The suffering of Christians in the Middle East has become a strategic asset in the confrontation with Islam. Pundits and commentators who have previously had exactly zero interest in highlighting the abuse of Christians, the desecration of Christian sites, and the expulsion of Christian populations have now discovered their plight. When the primary abusers were our allies – Israel and the oil sheikhs of the Arabian peninsula – Christians were acceptable collateral damage. Let us not kid ourselves: neither the ancient Christian communities of coastal Palestine, nor the Gulf states’ brown-skinned Christian guest workers from South Asia, were considered valuable enough to rock any of our geopolitical boats. As we speak, persecution of Christian minorities is practiced and endorsed by nationalist regimes in Central Asia, but since we need these regimes as allies and resource suppliers, we really don’t care.
Cold War intellectual warriors – like Robin Harris (author of this glib piece), whose contempt for human rights in places like Chile and South Africa is on record – are now crying rivers of crocodile tears for the human rights of vulnerable Christian populations in the Middle East. Upon closer inspection, however, the argument is not actually about the suffering of Christians, but about the suffering of Christians at the hands of Muslims, and how they are canaries in the coal mine in the larger confrontation between Islam and the West. Harris’ article is making the rounds, yet precious few seem to consider the basis of Harris’ concern, the abuses he fails to mention, the implications of his failure to differentiate between Arabs and Muslims, and the significance of his cultural assumptions.
Harris’ selectivity is very troubling, and the reason is highlighted by his own parallel between the persecution of the Christians of the Middle East today and the persecution of Jews leading up to the Holocaust. What moral weight would we ascribe to someone whose efforts to safeguard the Jews were limited to only those Jews persecuted by an enemy state? Whose interest in preventing pogroms was non-existent as long as they were carried out and endorsed by friendly governments? Whose tender concern for the Jewish people was kindled only as a side-effect of what it might mean for non-Jews at some later point?
WE SHOULD STAND UP for the rights of Christians, but not only those persecuted by Muslims, and not because it serves some additional clash of civilization-type purpose. We should do it because they suffer and because helping those in need is the right thing to do. Our Christian brothers and sisters in need should not be divided into an A team and a B team depending on who is doing the persecuting. Moreover, the tactical-strategic concerns of Harris’ and his cohorts is exactly the sort of “help” that the enemies of Christian communities are able to point to in order to brand them the tools of Western conspiracies. Using Christian communities in the Middle East as a geopolitical lever undermines the position of those communities and increases their vulnerability. Harris offers a mere repeat of Cold War Western tactical concern for human rights and democracy in countries within the Soviet orbit – which was never matched by similar concerns for countries within the Western orbit. This plays into the hands of the very forces that seek to cleanse the region of a Christian presence.
There is a grave problem with Harris’ failure to distinguish between Arabs and Muslims in that he portrays the two as a single cohesive unit to which the Christians do not really belong. In his narrative (like so many other neo-Orientalist fairy tales) persecuted Armenian Christians are referred to as “Armenian Christians,” jailed Ethiopian Christians are referred to as “Ethiopian Christians,” but Arab Christians who suffer persecution in their Arab homelands are referred to as “Middle Eastern Christians.” Never Arab; somehow foreign to their Arab-Islamic surroundings. This is precisely the view of those who would attack and persecute them, and undermines the legitimate claim of Christians to a stake and part in an Arab cultural heritage and a natural place in Arab society (I doubt very much that Harris uses this generic term in order to account for the Messianic Jews in Israel – since he never even mentions the various forms of discrimination and structural maltreatment facing them).
WE SHOULD STAND UP for human rights in the Middle East, but not only for Christians. We are called to love and serve our Christian brothers and sisters, but not to the exclusion of non-Christians. Jesus is very clear that such preferential treatment is the effect of natural inclinations, and there is nothing godly or Christian about only looking out for members of our own ingroup:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:43.48)
Turning the suffering of Christians into a weapon against a socio-cultural enemy is not only morally repulsive, it is also dangerous to the very Christian communities with which this faux solidarity is expressed. And to limit one’s concern to Christians is profoundly un-Christian.
