothing does not guarantee a neutral status in the war between good and evil; it enlists the deceived in the march toward outer darkness.

The testimony is that the Church respects the most feeble efforts to live life well.  In addition to making room for those who come in second, the two-talents persons, the Church recognizes the honest efforts of the mistaken who seek God and pursue righteousness under false idea of who He is, attempting to pay the debt incurred by accepting the gift of life as best they may.      

 

 

God Permits Evil

Thus says the LORD to His anointed, Cyrus,
whose right hand I grasp,
subduing nations before Him,
and making kings run in His service,
opening doors before him
and leaving the gates unbarred:
For the sake of Jacob, my servant,
of Israel, my chosen one,

Isaiah 45:1, 4–6

In BC 589 the citizens of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria were taken into captivity in Babylon, where they remained for forty years, until 539, when the army of the Assyrian king Cyrus  swept out of the east and set Israel free.  Neither their captivity nor their liberation was anticipated.  Furthermore, the liberation of Israel was accomplished by Cyrus, a heathen king, whom Isaiah calls God’s anointed.   Cyrus was a barbarian tyrant, whose action in invading the Babylonian empire was not conceived or executed in service to the God of Israel, but God used Cyrus to work His will.    God’s action is a pristine example of His  willingness to use evil to work His will for good.  Cyrus is named “God’s anointed,” The analogy is to the anointed kings of Israel, who are anointed to do God’s will.  And in achieving His will God sometimes uses those instruments that are themselves not forged in obedience to God’s will but in a determination to dominance.   Thus it is not inconceivable that the regime of National Socialism was used to bring to heel the degeneracy that is attributed to the Weimar Republic, nor is it unreasonable to believe that God used effectively godless states such as the United States to punish the Germans.   The moral meaning of these political events is always speculative; lacking the defining voice of Scripture (as in the case of Cyril) there is ambiguity as to who was on God’s side.

One thing we know with certainty.  The good God is not the author of evil; God can neither be tempted by evil nor does He tempt anyone (Jas 1:13).  That there is evil in the world is the result of the rebellion of angels in the first moment of primordial time and of men in the Garden.  Since evil exists, and since it is God’s evident will not to destroy it while time lasts, it being part of the burden that sinful mankind must bear, the government of evil must take its place in God’s providential government.  So we meet God’s management of evil not only in the events that shape history but even, and more existentially, in His permitting humans to suffer temptation.    Humankind may experience the power of evil in disease and war, but to be assaulted by temptation is our most significant and soul-endangering encounter with evil      Christ, like us in all things except sin, submitted to the temptations of the Devil, in the wilderness (Matt 4:1–11).     The Apostle Peter tells us that we must suffer many kinds of temptations in order to give proof of our faith (1 Pet 1:6). 

Begin with God’s permissive use of Satan in the story of Job, a righteous man whom God accuses of no sin, but upon whom He allowed Satan to inflict misery, permitting Satan to go so far and no further, to destroy Job’s family and property, but not to take Job’s life.  Notice that it is Satan who suggests the harassment of Job, which God then permits, Satan’s charge being that Job is God-fearing because God has blessed him:  But afflict him, says Satan, take his property, threaten his life, and he will curse you. For thirty chapters in the long book of Job, Job  is afflicted in body, his theological friends, Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar, being allowed to accuse him of at tedious length  of sin unacknowledged and unrepented, but Job never yields; he will never curse God. That might be the end of the story, but Job’s healing required something more than Job’s stubborn steadfastness. Job has withstood the test, but Job is still not healed; while he will not curse God, he will not admit the justice of God’s testing power.   The charge of Job’s three friends is: You made God unrighteous to demonstrate your righteousness. 

The issue was now clear.  Job may not be a sinner but he exemplifies pride.  God appears to Job to pound him into humility because he had not in fact accepted God’s judgment. Finally, Job finds humility, enabling him to say:  “Before I had heard of you, but now I see; I repent in dust and ashes.”  God has permitted Satan, through the three friends, to bring Job to the truth of his own pride, hence to humility, to the ability to listen to God’s voice, and to repent.       

Job’s is a great account of God’s permitting evil, let into the world by humankind, in order that good may come.  An even more dramatic example is in the Gospel account that tells us Satan entered the heart of Judas to encourage him to betray Jesus to the authorities (Luke 22:3), beginning the long march to Golgotha, where the terrible, glorious death of the Son of God made Him the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world.

         Satan can act only with God’s permission.  That he can act at all is part of God’s providential determination that while the earth endures Satan, whose proposition Adam and Eve accepted, should be allowed to roam it in search of souls  he might destroy.  Satan carries out his mission not as a minor irritant in an otherwise peaceably disposed world but as the ruler of a would-be kingdom called in Scripture “the world;”  creation and society organized as much as God will permit, under the Lordship of Satan, acting always as the ruler of the world’s darkness, the outer darkness that Jesus mentions is the default position of mankind.                            

Every grace God gives is a rescue mission in a universe in which every soul is a battleground, every soul, not only the souls of Job or Judas.  When St. Paul wrote that the powers that exist are ordained by God and are not to be resisted, he had in mind the powers of this world exercised in the ambiguous field of politics, in which there are many evils that must be borne.   Temptation, on the other hand, although it must be suffered, is to be resisted, while the reality is that humankind cannot resist Satan successfully depending on its own strength, but only when God fights in and for us.  Without the full armor of God we are the foreordained losers.   Resisting evil nobly, perhaps out of pride but certainly without love will in the end be ruinous.    An empty soul, devoid of demons, is waiting for their return, bringing seven worse than themselves as company (Matt 12:45).  It is only when the mind and heart are filled with the grace of God, with the presence of the Holy Spirit, that temptations can be defeated.   

