Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

Four Last Things


heaven-hell

Over Advent, we have been pondering the “Four Last Things”-Death, Judgment Heaven and Hell.  I have been asked to post at least the sermon on Heaven which will be heard this morning, and Hell, which is next’ week’s topic.

I have never been keen on posting my sermon notes, as, frequently, the words come out in a very different form than the text. I learned years ago that if the Holy Spirit wants a different homily than the text I have prepared, I do best to go with His promptings. However, here is the written text for today, with no warranty express or implied.

SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT-2016

(Given at St. Alban’s, Richmond, Virginia)

 

“Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

-St. Matthew 11:11

 

Here we are at last on Rose Sunday, the Third Sunday in Advent which used to be called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is the Latin word that means “rejoice,” but with the ending that makes it a command. So we are really being commanded to rejoice.

But, we human beings have a fairly ambiguous attitude towards life after death. There is the story of a fellow talking with a woman whose close relative had only recently died. Trying to be sympathetic, the man asked this lady, “What do you suppose has become of her? The woman replied, Oh I’m sure she’s enjoying everlasting bliss – but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such unpleasant things!”

You know, you have to be sure you really want to go to heaven. People who have not much cared for God in this life – why should they want to be closer to him in the next?

Certainly in heaven there will be God and I am certain the music of Bach.  Even this will cause trouble, because a lot of people will prefer Lady Ga Ga to Bach. If heaven means we all get rewarded with the things we love best, it looks as if heaven and hell will have to be the same place: for one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

There are so many difficulties here. In fact, it’s just about impossible to form a picture of heaven, because we are bound to think in terms of space and time. Heaven is not in time and it isn’t a place. It is beyond time and space: eternal. When we think of our lives, our being, we have to think of being somewhere and at a particular time. But truly when we die and leave this world, we leave space and time too. So being, life, existence in heaven must be very different from what they are down here.

Heaven won’t be like going to church all the time. There is a lovely hymn in the English Book Hymns Ancient & Modern where it says: “So, Lord, at length when Sacraments shall cease.”  Yes, even the Sacraments will come to an end.

As you know from your Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer (page 581), “A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. So when we are in that eternal state of spiritual grace, we shall not require the outward and visible sign.”

When we speak of heaven, we are attempting to speak about our spiritual state of being beyond time and space.  So, all our language necessarily has to be metaphorical. We just can’t express supernatural realities directly in natural language.

Even Scripture itself is limited to soaring metaphors and the difficulties of expression of the most Divine in human words. We get incredible pictures of beasts with hundreds of eyes, angels and archangels, the Tree of Life and a stream flowing from the throne of God. The Bible is written in natural language, so not even the Bible can tell us completely what heaven is like and all of its glories.

There is another way of knowing. Think of this: if heaven is beyond time and space, if it is infinite, then there is a sense – though our language here is close to breaking down – in which we are there already. Or, if I may so put it, a sense in which we have been there. For if heaven is an eternal state, then to be there is to be there eternally.

We have intuitions of this truth-what the poet William Wordsworth called intimations of immortality:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home

Trailing clouds of glory.  Because God made this material world and because he was incarnate in it in his Son, we must expect the material world to contain something of the eternal world, heaven, God’s everlasting abode. This universe of ours is material, but it is not merely material.  As poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins put it:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God…. Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Remember Our Lord promised that the Holy Ghost would bring all things to your remembrance.

This experience is not just for poets. Beloved in Christ, let me  ask you to reflect on the fact that you and I, each one of us, knows it in ourselves. Imagine you are on a weekend out in the Shenandoah Valley—out in the country near to the mountains. You awake in the pale dawn light in a silent room. It is a high room with oak beams. You go downstairs and open the door. You feel the rush of the fragrant air and from as far as you can see into that mist and the dampness clinging to the fields, there comes the calling of birdsong.

You can barely make out the watery colors of the landscape can hardly be made out. The pale disc of the sun lies behind the racing clouds.

What do you feel?  Doesn’t this give you an exquisite sensation– something like joy, something like peace: but you can’t quite put it into words exactly.  Coming at you out of the beauty of the scene, there is something like recollection.  Such experiences I think are gifts of God sent for our encouragement; they are intimations of immortality.   They are the natural presences which both hide and reveal the eternal presence of God.

Shortly after my mom passed away, I was wandering around my parent’s house one afternoon, just after lunch.  I went upstairs into the front bedroom. It was very quiet, and her things were still there.   I noticed the sunlight on the dressing table, and I had a warm, reassuring sense of presence again.  I didn’t want to leave the bedroom. As Fr. Hopkins said, it was the sense of deep down things. A reality beyond appearances.

Beloved in Christ, God leaves his footprints and fingerprints all over the place. Why do we know that music is not just melody, rhythm and harmony – but there’s something hanging around in there that excites us, that thrills us or even makes us cry? You know the feeling of these encounters. It’s one like this: “Your hair’s standing up on end, shivers going down your spine, a lump coming into your throat, even tears running down your eyes.”  It’s called an appoggiatura, from the Italian word “to lean.” And while it’s tough to define, it’s not unlike a grace note, a note in many forms of music that is ornamental yet produces beauty.

We may react like this to the Bach Double Violin Concerto. The slow movement of Schubert’s String Quintet in C – where Schubert almost stops the music altogether. The utterly sublime music of Purcell and the words from the 1662 Prayer Book that go with it: Thou knowest Lord, the secrets of our hearts: shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer.

Human beings have a need to express what is beyond them. We are possessed of a deep sense of the mysterious. This is why we developed all the arts including poetry and music. So look at one of the most famous and earliest experiences of the divine mystery; Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple when he saw the Lord high and lifted up. Isaiah’s response is to utter a few words in a certain rhythm:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.

          And out of this little utterance the Church developed the most ecstatic prayer in the Mass:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth: pleni sunt coeli, et terra Gloria tua

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts: heaven and earth are full of thy glory.

And these few words in a certain rhythm have captivated the great composers for centuries.

Miraculously in such works we find that what we thought inexpressible is expressed. And we understand through being overwhelmed – exactly as Isaiah was overwhelmed in his original vision. You remember his response:

Woe is me, for I am undone

We find these intimations of the eternal world everywhere. In just a line of music: sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Or, we may find it in the voice of the hidden waterfall or the laughter of children in the yard or that feeling when you love really someone.

The presence of God is subtle. The reality of eternity is half hidden and half revealed.  Remember the couple on their way to Emmaus on the first Easter Day?  Their eyes were holden that they should not know him. Until later: He took bread and blessed it and brake and gave to them…and he was known of them in breaking of bread.