Fr. James Martin, S.J. has a very good piece on the abhorrent lack of online civility among many Catholics. Of course, this is an inter-denominational scourge; no church is immune to the problem. I noted in an earlier post that the notion of not bearing false witness seems completely abandoned in cyberspace. Christians evangelizing by example (“preach the Gospel; if necessary use words”) is pitted against the anonymity of the internet – and far too often, the Gospel message of love and respect is ignored, replaced by a quick release of wrath and self-righteousness.
St. Mark 18:1-8
This is truly the day that the Lord has made! This is truly the feast of victory for our God! Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!
The goal toward which God’s holy Church strove for the forty days of Lent, the goal outlined for us already at the beginning of Advent, has finally been achieved: the triumph of Love and Light over all. Easter is the Feast of feasts and the climax of the Church’s year of grace. It has always been a time when joy and jubilance is unrestrained. Not only literally outside, but also spiritually in our hearts, the sun beams. Our God of Light has beamed into our lives, with warmth, with clarity and with eternal assurance of salvation.
Give thanks, says the apostle, to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col 1:12-13) The dire, fallen and lost state of mankind that we have reflected upon during lent mercilessly and directly to Christ’s death on the cross at Golgotha. Self-righteousness, ambition, hatred and pride led to the murder of Divine Love and the extinguishing of Divine Light. To symbolize the humiliation of Christ, we stripped the altar on Maundy Thursday. To symbolize the death of Christ and the end of his earthly ministry, we closed the Book of Life and performed the Office of Shadows, which is what tenebrae means, for Good Friday. Today we have adorned the church as gloriously and beautifully as we are able—and many thanks to those who have made that possible—because today we celebrate that the Father has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption.
There could be no greater sign of God’s love and grace than this. In a world of darkness, light triumphs. In a world of hatred and enmity, love is victorious. In a world of death and decay, life itself is crowned with glory. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, (John 10:11) Christ told his disciples. Today we reap the undeserved fruits of the selflessness and sacrifice of our good shepherd.
Our Paschal mystery, our Easter mystery has two aspects: by his death, Jesus Christ freed us from sin; and by his resurrection, he opened for us the way to eternal life. These go together, liturgically, theologically and spiritually. You cannot have one without the other; we cannot have the joy of Resurrection Sunday if we did not also have the misery of Good Friday. Every day is Good Friday, every place of Golgotha. Every day is a day of lamenting the state of the world, and every place is the place of Christ’s torment by sin and evil. But this morning we are assured that every day is also Resurrection Day and every place is also the empty tomb—where we know that all the prophecies of Scripture; all that was spoken by God’s holy prophets Isaiah, and Jeremiah and Hosea, Zechariah, and by King David and others—all their words about what lay ahead came true.
This, however, is what is called objective salvation. These are the spiritual realities that are there for us, independent of us. They require a response – subjective salvation. God offers these truths, we have the responsibility to respond, as subjects, as individuals, to that reality. How do we do that?
“For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe-that unless I believe I shall not understand.” This statement by the patron saint of this parish has no greater applicability than when it comes to the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. I believe in order to understand.
Faith is prior to understanding. Revelation precedes reason. In this day and age, and in the past too, for that matter, religious faith is somehow thought to be unpalatable if it does not conform to reason. We see it in the arguments of those who despise religious faith, but we also see it in many of the arguments of those who claim to defend it. Faith is refashioned so as to appear rational, even scientific. Whether it be the efforts, that have gone on for almost as long as the Church has existed, to conform faith to Greek philosophy, or the more recent attempts to pretend that Biblical narratives are, in fact, 100% literal, chronological history that are threatened by scientific advances—both these involve abandoning the primacy of faith and accepting that faith must conform to some other body of thought in order for it to be true and relevant.