          In the battle Satan may and does sometimes prompt to malice, to avarice, to anger, but his most  effective appeal is to pleasure.  In the beginning God front-loaded the activities that He wished to encourage with pleasure, eating breakfast, reading the morning papers, our work, multiplying to fill the earth, but after Adam and Eve’s  rebellion reason, designed to tell us how much of which pleasure to pursue, always with restraint, is flawed, bent, indeed powerless to achieve more than a fragile hold on reality absent God’s commandments and power, so that we are left open to temptation to our destruction.  By creating a world full of good things each of which may be an opportunity for evil when holiness is forgotten in aid of human pride.  God permits the path to become hard, or easy, unless we accept the grace God offers.     

Temptations, like the invasion of  Israel by the Babylonians in  BC 589, are permitted  by God in His eternal use of evil to promote goodness in a world submitted to evil by human folly.  Among the powers that God has willed should exist for a time is the power of Satan in this world, which power to  tempt, to harass and accuse will not be destroyed until in the end, along  with death, Satan’s finest creation, he is  thrown into the lake of fire. 

Above all it is important to remember that we know God’s perfect will for creation.  Born of the Trinitarian love that is who He is, His will is always for the existence and perfecting of His creation.   God’s good will has persisted through rebellions, sin, neglect, and rejection, only to blossom again and again, never abandoning those He created in the beginning until they are safe home with Him in the end.   Jesus taught us to ask the Father not to bring us into temptation, but when we are tempted we are not without a powerful ally.  God has sent His holy spirit into every baptized heart.

And He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

Glory

We beheld His Glory the glory as of the Only Son of the Father.

                                                                      I John 1: 1 

 

We were witnesses to His majesty.  For when He  received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to Him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved son.’

                                                                      II Peter 1:17

The Feast of the Transfiguration commemorates the day when Jesus took Peter James, and John to the mountain top, where he appeared in glory with Elijah and Moses, when the voice from heaven named Jesus God’s beloved son (Matthew 17:1–8).  So powerful was this event that when the Apostle Peter thought of proof of the Lord’s divinity, it was not Christ resurrected that he remembered but Jesus’ appearance on the mountain (I Peter 1:16–17).  The glory of God was present when the blind man was healed; he was afflicted not because of sin but so that the glory of God might be revealed (John 9).     Where God is there is glory.  Glory is not ephemeral but real; Paul writes that Christians will bear “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (II Corinthians  4:17).   It is glory that we will share and in which we will live when Christ returns.  Glory is the characteristic of the existence of Christ in His kingdom, which is shared by all those who love Him and who live in Him.

         Glory is the teleology, the end, the fulfillment of creation, the end toward which creation and redeemed humankind are moving.    In one of Paul’s most moving and fruitful passages, he describes a world we know, subjected to sin not of its own choosing but by God who, after the great rebellion and because of it,  subjected nature and human nature in  the hope that these will be redeemed in glory.    Glory is the name of the perfection we glimpse beyond the object and events of life, the perfection dimly apprehended that makes the imperfection of existence present even as it inspires hope of something better.    Glory is the realm of the good, beautiful and true dimly perceived by philosophers, by Plato, Plotinus, and Berkeley, often by poets, proclaimed by revelation as the true, supernatural cosmos for which the revealed name is glory, a realm of which the true center is Jesus, and the ultimate purpose of which is not simply to serve as the home of ideas but the reality of which is a divine-human person, who is “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation,” in whom “all things were created.”  “He is the first-born from the dead . . .  In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19–20).      

         The clues to the existence of the realm of glory are all around those in whom  wonder has not been subsumed into an obviousness that blinds the eye of the heart.   As Saint Paul wrote:   the knowledge of God, of His divinity, is evident in creation (Romans 1:19–20).   Where there is beauty there is glory.    It is not the sound of the Bach Mass; it is what you hear beyond the sound of the Bach Mass, what you see beyond the beauty of Raphael and Van Gogh.  It surrounds a bride on her wedding day . It is the solid something that inhabits love.     Glory is the perfection of order.   It is a sign of the presence of the holy.   Glory is the reward of fidelity, “if only we will fix our eyes on what is unseen, not on what we can see.  What we can see lasts for a moment. What is unseen is eternal” (II Corinthians 4:17). 

         Glory has an antonym, for which it is difficult to find a single word:  the disordered, ordinary, the ignoble, the flat and undistinguished, the low and debased.   The best New Testament word is translated “corruption” or “decay.”  The promise of God’s will for the salvation of both nature and his elect is the overcoming of decay:  “for creation itself will be set free from the bondage,” the slavery, from the decay to which all things crested are subjected since the rebellion in Eden (Romans 8:21).  Corruption or decay is the inevitable companion of time.  Peter describes it as “the corruption that is in the world because of passion,” by the escaping of which we may share in the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4).   Passion:  the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, pride of life (I John 2:16), which corrupt whatever  they touch.   Of this threat to the soul nature provides the effective analogy.   Now the roof, which was repaired just short years ago, must be repaired again.    Now I must do my exercises because my body is decaying before my very eyes.   There is the cosmic reality:  sin leads to decay or corruption which leads to death.  Righteousness, the acceptance of grace,  leads to holiness, to participation in Christ, which leads to glory, with its ordered permanence and beauty.  

It is the anticipation of glory that shines in the life of every saint.   Every life, says Paul, is like a seed falling into the ground, given to God, ready to bear the fruit of glory.   “So it is with the resurrection of the dead.   What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.   It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. . . .  We have borne the image of the man of dust, of Adam, “ we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (I Corinthians 15:42–50). 