In all these ways, God seeks to reassure us and show us the reality of heaven, half hidden, half revealed in the things of this earth. As usual, St Augustine puts it better than anyone:

But, what do I love, when I love Thee? Not the prettiness of a body, not the graceful rhythm, not the brightness of light (that friend of these eyes), not the sweet melodies of songs in every style, not the fragrance of flowers and ointments and spices, not manna and honey, not limbs which can be grasped in fleshly embraces – these I do not love, when I love my God. Yet I do love something like a light, a voice, a fragrance, food, embrace of my inner man, wherein for my soul a light shines, and place does not encompass it, where there is a sound which time does not sweep away, where there is a fragrance which the breeze does not disperse, where there is a flavor which eating does not diminish, and where there is a clinging which satiety does not disentwine. This is what I love, when I love my God.

Then we find ourselves in Heaven.

Let us pray (John Donne),

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end. Amen.

 

The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls

 

Read Full Post »


SERMON FOR MAUNDY THURSDAY-2011

“Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” -St. Luke 23:43

We don’t like the Cross.  We don’t like to look at it, be reminded of it or have it around.  It reminds us of the hatred and evil that would condemn anyone to such a death, much less an innocent man, and even more so the son of God. It reminds us too much of suffering and of sin and of the fact that our own kind, not just Jews, but gentiles would engage in such barbarity.  Wouldn’t we just rather have that plain old cross, maybe with an IHS in the middle-what some folks like to call a resurrection Cross? On this night in which Christ began his journey to the Cross, I stand before you to tell you that to ignore the Cross, particularly to ignore it because of suffering-avoidance, is to ignore the very saving act of Christ to the destruction of Christianity.  That is what is at stake onthis Maundy Thursday 2011.

I am not conjuring a theme for tonight’s homily-I will let the modern heretic, the nouveau apostate, the postmodern pagan speak for themselves.  Themes at a 1993 conference of major denomination theologians, themes that have been reprised in conferences with ever-increasing frequency included destroying traditional Christian faith, adopting ancient pagan beliefs, rejecting Jesus’ divinity and His atonement on the cross, creating a goddess in the conferee’s own image, and, of course, affirming lesbianism. Their goal and objective was that Christ would be put down and the feminist goddess, Sophia, would now be accepted in all of the world churches and denominations. At the center of this was the need for self-affirmation and a world of seeming pleasure, devoid of the suffering caused by Christianity.

Delores Williams, theology professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, told the gathering: “I don’t think we need a theory of atonement at all…Atonement has to do so much with death…I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff…We just need to listen to the god within.”  Easy god, feel good god, pain free god, self god. All of this is grounded in the desire to flee from the pain of being incarnate, the pain of sin, the weight borne by Christ on the Cross at the hands of people trying to escape the searing pain of the convicting truth embodied in Jesus the Christ.

But suppose one can’t escape suffering (no one can, really)?  Suppose suffering its one dead on. There are two kinds of responses: 1) We can rail against God and say, “If you are such a great and powerful and loving God, why am I in this hellish mess?”  That’s the immediate post-modern response.  It is even the response of the disciples this terrible night as they flee Christ’s side.  All but John will be far from the Cross and the suffering of Christ, and even Peter, the one who had just proclaimed his loyalty unto death, would deny Christ three times.  And he would weep bitterly.

Or we can acknowledge that we are sinners and that we don’t deserve any good thing, and cry out for mercy and help in our time of desperation. Beloved, the world is full of those who rail against God in their self-righteousness and presume that the creator of the universe obliged to make their life smooth and faith easy, neat and clean. There are only a few who own up to the fact that God owes us nothing, and that any good to come our way will be due to his mercy, and not our merit.

Luke’s text about the two thieves crucified with Christ teach us that there is no great reward for responding to suffering and to the Cross like the first sort of person. Those two thieves who this night would have been awaiting their execution represent these two ways of responding to suffering and relating to Christ in suffering.  Let’s take a close look at them and their response to the Cross.

Notice first how similar they are. Both are suffering the pain of crucifixion. Both are guilty of crime (“We are receiving the due reward of our deeds,” v.41). Both see Jesus, the superscription over his head (“King of the Jews,” v. 38); they hear the words from his mouth (“Father forgive them,” v. 34). And both of these thieves want desperately to be saved from death.

Most of us have all these things in common with these two thieves: there has been, is, or will be suffering in our lives. None of us will be able to say: “I do not deserve this.” Most of us have seen Jesus on the cross and have heard his claim to kingship and his gracious words of forgiveness. And all of us want to be saved from death one way or the other.

But then the ways divide these two thieves and between two categories of people. The first thief says, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” What a picture of a spiritually destitute, worldly man. It is a matter of total indifference to him that he is suffering “the due reward of his deeds.” To him right and wrong, praise and blame, good and bad are of no interest: his one objective is to save his earthly skin. He might even believe Jesus is the Messiah, the King of the Jews. But, it’s only a matter of convenience to him: he’ll take anybody as king who can get him off the cross. Just another shill to serve his own worldly purposes.

That’s the way one whole segment of humans relate to God in suffering. Suffering interrupts their own private worldly goals and pleasures. So why not try God; if you are king, then get me out of this mess. One writer described this as tire theology. A tire-jack is a dirty, useless thing to be kept out of sight in the trunk until you have a flat tire (a little suffering). Then you get it out, let it do the dirty work and put it away again. Here is Christ-scourged, bleeding, not a fit person to look at. “If you’re so useful, take me down off this cross, Jesus.” Or, to put it another way, “If you’re so useful, lift me up out of this sickness, out of this financial mess, out of this lousy job, and so on.”

The thief had no spirit of brokenness, or guilt or penitence or humility. He could only see Jesus as a possible power by which to escape the cross. He did not see him as a king to be followed. It never entered his mind that he should say he was sorry and should change.

But notice the other thief: this one is the one Luke wants us to be like. First, he is not drawn in by the other man’s railing. If we are to follow his example we too will have to stand our ground and not be taken in by the people all around us who say, “If your God is so great and loving, then why the 20 kids shot in Atlanta? Why sixteen miners buried in a cave? Why a village of your fellow Christians slaughtered in Sudan?” “Why suffering? Why doesn’t he come down off his helpless perch on the cross and do something?”

The first thing the repentant thief does is not get deceived by all this talk. “But he rebuked him saying, ‘Do you not fear God?’” This is the second thing about this penitent thief: he feared God. God was real to him. God was his creator, and he knew that a pot can’t take up arms against the potter and come away victorious. It is fitting that creatures bow in submission before their creator and subject all their life to his wisdom. It is even more fitting that sinful creatures bow before God in holy fear, instead of railing against HIM.