Consider for a moment the three women on whom the Great Dawn of the Resurrection cast its first rays if divine light. They looked at the empty tomb, they were told by the angel that Christ had risen and would fulfill his promises—yet they ran away trembling and afraid. Why? These were devoted followers of Christ, and the life of Christ in almost every single one of its aspects had been prophesied in great detail: The Messiah will be the seed of a woman, we read in Genesis (3:15). He will be born in Bethlehem, said Micah (5:2), by a virgin, according to Isaiah (7:14). Jeremiah (31:15) foretold Herod’s slaughter of the holy innocents, the firstborn, and Hosea (11:1) prophesied that the holy family would flee to Egypt. Zechariah foretold that he would enter Jerusalem on a donkey, and that his betrayal would come at the price of thirty pieces of silver (9:9; 11:12). In Psalms we read how he the Messiah would be accused by false witnesses (27:12), hated without reason (69:4), and that his garments would be divided and they would gamble for his clothing (22:18) We read detailed accounts of how his hands and feet would be pierced (22:16), how he would agonize in thirst (22:15), given gall and vinegar to drink (69:21), how he would be abused, but that none of his bones would be broken (34:20). Zechariah (12:10) tells us how his side would be pierced and that his followers would scatter and desert him (13:7) Isaiah prophesied that he would be crucified with villain (53:12) And all this came to pass.
Yet as each of these things happened, no one, not one, put the pieces together. No one drew the right conclusions. It would have been easy for the disciples, the followers, these women at the tomb, to employ some logical deduction and, when they arrive at the empty tomb, say “yup, he is risen, Alleluia!” Instead they ran away in fear. They looked at the empty tomb, they were even told by the angel that Christ had risen in fulfillment of his promises—yet they ran away trembling and afraid.
Reason, intellect and the power of deduction are not what reconcile us with our heavenly parent. Faith reconciles, devotion to Jesus reconciles. We know that these women were devoted to Jesus. They mourned his death, and even in the face of the utter disappointment that his death must have been to them, they were devoted to him. They came to honor him. They loved him. Even though they had given up hope and possibly even faith; their immortal savior being dead and all. This devotion and love for a dead activist who claimed immortality and divinity was, frankly, irrational. At the very least, it was confused.
And in the midst of this hazy mixture of love and devotion, something happens: they encounter an angel. We speak of angels often, and in popular culture these rosy-cheeked, winged creatures are thicker than flies. In Scripture, however, angels are actually rare. In St. Matthew’s account, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and to Jesus as he rejects the temptations of Satan—and then, a third time, to the women at the empty tomb. In Mark, the only living person said to have encountered angels—except the women at the tomb—is St John the Baptist. In Luke, there are a few more: the righteous priest Zacharias, the Blessed Virgin, and the shepherds in the field are visited by an angel. Jesus was strengthened by an angel from heaven as he underwent torment in Gethsemane. And then, as in the other gospel accounts, the women at the empty tomb. In John, the one and only appearance of angels is—you guessed it, at the empty tomb.
Why are they there? Well, what is an angel? There is a lot of theology surrounding this, much of it not very useful, including taxonomies and divisions into categories, their nature and essence, and so forth. The Greek word angelos, just like the Hebrew word malakh, means quite simply a messenger. In both the old and new testaments, those referred to as “messengers” are sometimes human beings, sometimes not. When they are not, they are messengers of God; messengers that communicate God’s truth or offer God’s comfort.
So let us disregard all the accumulated theology for a moment. As the women, in their devotion, came to the tomb and found it empty, they were met by a messenger of God who proclaimed to them that Christ is risen. This is how we know the truth of our faith—revelation from God. Not logic, not reason, not deduction, not science—but revelation. In Christ, every single prophecy of the Old Testament was fulfilled and completed, yet even his most devoted friends thought he was dead.
Isaiah, roughly seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, wrote this: Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:4-5). Yet not one of his friends saw it as it happened before their very eyes. Hosea, who also prophesied a about seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, said this of the Messiah: After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight (Hos 6:2). But the devoted women expected him to be dead nonetheless. Why? Well, what happened is not a regularly occurring phenomenon, it is not expected. Statistically, it is an aberration. In terms of biology, chemistry, and every type of material cause and effect and can think of, dying and rising are not commonly sequential. The women relied on their experience and knowledge of the material world and therefore expected him to be dead. It took a messenger from God to jolt them into understanding. Again, the words of St Anselm: I believe in order to understand, not the other way around.