Among other realities, this truth, that glory is the reality and the end,  casts into vivid relief the terms and conditions of human existence.   One consequence of sin is the distortion of the created order, the existence of ‘natural’ evil—no evil is natural in God’s eternal plan—from tornados to plagues.  Another is the persistence of sin that so easily colonizes the human will so that while sin can be resisted it cannot be overcome, driven out of creation utterly and completely, until Christ returns; indeed it is the revealed pattern that the world untouched by grace grows worse.    This makes the anticipation of glory as it exists in the lives of saints, in order, in beauty, precious and worth defending, indeed celebrating.  This is why the good things of this life, beginning with the care of our own souls,  deserve our loyalty.   This is why civilization, always impermanent, and fragile, never a good in itself, ladened as it is with intimations of the life to come, deserves our loyalty.   But while the damage sin may do to the temporal order is severe, the damage sin inflicts upon the soul by denying it the fruition in glory that is its supernatural end  is far worse.   The end of disorder and decay that belong to this world may end in nothing, in the bleeding away of the very forms of reality, but the destruction of the form of souls destined for the glory and created for eternal life of holiness in God’s presence is an eternal sorrow.  

The Christian account of creation and Its destiny shines over the hopelessness of this present age.    While on one hand it is the task of the apostolic mission to teach the death-giving power of sin and the inevitability of God’s judgment upon it, it is more important to awaken in souls the hope of glory, the awareness that goodness and beauty and truth, wherever we find these in the world, point beyond themselves to the glory that is coming.  For glory is the promise:  called, justified, glorified (Romans 8:30).  The early Church, as soon as it possessed spaces that focused worship with apses presenting images, offered worshippers the vision not of Christ crucified—this would come later—but of the glory that is about to break in, of the paradisial world to which Christ will return making all things new (Revelation 20).        

Suffering and Glory

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.

                                                Romans 8:18

The world has its glories; as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, there is a goodness “deep down things” that no evil can obscure, and yet the world is full of pain, to say nothing of the difficulties and inconveniences of life that must be borne.    And it is among the illusions of modernity that this condition is the result of ignorance that can be overcome by education and science.   And like most really great errors,  there is some truth in this.    Thought can still lead to insights that help heal the heart. Medical science can meliorate pain and even lengthen life.    Labor-saving devices sometimes do save labor.   There are a thousand technical helps that make life easier.   

            But while there is evil in the world there will be pain.   Animals endure it; we rational sons of Adam may suffer it, which means that accepting of evil that  transforms it into love, for which the cross of Christ is the consummate reality, a reality in which Christians share.  It was Victor Frankel, the famous psychologist who wrote “Every man’s suffering is his own and no one has a right to take it from him.”    Along with such miracles as restraint, the bearing of evil is the uniquely human action.  One will think of rope and fire, but most of the suffering we are called to bear is not of the dramatic kind that comes to mind when we think of the English martyrs being hung by chains so that their toes barely grazed the ground, or, ultimately, when we think of the cross of Christ.   It may be that someone will be called to die for Christ in Kenya today, but this will  not be our vocation.  Our suffering will more probably be found in ordinary bending of the human will toward virtue that is properly called discipline, which discipline is rooted in duty and which is caused because in all its goodness nature and human nature are warped out of the shape which goodness requires and must be woven back into virtue and holiness at the cost of discipline,  or suffering borne.   It is not a mistake that toast often falls jelly- side down or that consistent commitment to boring tasks require discipline or that the human soul, unwatched, unguarded, left to itself, devoid of relationship to Christ in the Holy Spirit, will go wrong, so that vigilance is a condition of the good life.    The whole point of the noble doctrine of the fall or rebellion of man is not simply  that this condition of fatal imperfection exists but that we are ourselves endemically its cause;  we have met the enemy and he is us.  Jordan Peterson’s advice to begin the day by making the bed may seem jejune, but it is a first step toward a disciplined life that might on another day be able to oppose a greater evil than domestic disorder.         

If one looks around us at the world outside or looks inward to our own hearts what can be seen is the rejection of suffering, not only in the dramatic form represented by the cross, which is in a sense understandable, but in the commonplace sense of patience in the face of the necessity that enables us to undergo and welcome discipline.  This meets us as children in the cultural misconception that learning should always be fun, which it often is,  but only   as the result of hard work.    It meets us later in the wearing attempt to overcome some sin or vice, which must be defeated not only once but day by day.   It meets us in the eternal temptation to sloth, which, modernity to the contrary, is a sin.   

Why do we do this?   We might do this, accept moral challenges, seek to overcome difficulties rather than yielding to them, pursue perfection that we know will in this life elude us?    In the first instance we bear up under suffering because, as the Stoics tell us, it is the human thing to do.   But Saint Paul, knowing human nature, convinced that the capacity to bear suffering, while noble in itself, is not the fulfillment of human life, tells us that it is for the sake of the glory that will be revealed for us or in us that we willingly suffer in and with Christ.   For we look forward to a new creation in which the tears caused by things borne for Christ and neighbor will be wiped from our eyes by Emmanuel, “God Himself will be with us,” and he shall wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more neither mourning, nor crying , nor pain.  For the former things have passed away (Revelation 21: 3-4).  