Third, the penitent thief admitted that he had done wrong: “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds” (v. 41). He had no guile, no desire to save face any more; he had no more will to assert himself much less become his own god. He was here and laid open before the God he feared and there was no way to hide has guilt.

You and I know people right now who are in trouble-this very night they are in a world of trouble. But instead of laying down their self-righteous defenses, they are devising every means to weasel and inagle and distort so as to appear innocent and cool. The penitent thief gave it up. It’s a hopeless tack, anyway, before an all-knowing God!

Fourth, not only did he admit to wrong and guilt, he accepted his punishment as deserved. The penitent evildoer’s confession of sin and of faith shows the proper response to Jesus’ absolution (Cyril of Alexandria). The penitent thief is not ashamed of Christ’s suffering and does not see it as a stumbling block, and so he makes a confession of faith in the suffering, innocent Messiah. He sees on Christ’s body his own wounds, and despite the reality of Christ’s suffering and imminent death, he goes on to voice an even stronger confession: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”

This is the real test of humility before God. Many will mouth the confession of sin: “God be merciful to us miserable offenders get angry at him. And this anger reveals that they do not really feel undeserving before God. They still feel, deep down, that they have some rights before God. There are not many people like Job, who, when he lost everything, said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked shall I return; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” But this penitent thief did become like Job in the last minutes of his life – he took his suffering without complaint, and feared God.

Fifth, the thief acknowledged Jesus’ righteousness: “This man had done nothing wrong.” It didn’t make any difference to the first thief if Jesus was right or wrong. If he could drive the get-away car — that’s all that mattered. But it matters a lot to Jesus if we think his life was good or bad. Jesus does not want to drive a get-away car; he wants to be followed because we admire him. We must say with the thief: “This man has done nothing wrong.” This man only does what is good. This man only speaks the truth. This man is worthy of our faith and allegiance and imitation.

And then, sixth, the thief goes a step further and acknowledges that indeed, Jesus is a King. “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” Even though he is suffering now, Jesus has the mark of a King. For those who have eyes to see, he has a power here on the cross — a power of love that makes him King over all his tormentors. He is not only good, he is powerful, and one day will vindicate his great name, and every knee will bow and confess that Jesus is Lord — to the glory of God, the Father.

And finally, the penitent thief does one more thing. He fears God, admits wrong, accepts justice, acknowledges the goodness and power of Jesus. Now he pleads for help. “Jesus, remember when you come into your Kingdom.” Both thieves wanted to be saved from death. But O how differently they sought their salvation: 1) “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 2) “Jesus, remember when you come into your Kingdom!” There is an infinite qualitative difference between “Save me!” and “Save me!”

Now what motive does Jesus give us to follow in the steps of the penitent thief? There is a fearful silence toward the railing thief: not a word recorded of Jesus to him. Perhaps a final pitying glance. But no promise. No hope.

But to the penitent Jesus says: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” This was almost too good. There would not even be a delay. Today the Spirit of Jesus and the renewed Spirit of the thief would be in union in Paradise. The promise would be without delay.

What is this paradise? The word is found in two other places in the New Testament. First, in 2 Cor. 12:3: Paul says, “I know a man in Christ, who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know; God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise — whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know, God knows — and he heard things which cannot be told, which man may not utter.” Thus Paradise is the heavenly abode of God where there are found things prepared by God for those who love him, which are utterly indescribable (1 Cor. 2:9). The second place the word “Paradise” is found is in Rev. 2:7. Here Jesus says to the church at Ephesus, “To him who conquers, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God.” And if we look at the end of the book of Revelation we find that the tree of life is in the heavenly city of God. In Rev. 22:1 John said, “Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

But in all this, the one thing that Jesus chose to mention to the repentant thief on the cross (if you can only say one thing, what do you say?) “You will be with me todayThe penitent thief considered the cross of Christ not to be a stumbling block but power rightly merits paradise. The same apostle says, “To those Jews who have been called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”43 The Lord also correctly gives paradise to him, because on the gibbet of the cross the thief confesses the one whom Judas Iscariot had sold in the garden. This is a remarkable thing. The thief confesses the one whom the disciple denied! This is a remarkable thing, I say. The thief honors the one who suffers, while Judas betrayed the one who kissed him! The one peddled flattering words of peace, and the other preached the wounds of the cross. He says, “Remember me, Lord, when you come in your kingdom.”

Read Full Post »


This was just sent in by an attendee at the event which took place Wednesday, December 1, 2010

By James Cullum
alexandrianews.org

Reverend Canon Charles H. Nalls gives the sermon. (Photo: James Cullum) Reverend Canon Charles H. Nalls gives the sermon. (Photo: James Cullum)

For many years, Alexandrians have celebrated their Scottish heritage during the first week in December. Those celebrations began last night at The Church of St. Andrew and St. Margaret of Scotland on E. Monroe Avenue.

More than 100 people attended the service. The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls, rector of St. Alban’s Anglican Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia, delivered the homily.

“Whenever we come around to St. Andrew’s Day in the calendar, I am reminded of my mother…who took great delight in letting everyone know about her Scottishness, particularly my father, of the plight of the poor Englishman – whose national costume is a worn raincoat patented by one Charles MacIntosh, a Glaswegian. She would remind my dad that the Englishman drives a car fitted with tires invented by John Boyd Dunlap of Dreghorn, Scotland

“At the office he received his mail with adhesive stamps, which although they bore the Queen of England’s head, were invented by John Chambers of Dundee, Scotland. The Englishman might have occasion to use the telephone, invented by Alexander Graham Bell of Edinburgh, which is of course, in Scotland

“At home in the evening the English squire watches the news on a telly, which was invented by John Logie Baird of Helensburough, Scotland, and here’s an item about the U. S. Navy founded by John Paul Jones of Kirkbean, Scotland. Now having been reminded too much of Scotland, in desperation, the gent picks up the Bible only to find that the first man mentioned in the foreword of the good book is a Scott – King James VI – who authorized its translation.

“Nowhere can an Englishman turn to escape the ingenuity of the Scots. He could take to drink but the Scots make the finest in the world. He might think of taking up a rifle and ending it all only to find that his breech-loading rifle was invented by Captain Patrick Ferguson of Pitfours, Scotland. So he goes back to the previous step, sipping single malt and contemplating his fortune, safe in the Bank of England, which was founded by William Patterson of Dumfries, Scotland.

The congregation of St. Andrew and St. Margaret of Scotland celebrated St. Andrew. (Photo: James Cullum) The congregation of St. Andrew and St. Margaret of Scotland celebrated St. Andrew. (Photo: James Cullum)

“Ingenious and omnipresent, these Scots seem to travel everywhere. And they have been a faithful people, for there is a long history of Scottish missionary zeal throughout the world.