One of the Church Fathers (Severianus) wrote “Your breast was darkened, your eyes shut, and therefore ye did not before see the glory of the opened sepulcher.” The Venerable Bede wrote of that “the rolling away of the stone means mystically the opening of the Christian sacraments, which were held under the veil of the law; for the law was written on stone.” Many of the Church Fathers understood the tomb to be an image of the human heart, and an image of human salvation. Severianus wrote that the women “entered the sepulcher, that being buried with Christ they might rise again from the tomb with Christ. They see the young man, that is, they see the time of the Resurrection, for the Resurrection has no old age…”
They beheld an image of the Resurrection, timeless, ageless; they were allowed to peek at eternity, at eternal life in the midst of a tomb. Truly the tomb is an image of our hearts: it is within our hearts that our devotion to Christ must be real. It is within our hearts where all that is earthly must die. It is within our hearts that Christ must rise, and reconcile us with the Father.
Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.
St. Matthew 27:1-54
Matthew and Mark report that Jesus cries out from the cross, Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani—“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” after which he lets out a loud cry. One of the fathers at New Camaldoli recounts various explanations for these words, a recitation of the first verse of Psalm 22. One explanation is that Jesus was simply saying the prayers that a devout Jew would say as he was dying. Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monastic, explains it by saying that even Jesus’ own image of God was taken from him. That all his ideas about God were revoked; a similar kind of death that we have to undergo in our prayer lives as we let go of all names and forms that we hold on to for comfort. But the Camaldoli father, Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, suggests another, “more chilling, literal, scriptural explanation” for these words of Jesus: that the Father really does abandon Jesus!
The Greek word paradidonai appears quite a few times in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. It means “to hand over” or “to betray.” Judas hands Jesus over to the temple guard, the temple guard hands him over to the court, the court hands him over to Pilate, and Pilate hands him over to his final execution. All using the same word. But, in reality, none of these people an institutions are handing over Jesus – it is the Father who hands him over. The Father hands Jesus over to those who would scorn, torture and kill him. The others are, well, bit players; instruments of God. My God, My God, why have you handed me over? As Fr. Cyprian points out, this is why the other lines from Psalm 22 are so poignant: He trusted in the Lord, let him save him and release him if this is his friend (Ps 22:8, Mat 27:43). But God doesn’t save him or release him. He has handed him over.
There are some severe implications of this reading. If God does not save Jesus from all of this, what about the rest of us? Could God abandon us too? Martyrs have sealed their faith with their blood throughout the history of the Church. Good Christian folks are attacked. Those who work for peace and justice are murdered. Countless people are killed in earthquakes, or simply starve quietly to death due to no fault of their own.
There is a tendency among Christians to think of prayer as incantation, reducing God to a genie that is hauled out at our convenience. Some time ago, a friend told me that God had showed them a piece of jewelry that had been lost. They couldn’t find it, they prayed to God, and God answered prayer by letting them find it. My response was perhaps not very diplomatic. Do you really think that God cares about jewelry, I asked? And if this is how prayer works, why does he not direct those who starve to some food, when they pray for it?
God is not a genie, prayer is not incantation, we are not magicians. The abuses of prayer are dangerous to the souls of Christians, and to the reputation of Christianity. Prayer allows us discernment. It is our means to get to know God and his intention for us. It aligns us with God’s plan, not the other way around. And that was, indeed, what happened on the cross. Luke tells us that Jesus spoke another verse from Psalm 31: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Jesus aligns himself fully, finally and perfectly, with the plan of the father and hands himself over; he abandons himself. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus stated that No one can take my life from me, I give it freely (Ps 31:5, Luke 23:46). Here, on the cross, that comes to pass after Jesus, having prayed and reflected and agonized over his fate—abandoned by the father—aligns himself with that abandonment.
Palm Sunday is a beginning. A beginning of fulfillment of prophesy in all its majesty and splendor and victory… and bitterness and humiliation and degradation. In the first Gospel reading from St Mark, we met the victorious Christ who enters into Jerusalem to the acclaim and praise and adoration of the people. In the second Gospel reading, taken from St Luke, we meet our Christ as captive, as accused, as ridiculed, as a torture victim condemned to death. How brief the cheering and clapping and public displays of reverence and adoration for Christ! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest! (Mark 11:9-10) is turned into those words that should send chills down our spines and bring tears to our souls; that thrice repeated Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him! (Luke 23)
But what had happened? How did the crowd turn against Christ in such a dramatic way? How did the blessings and adoration as he entered Jerusalem turn into these curses and this hatred? Knowing human nature, we have good reason to suspect that some of those who were present at the entry of Christ into Jerusalem were also among those who cursed him before Pilate. Old Adam is nothing if not a turn-coat. Even among the closest friends of Christ, there were those who abandoned and betrayed him.
The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light. (John12:35-36):
“While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” This is not a story about other people in distant country at another time in history. This is about us, each and every one of us here today. This is not a story about the Jews and the Romans, it is a story about us. We have to absolutely reject, not only anti-Semitic readings of Scripture—which most certainly have been recurrent throughout the history of the church—but also the charge that our readings of the Passion of Christ, when guided by the Holy Spirit, even can be anti-Semitic. Only if we believe that the original sin of Adam tainted no one but the Jews can we blame it on them. Only if we believe that Christ came to save only the Jews can we blame rejection on Christ on them. Only if only the Jews can be saved by faith in Christ can we read the Passion of our Lord and point a finger to the Jews, and say “they did it!”
We did it! Christ was mocked and beaten and crucified for all of our sins. This is precisely the point of the New Testament, written in the blood of the righteous one. This is precisely the point of the crucifixion and the resurrection, with which our entire Christian faith stands and falls. All of us are saved by faith in God through Christ; all of us share in responsibility for humanity’s rejection of him. You and I, every day, through our sins great and small, continue to condemn him to death. When we read in the Gospel according to St Matthew that all the people answered ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ (Mat 27:25), this applies to humanity. His blood is upon all generations of humanity, which is why all generations of humanity are in need of salvation and reconciliation with God through him whom we have crucified. A short but powerful prayer ascribed to the 16th century saint Philip Neri captures this realization. It is just a one-line prayer, but it packs a punch: “O Jesus, watch over me always, especially today, or I shall betray you like Judas.”
But our Gospel reading from St Luke also points to the way forward; the way to reconciliation with God.
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:39-43)
This must surely be the most powerful statement of salvation through faith in Christ. No works reconciled this man to God, no penance of fasting, no church membership, not even baptism. Christ did not ask him what his crime was, he did not ask him what sect or nationality he had identified with. Based simply on his faith, Christ told him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The man believed, and that was enough, even on the cross. The man, whatever he had done, had come face to face with not only the harsh temporal law of the Roman authorities, but also the Law of God—and the Grace of God. Even on the cross, Christ was able to reconcile a repentant and contrite soul with God. Faith alone. Christ alone. The cross alone.
May Jesus watch over us always, especially today, lest we shall betray him like Judas. Amen.
Today the Church enters into the period of mourning over her divine Bridegroom. Passiontide, which begins today, marks the third stage of our preparation for Easter. Pre-Lent was an introduction and the past four weeks a time for conversion and spiritual renewal. Passiontide commemorates Christ’s suffering in a special way. The crosses are draped as an outward sign of inward sorrow. The Gloria Patri is omitted for the same reason – to underscore the despair at the sin that is the cause of Christ’s suffering and sorrow.
The Lord’s suffering is the real theme of Passiontide, and I am not so sure that it ought not to be the theme of every day of every week of the year. We are called to reflect on Christ’s suffering in greater detail than at any other time. We are called to reflect on our part in that suffering. It is a time for sobering reminders of our nature. The time for feel-good happy clappy is behind us – what, really, are we doing here? What, rally, are we doing with our lives? Does it not matter to us that the way in which we lead our lives are direct causes of the suffering of Jesus? That the way we lead our lives accuse Jesus and torment him, as sure as if we were pelting him with stones ourselves?