We are assured by the revealed words of our religion that in the end that world of glory is prepared for those who love the Lord enough to bear his discipline in this life, which means accepting his perfecting love for us.  That love is not, as many are now likely to believe, a sentiment founded in affect, although charity does have its affective rewards, but is an engagement with God the Holy Spirit through which our souls are formed, often painfully,  to the holiness that will enable us to see God.  “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son” (Hebrews 12:6).  He tells us to take up our cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24); that to enter eternal life we must give up our lives.    As Saint Thomas More reminded his children, God does not take us to heaven on a feather bed.   The lives of none of the saints were marked by the pain-free, pleasure-filled existence we imagine for ourselves in moments of weakness and unreality.  “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

For in this world glory lies on the other side of suffering,   When Paul wrote the words: “If we suffer with him we shall reign with him” (II Timothy 2:12) he may have  had in mind the threat posed by the Roman authorities to Christians who would not sacrifice to the gods of the state.   But even then, nearer to the condition of typical Christians was the note struck by the prophet John when in the reign of Domitian he wrote:  “I John share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance” (Revelation 1:9).  It is that patient endurance that makes us fit to see God, fit for the glory that will be revealed in us.   For bearing the evils of this world is not without reward.  We will leave behind the world in which things tend to go wrong for the world of glory at whose center is Christ, Lord of Creation, King of Angels,  and every truly good thing that has ever existed.    Meanwhile the flawed beauty of creation, its scarred goodness, is the imperfect mirror through which we see the glory that will be revealed. 

 

Dr. Patrick’s book The Making of the Christian Mind, Volume I

is available at Amazon or from St. Augustine Press, South Bend, IN

Chosen

Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant,
you shall be my special possession,
dearer to me than all other people,
though all the earth is mine.
You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.”

                                                     Exodus 19:5–6

When God called Abraham there were mighty empires, the Hittites, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, but He appeared in the village of Haran to a nomadic shepherd Abraham, and from his progeny, borne  by God’s grace and will, there would be formed the people Israel, setting his people free from slavery in Egypt, leading them by a circuitous route through the desert, finally bringing them to Canaan, where their city Jerusalem, city of peace, was established with its temple, dedicated to the Creator of heaven and  earth, on Mount Zion.   God told us our duty:  to love him with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves.  But from the beginning they were a rebellious people, full of complaint, worshiping a golden calf even as Moses spoke to God on the Mountain, easily succumbing to the allure of strange Gods.  But the God, having purposed in the beginning to create from the sons of Adam a race who would answer when He called their name (Genesis 3:9), never abandoned His plan.  It was as the Evangelist John wrote later not so much that we love God but that He loved us (I John 4:10).   Israel, bearing the God-given name of Abraham’s grandson Jacob,  was God’s chosen people.  Even after it became clear that they would reject the Messiah Paul would write “to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises, to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all and blessed forever.” (Romans 9:22–24).    

That might have been the end and perfection of the story, but Paul goes on to quote the prophet Hosea:  “Those who were not my people I will call my people, and her who was not my beloved I will call my  beloved.   I will say to a people not my people, ‘You are my people,’ and he shall say, ‘Thou art my God.’”  And the blessed apostle Peter writes to the followers of Christ scattered across the empire:  “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood , a holy nation, God’s own people” (Hosea 2:21–23).  The German-derived word Church (kirsche, kirk) obscures the Greek it translates: ekklesia, a compound of ek (out as in exit) and a substantive form of kalleo̅ (to call) which is klesia, meaning invitation.  Taken together the New Testament word for Church, ekklesia, used in Athens to describe those elect called out of the citizenry to participate in the counsels of state,  means chosen or called out  of the world into Christ and His Church.   Every Christian is chosen by his baptism, an act in which he renounces Satan and all his works and receives God’s promise that He who made heaven and earth has claimed the newly baptized for His kingdom on earth and in heaven.   

Being chosen and beginning well does not mean that we are home; life is a way that leads past the dragon lurking by the roadside;  Paul writes that there are Jews who are the recipients of all the gifts that call them into the covenant who yet are not really Jews (Roman 9:6–8), Being chosen, again as Paul point out, is not the result of our achievement or effort, but it the will of God; it is not our place to quarrel with God’s choosings, for He says: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will have mercy on him on whom I will have mercy” (Exodus 33:19).  And again:  God “has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction in order to make known the riches of His glory for the vessels of mercy . . . even us, whom He has called not from the Jews only but from the Gentiles” (Romans 9:22–24).  Having mercy on the  sons of Adam whose choice of the Serpent’s way had condemned them to death, God chose Israel out of many nations; He chose the elect who are His Church out of all mankind.   

Peter and Paul, all the apostles, must have realized that their proclamation of the kingdom would touch only few of those who lived around the Mediterranean. Given the revealed fact that God wishes “all should  reach repentance” (II Peter 3:9), how in every generation does God touch those outside who will not reach repentance as Christians understand it?  One answer is that it is God’s inscrutable will to save something out of the chaos with which the rebellion of the angels and men have afflicted it, while others’ hearts He will harden against the truth (Romans 9:18).   In a cosmos so vast as to be immeasurable there are a million stars but only one small blue planet bears the race that can answer when God calls.  There are a million flowers, but only one rose.   Many can capture the world in lines on paper, but there is only one Raphael; many saintly Christians but, as far as our knowledge runs,  not so many saints; many nations but only one chosen people; many religions but only one through whom all men desiring to know God must come (John 14:6).  

We have some small knowledge about why this must be because the Lord gave us the parable of the seeds sown generously in the field of the world, with only a few surviving and thriving unto eternal life because there are thorns; the ground is hard and rocky, and the birds of the air are waiting to snatch the seed sown (Matthew 13:1–23).  Ultimately the field of the world is invested by the Devil (Matthew 13:28), who tirelessly devises ways to oppose God’s work in the world (Revelation 12:17–18).   Not until the end, when justice rolls down like waters (Amos 5:24),  when Satan and his angels are cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10), will that opposition end.     