“And so we turn to St. Andrew whom we commemorate this day – one of the patron saints of this parish. St. Andrew’s life teaches us so much about Christian discipleship and the need for missionary zeal, and gives us a great example as we have just begun this holy season of Advent.

“God may need us to be the instrument, or the fishing hook even to bring future deacons, priests, bishops, religious, or even great saints to Him. Likewise, little did St. Andrew know that bringing the simple boy with fish and bread to the Lord would lead to one of the greatest miracles Jesus performed, or that his introducing some Greeks, some non-believers to Christ, would inaugurate a new stage in the spreading of the Good News. Here is a key lesson for those of us who are traditional Anglicans: after the years in the wilderness, we may have grown comfortable in our parishes, perhaps even complacent in our lives. How easy it is to look inward… to the things that make life comfortable. The inward gaze, to run home to evaluate or question the call to follow and fish, that will be the end for us. We shall become a footnote in ecclesiastical history.

“So, let us redouble our efforts this Advent and, in memory of St. Andrew, bring each other into a closer relationship with Christ and to bring others to Him. It is our mission,” Nalls said.

The blessing of the tartans. (Photo: James Cullum) The blessing of the tartans. (Photo: James Cullum)

At the end of the service, men of Scottish ancestry brought their clan tartans forward to be blessed.

St. Andrew’s Day in Alexandria

According to the program describing the service: “Tonight’s ceremonies have both parochial and civil meaning, dating back to 18th century Alexandria. The election and installation of City officials on St. Andrew’s Day, 1761, is described in an issue of the Maryland Gazette of that year: ‘Mr. William Ramsay, first projector and founder of this promising city, was invested with a gold chain and medal….The election being ended, the Lord Mayor and Common Council, proceeded by officers of State, sword and mace bearers, and accompanied by many gentlemen of the town and country, made a grand procession to different quarters of the city, with drums, trumpets, a band of music and colors flying….

‘The shipping in the harbor displayed their flags and streamers, continuing firing guns the whole afternoon. A very elegant entertainment was prepared at the Coffee House where the Lord Mayor, aldermen and Common Council dined. In the evening, a ball was given by the Scots gentlemen, at which numerous and brilliant company of ladies danced. The night concluded with bonfires, illuminations and other demonstrations.’

“These Scottish beginnings were reinforced in 1780 with the founding of the St. Andrews Society of Alexandria, a charitable and social organization of men of Scottish birth and ancestry and the forerunner of the St. Andrews Society of Washington, DC.”

Read Full Post »


(Given at Saint Alban’s, Richmond, Virginia)

“Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”-St. Matthew 11:11

Here we are at last on Rose Sunday, the Third Sunday in Advent.  This Sunday used to be called “Gaudete Sunday,” Gaudete being the Latin word that means “rejoice,” but with the ending that makes it a command. So we are really being commanded to rejoice.

So why should we rejoice? Certainly, Advent is a time for rejoicing because it is a season that revives our expectation of the most joyful event in history: the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Most High God, born of the Virgin Mary. As both the Prophet Zephaniah and St. Paul proclaim, the Lord is in our midst, He is near to us, and with Him the kingdom of Heaven is near.

Today, even these very different liturgical colors call to mind the third last thing-Heaven. We could engage in some rose-colored thinking about Heaven. After all, there are so many popular notions about Heaven—you know, the angels, harps, fluffy clouds, chubby cherubs floating about. The sentimentality of it even struck a curmudgeon like writer Ambrose Bierce who defined Heaven as,

A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.

Certainly each time I think of Heaven, I always come back to one a favorite quote, “If I ever reach heaven I expect to find three wonders there: first, to meet some I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had expected to see there; and third, the greatest wonder of all, to find myself there.”

There is much to think on, when we think about Heaven. How many times do we ever hear convincing homilies about heaven (or for that matter the other last things, death, judgment, and hell)?  Rather than being an affirmation of the realities of eternity, most homilies and sermons tend to be vague.  This is particularly the case with funeral homilies which usually end up in a humanistic celebration of the person who has died.

In our modern day culture we are continually bombarded by secularism, and Fr. Romano Guardini, writing in his book Eternal Life, What you need to know about Death, Judgment and Life Everlasting, calls the deprecation of the eternal, of the heavenly, by modern society an evil. He is right: it is evil. As Christians,  we need to be continually reminded of the most basic fundamentals of our Faith, especially the reality of heaven and of the eternal.

Our Gospel lesson at first blush doesn’t seem to have much to do with Heaven. It is an interchange between two emissaries from St. John Baptist who ask Christ, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” Essentially, they are posing the question as to whether Christ is the Messiah of Hebrew prophecy. And look at the response, Jesus answered and said unto them, “Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” Christ is telling them about his authority. There is talk of Our Lord’s upcoming earthly ministry, present reality, and the miracles that He will perform. But with these miracles Christ gives them and us a glimpse of Heaven where all things are made new.

You see, beloved in Christ, Heaven is far beyond what we now experience. We do not have adequate words or images to describe it. And our culture unfortunately has developed stereotyped ways of talking about heaven. Some of them are “cute”, you know,“Good old Joe is now up in that big golf course in the sky.” And, maybe a little better are images of heaven as reunion. You’ve heard this before, you know “She is finally back with her husband (mother, son, sister) whom she loved so much.” I suppose this at least expresses something about the “communion of saints.” Nevertheless it leaves out what makes the communion possible: seeing God himself. I don’t know about you, but the thought of heaven as a giant “sharing” session sounds to me…well… more like the other place.

An image of heaven that I personally love is from the Chronicles of Narnia,. by C.S. Lewis. Narnia is a kind of heaven and it is ruled by a magnificent lion called Aslan, Aslan represents Jesus. After the children who are the protagonists have spent some time in Narnia, Aslan tells them they must return to their own world. The children become very sad and bury themselves in Aslan’s mane. Aslan reassures them that one day they will be able to return to Narnia. The children say, “it is not Narnia. It is you, Aslan.”

It is about Christ, it is about our Lord.  For you see,  God is the fullness of being. Things here can only dimly reflect him. When we stand before him any other joy, or pleasure, or beauty, or goodness will seem as pale. This joy which excels everything else is called the “Beatific Vision,” that is seeing God face to face. (I Jn 3:2, I Cor 13:12, Rev. 22:4). In the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 22:26-27):

The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the LORD that seek him: your heart shall live forever. All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.

“Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” Heaven will fulfill those deep longings of your heart. But this is not a yearning for place. It is not about clouds and harps, cotton-candy clouds and cherubim.  Our deepest longing is really for a person, for Jesus himself. To be with him is the kingdom of heaven.  Perhaps someday you and I can come to the point of saying, “It is not heaven I desire. It is you, Jesus.”