But, surely, not. We lead virtuous lives, don’t we? We love Jesus and try, for his sake to be righteous and virtuous and do good? We dutifully and reverently go to church, we read Scripture, we pray earnestly. Friends, these are the means of sanctification, not justification. These are natural outcomes, ought to be natural outcomes, of receiving the saving grace of God. But they are not means of receiving the saving grace of God. There are no means of receiving that grace other than repentance, contrition and conversion. And without these, as we hear God say through the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah, our worship and everything else we get up to, is worse than useless; it is an offence before God. Such worship, we are told, will be punished severely. No matter how correct and esthetically pleasing, without repentance and contrition, it is useless.
As we draw ever closer to Easter, that most joyous of celebrations, we are called upon to pause and reflect on the content of our hearts, as opposed to the content of the liturgy; whether our Sunday finest conceals the white robes of salvation, washed in the blood of the lamb, or whether they conceal a spiritual decay that we desperately want to hide from others. On Easter Sunday we rejoice in the risen Christ and the fulfillment of his promise of eternal life to all those who believe in him and follow him. On Passion Sunday, we ask ourselves if we are among those believers to whom that promise is given – or if our part in this cosmic drama ends on Good Friday, when the Jews, as our proxies, as the proxies of humanity, call out for his crucifixion.
In this demand, in this unrestrained desire and urge to kill the Christ, we find the accumulated rottenness of all human nature. Of you and me—not of others. In today’s reading, mankind stands before us at its farthest point from its original communion with God in the Garden of Eden. Faced with God the Son; the Christ to whom all Scripture had pointed and whom all the prophets had heralded; faced with him who was sent to us because God so loved the world that our need for a Savior prompted his tender heart to supply us with one. Faced with God himself—the people of God not only reject him, but they are already picking up rocks with which to stone him. They are fed up, they can take no more – virtue and tradition demands that he be killed. And we know how it ends.
Crucifixion was not only retribution, but also a deterrent. The bodies of the crucified were left up, first to writhe in agony and then, after they had expired, for good measure, to demonstrate what happens to those who were considered evildoers. In the case of Christ, the message was clear: his crime was to have offended their sense of chosenness by preaching the boundless love of the Father. By preaching his own divinity. His crime was to fulfill prophecy in a way that didn’t suit them. His crime was to question our righteousness before God. Let his agony and death be an example to anyone who dares do the same!
Human pride and self-righteousness placed Christ on the cross. But what had happened? How did these people turn against Christ in such a dramatic way? Only recently, he was doing well. He was saying the right things, and folks loved him. The great intellectual hero of the American Revolution Thomas Paine talked about “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots”; those who are faithful to the cause as long as the going doesn’t get tough – those who are faithful to the cause as long as it doesn’t demand that we step too far outside our comfort zone. We know from the Gospels that even among the closest friends of Christ, there were those, like St Peter, who pledged undying allegiance to him, only to turn around, when the mob got riotous, to flatly deny ever having known him. And there was Judas, truly one of the twelve, truly one of the chosen, and truly the one who epitomizes what we ought to fear in ourselves. If those we call saints are capable of such turn coat behavior, surely members of the crowd that greets Jesus were and are capable of the same deplorable, but all too human behavior.
Among God’s people, there are a number of religious feasts and celebrations, some of which are instituted by man, others by God. Among the latter were the Feast of the Tabernacles, the Feast of Weeks, and Passover. These were instituted in commemoration of particular instances of goodness and grace shown by God to His people, and were occasions intended to unify and educate the elect, worship God, and point to the coming of Christ. In the New Testament we come across feasts—Easter and Pentecost—that were not instituted at the direct and express command of God, but nevertheless begun within the first Christian congregation, which was “under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (Schartau, Bref, p. 431).
Easter, the fulfillment of the Passover, celebrates the boundless love of God for humanity in all its gory details. Resurrection Sunday makes no sense without Good Friday – but how many folks these days, when church attendance is no longer compulsory, do not choose to show up for the joy of Resurrection Sunday without bothering with the grief and agony of Good Friday? This is like celebrating recovery without admitting that you’re an alcoholic. Celebrating one’s pardon without admitting that one has committing a crime. And how do we accomplish this contortion? By relying on virtue.
I worry that Easter seems to have gone the way of the feasts of the Hebrews: corrupted and abused, they became occasions of self-righteousness, greed and gluttony. We heard the prophet Isaiah talk about such celebrations. Similarly, God through the Prophet Amos tells us:
I hate, I despise your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities. Even though you bring me your burnt offerings and grain offerings I will not accept them; Your stall-fed communion offerings, I will not look upon them. Take away from me your noisy songs; The melodies of your harps, I will not listen to them. Rather let justice surge like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:21-23)
Justice and righteousness must be our unwavering focus. Christ must be our unwavering focus because he is the one who brings justice and righteousness. The value of any and all outer manifestations depends on where our heart is, or rather, what the state of our heart is. Are we allowing the celebration, ostensibly of God’s love and generosity, to distract us from the implications of God’s love and generosity? The Lord is a merciful God, and he will not let those perish who rely on the virtue of his Son, the righteousness of his Son, and who accept the justice of Lord – a court of law in which we are always, by our own merit, sinners, and criminals.
As we gather around the precious gifts of Christ’s body and blood, let us keep this reality in mind. That it is not the outward garments and finery that God looks to, but the content of our hearts – at our repentance and contrition. May the Lord have mercy on us. Amen.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
This morning’s gospel reading is not only a reading about a mystery, the reading itself is a mystery. The feeding of the five thousand is an event that is recounted in each of the canonical gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all include it, so we know that it matters; we know that it is an event of significance. But what is it that actually takes place? That is not at all clear from any of the accounts. Something happens by the very fact of Jesus’ presence and we don’t know exactly what it is. A miracle is performed, to be sure, but is sort of just happens.
What I mean is this: in other accounts of miracles, we are told explicitly what happened—what Jesus did—and sometimes even given the process and specific word or phrase spoken by Christ, by which the miracles were made to happen. For instance, at the wedding in Canaan, Jesus is asked by his mother the Blessed Virgin to turn the water into wine. Jesus instructs the servants to fill the stone jars with water and then to draw some out and take it to the master of the feast—and by the time the master of the feast tastes it we are told that is has turned into wine (John 2:7-9a). We are told what happened. Elsewhere, the miracle working is even more obvious. For instance, when Jesus heals a deaf man with a speech impediment, he took him aside from the crowd, put his fingers into his ears, spat, touched the man’s tongue, looked up to heaven, sighed, pronounced the word “Ephphatha,”—“be opened”—and then the man was able to hear and speak properly again (Mark 7:33-35). The process of the healing is described to us, we are told exactly what happens and even the specific words associated with the miracle. This is the norm throughout the gospel accounts.
Here, however, we are not told what happened, or what Jesus did to make it happen. Biblical art through the ages have shown images of the disciples lugging big baskets overflowing with fish and bread around to hand it to the people, but that is an assumption that is not found in Scripture. Listen again, carefully, to the reading:
Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 6:5-14)
Do you see what I mean? We are so loaded with Bible illustrations that we assume an image that is not necessarily there. What, exactly, happened? When did this miracle take place? Once the five thousand were done eating, there were many fragments left over. That is really all we are told—that all were filled and that there were twelve baskets worth of fragments gathered up afterwards.
St Augustine, true to form, tells us what happened. “He multiplied the five loaves in the hands of them that broke them, who multiplies the seeds that grow in the earth, so as that a few grains are sown, and whole barns are filled” (Hom. 80). All we are told is that all five thousand were filled and that there were twelve baskets worth of fragments gathered up afterwards, but St. Augustine’s statement is a spiritual truth, rather than a historical explanation of this miraculous event. The breaking of the bread multiplied it. Keep that thought in abeyance.
He has, agreeably to His mercy, reserved to Himself certain works, beyond the usual course and order of nature, which He should perform on fit occasion, that they, by whom His daily works are lightly esteemed, might be struck with astonishment at beholding, not indeed greater, but uncommon works. For certainly the government of the whole world is a greater miracle than the satisfying of five thousand men with five loaves; and yet no man wonders at the former; but the latter men wonder at, not because it is greater, but because it is rare. For who even now feeds the whole world, but He who creates the cornfield from a few grains? (Tract. 24)
In Jesus actions, then, we see the full creative and sustaining divinity of God. That’s the point. Forget the other stuff. The historicity, the historical description and its various explanations, are distractions from the truly important implications. “Let us not only be delighted with its surface, but let us also seek to know its depth” (Tract. 24).
The Lord on the mountain has been understood by church fathers as an image of the Word on High. Indeed, the Word on High feeding the multitude is the core of the story. Jesus saw the multitude, he knew them to be hungry, and he mercifully fed them. Not only because of his goodness, but also of his power. Goodness on its own does not suffice—a good person who has nothing to share has nothing to share. Had he not also had creative power, the power of God to create, then the crowd would have remained hungry. The Word on High is good and powerful, it sees the needs of people, and serves them.
The disciples, in this account, were also good—they too wanted to feed the people—but they were neither powerful, nor did they have knowledge. Jesus asked Philip where they might buy bread to feed the multitude. He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Why? What other reason than to show the disciple’s ignorance? That in itself does not seem very useful. What is the point of throwing Philip under the bus? I will return to it in a moment.
The five loaves are understood to signify the five books of Moses. Today we have become accustomed to thinking of it as Jesus—who is, after all, the bread of life—but that is not the point in this particular miracle story. St. Augustine, again, noted that this interpretation of the loaves as the Books of Moees would fit with the fact that the loaves are said to be made from barley, rather than wheat, because “barley is so formed that we get at its pith with difficulty; for the pith is covered in a coating of husk, and the husk itself tenacious and closely adhering, so as to be stripped off with labor. Such is the letter of the Old Testament, invested in a covering of carnal sacraments: but yet, if we get at its pith, it feeds and satisfies us” (Tract. 24). These five books of Moses are brought by a boy who is understood to signify the people of Israel. The people of Israel who carried the burden of the books until they were opened by Jesus, fulfilled by Jesus, and given to all by Jesus.
Jesus broke the loaves, and in that breaking of the loaves, they were multiplied. This is a central truth and an important image; the core of the miracle. In the breaking the loaves are multiplied. When those five books of Moses are opened—expounded, fulfilled and shared in and through Christ—they are transformed from the law that no one is able to fulfill—no not one—into the gospel of the one divine man who fulfilled it for all. Multiplied from five books for one people into boundless grace for all people.
In the nourishing but hard-husked barley of the law, the understanding of the Israelites was incomplete, veiled. We read in 2 Corinthians, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts(2 Cor 3:15). At the time of this miracle, the veil was not yet removed—it was not removed until Christ hung on the cross in fulfillment of the law and the te
mple veil was rent asunder; a powerful image of the removal of the veil of ignorance. This is where Philip’s ignorance comes in, and the reason why Jesus asked him a question in order to demonstrate his ignorance: Philip did not know about the multiplication, the transformation that was about to take place, because he could not know. Jesus himself was the only one who knew what lay ahead.
Augustine continues: “And what were those fragments, but things which the people were not able to eat? We understand them to be certain matters of more hidden meaning, which the multitude are not able to take in. What remains then, but that those matters of more hidden meaning, which the multitude cannot take in, be entrusted to men who are fit to teach others also, just as were the apostles? Why were twelve baskets filled? These signify the twelve apostles, whose task it was to guard and transmit the mysteries if the faith. To continue to feed the multitude.” (Tract. 24)
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world! They did not fully understand that he was the Lord of the prophets, the fulfiller of the prophets, the sanctifier of the prophets. But they were right to the extent that Jesus was also, indeed, a prophet. It was said to Moses, I will raise up for them a prophet like unto thee (Deut 18:18). That this promise of the Lord is to be understood concerning Christ Himself, is clearly stated in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 7:37). Also, the Lord says of Himself, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country” (John 4:44).
This is how the Lord feeds his people. In this miracle story we find the fullness of his grace and mercy. It was served as a mystery, it remains a mystery—a mystery at the heart of our faith. May the Lord continue to have marcy on us. Amen.