To be chosen, and to accept the nomination, is to check out of Satan’s prisoner of war camp, wherein so many are deceived in the belief that there is no conflict; it is to be enlisted in the battle in which there will be no end of temptations and trials, yet fed by participation in Christ and his company and encouraged unfailingly by the hope of glory in the Presence forever.

 

Dr. Patrick’s book The Making of the Christian Mind, Volume I

is available at Amazon or from St. Augustine Press, South Bend, IN

Come, Lord Jesus

 

“From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say,
“Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand
       

                                               Matthew 4:17

       It is not possible to know what Galileans thought of heaven or how deeply the Hellenistic cosmography which saw the earth as nestled at the center of seven spheres had penetrated the Jerusalem Judaism familiar to Matthew; Paul does speak of being caught up to the third heaven (II Corinthians 12:2).    We can know that in the Hebrew Scriptures as in the New Testament Heaven is the dwelling place of God, from Deuteronomy to Our Lord’s prayer to our Father who art in heaven that His will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.   In the Hebrew Scriptures the kingdom is David’s  kingdom or its successor, an earthly kingdom promised by God to His chosen people, but in the New Testament the Kingdom of heaven and the Kingdom of the Messiah is not of this world (John `18:36). 

       In its fullest sense the Kingdom of Heaven is the home of the Blessed Trinity, although it is perhaps better to think of the Trinity as somehow containing heaven rather than conceiving heaven as the location of God, with Christ at His center, Jesus the crown of creation, himself including everything that is the will of the Father and therefore good.    John and Paul, apostles but as well the greatest theologians, saw that Christ is from the beginning, and that everything that belongs to God’s good will exists in him from the beginning,     So John says of Jesus, “He was God; He was in the beginning with God and all things were made through Him and without Him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:2–3).  And Paul:  “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things were created, in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities of authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  He is before all things and in him all things find their place.  He is the head of the body the Church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:15–20).      

       The Revelation of the prophet John shows us the glory of heaven:  A door was opened into heaven and the prophet saw Christ enthroned in the rainbow glory of the Father, the sevenfold spirit proceeding from him as the elect of Israel, the Gentiles, and animate nature sing endlessly to the glory of the Lamb who although slain lives forever (4:1–5:14).   The Book of Hebrews gives us a rough census of the kingdom of heaven: innumerable angels in festal gathering, the assembly of the firstborn, God who is judge of all,  the spirits of just men made perfect, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant (12:31–34).      

       This is the glorious kingdom of heaven that Jesus tells is very near, even at the door.  So how does this glory enter human history?    Through the mission of Christ, the Second Person made flesh, His forgiveness of our sins by His death, His vindication as judge with His resurrection, and His gift of the Holy Spirit.  Through the apostolic mission that He appoints those whom Christ calls are privileged to enjoy what Saint Paul calls the firstfruits of the Kingdom. Those firstfruits are realized at Pentecost, when the prophecies of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the other prophets were fulfilled.  They had prophesied of a New Covenant.   “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. I will put my law within them and I will write it upon their hearts.  I will be their God and they will be my people,  and I will forgive their iniquities”  (Jeremiah 31: 32-34).  “And it shall come to pass that I will pour out my Spirit in all flesh” (Joel 2: 38, cf. Ezekiel 18:30–32; Hebrews 8:8–13).  This is the covenant whose blood Jesus established when He said:  “This is my blood of the New Covenant” (Luke 22:20).   

       The kingdom of heaven in this world is the kingdom of the new heart created by the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when Peter, reciting the word of the prophet Joel, stood up and said to the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for Pentecost:  “This Jesus God raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured out this which you see and hear. “  What they saw was tongues of fire, the fire to whose kindling Jesus had looked forward eagerly (Luke 12:49), resting on every head; what they heard was the message of the universal knowledge of the Gospel of Christ, spoken by Galileans, heard and understood by each in his own native language (Acts 2:7–8).  The result of this display of the power of God was repentance and a desire to receive the Holy Spirit (2:38–42).   

       This is the first fruits, the presence of the Kingdom of heaven in this world’s history, its ability to renew the human heart attesting  the promise that in the end the new city of God will come down from heaven to earth, to a renewed creation that fulfills God’s purpose that He will be our God and we His people in the kingdom of no hurt when He wipes the tears from our eyes and there is no more pain or death (Revelation 21:1–22:5).        

        The mission of Jesus and of the apostolic mission He commissioned is  to colonize the fallen earth on behalf of the eternal and glorious kingdom of heaven (Matthew 28:18–20, 10:40), made present at Pentecost in the community of the new heart, which  Paul called the firstfruits of the coming glory, present in fullness when the new heaven and the new earth come down out of heaven from God, when He will be our God and we will be his people (Revelation 21:2,4).  To this hope the Church is the eternal witness, beginning in Jerusalem and Judea and extending to the furthest parts of the earth while time shall last.   Jesus says to the Prophet John, the last words recorded in his Revelation, Surely, I am coming soon,” to which John replies, “Let it be so; come Lord Jesus” (22:20).  And the Church ever replies, “He will come again in glory.”

Thoughts on the New Year

 

And a voice from the throne said, “Behold I make all things new.”

                                               Revelation 21:5

New Year’s Day has not always been January 1, for during the long Middle Ages it was the Feast of the Annunciation on March twenty-fifth that marked the New Year.  On that date the Angel Gabriel visited the Blessed Virgin Mary with the good news that, enwrapped by the Holy Spirit, she would become the mother of him whose name is Emmanuel:  God with us, “Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).    