You see, the proper focus should ever be on Christ, this hunger for Him brings Heaven into focus for us in the here and now. Listen to the words of the Epistle to the Ephesians:

Blessed [be] the God and Father ofour Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly [places] in Christ: (Eph 1:3) According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. (Eph 2:4-6)

That’s the work that has been done for us—heaven awaits. And, so we have two visions, one for the people of Christ in the here and now and one for the future, and both are visions of heaven of life with and in God. But we are called to know him now, to experience His grace and his love right now, to be part of His people right now. And in the life to come, we shall see Him, not as through a glass darkly, but in those heavenly places.

Shouldn’t this  fill us with humility, gratitude, and a desire to greater service? Shouldn’t we love Christ, to desire Him? And isn’t it a call that we ought to be more dedicated in our service to Christ? Let us ask, this Rose Sunday whether we have cause to rejoice. Is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven among us? We’ve got just a few days of Advent to think about this, to reflect on this. Do we truly believe the word Emmanuel, God-with-us? If we believe it, then we must show it.

Heaven will fulfill those deep longings of your hearts. It is the pearl of great price. It is Jesus himself. Amen.

\\\

Read Full Post »


(Given at Saint Alban’s Pro-Cathedral, Richmond, Virginia)

“AND there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars…” –Luke 21:25

This morning we have come to the Second Sunday in Advent-a season of expectation. But when we hear the Scripture, we likely wonder if there is “anything new under the sun”, or the moon and the stars. We have heard it all before; we know the songs by heart. We can anticipate what John the Baptist, Paul, Luke, Jeremiah, Isaiah and the others are going to say even before we hear them.

And there is the bustle of the season. We will also make our way to the stores and malls, and spend hours shopping on the internet. We will make lists and wrap presents and put up decorations. There are cards to write and cookies to bake, and endless school functions and parties to attend. And, so, when the Christmas story is read, don’t we find it all so very familiar?

The challenge to us, beloved in Christ, is to shake off the routine. Each Advent is a return to the beginning…but it is always a new beginning. There is a new message, in a new way, in a new year. A priest told a story about being on an Advent retreat. The leader of the retreat asked them to consider what they were waiting for, what did they expect? He said, “The most disastrous answer you can give is nothing!” The priest was surprised at how strongly he said it and, worse, suspected that the most disastrous answer of the season was his. He expected nothing. So, I am asking you the same question: What are you waiting for this Advent? What do you expect? (story by Fr. Gerald Mullally, St. Patrick’s Church in Milford, Pennsylvania)

I think the answer for many is, frankly, nothing. We do not expect miracles or judgment. We really only expect gifts, cards, visitors, and long lines in stores. Very often we get exactly and only what we expect.

Advent is not just about preparing our hearts for the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. We live in the now, but not yet…between the first coming of Jesus when he was born at Bethlehem and his second coming at the end of time when he will come as Judge of all. Here’s that second Last Thing-judgment.

More than four out of every five Americans agree that “we all will be called before God at judgment day to answer for our sins”. In the Creed which we recite every Mass we proclaim: “He will come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” But that judgment thing, that Last Thing, we like to pass that right by, don’t we? To put it in secular Christmas terms, we concentrate on the presents, but don’t like to think about the fact that there might be coal or, worse, nothing in the stocking.  Author and theologian Peter Kreeft notes that the great project of the prince of the world is to convince us that God is so-judgmental in this life, and all merciful in the next, rather than the opposite which it the reality. This draws us to think about the presents and goodies that await and to forget about amending our lives, because one day we may be judged.

Why did the early Church long for the Second Coming of Jesus and with it judgment? Why was it the Church expectant? Why are we invited now to reflect on that Second Coming and judgment and long for them during Advent? Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem, his death and resurrection are not yet the final victory of evil. The final victory overevil will take place when Jesus comes again the second time as judge. The Second Coming of Jesus will complete what Jesus began with his birth in Bethlehem, his death and resurrection. It will bring the fullness of salvation to the world.  God is present with us throughout all of history but at the Second Coming of Jesus all of history will be seen as leading to God’s final purpose and goal. Advent is a time for that “great expectation.” It is time to refresh and renew what we expect from God.  In the words of the Psalmist, we ask,

Remember, O LORD, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old. Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O LORD. (Psalm 25)

This should be our Advent expectation, really our plea for the time of judgment, as we wait for Him “who shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David.” (Luke 1:32)

Ok, well and good, that’s just great for the future, but what about the here and now, our daily lives?  It is the same thing, the same question, or questions.  “What do you expect from God, and how do you let your expectations influence your life?”

“There is story about a Midwestern town that was having a bad drought. Crops were dying and the life of the farm town itself was in danger. A local pastor decided to hold a prayer service to ask for rain and asked all the people to come and bring with them symbols of their faith that God would deliver them. People showed up with rosaries, statues of the Blessed Mother, crosses, prayer books, Bibles and even some holy oil. All came forward and prayed for God to send rain. Finally, there was only one young girl left. Without any hesitation she came to the front and slowly opened her symbol of faith: a brightly colored umbrella. She knew what it meant to expect something from God!” [from Msgr. Gerald Mullally]

As Christians, we should have the greatest expectations of all. We expect peace with God. We expect peace of soul. We expect to never walk alone. We expect God to be closer to us than our breath itself. We expect Christ to return and bring the fullness of the Kingdom or God. None of that is expecting too much. It is only expecting what God has promised.

When we say we are expecting something, we cannot continue to live as if we expect nothing. Do you expect eternal life? Then choose it by protecting life wherever it is threatened: before birth, in the poor and the sick. Do you expect God’s mercy on the day of judgment? Then, beloved in Christ, show mercy now. Show it to those who have wronged you, to those who seem like enemies, to strangers in need.

Do you expect to be made new, to be perfected? Well, then keep your eyes turned toward the Lord, and let none that wait on thee be ashamed by sin. Hear the call of that truly expectant prophet  Isaiah who called Israel to, “Shake thyself from the dust; arise…” The expectant life, the Advent life calls us to rise from the dust of the old life, the dust of sin, in confession and penance, in humility.

Do you expect to “rest in peace?” Then be a peacemaker here in the now: don’t use violent language, don’t respond to the first hint of aggression with retaliation in anger, don’t take offense too easily, stop complaining.

In the words of the Epistle, “Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is a call to the community, those who want to live in the body of Christ, Jesus was not just talking when He said that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. It is at hand, right here, with us. If we don’t expect to see it, don’t feel it, it’s likely that is because we are not actively choosing to live in it.