Exactly how the Christian calendar was constructed as feasts and fasts commemorating events in the life of Christ and the Saints took their place in an annual rote is still not fully documented.  We know that  a principal mover was Dionysius Exiguus, the humble, who devised the calendar that counts the years from the birth of Christ, hence AD, Anno Domini, the year of our Lord, .   But for Christians March twenty-fifth celebrated the beginning  of a new world with the anticipation of the birth of Jesus nine months later, on December twenty-fifth.    There is the thought that post-Constantinian Christians made December twenty-fifth, a date suspiciously close to the winter solstice, an event celebrated by the Hellenistic world as the rebirth of the sun with the merry, raucous Saturnalia, Christ’s birthday for political reasons, but since Saint Hippolytus (180-235) there has been the tradition that Jesus was born on  that date. 

When in the Anglosphere the Church calendar lost much of its cultural significance, with many of the reform-minded concerned that the keeping of specific days seemed idolatrous or legalistic.  The first day of January, conventionally the first day of the Julian and Gregorian year— Janus being the Roman god of beginnings, gates, and doorways—became New Year’s Day, having (until 1960) Christian significance as the Feast of the Circumcision, eight days from the birth of Jesus.  Now the first day of January is universally recognized as a time of expectation, hope and renewal.

Thinking of time in a broad sense, the one thing certain is that the world as we know it is wearing out.  The sun, still pouring light into the universe, is growing old and will be gone in five billion years, a fate distant but certain.  On a much more compact scale, despite the push of energy that will last into one’s thirties, each of us is wearing out; your knees and your heart are wearing out, and despite the prodigiously long life of a few, your body will be worn out in seven or eight decades.   God commanded this: He told our first parents: “In the day that you eat the fruit of the forbidden tree you will die,” and from them we have inherited death (Genesis 3:3,  Romans 5:12, I Corinthians 15:22)..

Holy Paul saw clearly that the human problem is not caused or solved by politics or pleasure.  Death is the universal human problem.  Paul asks, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).   The answer: “Thanks be to God, through Our Lord Jesus Christ.”  So Paul’s letters contain a line of victorious confidence rooted in the conviction that One had defeated death, promising unending life to those who lived in Him.   This is universally the promise proclaimed by the apostolic mission.  “To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality He will give eternal life (Romans 2:7).  “For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life.  And I will raise Him up at the last day” (John 6: 43). 

Death is the last enemy, The prophet John saw that in the end death is thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14).   The world is groaning and travailing in the expectation, confirmed by the Spirit, of “our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).  So in the midst of a travailing, dying world, something is being born.  “Therefore we do not lose heart; for though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.”  (II Corinthians 4:16).   That inner man was created for life eternal with God.  And if we are blessed, if we are Christians, if we have welcomed the Holy Spirit whom we received without measure at Baptism.  Our capacity to love, to believe, and to look forward to life with God in Christ is growing even as our bodies fail. And more than that we know that it is the will of the Father to bring that person whom he knew before the foundation of the world and in our mother’s womb into His presence.   

This world of nature with a glory that shines through its failure and finitude,  and our lives, with their promise and fruition in the midst of pain and sorrow,  are a sacrament of the new and perfect creation that Christ will bring with Him when he returns in glory.   One great turning point in the history of the world is the sacrifice of the Son of God and the forgiveness and gift of the Holy Spirit that Sacrifice brought to lead souls to God.  On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 17:4, 19:30).  And though we know He will always make intercession for us in heaven, the mission of the Son was complete, occupying all of time, on Golgotha.     

 Then we are told that there is a second completion, when God himself, who created the world in the beginning,  speaks into creation from his throne:  

“Behold, I make all things new” and He also said “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true” and He said to me: “It is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of the water of life.’ and ‘He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son…..” (Revelation 21:5-7). 

There follows John’s vision of the descent of the New Jerusalem out of heaven from God and the promise that God will be with his people,  to wipe away every tear  from their eyes in his kingdom without hurt or sorrow or death.   

So facing a New year in which in only twelve months your body will show more wear and tear, be aware that your self, that inner man, is capable of infinite growth and renewal.  We are told that our knowledge of God, and knowledge is a kind of love,  will grow forever, beginning now.

You Are God’s Project: Merry Christmas

 

God created man in His own image; in the image of God he created him.  God
breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.  And he walked in the Garden in
the cool of the day, and He called Adam’s name.  “Where are you Adam?”

                                               Genesis 2:7, 3:9

 

And His name shall be Emmanuel: God with us.

                                               Isaiah 7:14

 

An the angel said, “You shall call His name Emmanual, God with us.”

                                               Matthew 1:23

 

And the Holy City came down out of heaven from God.  And God will be with
them; He shall be their God and they will be His people, and He will wipe every
tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or sorrow.

                                               Revelation 21:2-4

Of all the questions Christians are likely to ponder, among the most persistent is this:  It  might be called the Christmas Question, because at this holy season we are confronted with the claim that One Person of the Blessed Trinity left His heavenly throne and chose to be born of a woman in Roman Judea in the reign of Augustus.  That question is  “Why did He do it?”  Why did God make a world in which beauty and order are threatened by chaos and darkness, enter it himself, die, rise again in glory victorious over death, and send His Holy Spirit to guide us into a glorious future with Him.  Why did  He do this for us?   
       There is a broad answer and true.  He did not do all this simply for us, but because He is who He is.  It is of the nature of the Blessed Trinity as He has revealed himself  that the love that exists among the three Persons causes the superabundant overflowing of love into existence.    That is what love or charity is:  in human terms the desire for the existence and the good of another, and those actions that enhance the existence of others.  And when God is the lover, it is more than desire sometimes realized.   What God loves He causes to exist; what He wills to happen is certain.  
       And there is  a more particular answer to the question “Why did He do it?” All of Scripture testifies that He had a project and a plan, and that nothing that He plans does not come to fruition; in Job’s words: “I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted” (1:42).  His indefeasible project was that his creature man might be known by Him, might answer when he calls our name.   There are many books, and useful, about our finding God, but our search is predicated on the more fundamental truth that He is seeking us.
But often this happy answer is obscured by the undoubted fact that faith in Christ is capable of and necessarily does produce holy behavior that makes its subjects fit citizens of the Kingdom of the New Heart, along the way gentling the civilization in which it subsists.   This attractive and essential consequence is apt to distract from the principal line, the deep reality, in the Christian story, just as does the southern habit of equating Christianity with being saved, without being very specific about what one is saved from and into.  God wants to save us from our sins which prevent our answering when He calls us  and therefore prevents His  knowing us, but our being saved is greater than our being forgiven, wonderful as that mercy is; we are given new hearts for the purpose of our knowing God forever and living with Him as it was intended in the beginning.  Our repentance and forgiveness is the prologue to a long story that begins in time and ends in eternity.    “Whom He justified He glorified” (Romans 8:30).    
       Because we are rebels in the following of our first parents, the Gospel begins with a threat:  “You generation of vipers” (Matthew 3:7, 12:34); God’s wrath is revealed against all unrighteousness (Romans 1:18), but it is a threat on behalf of then  invitation that is the heart of the Good News.  The parables of Christ teaches are too rich and varied to be subsumed under one title, but one of the dominant images is the banquet or the wedding feast, into which God invites His elect.  Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding feast.    The king prepared  a feast and invited many (Luke 14:16).   Because the ten wise virgins are wise, they will go out to greet the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1).      The promise to the faithful is that “you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke  22:29–30).  “Many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Matthew 8:11).
       Just imagine how pleased you might be if Solzhenitsyn or Benedict XVI or  Rick Santorum or Samuel Alito—think of someone you truly admire–was coming to town with the express desire of wanting to meet you, coming to dinner to know your aspirations and your best desires.  But the one who comes seeking to know each of us at Christmas is greater:  the Word of God made flesh.  The central truth of the Biblical story, of Tradition, of Christian experience is the fact that the Almighty God, Blessed Trinity, wants to know you, and me, and each of us; for this He created us. The Blessed Apostle Peter says that God wants us to share in His very nature (II Peter 1:3–4).  This is the reason he created the world, the reason he became incarnate, the reason he will come again.  Begin with the moment when, the chaos, darkness and emptiness of Genesis  now overcome,  God held Adam before Him and breathed something of His own life into Adam’s face and gave Adam dominion over all that is the garden of creation.    The garden called Eden God claimed as His own; He walked in it in the cool of the day and as He did so He called Adam’s name.  Adam and Eve did not answer. We know that they had chosen the advice of the serpent, and they had been able to do so because they had a gift no other creature possessed; freedom.    Perhaps had we been the creators, we would not have given our first parents the gift of freedom, but remember:   freedom is the presupposition of love; no freedom, no love.   And the purpose in God’s creation was his desire to find a  response of love to the love that made the world.    The whole history of the world and of every man is our learning to answer when God calls, realizing that insofar as His purpose is revealed, God wants to know His rational creatures, to find in them a return of the love He had displayed in making them and giving them a world from which intimations of glory are never absent.   
            This desire of God to know us is the mystery at the heart of the world.   His first command was not a moral precept—those will follow—but:  “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5).   His every action, through Exodus, through the covenants, through the promise of the prophets that at last we would be given new hearts, to the Incarnation and the coming of the Holy Spirit; each of these mighty acts appearing in the fullness of time, is directed toward fulfilling one thing:  that at last God might be with us and that we would answer with obedient love.    Isaiah had prophesied the coming of one whose name would be Emmanuel:  God with us. And this is the text Matthew cites in his narrative of the birth of the Savior:  You shall call His name Emmanuel, God with us.    
There is no intimacy in this world greater than that presupposed by Jesus’ words.   Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you, but if you eat my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world, you will live with me forever (John 6)..  Christ gives us Himself, body and blood, the new manna come down from heaven, so that we may live in Him and He in us.   
We are promised that in the end, Christ who is sacramentally present now will be with us in glory, when the new creation comes down out of heaven from God, that in it Christ is the light, that at last what He willed in the beginning, when He made us and called our names, will be made perfect.     And the voice from the throne said, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.  He will dwell with them and they shall be His people and God Himself will be with them.” (Revelation 21:3–4),    God’s purpose was fulfilled at last.  “He will wipe away every tear from their   and He will do away with mourning and sorrow and wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more , neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.  And He who sat on the throne said, “Behold I make all things new.”     And He said, “It is done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”   He was there in the beginning seeking us in the garden; He is calling us to share his life in the Eucharist day by day; he will dwell with us in His glory at the end, an end that is in fact an eternal beginning..  
So think about the Incarnation that Christians celebrate in this way:   The particular purpose in God’s creation, of His providential acts in history and in our lives,  is to know us and finally to bring us to be with Him in the kingdom of glory and no hurt. This is what John the Evangelist meant when he wrote:  “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us .” (I John 4:10 )
       Christmas is the central chapter in God’s desire to know us, celebrating the day when He came down to Bethlehem in search of us.

To Every Saint His Time

 

“Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” I said to him, “My
lord, you are the one who knows.”
He said to me,
        “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
       they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood
       of the Lamb.”