Archbishop Wulfstan of York, writing just after the turn of the last millennium, offers us the Advent invitation, the truly expectant way of living, “…, beloved people, let us do what is needful for us, protect rselves earnestly against that [day] and help ourselves while we may and might, lest we die when we least expect to. But let us love God above all other things and work his will as earnestly as we can: then he will repay us as will be most pleasing to us when we have the best need.”

And so, on this Second Sunday in Advent, “Let integrity and uprightness preserve [us]; for [we] wait on thee.  (Psalm 25:21)  To Him be praise and glory in all the world,
world without end, Amen.

Read Full Post »


(Given at the Parish of Ss. Andrew and Margaret, Alexandria, Virginia)

“How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things.” –Romans 10:15.

I was honored to be asked by Fr. Nick to be asked to deliver the homily on this feast of Saint Andrew and to celebrate the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan.  You see, whenever we come around to Saint Andrew’s Day in the church calendar I am reminded of my mother who was a grand-child of the diaspora—no, not the one from the book of Exodus–but one that ran from Glasgow to Belfast to the States to here.

She was a woman who took great delight in letting everyone, and I mean everyone, know about her Scottishness, particularly my father, of the plight of the poor Englishman—the Englishman whose national costume is a worn raincoat patented by one Charles MacIntosh, a Glaswegian. She would remind my dad that the Englishman drives a car fitted with tires invented by John Boyd Dunlop of Dreghorn…Scotland.  At the office he receives his mail with adhesive stamps which, although they bear the queen of England’s head, were invented by John Chambers of Dundee…Scotland.  The Englishman might have occasion to use the telephone, invented by Alexander Graham Bell of Edinburgh, which is of course, in Scotland.

At home in the evening, the English squire watches the news on a tellly which was invented by John Logie Baird of Helensburough…Scotland and hears an item about the U.S. Navy founded by John Paul Jones of Kirkbean, Scotland. Now having been reminded too much of Scotland of the Scots, in desperation the gent picks up the Bible, only to find that the first man mentioned in the foreword of good book is a Scot – King James VI – who authorized its translation.

Nowhere, nowhere can an Englishman turn to escape the ingenuity of the Scots. He could take to drink but the Scots make the finest in the world—in despair over the omnipresent Scots, he might think of ending it all, only to find that his breech-loading rifle was invented by Captain Patrick Ferguson of Pitfours, Scotland.  So he goes back to the previous step, sipping single malt and contemplating his fortune, safe…safe in the Bank of England which…founded by William Patterson of Dumfries, Scotland.

Ingenious and omnipresent, these Scots—they seem to travel everywhere. And they have been a faithful people, for there is a long history of Scottish missionary zeal throughout the world.  There are few things more formidable than a Scots preacher—in one church in Indiana where I served as a youth pastor during college they maintained that their Scottish founder rode more than a million miles in his 50 year ministry. Perhaps that is why the expression in his portrait which hung in the sanctuary was so pained.  But, this missionary zeal may well account for Saint Andrew’s patronage over the Scots.

And so we turn to the Saint whom we commemorate this day-one of the patron Saints of this parish. Saint Andrew’s life teaches us so much about Christian discipleship and the need for missionary zeal, and gives us a great example as we have just begun this holy the season of Advent. I’d like to focus on three elements: Andrew’s time at the Jordan, his bringing others to Christ, and then his preaching of the Gospel even unto death.  

We first encounter St. Andrew at the Jordan River with St. John the Baptist, “the forerunner”—the forerunner of the Jesus, who was there making straight the paths to receive the Lord. Those paths were straight enough in Andrew’s heart and mind so that when John Baptist, one day, looked up and said, “Behold the Lamb of God!” Saint Andrew immediately left John and went and saw where Jesus lived. (John 1:35) After only a few hours, Andrew had  recognized Christ Jesus as the Messiah.  He went to fetch his brother Simon, told him that he had found the Messiah, and brought Simon to Jesus.

Andrew and Simon Peter then returned to their fishing business in Capernaum, but not for long.  As we hears in our second reading from  Gospel of Saint Matthew (St. Matt. 4:18), Jesus saw them again and called them from their boats to make them fishers of men. Their response: they immediately abandoned their nets and became his followers. (John 2:43-44)

Later on we find Andrew bringing both the boy with the five loaves and two fish to the Lord-the raw material for Jesus’ great miracle of the feeding of five-thousand. After Pentecost, Christian tradition says Andrew proclaimed the Gospel in Greece, which led to his martyrdom in Patras, being crucified on a decussate or X-Shaped cross in Achaia, northern Greece.

The passage in our first reading is a free quotation from the prophet Isaiah, applied by Saint Paul to the glorious proclamation of the Gospel to the world, and therefore especially appropriate for our consideration upon the feast of the first missionary, Saint Andrew. The text brings before us the dignity, importance and moral beauty of missionary work.

Advent brings home for us the fact that world is waiting in darkness even as on the eve of the Nativity.  Individual souls even in nominally Christian lands are waiting to have brought home to them, by the words or influence of some Christian worker, some missionary for Christ, that truth which is the most precious in the world—the value of the soul as the object of God’s love, its future in heaven or hell, and the means of its salvation as summed up in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 The circumstances under which Isaiah uttered this beautiful passage recounted in the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Romans is important to our message.  The second portion of the prophecy of Isaiah, from the fortieth chapter to the end, is concerned with the return to Jerusalem of the exiles from Babylon.  It is mingled with the prophecy of that glorious restoration that he foresees the establishment of the Messianic kingdom, and the proclamation of the Gospel to all nations.

First, then, Jerusalem in the time of Cyrus is represented with a watchman upon its walls, announcing the appearance over the surrounding mountains of the messengers who herald the approach of the returning exiles. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings that publisheth peace.” The messenger is glorified, and made and becomes beautiful on account of the message that he brings. Long had the city lain in ruins. Now once more it was to be rebuilt, and the worship of God restored in His temple.

And by the time that Saint Paul wrote, the Messiah had come and had been rejected. He had wept over the city He loved so well, and proclaimed its doom. But with the fall of the earthly Jerusalem the universal kingdom of Christ was to be established at the Second Advent. So Saint Paul applies the passage, not to those who are approaching, but to those who are leaving Jerusalem—going out from Jerusalem–with the knowledge of Christ, to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world.

As we hear in the words of the Psalmist, “BE joyful in the LORD, all ye lands: * serve the LORD with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.”  The great commission as prefigured in the Psalms.

Jew and Gentile alike lay in the darkness and moral ruin; but the message of peace was sent forth, and the messengers who bore it were the missionaries of the Gospel. In our own day the majority of the world is still in the darkness of heathenism, or slipping into unbelief, and even among Christian nations there is much room for missionary work,

St. Paul, in applying these words of Isaiah, gives expression to his conception of the splendor of missionary endeavor. It is the bringing to souls, held in a captivity worse than that of Babylon, the good news of salvation; and the first messengers who cross the mountains around Jerusalem to go out to the world with the Gospel of Christ are the Apostles.