                                               Revelation 7:13–14

Until this day a newly baptized person is given a white cloth symbolic of the white robe of baptismal purity.   Since God’s Spirit called the Church at Pentecost, Christians are baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), with water in the name of and therefore by the power of God the Blessed Trinity, set free from the familial weakness and rebellion called original sin and given the Holy Spirit, the character of Christ, and the power of faith hope and love, washed in the cleansing blood of the Lamb of Calvary.  The author of Revelation, the prophet John, was a Jew, who knew that before the sacrifice of the Messiah, for long centuries, in the morning and evening a lamb was sacrificed in the temple in expiation of the sins of Israel (Exodus 29:38-44), these daily sacrifices being the reiteration of the great salvific sacrifice of the Passover lamb.  

The work of a lifetime for these white-robed saints will have included, as it does for us,  exercising dominion over creation in a particular vocation, multiplying and filling the earth, the pursuit of our particular vocation.  But it was just these tasks, good in themselves, rooted in the nature that God had made, that in the lives of those John saw had paled before the supernatural task of bringing the white robe given at baptism, by unfailing faith and the grace of the sacraments, unspotted into God’s presence when He had called them to Himself.   The French poet Charles Péguy will ever be remembered for having written the obvious: “In the end life holds only one tragedynot to have been a saint.” For those whom John saw, life had been a comedy in the classic meaning of that word, a story with a happy ending, consummated in the marriage feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7).

In the text superscript the Prophet John describes God’s holy ones  as those who have survived the time of great distress.   It is characteristically human, especially in a society of abundance and safety, to think of the pursuit of holiness as a part of the good life, unfolding in untroubled fashion over seventy years among men and women of good will.  But this has not been the experience of the saints.  Perhaps when John wrote of a time of distress he may have had in mind the destruction of the temple and ruin of the Jewish homeland by the Roman general Titus in 70 AD or the persecution of Christians at Rome by the emperor Nero.   Perhaps some who had endured such troubles were in exile with John on the island of Patmos near Ephesus.    But these difficulties exemplify the words of Christ:  “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). 

There is no time that in the midst of certain hope that does not bring some distress to Christian life.   At present, in the West, Christian profession brings no imminent fear of loss of life or loss of freedom, but this may change.  Already Christians in Africa live in fear for their lives; in China opposition to the patriotic church brings swift punishment. A greater enemy of the Christian life than fear of the sword is the culture of affluence and comfort with which the West is surfeited.  Add to this the confidence-destroying culture of relativism which denies the very possibility of truth.     

In this moral climate,  trouble inevitably comes to Christians.  Despite the gifts given at baptism, the weakness of sin is done away, mitigated, and contained only through the long and persistent use of the sacraments, through discipline and patience. There is always the enemy within that must be defeated, those effects of fallen human nature, the moral undertow of previous defeats. those predispositions and circumstances that entice, those sins that in the words of Hebrews cling so closely that they make the race difficult (12:1).                      

And there is always the enemy without, for the very world that God loves, is infected with the evil that as long as time endures springs from the enmity of Satan and his rebel angels..  To strive for holiness is to engage the attention of Satan, who bedevils those whose life work it is to be pleasing to God.   To seek holiness, to dare to be given to God, is, as is said in the liturgy of baptism, to repudiate Satan and his works.  Be assured, he will notice your defection from what he considers his kingdom.   He will surround you with a godless culture that makes devotion seem fanatical.  He will arrange the disappointment of earthly hopes.    Or perhaps he will give you a surfeit of the good things of this world so that you will imagine that you do not need God.   There are many different demonic strategies for bringing the distress of the times to bear on those who aspire to the Christian life.  

Perhaps the greatest danger is the quiet apostasy that comes from the death-inspired belief that the clever may successfully have a foot in both the kingdom of God and the world, forgetting that friendship with the world is enmity toward God (James 4:4).   For ordinary Christians loyalty to one’s heaven-sent vocation does not mean wearing unusual clothing or making oneself a public nuisance in public every occasions but it does mean seeing one’s life as a consistent witness.   The duty to bear witness is not obviated by its difficulty.  Every Christian has a religious vocation.  Feed your soul with prayer.  Live a virtuous life in a corrupting world.  Bear witness as a family.   Keep Sunday holy. Have children.   If it lies within your power, educate them to love God, which means outside the government system, which tends to alienate children from family and tradition.  

And remember that immediately following Jesus’ warning that in this world His followers will have trouble there are these words:  “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  Exactly what these encouraging words meant to Polycarp when the mob shouted for his death in 154 or to Thomas More when in 1535 he faced execution for defending the Church; how Christ’s words strengthened the resolve of Isaac Jogues as he was hacked to death by the Mohawks in 1646 or how these words comforted Elizabeth Ann Seton when in the 1830s her work was threatened by violent anti-Catholicism is part of their story, but we do know that when Christ sent His Spirit  into this world His presence encouraged hearts and stiffened resolve to enable the saints of every age to survive times of great distress, and that not grudgingly.    The Church has always remembered them.   One can see in the list in the Roman rite the Church remembering:   the glorious and ever-virgin Mary, the Blessed Apostles, Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogenus, John and Paul, Cosmos and Damian, and all the saints.  Finally there were too many, so the Church gave up listing them in the Roman Canon and began to remember them day by day.    And of course the known saints are one hopes a tiny fraction of those whose names are not known.   Each of them made it through the stress of their time and now makes intercession for us in the presence of God.  

These heroes we know, and thanks be to God for them.  But it is also true that most saints, that great company whose names we do not know, are made saintly not through dramatic confrontation with the powers of the world but through the patience and fidelity they exercise  in the face of the most obvious, and one fears often successful, stratagems of the Other Side:  the nattering insistence that if God loved us, he would give us perfect peace now rather than the perfecting trials apart from which no one will see God.   These trials are uniquely ours, in our time.   

Dr.  Patrick’s recent book  The Making of the Christian  Mind is 

available  from Amazon or St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, IN.