Beloved in Christ, it is to missionary work that all the Christian world at one time or another owes its knowledge of Jesus. Every Christian nation has its story of the pioneers of Christianity, its soldiers of Christ, the first who brought the good tidings to that country while it was still heathen. But of all this noble army Saint Andrew is the leader, the first missionary, the first to follow Christ, the first to bring another soul to Jesus.

You see, Saint Andrew had truly the missionary spirit of promptness in accepting Christ’s invitation, “Come and see” (Saint John :39); of zeal in bringing another, his brother Peter, to Christ; and later, of readiness in obeying Christ’s call to leave his boats and nets, and to follow Him. He had the missionary’s love of souls and fellow man, the missionary’s appreciation of the capacity of the soul for the call of Christ. (St. John 12:20-22).

As Saint John Chrysostom once noted, look at the faith of Andrew and his brother and their obedience.  For though they were in the midst of their work when they heard his command they did not delay or procrastinate. They did not look inward to what they had, and try a cost benefit analysis or even say, “Let us return home, and talk things over with our family.” Instead, “they left everything behind and followed,” even as Elisha did when he followed Elijah. For Christ seeks this kind of obedience from us, such that we delay not even for a moment, no matter what excuse we may think that we have to resist the call.

As to the second question, the missionary imperative, Saint Andrew’s first instinct was to bring others to Christ. As we have heard, the first man he brought was his brother Simon. How could he possibly know what the Lord had in store for his brother? His sibling, a simple fisherman like him, was to be made the rock on whom the Lord would build his Church. Who knows what the Christ might do with those we introduce or bring closer to him?

God may need us to be the instrument, or the fishing hook, even to bring future deacons, priests, bishops, religious, or even great saints to him. Likewise, little did Saint Andrew know that bringing the simple boy with fish and bread to the Lord would lead to one of the greatest miracles Jesus ever performed, or that his introducing some Greeks, some non-believers to Christ, would inaugurate a new stage in the spreading of the Good News. We just never know what can happen when we introduce someone to Jesus.

Here is a key lesson for those of us who are traditional Anglicans.  After the years in the wilderness, we have may have grown comfortable, comfortable in our parishes, perhaps even complacent in our lives.  How easy it is to look inward—inward to the boats, and nets and things that make the livings that make life comfortable.  The inward gaze, to run home to evaluate or question the call to follow and fish, that will be the end for us.  We shall become a footnote to ecclesiastical history.  Beloved in Christ, we are called out as was Saint Andrew—we are called to bring the unalloyed faith to a darkened and hurting world.  So, let us redouble our efforts this Advent and in memory of Saint Andrew to bring each other into closer relationship with Christ and to bring others to him—it is our mission.

Finally, Saint Andrew brought people to the Lord not just by his actions, but by his words as well. We don’t have any extant letters  or homilies from him. But we do have an ancient account of his martyrdom, in which we can see the way he died and extrapolate from there to how he would have lived.

The martyrdom account says that it took him 38 hours to die on that X-shaped Cross. During those two days, it adds, he preached incessantly to the people. We can only imagine how difficult it must have been for St. Andrew to preach under those circumstances, difficult even to draw breath.  Yet, he preached the Gospel not only with his lips, but in his life and until its very end. This ultimate witness on the Cross, his two-day long martyrdom, shows us quite clearly how much he was dying to bring the Good news to others, a truth worth living for until the very end, and a truth worth dying for.

So, on this Saint’s day, let us ask the tough questions…the Saint Andrew’s questions.  Do we have his missionary spirit, and what are we doing to show it?  In regard to home missions, are we interested in the souls of our friends and relations in leading them to Christ?

With respect to foreign missions, to our ACC Missionary Society of St. Paul, do we devote time to a study of missionary fields, their needs, and possibilities? Are we regular in prayer for all foreign missions, and especially for those for which we have undertaken to pray?  In almsgiving, do we strive to support others in the mission field?

Surely Saint Andrew’s Day calls us all to renewed effort in missionary work, and Saint Paul reminds us “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things,” and this applies not only to those who go out them­selves into the mission field, but to those who by their prayers and alms enable others to act as substitutes for them.

        And so we turn to St. Andrew as we prepare to cross the threshold of Advent and ask that it might be a great period of preparation for us. May we be serious about making straight the paths for the Lord, so that when we hear the words “Behold the Lamb of God”, we may cling to this Lamb, bring others to Him, and preach Him, with our lives and with our lips, for as long as we have breath! Amen!

Read Full Post »


“Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, ‘This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.’” -St. John 6:14

I’d like to speak to you this morning about miracles.  But before getting to the heart of the sermon I wanted to mention that we are providing a food miracle to two Richmond families in need this next week.  Please drop off contributions of food or money to help our neighbors by Tuesday afternoon.  Several of us are going to drop off your gifts to the families on Wednesday afternoon.  I urge you to be generous particularly as the family of ten lost all of their possessions and home in a fire.

This morning, as we approach Advent, we turn to a Gospel miracle—the feeding miracle of the 5,000. In our culture, we seem to be ambivalent about miracles. We like the nice, cozy image of a miracle—you know, the miracle filtered through the lens of the television. The little girl quietly healed in hospital-seemingly miraculously-although we are treated to the medical folks always there and we know who is really responsible, don’t we?

Or there is the miraculous like the escape from the locked, submerged box—the theatrical offered for our entertainment.  They are presented as something wholly unusual—and always with some human element, some earthly cleverness involved.

Beloved in Christ, miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature. (St. Augustine).  The miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine which was, after all, a very small miracle. God just raises the level of the impossible.

Our Lord’s miracles fall generally into three classes: the raising of the dead, the healing of the sick, and the feeding of the multitude. All these are connected with the gift of life—its bestowal on the dead; its restoration, after impairment, to the sick; its preservation to the hungry. And the powers shown in these three kinds of miracles our Lord has committed to His Church, in the three Sacraments of Baptism, Penance, and the Holy Eucharist.

In Baptism there is the bestowal of spiritual life to the dead soul, that is, to the soul which has only had that moral life common to all humanity, and to which the spiritual life imparted in Baptism is a superadded gift. In Penance the life of grace, which has been forfeited by sin, is restored to the soul. While in the Holy Eucharist the life given in Baptism is preserved and developed by feeding upon Christ.

In the Gospel for today we have an account of the great miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, which finds a place in every Gospel. I was reminded in our pre-Advent retreat of a remarkable passage of Scripture-St. John records that in the synagogue of Capernaum our Lord made this miracle the basis for one of His most solemn discourses, in which He reveals that He is “the bread of life,” “which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world;” that “if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever,” and that the bread which He will give is His Flesh, which He will give for the life of the world.”

This leads to a discussion among His hearers—you can almost hear the pitched back and forth that results in the question, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” to which our Lord replies, not by answering the question directly, but by re­asserting with its absolute necessity. Jesus says to them, “Verily, verily, I say untoyou, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood; ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” (St. John 6:53-57).

For us as Christians it is sufficient that our Lord said these words. But, so that we may not only believe but understand them, it we should look at the conditions under which every gift of life is bestowed by God. This is the truly miraculous, constant gift that we take so much for granted.

All life, physical, mental, moral, or spiritual, is the gift of God; but in every case it the gift seems to be conditioned by the use of food. Life in us is an effect, of which God is the con­tinuous Cause; but for its preservation and development a further gift of food is necessary, and this is always something from outside of us, that we take in and use.

In our physical lives we feed upon all of the bounty of the earth—something we will celebrate on Thanksgiving Day.  In mental life we feed upon the stores of knowledge and experience gained by our fellow men and women, and assimilate them by the processes of thought. In our spiritual life (which is the elevation of our moral life to a higher plane), we have something similar; for to sustain it we feed upon the Word of God revealed in Holy Scripture,and  especially upon the Real Presence of Christ given us in the Holy Communion.

In Baptism we became members of Christ and children of God. Then that union with Christ begins, by which the life of grace (Which is the life of God) flows through our soul, and we become “partakers of the Divine nature,” and are made “the sons of God.” But this gift of Divine life needs for its sustenance Divine food, so that when our Lord said, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His Blood, ye have no life in you,” He was not proclaiming something arbitrary,
but revealing a necessary law of our spiritual life, an  analogy to the things that sustain our physical and mental life, but something much, much more—a food and drink that are imaged in the feeding miracle—a miracle that will become the natural course for the Christian.

Our Lord used food at the beginning of His ministry changing water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana.  We hear of miraculous catches of fish. The previously dead Lazarus eats as a sign of life.  In fact, our Lord takes food after His Resurrection to demonstrate that He is, in fact, alive–risen for us.

God just raised the bar.

Let’s focus in on this. In this world our physical life needs for its support material food. In heaven apparently it will be sustained by feeding upon the tree of life.

Here, in this world, our mental life requires knowledge of truth, a partial knowledge of which greatly intermingled with error, we obtain from human teachers. (I leave it to you all to think about modern education.) We gain our fuller knowledge, without error, from the revealed word of God, but the absolute and perfect knowledge will not be ours until we attain the beatific vision—that time when we shall fully know, or as St. Paul tells us, “Now we see as in a mirror darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall fully know even as also I am fully known.” In the beatific vision we shall see God, and in Him all creatures; so that we shall know all truth of which the human mind is capable.

Not only will our intellect, by the light of glory, drink in this knowledge of absolute truth, but our will will be enabled to love perfectly. We will love perfectly Him Whom we are designed to love, Whom we have desired and learned to love here; but against Whom, on account of our sinful nature, we have so often sinned. This is filling to overflowing.

On the physical level in the Gospel, there is a miracle in the feeding itself-5,000 from a few loaves and fish with food left over at the end of the feast.  The scene is one of a superabundant blessingBa largess that
stands in stark contrast to the images of desolation we hear of in today=s morning prayer reading from the fourth chapter of Jeremiah. If you haven’t yet read that passage, take it up today and read from verse 23 to the end of the chapter.

There is no cornucopia; no overflowing blessing such as that which Christ gives to the faithful on a Galilean hillside.  There is just an image of ruin faced by a disobedient people.  It was an image well familiar to those gathered on that day-an image for us that belongs in other places in the world.

Jesus breaks and distributes the bread as He will at the Last Supper.  In fact, the disciples are commanded to gather up the fragments, just as at the conclusion of the Eucharist.  This drives home the nature of the miracle on the hearts of those who would be disciples an overflowing of God’s grace, and a people filled.

Yet, as is the case with many witnesses to the miracles of God, the people were interested only in the food, not what the miracle indicated (John 6:26).  The witnesses are missing the true identity
of ChristBan identity that they should have recognized in the so familiar story of the Hebrews being fed by God with manna
in their wilderness wandering. No, the focus is on the multiplication of the earthly loaves on earthly food and the people want to follow in a man… a mere prophet.

It is that focus on the food that cannot sustain that cannot truly nourish that is of concern. The people miss the true miracle, they mistake the food that perishes and another that endures.

To be sure, many people expend much time, energy, and money for food which soon perishes.  But, there are entire ministries, and I use the term very loosely, that are devoted to the superficial aspects of God’s blessing.  These “Gospel of Wealth” operations focus solely on the loaves and fishes blessings, but not the end in themselves.  The
material things that some obsess over, are a means to sustain us for the real food, the genuine sustenance.

Jesus would have people direct their lives toward the food which endures, the food that lay hidden to those on the shore at Galilee that day. It is the Word of God by which man truly lives ( Matthew 4:4) Job treasured it more than earthly food, (Job 23:12)  David valued it more than gold and fine food (Psalm 19:10;119:72,103,11) The prophet Jeremiah found it to be the rejoicing of his heart. (Jeremiah 15:16). It causes us to be reborn and endures forever. (1 Peter 1:22-25)

Here is the opportunity for the miraculous bounty-superabundance of life.  By giving ourselves to him wholly, by offering to be the loaves and the fishes in our witness and work for Christ we will be used to multiply His work in the world, bringing others to be filled.  By partaking of the right food, prayer, study and regular participation in His Holy Sacrament, we seek to become like the Lord more and more, always abounding, always growing in grace and knowledge and love of him.

For Jesus alone is the true bread of life, the living water, who truly satisfies. He alone provides the hope of eternal life (John 6:40) He alone offers the abundant life even now (John 10:11).

And so, this day, ask yourself, for what “food” do I labor? Is it the nourishment that only God can give us?  Or, does your focus in life drifting toward that which is purely temporal? Let’s ask ourselves the honest question, Are we striving for that which cannot truly satisfy or be a cause of thanksgiving?”

Consider what Isaiah wrote 700 years before Christ came (Isaiah 55:1-4), these words may serve as the invitation Jesus offers to all:

Every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not?

This, however, depends upon our feeding upon the Word of God and upon the Sacrament now. How diligent should we be in our study of God’s revelation, how careful our preparation for feeding upon the the Real Presence in the Holy Communion, that we may indeed have life…and have it more abundantly.  (St. John 10:10)  Amen.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »