Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ 2019
Strange about Melchizedek: mentioned briefly only twice in the Old Testament and then a whole chapter taking off on him in the New Testament, chapter 7 of the Letter to the Hebrews. We heard of him in the first reading. He appears at the beginning of Abraham’s story, but he is not a part of Abraham’s tribe. He comes out to bless Abraham after Abraham’s first victory over surrounding tribes and clans. And Melchizedek is identified as a king and as “a priest of God Most High.” Most Highis one of the very ancient names for God, preceding Abraham’s covenant. This is what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews noticed. So, he is a priest for all the world, not just for Israel or Abraham. And the second thing the author notices is that this priest brought out bread and wine to use as his offering to God Most High. Impossible for us as Christians not to connect this with the bread and wine that Jesus used at the Supper the night before he died. Melchizedek is mysterious, ancient, and obscure, for sure. But already in this priest the true priest, Jesus Christ, is foreshadowed and so already at work.
The only other place that Melchizedek is mentioned in the Old Testament is in Psalm 110. This is a royal psalm, and the Lord addresses an oracle to the king telling him, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Again, in Hebrews these words are understood as addressed by God to Jesus, who is called our great high priest. His is a priesthood greater than the Levitical priesthood of Israel, and it corresponds to a greater covenant. It is a priesthood that lasts forever, as the psalm text shows.
All this, in today’s liturgy, is meant to help us ponder more deeply the brief but intense passage we heard in the second reading, from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. This passage, from a textual point of view, is the oldest narrative we have of the actions and words of “the Lord Jesus” at the Supper “on the night he was handed over.” The bread and wine that Jesus takes up is the action of a priest in the order of Melchizedek, a priest for all the world, the priest of a new covenant.
Jesus’ words and actions are amazing. On the surface it looks like a rabbi celebrating Passover with his disciples. And it is at least that much. But the deeper meaning is that as priest he is offering a sacrifice and blessing God Most High. What is his sacrifice? It is himself! His words reveal it. He takes the bread and says over it, “This is my body that is for you.” His body is “forus”— which is to say, as a sacrifice forour sins and forour nourishment and communion in his sacrifice. He takes the cup of wine and declares it “the new covenant in my blood.” His blood is the blood of a new and eternal covenant established in the sacrifice of himself. His command after both the bread and the cup, “Do this in remembrance of me,” establishes this ritual action as a memorial that gives every subsequent generation access to what Jesus did once and for all. We ourselves are faithful to this command, and it is what we are doing all together here and now.
St. Paul instructs us as to the meaning of what we are doing. He says, “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” Jesus’ actions at the Supper refer to the death he was to undergo on the next day. At the supper Jesus shows himself in intention already going to the cross. The cross has already begun in the supper. That cross is the priestly act, and it is the sacrifice the priest offers. According to the Letter to the Hebrews, by this offering of his own blood Jesus enters straightaway into the heavenly sanctuary and is glorified as intercessor forever at the right hand of the Father. The ritual action we perform now in obedience to Jesus’ command is this joyful proclamation, the proclamation “of the death of the Lord until he comes.”
The gospel passage we heard from St. Luke is situated in Jesus’ ministry well before the Last Supper and the day of Jesus’ death. But it reminds us that Jesus was making signs with meals long before this last and greatest of his signs. He is training his disciples up, as it were, for his way of teaching and revealing the deep mystery of himself. From this gospel today we can take one line especially and apply it to ourselves in this moment and in every Eucharist we celebrate. “They all ate and were satisfied.” Yes, I should think so!
We celebrate this eucharistic mystery every day in this church. And it always means what I have been explaining it to mean— that, and, of course, inexhaustibly more. But today’s feast, named so majestically “The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ,” is given us by the Church to help us absorb the wonder of this most blessed and awesome sacrament. The collect on Holy Thursday calls it with names that stumble over each other trying to express its magnificence: “this most sacred Supper, a sacrifice new for all eternity, the banquet of love, so great a mystery, the fullness of charity and of life.” And this is a feast that originated in the Church in the 13th century to help establish deep within the minds and hearts of all the baptized that the presence of Jesus’ Body and Blood by means of these ritual signs, under the appearances of bread and wine, is a complete and absolute real presence, that there is no gap between the signs and the reality to which they refer. The Lord Jesus, crucified in our flesh and risen in the same, is present in that same flesh and blood in this wondrous sacrament, such that he can be adored by us in it and contemplated there by us as sheer and absolute real presenceof God into which we are drawn by this sacrament.
Any given celebration of the Mass goes by all too quickly to absorb the mystery. So we do well to adore this presence quietly afterwards as well. Sometimes we do it, as we will today, by exposing the sacred host in a monstrance. This is like a freeze shot of that moment in the Mass when the priest, just after pronouncing Jesus’ words, “This is my body, which will be given up for you,” shows it to the people. That moment never passes.
Here is a poem that can perhaps help us pray that moment in the Mass and our times of adoration of the same. It is called, Adoring the Sacrament Exposed.
I fix a glance on gold and bread
And a band of light begins to widen across the world.
I see my low latched God in bread
and touch him with my eyes in this one place
but see as well the why and how of so housed a host.
For I see the majesty
of a crucified now risen man
who in his body flails then fills the entire what-is
with what he now is.
A body risen, bread that is what he now is,
a band of light that likewise lifts his name —
all rocks and dirt are gold in him,
every face a jewel,
every time an emptied tomb.
And low beneath this band, low lies here a heart,
and heart breaks here to be
a vessel where fall the whitened drops of divinized dust and death.
O Vessel Me, Vessel Me,
all my short loving breaks my heart to be
Vessel of Thee, Vessel of Thee, low latched God,
latching Joy to me,
Joy and Wonder, Adoration and Thanks.
Homily for Pentecost Sunday
June 9, 2019
The Proclamation of the Scripture is a revelation of the event of this sacred liturgy, a revelation of the feast. So today is Pentecost, Pentecost here and now in this sacred liturgy. The Scriptures declare it: “Suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.” Then tongues as of fire on each one of us! And all of us “filled with the Holy Spirit”— now, today.These are the divine words from the first reading, and they exactly describe our assembly and this moment.
But what does it mean to say that all of us are “filled with the Holy Spirit.” St. Paul gives us a clear answer in the second reading. “But you are not in the flesh,” he says. “On the contrary, you are in the Spirit if the Spirit of God dwells in you.” He goes on to describe what the Spirit does in us: “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
It is “a Spirit of adoption.” This means that the Spirit gives to us the same relationship with the God the Father that has belonged to the Son from all eternity. St. Paul says, “You received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” Our monastic life is a sign of this mystery and a witness to others of its presence. It is evidence of the action of the Spirit in us. St. Paul says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heir of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
Dear friends, let us renew today our awareness of the greatness of the Christian life and of the monastic vocation. We are heirs of God! We are joint heirs with Christ! We participate in divine life. We participate in the life of the Trinity. By adoption we live inside the love that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit enjoy among themselves. In the Holy Spirit, and from the place of the Son, we cry, “Abba, Father!” This is the shape, this is the form of our entire life. In the Holy Spirit, and from the place of the Son, we cry, “Abba, Father!”
There is, however, a condition required for inheriting this divine life. And it is, says St. Paul, “if only we suffer with him so as to be glorified in him.” I would point out that this is also a description of monastic life according to the Rule of St. Benedict, who speaks of our, “…faithfully observing Christ’s teaching in the monastery until death, [and so] we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.” Monastic life lived according to this pattern is meant to be a gift to the whole church, especially to our students and guests and friends of the monastery who come here to pray with us. This is because monastic life is a revelation of the way in which every Christian is united to God. It is what I just said: In the Holy Spirit, and from the place of the Son, we all cry, “Abba, Father!” Every hour, every day, all day long. “I will bless the Lord God, all days and evermore.”
The Spirit gives us knowledge of the Father and the Son, brings us to know the nature of their relationship, teaches us that their relationship is love. God isthe love that constitutes the relationship between the Father and the Son and this love known by the Holy Spirit, because, “the Spirit scrutinizes all matters, even the depths of God.” (1 Cor 2: 10) This is the knowledge that the Holy Spirit gives to us. Jesus says this very clearly in the Gospel we heard today.
The Father and the Son make their dwelling place in us; that is, they place the love-that-they-are within us. And the Spirit makes us to know the magnificence of this reality. We want to be sure to hear the trinitarian shape of the words of Jesus. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always.” “I [the Son] will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate [the Holy Spirit] to be with you always.” Trinity is not some complicated, abstract dogmatic idea. It is this reality. It is the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who comes to us because the Sonhas asked the Father. And what will he do, this Advocate sent from the Father in response to the Son’s request? He will “teach us everything and remind us of all that Jesus told us.” In other words, he will help us to perceive the Father revealed in the Son and to perceive this as a reality, as a relationship, that has made its dwelling within us. Amazing! Divine help needed here for understanding! Divine help delivered today in the Holy Spirit! Today, now, the Spirit is with us, “teaching us everything and reminding us of all that Jesus told us.”
The Eucharist is the greatest, the most sublime gift, given us by the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist the Holy Spirit acts in such a way that the Father and the Son take up their dwelling within us by means of the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Every word, every gesture, every movement of the eucharistic liturgy that we are now celebrating effects and reveals that we are made the resplendent dwelling place of the Father and the Son by the working of the Holy Spirit.
Homily for the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord – June 2, 2019, Year C
Jesus, risen from the dead, is teaching his disciples and revealing to them the deep designs of God. His words open the passage of the Gospel we have just heard: “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day …” (Luke 24:46). This is death and resurrection held tightly together and seen as the deepest sense of the Scriptures. But there is more in the words of Jesus that follow. The fruit of his death and resurrection is specified as a content to be preached: “… and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:47-48). There follows something unique to Luke, both here in his Gospel and in the scene in Acts from our first reading that parallels this. It is Jesus’ command that they stay in Jerusalem until they “are clothed with power from on high.” Jesus calls this “the promise of my Father” that he will send (Luke 24:49).
After this we see a change of place. Jesus and the disciples leave the room where they have been gathered. In just a few succinct phrases Luke manages to sketch an amazing scene. As if in procession, Jesus is said to have “led them out as far as Bethany.” Then he “raised his hands and blessed them and was taken up to heaven.” An amazing lot of things seem to happen very quickly, or at least to be said very quickly. Not long before in the gospel, Jesus, risen, is speaking at some length with his overjoyed disciples and even taking something to eat in their presence. Now suddenly they are led outside to the edge of the city; Jesus blesses them; and is taken up to heaven. Strikingly, there is no sadness or disappointment here. We have the short phrase of Luke describing their immediate reaction – “they did him homage” – and their continued reaction – “they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God” (Luke 24:52-53).
As we hear this gospel today, these last verses, right now, converge with our present moment of prayer. That same great joy is given to us. It is not a joy that we are meant somehow to conjure up within ourselves. It is given us as the ascended Lord’s gift. This is what Word and Sacrament deliver. The disciples being continually in the temple praising God is continued now in this liturgy and in our daily and hourly praise in this monastery. And like the disciples, we are here to do homage to our risen and ascended Lord.
We should wonder at this fact: that Jesus is taken from our sight and yet there is great rejoicing. He prepares us for this with his teaching. He says, “A little while now and the world will see me no more; but you see me because I live and you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:19-20). So, “taken from our sight” means Jesus being in his Father and Jesus being in us. This is amazing. This is wondrous. This is today’s feast.
The Ascension gives a perspective of what maybe could be called the ontological measurement of the death of Jesus. Here’s what I mean. Something of infinite proportions happens as Jesus dies. It is all divine action, even as human nature, in the human nature of Jesus, is the instrument of this divine action. It is sheer and total divine action. Not just one thing like the making of a flower or a mountain. It is totally God being God in the death of Jesus. And so it is Father, Son, and Spirit all acting; and the action is the pouring out of the divine life into the whole of creation to bring it into communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This death of Jesus is a horrifying, excruciating death because this divine outpouring happens where sin reigns. But it is likewise simultaneously glorious because it is Father, Son, and Spirit being love in this realm and in this way. Ascension leads us to a level of the mystery where we do not find a clear distinction between death and resurrection, just as in the Scriptures the words pasch andpaschal mean both the death and resurrection. So, resurrection is not a sort of “oh whew, death – that was awful, thank God that’s over.” Instead “resurrection” is the sense of this wondrous outpouring of the divine life that the death of Jesus is never ending. That giving is always happening, that life-giving death is always present. It coincides with the Son’s always being being-begotten, and in it, then, the Father is present as begetter, and “the Spirit scrutinizes” (1 Cor 2:10) all this and gives us understanding and communion in it all. That is resurrection. And, of course, it is another realm. And it is Ascension because we see him no longer. And it is all spirit as “God is spirit” (John 4:24). And so, one doesn’t see or touch Jesus as just being up and running again. One has a huge yet tentative sense of his new presence, the newness of his giving himself to me – to us all! – by means of his death, which never, never stops pouring out divine life into the whole creation. So, his death merges into this continuous presence which we can also call resurrection and can also call ascension. This is the sense of what we Catholics have loved to say for centuries about the sacrifice of Calvary being present on our altar during the celebration of Holy Mass.
The sense of this is always strong in the celebration of the Mass, particularly in that space in the Eucharistic Prayer between the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the consecration. As the words of institution begin, and with our general sense of knowing all that is about to be accomplished right here on the altar before us, we can sense that this remembering of the words and actions of Jesus at the Supper are never over. These words and actions are already a part of his death, for by means of his words and gestures he is expressing his willingness to go to death for our sake (“… my body given up for you … “my blood for you and for many”). The death that never stops being the outpouring of divine life began in the supper, and so the memory of the supper places us again inside the event of that giving. That event is never over, and it’s never being over is resurrection. And that event is not one event among many, but it is infinite divine total action of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in relation to their creation. It is their communion among themselves being given in communion with the whole creation. It is everything. Or what is not this is hell, is nothing, is death and sin.
So today Jesus is taken from our sight – which means that he is in the Father and he is in us. And we are continually in the temple giving praise and thanks to God.
Profession Renewal 2019, Week 5 of Easter, Acts 15: 22-31; John 15: 12-17.
“This I command you: love one another.” There it stands, blunt and precise. We hear this insistence of Jesus, here and elsewhere, and sometimes we might think something like, “Oh darn, okay, I guess I’ll have to do it.” And half implicitly lurking in the background of that reaction is something else to the effect of, “Of course, loving God is the main thing, and I am pretty good at that.”
But no, Jesus has hidden a treasure for us in the command to love one another. He has hidden himself, for he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” That is the secret. For he has loved us by completely giving up his life for us, and now he is asking us to do the same for one another. In asking this of us he is drawing us up into his own act of love for us. He is causing us to participate in it, to love one another with his own love, and to come to know him by experiencing in ourselves his own life being laid down, continuing in our laying down our life for one another.
We are renewing our monastic vows today. Hearing this Gospel on this occasion can remind us that monastic life is a school where we learn to love in this way. It is a school where Jesus makes us friends with himself and with one another. He says, “I have called you friends. You are my friends.” And the proof of this friendship is, he says, “because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” Every day in the monastery he reveals the Father more and more to us, and he does so precisely by our keeping his command to love one another.
Renewing our vows today it is also good that we can hear this reminder from him: “It is not you who chose me, but I who chose you.” This should amaze us, flatter us, thrill us. The center of our life here is to be rooted in this relationship of love and friendship with Jesus. His initiative! His choosing us! The more we are centered there, the more this monastery will be a blessing for us and for others. “It was not you whose chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain.” “Fruit that will remain”— we have seen it in the history of this monastery, and we will continue to see it in the present and in the future if we live our vows authentically. This is why we are renewing our vows today.
In one of his conferences, Archbishop DiNoia reminded us that in some sense our vow of obedience is the heart of the matter, for ours is an obedience that imitates — or better put, participates in — the obedience of Christ to his Father’s will. So, a monastery is a school where we learn not to do our own will but the will of another, ultimately the will of Christ and of his Father. St. Benedict connects this explicitly with the love for Christ that we are reflecting about in today’s Gospel. Chapter 5 of the Holy Rule on Obedience opens with these words, “The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all.”
And surely also Chapter 72 of the Holy Rule can come easily to mind today as we hear the command of Jesus to love one another. This conclusion to the Rule can be considered St. Benedict’s gloss on the short, blunt, precise command of Jesus. Benedict says, “This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom 12:10), Supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”
So that all this can happen — so that we can go all together to everlasting life! — we have vowed obedience, fidelity to the monastic way of life, and stability in this community. When we made our vows we laid the document on the altar, and the holy sacrifice was offered atop that document. What is expressed in that ritual gesture is true in every celebration of holy Mass. The offering of ourselves in monastic life is joined to the perfect offering of Jesus’ sacrifice, to the glory of God the Father, and for the redemption and sanctification of souls.
Prayers of Intercession
- That the renewal of our monastic vows may strengthen our monastery to be of service to the whole Church. In all things may God be glorified and belief in his Son Jesus spread to every nation and every heart. Let us pray to the Lord.
- That our monastery may be a place of peace and welcome for those who do not know or believe in Christ. May Christ’s own presence, even unknown to them, give rest to their hearts. May Christ’s peace reign in our troubled world. Let us pray to the Lord.
- For renewed commitment for us all in our vows — for perseverance to the end for those in solemn vows; for wisdom, peace, and discernment for monks in simple vows; for strength for those among us who may be struggling now. Let us pray to the Lord.
- For our novices and postulants, that they may discern God’s will in their lives and embrace it with generous and courageous hearts. Let us pray to the Lord.
- For vocations to our monastery. Let us pray to the Lord.
- For our seminarians and for those who will come to the seminary in the fall. May these summer months be a time of fruitful growth in their spiritual lives. Let us pray to the Lord.
- For our many friends who come here to pray with us and for all those who support us from both near and far. Let us pray to the Lord.
- For Archbishop DiNoia, in thanksgiving for his service to our community as retreat master. May he be sustained in his collaboration with the Holy Father and in his service to the Universal Church. Let us pray to the Lord.
(No transcript available.)
Here we have sat for nearly an hour, listening to the scriptures and singing our response. At last through all those readings we arrive at the proclamation of this gospel, announcing that Jesus, crucified, has been raised up. We enter into the same tomb that the women entered. And here we too are provoked by the mysterious message of the two men dressed in dazzling garments: “Why do you search for the Living One among the dead? He is not here. He has been raised up.” And those words cast their force backwards over all the readings we have heard so that we drill down into their deepest sense. This empty tomb is the whole world, created anew by the resurrection of Jesus. In it, Abraham receives Isaac back alive, and we are their descendants. This empty tomb in which we are gathered is the other side of the Red Sea where we and all the baptized stand safe from Satan’s furious chase. This empty tomb is where we were buried with Christ in Baptism “so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”
Isn’t it amazing how every element of the Earth speaks in this night’s liturgy! Night itself is speaking! And then fire flaming in darkest night. Beeswax and a candle formed by human hands. Charcoal glowing and incense thrown atop it, smoke rising and a sweet aroma. Then water. Then oil. Then bread. Then wine. Human bodies handling all these things and moving about with them. Every element of the Earth speaks, and all together they cry out, “Why do you seek the Living One among the dead? He has been raised up.” It is indeed as the Apostle declares, “If anyone is in Christ – new creation!”
The women returned from the empty tomb, still puzzling, and announced all these things to the other disciples. But we read that “their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.” Well, and isn’t that the problem, that it seems like nonsense? Can it really be? What, really, can “risen from the dead” mean? Peter gets up and runs to the tomb. So, do we, with all the things we wonder and don’t quite understand. He bent down and saw the burial cloths alone. So do we. What could it mean? In the passage we heard, there is no appearance of the Lord Jesus. Later, of course, there will be. But in the passage we heard tonight there is no appearance. There are only some signs. The sealed tomb is now open. The body of Jesus is not there, but, oddly, the cloths that had been rapped round the body are there. What could it all mean? The two men in dazzling garments offer an explanation: “He has been raised up.”
Has he really? Ok, then. Well, where is he? What’s he waiting for!?
The signs alone will not do for us. If he is risen, then we must encounter him. We must come to know him. We want to be “in him” and taste and feel what this new creation is… if indeed he really is risen. The signs alone will not do for us. They are ambiguous and inconclusive.
Think about it. If he really is risen from the dead, then he could have shown himself there and then to the women who sought his body. He could have appeared to Peter. He could have appeared to the eleven wherever they were. He could have appeared to the whole nation, could have walked right up to Caiaphas or Herod or Pilate and said, “Shalom,” certainly to surprising effect. Why didn’t he? Why doesn’t he?
No, the risen Lord leaves a space for our thoughts, a space for us to wonder, to puzzle, to search for him, a space to see if we will search for him, if we will bother, if we will trust, if we will wait. He leaves a space of freedom. And although the reality of resurrection is as big as the whole created cosmos created anew and is as infinite in scope as is the very being of God, the risen Jesus does not impose this new reality. It will be offered in his own good time, in his sovereign, wise way, in doses and measures we can handle. He will indeed appear and we can know him. But he will not impose. He will offer his presence, quietly and gently; and he will ask of us the response of faith. So, the encounter with him becomes not the overpowering epiphany of the God whom no one can see and live. Instead it becomes an encounter with that God, yes, the God whom no one can see and live, but that God met in Jesus, crucified in our flesh, and now raised up in our flesh. In this encounter we are left free to enter or not. The force of divine being will not overwhelm our own freedom.
The signs, the ambiguous signs, all are meant to point to a possible encounter with Jesus risen. But let’s be realistic. We are not literally seeing the empty tomb in Jerusalem where Jesus of Nazareth was buried. We don’t literally see any cloths in which his dead body was wrapped. But if the proclamation is true – the proclamation that Jesus, crucified, is now the Living One and has been raised up – if that proclamation is true, then it means the Living One is everywhere, everywhere where there is life. And he, as the Living One, is the hidden life and force embedded in all things and all people, as the truest source and end of every single person who has ever lived, lives now, or will live in the future.
This means that we who are alive now and hearing this proclamation in this very night are having our lives transformed by him. Everything in each of our lives – everybody, every event, every sorrow, every joy, every challenge, every success, every failure – everything in each of our lives is meant to be a sign – never mind how ambiguous – is meant to be a sign that points to the presence of Jesus the Living One who has been raised up. Everything can lead to the encounter with him. And if it does not, then it is ultimately death, sin, emptiness – all meaningless.
Let’s move forward now into the rest of this holy liturgy and to the things we always do on this night. Let us pick up now some really big signs and follow them to where they take us. Let us take up water and remember the Baptism whereby we have already been plunged into Christ. Let us take up bread and wine and watch with awe the way in which Christ himself handles them and speaks over them in the person of his priest. And let us recognize him in the breaking of the bread. Are not our hearts burning inside us as he opens our minds to these mysteries, accompanying us all along the road of our lives?
Abbot Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B.
Homily for the Paschal Vigil, 2019
Mount Angel Abbey
Dear brothers and sisters, I fear to speak in this holy moment in which we stand. And yet it is my duty to say something, to help, if I can, to help us to penetrate how much is happening now in the scriptural words we have heard proclaimed and how holy is this place of grace in which we stand, a place made holy by the very pronouncing of the scriptural word.
We heard too much, it seems. The mystery is immense and in so many ways beyond our reach. “Who would believe what we have heard? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” The eternal Word was made flesh and is crucified! “So shall he startle many nations, because of him kings shall stand speechless.” “We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.”
In the Gospel we just heard we marvel that even at the very end of his hours-long torture, Jesus shows himself to be quite conscious of all that he is doing and accomplishing. The evangelist says so explicitly. He says that Jesus is “aware that everything was now finished.” He utters a brief sentence, not in desperation, but quite intentionally “in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” He says, “I thirst.” Of course, there is a literal level of meaning to his words. But the deeper level of meaning is that Jesus is thirsting for the faith of each one of us who have followed the story and details of his death.
Jesus’ very last word shows him still “aware” of everything. He declares, “It is finished.” After these words the evangelist tells us that Jesus dies, but the language used to tell us this — swift and terse — overflows with levels of meaning. We heard, “And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.” On the most literal level one can understand here that Jesus breathed his last, “spirit” meaning his breath. And, of course, that is what happened. Jesus stopped breathing. But what really happened when Jesus stopped breathing? What does faith discern? Faith discerns that the last breath of Jesus is his “handing over” the Spirit to the world, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit of Jesus onto the world. His last breath is nothing less than the Spirit within him released now into all the world. His last breath is already Pentecost.
A few minutes ago, when the narrator of the Gospel said the words, “And [Jesus] bowing his head, handed over the spirit,” this whole assembly fell on its knees and observed a profound silence. With this posture and in this awestruck silence we adore the God who shows himself to be holy, mighty, and immortal in this unimaginable way. We are on our knees and dare not utter a word as the Holy Spirit, released from Jesus’ own body, begins to descend upon us and begins to move again into the world. The event of Jesus’ dying converges with the event of this very liturgy. Here. And now.
In the account we just heard we see that even the dead body of Jesus is life-giving. A soldier thrust a lance into the side of the “already dead” Jesus. And we heard the evangelist say, in reverential tones, “and immediately blood and water flowed out.” Another verse from scripture is fulfilled in this detail, a verse which mysteriously says, “They will look upon him whom they have pierced.” What happens for us when we look upon the pierced body of Jesus and see blood and water immediately flowing out? We understand that the blood and water are indications of Eucharist and Baptism, and we begin to see that these sacraments have their origin precisely here, in the death of Jesus. What for him is death is life for us. Indeed, the blood and water that began to flow when the soldier opened Christ’s side have never stopped flowing. In that water we have each been baptized, of that blood we are continually given to drink in the Eucharist.
Dear friends, let us step more deeply still into the space of unexpected life created for us by the death Jesus. Let us enter even more deeply and more devoutly into the prayers and rituals that follow. “We have a great high priest… so let us confidently approach the throne of grace” through him as we pray now for the Church and the whole world. After that I will display before you the very wood of the cross on which our savior was crucified for us. I will invite you to come and adore. Do so in reverence and fear, with love and with gratitude. After that we shall pray together the prayer to the Father that Jesus taught us. Surely Jesus himself prayed it again and again as he was dying. “Not my will but yours be done,” Jesus said to his Father as he took up his cup of suffering. “Thy kingdom come,” he prayed even as it was being definitively established by his glorious dying. After that in Holy Communion I shall hand over to you — from the cross — the Body of Christ as food and nourishment for you on your pilgrim way, an antidote to sin and the medicine of immortality. Dear friends, holy is the place and holy is the hour in which we stand.
Good Friday Homily
April 19, 2019
Abbot Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B.
(No transcription available.)
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+ Transcript: The three passages from Scripture that we just heard reveal the feast; they define Epiphany. To hear them proclaimed and, with the Spirit’s help, to understand them more deeply— this is the Epiphany celebration. God’s holy Word, present in our assembly today, unveils before the whole world the ultimate meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas, begun on December 25, reaches its climax today in Epiphany: Christ revealed to all the nations. Let us begin with St. Paul in the second reading. This is a precise statement of what Epiphany is. The passage is quite short but extremely dense. It is one of those places, typical of the way Paul does his theology, where he refers to his unique encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus and all that flows from that. He calls what happened to him there “revelation,” that is, not something he has figured out with his own wits or some idea he launches as a personal opinion, but rather a completely new and unexpected understanding of things, understanding delivered with divine authority in an encounter with the Lord Jesus. Further, he calls what was made known to him “the mystery.” This is a word that Paul uses throughout his writings in critical passages. Here he defines what he means by it. The “mystery” is something not known in the past, something hidden from our understanding, some meaning hidden in events, but now— and this is Paul’s announcement!— now revealed, now made known. And what is that meaning hidden to other generations and now made known? It is this, and this is the Epiphany statement: “the Gentiles are now coheirs [with the Jews], members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
This is a huge turnabout in understanding for the zealous Pharisee Saul, who once believed that scrupulous observance of the Jewish law was the only path of salvation available not only for Jews but for anybody at all. Salvation for Jews alone and not for many of them. But no, now Paul announces a gospel, unexpected good news in Christ Jesus. Yes, Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises God made to the Jewish people; and indeed, Jesus cannot be understood apart from those promises. But now “the Gentiles are coheirs [with the Jews], members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Look how the events reported in Matthew’s gospel today are the enactment of what Paul is saying here. Magi from the east arrive in Jerusalem summoned by a star. Magi— that is, non-Jews, religious experts in ancient lore, scholars of the worthy wisdom traditions in which the human race sought longingly for the unknown Creator and Ruler of all things. Magi— they represent all human longing and searching for God, that groping for God unaided by the special initiative of God’s own intervention to make himself known to the Jewish people. They represent all the Gentiles, all the nations. And these Magi have found their way to Jerusalem and have almost arrived at Jesus, not by following the Jewish scriptures but by following an indication in the sky, a cosmic indication that something of cosmic significance is taking place. Their non-Jewish wisdom has figured out a lot. “We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Even so, for the final phase of their journey, to arrive at the precise end of all their searching, they do need the Jewish scriptures, the prophet’s identification of Bethlehem as the place of the Messiah’s birth. Learning this from the Jewish scriptures, the cosmic sign kicks in again. “And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.” In the Magi the entire human race’s longing for God arrives in Bethlehem and finds there “the child Jesus with Mary his mother.”
It is at this point in Matthew’s narrative that Isaiah’s poem wants to enter and comment. Its jubilant tones help us to measure the wonder of this moment. “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem!” the prophet urges. “Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” This text was originally produced in historical circumstances in which the Jewish people needed rousing in a dark chapter of their story. But now, applied to the Magi in the presence of Jesus, it receives a fulfillment beyond what ever could have been imagined. The light, the glory, the splendor— it is the star that leads the Magi. No, more— it is Jesus himself, “the light of the nations and the glory of his people Israel.” “Rise up, Jerusalem,” the prophet says. Yes, but now we know through St. Paul’s revelation that if Jerusalem is addressed— and this is a principle that can be applied anywhere in the scriptures— it cannot merely mean the historical, earthly city. For, “the Gentiles are now coheirs [with the Jews].” And so every nation is addressed with the title “Jerusalem.” The Church, which is gathered from all the nations, is called “Jerusalem.” Every baptized soul in its depths in called “Jerusalem.” Thus is fulfilled what was prophesied in the psalm: “Glorious things are said of you, O City of God.” And as all the nations are enrolled as citizens of Jerusalem, “They will sing and dance as they say, ‘All my origins are in you.’” (Ps 87: 3, 7)
And so we the Church are being addressed in this very moment by the prophet’s stirring words. And they are meant to rouse us up ever so much more than the original historical circumstances that produced the text. For now the prophet’s words find their application to the birth of Jesus Christ into our world and to our standing directly before him now in this sacred liturgy. “Your light has come, Jerusalem!” Every one of you, hear this word in the depths of your being! “See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory.” Jesus Christ has been born into our world and is present with us here and now in our lives, in this moment of the world’s history, of our community’s history. How dare we continue sluggishly and without hope! “Raise your eyes and look about you. They all gather and come to you,” that is, we have been given what the whole world is searching for. Caravans of nations will come streaming to the grace in which we already stand. Ah, rightly did we sing the psalm this morning, “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you!”
Let us return from Isaiah’s poem to Matthew’s narrative. The Magi model for us how to approach the child. The evangelist says, “They were overjoyed at seeing the star.” This is how we are to let ourselves be led to Jesus today— in joy. And then, when the Magi saw the child, we read, “They prostrated themselves and did him homage.” We have entered into this sacred liturgy to do the same. When each of you comes to communion this morning, think of yourself as having at last reached the place and the divine person to which the cosmos and the scriptures have led you. Offer to Jesus the gold of your kindness and love for one another. Offer to him the frankincense by which you acknowledge him to be God-with-us. Offer to him myrrh for his burial, by which you signify your willingness to die to sin and be buried with him so to rise to life eternal. Receive him with reverence and thanksgiving, “and know that he is with you always, even to the end of the ages.” And then, like the Magi, go home by another route. Forget Herod— that wicked phony— and all he ever asked you to do. You have seen the Lord! “Rise up in splendor. Your light has come. The glory of the Lord shines on you.” Imitate the service of the star. As the star by its brightness brought the nations to Christ, so you now by the brightness of your faith, your praise, your good deeds, shine in this dark world like bright stars. “Thick clouds cover the peoples, but upon you the Lord shines.”
+ Transcript: This whole assembly is singing Mary’s song. Mary sings, but she uses the Church’s voice. “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord. He has clothed me in the garment of salvation— a bride adorned with her jewels.” Mary is present now. She sings. But she sings with our voices. We are totally caught up in her mystery, her reality, her being. Step by step this whole liturgy takes us more deeply into sharing in Mary’s reality and being.
Are we clear on what “Immaculate Conception” means? It is the doctrine which states that God let Mary share beforehand in the salvation Christ’s death would bring, keeping her sinless from the first moment of her conception. (It’s called “prevenient grace,” because it prevenes, it precedes, it gets there before anything else. Prevenient grace— Catholics have words for everything!) From a mere human point of view, this is a mind-boggling juxtaposition of the chronological order in which events normally unfold, but from the divine point of view it is an providential arrangement that applies Christ’s redemptive work not only to what comes after but even to what comes before. Mary too is saved— by the death of her Son in the first moment of her conception!
We refer to the Immaculate Conception as a doctrine. Yet doctrines are but clear descriptions in words of a divine reality. It is the reality itself that matters. How can we ever forget Mary’s stunning revelation at Lourdes to Bernadette in the dark grotto? When Bernadette asked the beautiful woman who she is, the woman answered, “I amthe Immaculate Conception.” Her entire being isthis wondrous mercy that God has wrought in her. She is a new beginning to the human race, its fresh conception, a new Eve, the mother of all the living. And if she is the mother of all the living, then there is some sense in which we too, as Church, can say her words, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” meaning that as Church we share in what our mother is. As today’s preface has it, the Immaculate Conception— Mary— “signifies the beginning of the Church, the beautiful bride without spot or wrinkle.”
Why do we read the Gospel of the Annunciation on the feast of the Immaculate Conception? The Annunciation tells of the conception of Jesus, not of Mary. This is today’s Gospel because the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a “derived” doctrine. That is to say, there is no scriptural scene that explicitly portrays it, yet it is implied— and so can be derived— from the Annunciation. From the way that the angel greets Mary and from the way in which Mary reacts in this scene, the Church— gazing on her in contemplation through the centuries— has been able to derive the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as a description of the Marian reality.
Let us look at this more closely. The Annunciation shows us Mary being directly addressed by God in trinitarian terms. The archangel’s three salutations (manifesting successively Father, Son, and Spirit) are each followed by a reaction on Mary’s part. The archangel first greets her saying, “Hail, full of grace!” And referring to the Father, the angel continues, “The Lord is with you.” Putting this in doctrinal language, we could say, “Hail, Immaculate Conception! Hail, you who are full of grace already even before Christ is conceived.” Mary’s reaction to this first greeting is entirely appropriate. She is alarmed, and she wonders what sort of greeting this might be. But this reaction provokes, as it were, the archangel’s second word and the revelation of the Son. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel says. “You will conceive in your womb and bear a Son… who will be called Son of the Most High God.” This time Mary’s reaction is more practical. What concrete steps, she asks, ought to be taken for this to come about; for she has had no relations with a man. This reaction of Mary provokes the third word of the archangel and the revelation of the Spirit. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” the angel says, and continues, “Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” The Son of God— as opposed to, for example, the Son of Joseph, or the Son of some other man. Conceived by the Holy Spirit, it will be clear that Mary’s child will have God himself as Father. And look! The entire presence of the Trinity stands before us in Mary, the Immaculate Conception. Overwhelming, unfathomable proposal and plan! And yet Mary’s reaction is complete acquiescence to what she must have struggled to grasp. “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord,” she says. “May it be done to me according to your word.” Mary was immaculately conceived and preserved from all sin for this moment. She was immaculately conceived so that she could conceive God’s only begotten Son!
This moment is clear reversal of the Fall. The Fall— described so terribly in the first reading. That fall breaks the man and woman’s relationship with God. A legacy of sin and disobedience is passed on from one generation to the next.
Mary’s yes to the angel’s proposal reverses that legacy. She is a new Eve, a new mother of all the living. A new race springs from her. And from now on every human being must decide, as Mary once did, to which race he or she will belong: to the race of those who say yes to God or the race of those who say no. For it is still possible for us to remain where Adam was, cowering in the garden, hiding from God, divided from ourselves and one another. Every age, every moment of human history can continue to be that dreadful story; and it is only too clear that our times are part of the same. But now, through Mary, there is a huge alternative course. For now every age and every moment of history can also be for each person alive the sudden and unexpected appearance of an angel, proposing a new creation into which we enter by obedient assent to what God offers and asks.
We are about to turn now to the liturgy of the Eucharist. We know that through the sacramental signs the sacrifice of Calvary is made present on our altar and offered to God. We know that Mary stood by her son’s cross and that a sword of sorrow pierced her heart. What was her sorrow then? Surely, it was seeing her beautiful son suffering so and bearing in his body the sin of the whole world. But more sharply the sword pierces her during the long hours in which she stood there as she herself realizes that she too is saved by her son’s death, that only through that was she immaculately conceived, that grace from his death prevened in her conception. This is what gives her such motherly sympathy for us sinners and puts her so close to us in our need. She too relies on her divine son’s death for all the holiness with which she has been filled.
In holy communion today we take into our very bodies the Body and Blood of the Lord given us from the cross. This is the moment when the Church as beautiful bride is made one flesh with Christ her bridegroom, just as Mary was. We sing magnificent words today as this whole assembly comes forward in procession and consummates this bridal mystery. We sing, “Blessed is the womb of the Virgin Mary which bore the only Son of the eternal Father.” Those words reveal what is hidden in the ritual action. Mary’s womb is not somewhere else. That womb is this assembly receiving Communion. This whole assembly is transformed into that as we bear in one Body “the only Son of the eternal Father” into which we are all formed.
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+ Transcript: Today we celebrate our patronal feast, and this sacred liturgy unveils for us visions of angels, who in fact are always present with us when we pray in this church and indeed present with us everywhere we go. In today’s liturgy we celebrate the fact that we really are Mount Angel. The name of our monastery and seminary really means something. This name is a special grace which marks our particular lives and defines our vocations. This is our place, either for awhile or for life. For all of us, what we are doing here is immensely important, and the name of the place is Mount Angel.
God’s creation is vast and marvelously ordered. Countless and magnificently varied are the things he has made. Here on Earth human beings, made in God’s image and likeness, are a pinnacle of his wise fashioning. But God and his creation are much more vast than Earth, and through Revelation we know of a world of creatures that surround God and contemplate with swift and bright intelligence God’s very essence. They adore God and reflect his glory that he shares with them. These are the angels, and they are our friends.
All this was implicitly operative in the way we began our prayer this morning. We sang, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will.” This is a song the angels taught us, when they came to sing praise at the birth in the flesh of the eternal Son of God. They are always praising God, but these especially love to praise him for what he does for us human beings. We acknowledged this in the Collect, praying, “O God, who dispose in marvelous order ministries both angelic and human, graciously grant that our life on earth may be defended by those who watch over us as they minister perpetually to you in heaven.” Look— these swift Angels can do two huge things at the same time! They minister to God in heaven, and they watch over us. How great God is! Constantly overflowing himself in a complex and brilliantly ordered creation!
The first reading from the Book of Daniel let us see what angels see. It is sheer revelation. “As I watched,” says Daniel, and then he begins to describe what he saw. It is a vision of God himself, called the Ancient One, taking his throne. Clothing as bright as snow and a surging stream of fire flowing out from him. And then another appears, called one like a Son of Man. This is a vision of the eternal Father and his consubstantial Son and the Son receiving everlasting dominion from the Father. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. And all the while that this is happening, there are “thousands upon thousands ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads attending him.” God is not God for himself or by himself. Swift, bright, intelligent creatures contemplate and adore God’s godness. These are the angels, and they are our friends.
God’s most godlike creatures— angels and human beings— are not robots and zombies, just doing what they do by nature or instinct— like a giraffe or a tree or a slug. No, we are given something very godlike: free will. God has placed in our hands the power to please him… or not. For he brings us into existence from nothingness and then leaves us genuinely free to be in a relationship with him or not. That power of choice creates the drama of human and angelic existence.
We heard in the second reading the terrifying words, “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back.” We do not know— we cannot know— the details of what the battle was about, but we are certain that we have told here the story of a rebellion in the ranks of these angelic creatures. God lets unfold the consequence of their rebellion, and by their own choice they are cast out of his presence. Angels created to contemplate God and at the same time to be friends to human beings are instead cast down to earth and now count us humans as their enemies. They despise the ways in which God loves us, and they despise us when we love God. Thus, the drama of the war which broke out in heaven is transposed to a drama of equal proportions for us on earth.
Good angels help us in this fight; and indeed, definitive victory is won for us by no less than the Son of God himself come among us in the flesh, crucified for us and raised from the dead. This too is part of the heavenly scene unveiled for us in this very liturgy. We heard the words, “Now have salvation and power come… for the accuser of our brothers is cast out.” So, the victory in this drama of ours is already established, but we have to claim it and live within its orbit. This is done by staying close to the Eucharist and to the Word. The text put it this way, “They conquered him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.” Eucharist and Word.
Quieter and more simple are the words of the Gospel this morning. This is a scene from the first chapter of John’s Gospel, where Jesus is walking about slowly attracting his first disciples. Nathanael is struck by something mysterious in the presence of Jesus and right here at the beginning of the story is already able to express a rudimentary act of faith in Jesus. He says to him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” But in effect Jesus says to him, “Ha! There’s a whole lot more than that!” Then he discloses what Nathanael would see— what we all would see— if we had the full capacity to discern whom we have present among us in the man Jesus. He says, “Amen, Amen I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” On Jesus— Jesus preaching, Jesus healing, Jesus crucified, Jesus risen— on Jesus angels ascending and descending, or as we heard in the Book of Daniel, “thousands upon thousands ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads attending him.”
My dear brothers and sisters, this is Mount Angel! Jesus is here in our midst, with us always even to the end of the ages. And “thousands upon thousands minister to him, and myriads upon myriads attend him.” And we are meant humbly to join those angelic ranks and live an angelic life in the presence of Jesus. We do this in a supreme way by proceeding with our celebration of the Eucharist now. Myriads of angels help us to offer our thanksgiving sacrifice. We come forward with our simple human gifts— gifts that angels don’t have, gifts of bread and wine, the fruit of the earth and the work of our hands. In the Prayer over the Gifts today we will pray in these words, entreating God that “as these gifts are borne by the ministry of Angels into the presence of your majesty, so may you [God] receive them favorably and make them profitable for our salvation.”
The Preface, which is the beginning of our eucharistic prayer, sings of the angelic creatures in whom God delights and notes that when we honor those in whom God delights, this honor redounds to God’s surpassing glory and shows how infinitely great God is. The Preface also shows how all glory is given to the Father through Christ, and that the angels too extol the Father’s majesty through Christ. It is precisely here that our voices join with theirs, and we sing the angels’ song. We know the angels’ words. We know the angels’ tune. We are in heaven with them when we sing it on earth: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.” We do not sing it alone. We sing it with “thousands upon thousands ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads attending him.”
Michael, prince of all the angels! Gabriel, salvation’s horn! Rafael, the Father’s healer. You archangels, join with us. Every choir sing out his praises, chanting to his holy name! Ever more and ever more. Mount Angel.
+ Transcript: My dear Novices, you have heard the Word of God, and you respond now by professing monastic vows. You were consecrated to God in Baptism. You seek to deepen that consecration now by vowing to live in stability, conversion to the monastic way of life, and obedience. This is a good response to the Word of God. The Holy Spirit has formed it in you.
And according to our custom here at Mount Angel, you make your profession on the feast of the Nativity of Mary. This is a traditional date for our profession. This is because the monks of Mount Angel have wanted to put their monastic profession under the protection of Mary and to understand their monastic vocation in the light of the Marian mystery.
So, dear Novices about to make vows, and dear confreres who have made your profession already, and dear students and friends who are listening to me speak as an abbot to his monks— let us ponder the monastic vocation and vows in the light of today’s joyful feast.
The City of Portland is a pretty nice place as far as cities go. I think some of its special charm is that a river runs through it. This is true of a good many cities. A river can define a city’s character and quarters. The Potomac for Washington, the Charles for Boston, the Seine for Paris, the Tiber for Rome. The psalmist tells us, “A river gladdens the City of God.” The City of God is this monastery, and a river runs through it. Right through its middle there flows from the pieced side of Christ blood and water, and it never ceases to flow. It gladdens us. And it flows within each one of us as well, for Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, from within him rivers of living water shall flow.”
Today we visit and celebrate the headwaters of this river: the birth of the Virgin Mary. We use the mysterious prophesy of Micah in the first reading to ponder with wonder how far upstream lie the workings that prepare for our city’s full flowing river. Mary, a daughter of David. Bethlehem “from whom shall come forth one… whose origin is of old, from ancient times.” The prophet speaks of David— no, but of more, of something further back still. Of Ruth and Boaz, Obed, their son, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the Father of David. Headwaters way back there, dear novices, all converging on you and on us in this feast and in your profession on this feast. This is something lovely and amazing.
But from these headwaters, in today’s gospel we arrive at the place where the river begins to flow especially strong: the announcement of the birth of Jesus. There are no gospel accounts— naturally enough— of Mary’s birth, which we celebrate today; and so the liturgy chooses as a gospel text to focus on the scene in which the woman born today is proclaimed to be with child by the Holy Spirit. An angel reveals this to Joseph, pointedly addressing him as “Joseph, Son of David.” The significance of this title becomes more clear when we note that the passage we read follows immediately from the long list of names that forms the genealogy of Jesus, a list that underlines a phase of special importance with the phrase, “Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed became the father of Jesse, the father of David the king.” At the end of this list is “Joseph, the husband of Mary.” The angel tells him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that her child has been conceived.” Sweet and gentle headwaters are now flowing strongly. Then Joseph, precisely because he is a descendant of David, is commissioned to give the child a name. Whatever the name shall be, the name will include the title “Son of David” because Joseph is a son of David.
A name reveals the essence of someone’s very person. Mary’s child is to be called Jesus (Jesus), the angel explains, because “he will save his people from their sins.” But he has another name as well, which reveals yet more. He shall be named “Emmanuel, a name which means ‘God is with us.’” God is with us in Jesus. Mary carries him. Joseph names him. He is Son of God and Son of David.
Why am I going into all this on the day of your monastic profession? Because the birth of Mary and the birth of Jesus can give you an essential key to the deepest sense of your monastic vocation. St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his Letter to the Ephesians, writes a strange line that is worth a brief scrutiny. He says, “Three mysteries to be cried out were worked in the silence of God: the virginity of Mary, the birth of her offspring, and the death of the Lord, all crafted from the silence of God.” “Mysteries,” he calls these three things. That means there is something hidden there, something going on that we can’t see or hear, something silent, indeed, the very silence of God. But he says these mysteries are to be cried out. That is, the deeds whose meanings were hidden are now understood in their significance and press from within to be cried out.
Your lives as monks are meant to be deeply immersed in the silence of God, in a pondering of his mysteries. But there should also be in you a drive to cry out what is detected in this silence. Not to cry out with words or shouts, but rather a life lived in such a way that your whole bearing and being cry out in witness to the Christian mysteries. You feel the river that flows within all those who believe in Jesus. It flows in you. You know its headwaters in the birth of his mother and in all of her and Joseph’s ancestors. Your lives must proclaim by their fruits what your vows declare today: stability in remaining anchored inside these mysteries, obedience to those entrusted with shaping your lives into the pattern of the Lord’s death, fidelity to the monastic way of life. No one sees or hears the ways in which these vows will work silently within you. But I repeat, they are meant little by little to cause your whole bearing and being to cry out in witness to what God has done and is doing for us in Christ Jesus.
The ritual within which you make your vows is placed between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. You respond to the Word, and you bring your vows as an offering to this altar to be joined to Christ’s own sacrifice. One of the mysteries that Ignatius lists being worked in the silence of God is the mystery of the Lord’s death. The Eucharist itself is that mystery. The reality of the Lord’s death and his resurrection is hidden within the signs of bread and wine. And after your offering is transformed into the body and blood of Christ, we will cry out that mystery, the mystery of faith. You have communion in that mystery when from the altar on which you place your vows you receive the Lord’s body and blood as his response to your gift. As you receive him, your heart silently cries out Thomas’ words as he touched the wounds of the risen Jesus, exclaiming: “My Lord and my God.” This is the mystery that your whole bearing and being must cry out: Jesus is Lord. Jesus is God with us.
So let us proceed to enact your response to the Word of God and to bring your gift of self now to the altar for consecration and for transformation.
+ Transcript: Micah 6: 6-8. Phil 4: 4-9. Matt 11: 25-30
Today we celebrate with the whole Church “the feast of our holy Father Benedict.” As we sang in the sequence, “Cause we have for celebration, this great leader’s exaltation, He whose light have left its rays.” The rays of Benedict’s light— still shining bright here in Oregon, so far away from his hidden cave in Subiaco, so long away from the year 480. It’s interesting that the devotion of those of us who are disciples of St. Benedict is directed somehow as much to his teaching, if not more, than to the man himself. I think this is probably rooted in something that St. Gregory the Great said, where toward the end of his own discussion of the life of St. Benedict, he tells us this about the relation of Benedict’s life to his teaching. He says, “But I don’t want you to miss out on the fact that among the many miracles that made him famous, the man of God’s teaching also flashed forth brilliantly. For he wrote a Rule for monks that was outstanding for its discretion and limpid in its diction. If anyone wants to examine his life and customs more closely, they can find in the same Rule all that he modeled by his conduct. For the holy man could in no way teach other than he lived.”
This last year here at Mount Angel, as abbot I offered some nine conferences to the monastic community on chapter 7 of the Holy Rule, on humility. And as you know, dear brothers, we are not done yet. I think we have seen how wonderfully deep is the teaching of St. Benedict about humility, about how in fact the monastic life somehow centers around the question of the monk’s growth in humility. It is with this teaching of St. Benedict on humility in mind that I chose the three scripture readings today. As you know, St. Benedict’s Rule is nothing less than a very practical program for teaching us how to embody the Scriptures in our lives. In this way he shows himself to be deep inside the monastic tradition which preceded him, where the whole structure was built on the desire of a disciple to receive a word from his master, asking, “Father, give me a word. What should I do?”
What should I do? This is a huge question. It is a “meaning-of-life” question. What should I do with my life? And in fact, God’s word directs us. A monk is someone who day by day, hour by hour, is devoting himself to listening to God answer the question, “What should I do?” We have one clear answer in the first reading today from the book of the Prophet Micah. There the question is asked, “With what shall I come before the Lord?” We hear these words in response: “You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to dothe right and to love goodness, and to walkhumblywith your God.” To walk humbly with your God— this, dear brothers, is what I am trying to remind you of as your abbot.
From the letter to the Philippians we heard other scriptural words that encourage us and direct us as monks. St. Paul urges upon us a series of virtues that we would not be wrong to identify as the sort of thing we— precisely by our monastic profession— ought to be striving for. He says, “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Yes. And I want to add, “All day long!” Think about these things all day long, and try to dothem. Those are Paul’s next words. “Keep on doing,” he says, “what you have learned and received.” This is a very concrete program for what surely is the monastic goal, expressed in this same reading as “Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
In the Gospel we heard the words of Jesus, and they are directed straight at us. He says, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” St. Benedict’s whole teaching in chapter 7 of the Holy Rule is a program for teaching us how to imitate Christ, who is humility itself. Recall Benedict’s teaching. The first step of humility: living one’s whole life in the presence of God as Jesus lived his life in total communion with the Father. Or the second step, which is that a monk loves not his own will. And Benedict justifies this by explicitly saying that we do this in imitation of Jesus, who said, “I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. The third step reminds us of Jesus, “who became obedient even unto death.” The fourth step has the monk embracing suffering— putting his arms around it!— “in difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions,” and thus imitating Jesus, who embraced the cross. Of course, it is close to laughable to think that Christ’s cross is adequately described if we were to call it “difficult and unfavorable,” as if such words could get anywhere close to the depths of Christ’s suffering there. And so the difficult, unfavorable, and unjust situations that a humble monk embraces are really but a faint imitation of Christ’s own sufferings. Nonetheless, they are communion in them.
St. Benedict wants his teaching on humility to be at work everywhere in the monastery, to completely invade and mark the monk’s life. Listen again to his description of the point of arrival in the steps of humility. He says, “The twelfth step of humility is that a monk always manifests humility in his bearing no less than in his heart, so that it is evident at the Work of God, in the oratory, the monastery, or the garden, on a journey or in the field, or anywhere else.” What is interesting about this list of places is that it radiates outward from the church. But here is a curiosity that needs to be explained. Benedict, listing where humility should be evident in the monk, begins by saying “at the Work of God, in the oratory.” What is the difference? Doesn’t the Work of God— this is Benedict’s name for the prayers of the Divine Office— take place in the oratory, in the church? Of course, it does. But if Benedict distinguishes the two, he must want us to understand something fundamental about the Work of God. For Benedict, the Work of God is not a place, like all the other things mentioned in his list. For him the Work of God is the fundamental reality that calls forth humility from the monk. For remember, when we pray the Divine Office, it is God who is at work on us. God’s work is the death and resurrection of his beloved Son, Jesus, and the application of that work to us, the granting us communion in the Son’s divine life. This awesome, unfathomable mystery is the Work of God, and dare we be any less than completely humbled to come under its force? If we really grasp all that God is doing there, then surely the rest of the monastery will be permeated by this atmosphere.
I like how Benedict moves us after that in his list from the oratory to the monastery. That would be all the other parts of the building in which we live and work. From there to the garden, getting a little farther away but taking with us the same fundamental “humility should be evident” of this step. We get even farther away on the next step. From the garden we move to “on a journey or in the field.” He’s wanting to say that there is nowhere we go that this should not show up. Finally he just says, “or anywhere else.” I love the Latin word for that. Ubicumque. I’d like to see if we couldn’t introduce that into our talk around here. If I just every now and then say “Ubicumque!” we could agree to take this as a shorthand reminder that St. Benedict wants us everywhere and always to “manifest humility in our bearing no less than in our hearts.”
Let’s do that now as we celebrate the Work of God, this Holy Eucharist. Here and now God is at work on us. This is the Work of God. Here and now we are given communion in God’s great work, the death and resurrection of his Son. Surely our movements inside this Work of God and inside this oratory should evidence humility in our bearing no less than in our heart. And from here throughout the monastery, and then in the garden, and then on any journey or in any field. And then ubicumque. “Go and announce the Gospel by your lives.” Ubicumque!
+ Transcript: There is a happy difficulty in trying to celebrate today’s feast rightly, for in fact we are dealing with two saints together, each of whom is truly a giant figure in the community of the first generation of believers. How to celebrate one without taking attention from the other, how to find unity in figures so strikingly different from each other— that’s the happy problem. Well, I suppose we just rejoice in it year after year as the day rolls around, and maybe by adding up the years through a lifetime we begin to approach some understanding of how wonderful God is in his saints.
Different as St. Peter is from St. Paul, they have in common that both of them reached Rome as the end and culmination of their apostolic journeys. Both of them were martyred there, and their blood was and still is the seed of the Church universal. Rome is not just any place, then or now. Rome was the capital of a worldwide empire, and its system of roads and commerce and travel were the providential preparation— the infrastructure!— for the fulfillment of the words of the risen Jesus uttered just before his Ascension. Jesus had said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down on you; then you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, yes, even to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1: 8) When the Gospel reaches Rome in Peter and Paul, these words are fulfilled. We are still celebrating! “Roman Catholics”— it means something! Of course, we celebrate this day as a solemnity.
A saint from any century is a good deal, and perhaps we feel more awe sometimes if they are from a very long time ago, like the fourth century, or the third, or even the second. But there’s more than that in Peter and Paul. Each of them in his own unique way is part of the Jesus event itself. They were actors and direct players in the center of God’s huge deed in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Peter was chosen by Jesus himself at the beginning of his ministry. He confessed his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. This was given him not by convincing human arguments but in a direct revelation from the heavenly Father. We just heard of this confession in the Gospel. (Matt 16: 13-19)
Paul was an apostle “born out of the normal course,” (1 Cor 15: 8) but what made him an apostle is that he was privileged to have had the risen Lord appear to him directly and constitute him as the Apostle to the Nations. Peter was enmeshed in the events that surrounded Jesus’ death, where he denied Jesus three times. But the risen Lord appeared directly to him as well, and the fact became an actual formula for confessing the Church’s faith. It is stated by the other apostles to the two disciples as they return from Emmaus. We sang it every day all during the Easter season: “The Lord Jesus has indeed been raised. He has appeared to Simon. Alleluia. Alleluia.” (Luke 24: 34)
“You will receive power when the Spirit comes down on you,” Jesus said just before his Ascension. Pentecost fulfilled his promise. And Peter is the first evidence. The bumbling denier of Jesus during his passion— not to mention mistakes in understanding during Jesus’ ministry— the bumbling denier becomes a fearless witness on the day of Pentecost, and the story rolls on from there. Ascension and then Pentecost is the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, but after that Peter steps onto the scene as stunning preacher of the Christ-event and the Christ-truth. (Acts 2: 14-41) “Some three thousand were baptized that day.” (Acts 2:41)
In many ways the book of the Acts of the Apostles centers around Peter and Paul. But it is a story full of adventures and surprises that we can associate with the Holy Spirit. I’ve got to share with you a description of the Acts that I came across some years ago. It was penned by the biblical scholar E. J. Goodspeed way back in 1923, and he really captures its mood. He says, “Where, within eighty pages, will be found such a varied series of exciting events—trials, riots, persecutions, escapes, martyrdoms, voyages, shipwrecks, rescues—set in that amazing panorama of the ancient world—Jerusalem, Antioch, Philippi, Corinth, Athens, Ephesus, Rome? And with such scenery and settings—temples, courts, prisons, deserts, ships, barracks, theaters? Has any opera such variety? A bewildering range of scenes and actions (and of speeches) passes before the eye of the historian. And in all of them he sees the providential hand that has made and guided this great movement for the salvation of mankind.”
“This great movement for the salvation of mankind”— Peter and Paul are at the center of the drama. That is today’s feast, and it belongs to us, for the faith has reached us through them and in communion with them.
In the first reading we heard of Peter’s second jail break, aided by an angel both times. (Acts 5: 19-21; 12: 1-11) Paul has a jail break too in a later chapter, caused by an earthquake, but who knows if the earthquake wasn’t caused by the earthquake-making angel in Matthew’s Gospel that got the stone rolled away from the tomb to show that the body of Jesus’ wasn’t in there. (Matt 28: 2) There are angels all over these stories. In any case, all the jail breaks are so that Peter and Paul can proclaim that the Jesus who was crucified, God has raised him up and made him Lord and Messiah. (Acts 2: 36) This is the bedrock core of their message, and they take it out of those jails all the way to Rome and seal their preaching with the shedding of their blood. Paul joyfully declares, as we heard in the second reading, “I am being poured out like a libation.”
Out of those jails all the way to Rome— the significance of this fact was not lost on Luke, the author of Acts, nor on the earliest thinkers in the Christian community who reflected on the fact that Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome. Rome was an Empire that controlled under its sway virtually all of the known world. Many things were to be admired in its organization, its culture, its language. And yet she was corrupt in her center, a corruption which appeared in full light of day under the light of the new deed of God worked in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
So what now? Peter and Paul put to death by Roman authorities just as Jesus himself was? But God raised Jesus from the dead— Peter and Paul preached it fearlessly. And so their own being put to death in Rome receives a similar response from God. The words of Peter that we heard at the end of today’s first reading ultimately refer to his share in Christ’s own resurrection and the fruits of his own passion being joined to Christ’s: “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel to rescue me…” (Acts 12: 11) Or Paul in the second reading ultimately is referring to the same: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.” (2 Tim 4: 18)
Rome’s corrupt center is claimed for Christ by the deaths of these two glorious apostles. It seems to the authorities that they have simply been disposed of, gotten out of the way, just as was done with Jesus in Jerusalem. But no. Paul’s words in the second reading can speak for both him and Peter and what they experienced every step of the way after Pentecost: “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it.” (2 Tim 4: 17)
Peter and Paul’s mission has reached us and has been bequeathed to us. We are the witnesses to the same realities now in our day. As we celebrate the Eucharist, we profess Peter’s same faith in Jesus, saying to him, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” On the rock of this faith Jesus builds his church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. (Matt 16: 16, 18) As we celebrate the Eucharist, we pray with Paul that we may be conformed to it, that our lives too may be poured out as a libation and that we may keep the faith.
+ Transcript: We are accustomed to calling today’s solemnity Corpus Christi, or Body of Christ, but this is shorthand for the longer title. The longer title is Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. This year’s scriptural texts especially focus on the blood of Christ. Body and Blood— why both for our communion with the Lord?
The Passover meal, which was also the setting for the Lord’s Last Supper, primarily recalls the Exodus and Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt by the protecting blood of the paschal lamb. But the Lord’s mighty deeds for Israel do not exhaust themselves in the Exodus from Egypt. They are completed later on Sinai, where the Lord makes a covenant with his people, a covenant ratified in blood.
Jesus goes to his death celebrating the Passover with his disciples. And in the course of that last supper with them he selected two signs from the whole meal that would help us to understand the ultimate meaning of his cross, which he was to undergo the next day. While they were eating, over the unleavened bread of the meal, Jesus pronounced the words, “This is my Body which will be given up for you.” After the supper, in the cup of wine that followed it, he pronounced words that identified the wine with his blood. He called it “the cup of the new and eternal covenant in my blood.” And he also added the command, “Do this in memory of me.”
What was Jesus intending with these signs and with his words, signs and words so precisely chosen? As I said, the liberation from slavery in Egypt does not exhaust God’s intentions for his people. Indeed, he liberates them from Egypt precisely so that he can make a covenant with them at Sinai. God longs for this. He says, “You shall be a people dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine.” God wants his people to be “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” (Ex 19: 5-6) This is what is achieved at Sinai. And it is here that blood becomes important.
Jesus’ language over the cup indicates that he was intentionally alluding to to the scene on Sinai that we heard in the first reading. In response to the words of the Lord, the people pronounce their side of the covenant, declaring, “We will do everything that the Lord has told us.” (Ex 24: 3) Moses then erects twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. Sacrifice is offered. Note that it is offered not by Levites but by young men from all the tribes. The whole nation is becoming priestly. Then Moses takes blood from these sacrifices and sprinkles it, first, on the altar, then on all the people. As he sprinkles blood on the people, he solemnly declares, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you.” (Ex 24: 8)
Jesus exactly echoes this moment and this language. He says, “This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant.” Jesus calls it a new covenant. He is fulfilling the promise of the Lord delivered through the prophet Jeremiah, who uttered the word of the Lord that said, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts.” (Jer 31: 31, 33)
With his words over both the bread and the wine, Jesus identifies himself as the one who is offered. It is his body that is given up. It is his blood that is poured out. With this language Jesus shows himself conscious that he is the “Servant of the Lord” about whom Isaiah prophesied, announcing the Lord’s own words which declared, “Behold my servant… I the Lord formed you and set you as a covenant of the people.” (Is 43: 6) Or again, “Through his suffering my servant shall justify many and their guilt he shall bear.” (Is 53: 11) Jesus himself, in his body and blood, is the covenant. He quotes the Isaiah oracle as he says of his blood, “poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Unlike the blood that Moses sprinkled on the altar and on the people, Jesus’ blood of the new and everlasting covenant is given to drink. This is the more interior covenant of the Jeremiah oracles. It is a “covenant within them, a covenant on their hearts.” When we drink the cup of his blood, it effects in us our interior adhesion to the covenant to the point of blending his body and blood with our very own body and blood.
These are the signs of the supper that lead to the cross. At the supper Jesus shows himself in intention already going to the cross. The cross has already begun in the supper. On the cross, in the sacrifice in which the body is offered and blood shed, Jesus fulfills in one single deed the Exodus from Egypt and the Covenant ratified in blood on Sinai. Exodus was liberation from slavery. It was a gift to slaves. On the cross Jesus liberates us from sin, for we were slaves to it. But a covenant is made between friends, between spouses. This is why Jesus’ words “blood of the covenant” are so important. He no longer calls us slaves but friends. (John 15: 15) All this is achieved on the cross. And as our liturgical texts say so often, in the wonderful sacrament of the Eucharist Christ has left us a memorial of his Passion.
Jesus gave us two signs: his body and his blood. The two together show the breadth of his love. Not only does he set us free from our sins, but he makes us his very own by the blood of a new and everlasting covenant. As the Letter to the Hebrews exclaimed in our second reading, “Christ is a high priest of the good things that have come to be. He entered once and for all into the heavenly sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Heb 9: 11-12)
In every celebration of the Eucharist we are taken with Christ into this heavenly sanctuary, where together with Christ, made in him a kingdom of priests, we offer with him his unique sacrifice to the Father. With his words “Do this in memory of me,” Christ made the Eucharist a memorial of his Passion for us. This is why in every Eucharistic prayer, immediately after the consecration, the priest starts up his prayer again with the word, “Therefore.” It is as if to say to the Father, “Jesus commanded it; therefore we are doing it.” And the rest of the prayer says so, always structured on the pattern, “Therefore, remembering… we offer.” Remembering his passion, his resurrection, his glorious ascension, we offer you Father, his body and blood, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world.”
Tantum ergo sacramentum, veneremur cernui— Therefore, such a great sacrament let us venerate, bowing low!
This is such an effective and suggestive Gospel passage to read on the day of Pentecost because it recounts something that, within the evangelist John’s resurrection narratives, happens on the very day of resurrection itself. Its effect, then, is to help us see that the giving of the Holy Spirit is very tightly connected to the risen Jesus himself. Liturgically the fifty days of the Easter season have spread out and unfolded a mystery and a grace tightly condensed in the resurrection of Jesus. We could refer to this as the resurrection-ascension-pentecost nexus. This nexus is resurrection appearances and instructions that eventually come to an end at Ascension, followed by the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. All that is condensed into the short passage from the Gospel of John just read.
The scene opens with the disciples hiding behind locked doors for fear. Here is a strong image of the crisis the disciples experienced at the death of Jesus. Then, unexpectedly the risen Jesus “came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” This is followed by what may be considered an instructive dimension of the appearance. Instruction is a dimension that characterizes all the appearances. “He showed them his hands and his side,” which teaches them in effect that the one they are seeing is the very one who was crucified and whose side was opened by a soldier’s lance. We are told succinctly that “The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” What happens next shows why the passage would be selected for Pentecost. We read, “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them on said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”
I find that there is something thrilling in all this. First of all, there is Jesus’ repeated greeting of peace. There are no recriminations for their having abandoned him, no reproaches, no scoldings. There is only his peace-filled greeting and their joy. But this is followed immediately by a radical commissioning. Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This as and so are enormous. Glorious, divine, powerful, creative, peaceful was the Father’s sending of his Son into the world. And now— as the Gospel’s words converge with our present celebration of the liturgy— we are sent from Jesus in the same way. As Jesus, so the disciples. And for this profound event of being sent from Jesus, he breathes on us the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is marvelous to see the Holy Spirit coming out of the body of the risen Lord, the body marked by wounds in its hands, feet, and side. The risen body bearing the marks of crucifixion displays cross and resurrection in perfect tension. The Holy Spirit delivered by the breath of the body of the risen Lord and effecting a commission shows the gift of the Holy Spirit rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Without the text saying so, Jesus vanishes from their sight as soon as the Spirit is breathed out on the disciples. This is the resurrection-ascension-pentecost nexus, not spread out over fifty days, but condensed into one intense scene of an appearance and a withdrawal on the very day of resurrection, with the Spirit remaining as final gift.
But we see that intense scene unfolded in its various dimensions in the 50 days that Luke describes in the passage from Acts that we heard in the first reading. To understand it, we should recall several phrases from the passage read on Ascension. In the biblical book they are tightly joined to each other, separated only by the scene of the choice of Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1: 15-26) On Ascension we heard the risen Jesus, just before he was taken from their sight, instructing his apostles with these words: “…wait for the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1: 4-5) Shortly after this he says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” These words are the links in the ascension-pentecost nexus.
Jesus’ words are fulfilled in the scene described next in Acts, today’s first reading. It is perhaps surprising to note that the descent of the Spirit is described in only four short verses (Acts 2: 1-4). Only a few essential details are given.
First, the apostles, with their number brought back to twelve by the addition of Matthias, on the day of Pentecost are “gathered in one place.” What happens takes place “suddenly,” a word suggesting the surprise the event engenders. A “noise” comes from the sky and fills the entire house where they are sitting. The noise is likened to “a strong driving wind.” On the heels of this noise something strange appears to them: “tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each of them.” What this noise and strange vision mean is explained in the next verse: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…” This is what Jesus had said just before the Ascension. This is “the promise of the Father.” This is “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” This is receiving “power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” The effect the Spirit has on them is that “they began to speak in different tongues as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”
Dear brothers and sisters, everything proclaimed in this text converges with the present moment of our gathering. It describes the event of this sacred liturgy. Today is Pentecost for us. That apostolic, Spirit-prompted speech continues in the Church today, when, at this very hour, with our own tongues we proclaim the mighty acts of God: the crucified Jesus is risen and God has made him Lord and Messiah! Here and now Jesus breathes out the Holy Spirit on us, for the breath of the risen Lord never ceases its rhythms. The first day and the fiftieth day and today— for us with faith, they are all the same: the new everlasting day of Resurrection, the new everlasting day of Pentecost. The presence of the risen Jesus and his act of breathing on his disciples never ceases in the Church. And in this way resurrection creates mission. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit and transforms the bread and wine that we bring before him into his Body and Blood. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on us in the Eucharist we receive and sends us just as he was sent. He has given us everything that he has from the Father. And so this mission has a content; namely, the forgiveness of sins. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says to those whom he sends. “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” The forgiveness of sins is the first fruit of the resurrection. “He showed them his hands and his side.” From this crucified now risen body, from his glorious wounds, there is in the Church, his body, an unceasing outpouring of the Holy Spirit for mission and for the forgiveness of sins.
The tradition of lectio divina assures us that pausing to ponder carefully just one verse of the inspired Scriptures proclaimed in the liturgy can start us pulling on a thread that beautifully leads us from one text to another. Then the experience becomes nothing less than a deep entry into the very stuff of the mystery being celebrated. Today is Ascension. In the first reading from Acts we read, “… as they were looking on, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” (Acts 1: 9) In the liturgical tradition and in theology we refer to this as “Ascension,” even though, strictly speaking, that term is never used in any of the scriptural texts. All the verb forms describing it are in the passive voice. He “was taken,” “was lifted up,” “was carried up.” In the passage from Acts more details are given than can be found in the several other gospel texts that refer to this scene. Notably, words having to do with seeing and not seeing are insistently repeated. This is a clue to understanding the point that Luke, the narrator, wants to make. We have just heard the phrase “as they were looking on.” First mention of seeing. With this, it is said that Jesus is taken “from their sight,” literally, “from their eyes.” Second mention of seeing. After that there is a description that notes further “they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,” a third mention of looking or seeing. (Acts 1: 10) And then “suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?’” This is the fourth mention of looking or seeing. (Acts 1: 11)
Their question— “why are you looking up?”— may strike us as a reproach. But it isn’t actually. Their question in fact is establishing a point, a point that contains a promise, and the promise swirls around the issue of seeing and looking. It is understood by catching allusions deep inside the biblical world. As Elijah was preparing to depart from his disciple Elisha, Elisha asked him for the gift of a double portion of his spirit. Elijah tells him that he if sees him being carried off to heaven, then his request will be granted. This is why looking intently is so much emphasized here. The disciples do indeed see Jesus being taken. The two men confirm that they have indeed seen him. They further add, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” This is the fifth mention of seeing. Now a new and future seeing is promised, a seeing intimately connected to their having seen him taken up. The gift of the Spirit is implied and guaranteed in the fact of their seeing. As Elisha saw Elijah taken up and so was given a share of his spirit, so now the disciples, looking so intently, see Jesus taken up and so are guaranteed a share in his Holy Spirit. As Elijah is expected to return in the same fiery chariot in which he was seen carried to heaven, so Jesus is expected to be seen again “in the same way you have seen him going into heaven.”
The two men speak of Jesus “taken from you into heaven.” Ordinarily, something like this would seem to be an absence of Jesus. But does “being taken from you into heaven” mean he has gone elsewhere, that he is no longer here? No. It is a new form of his presence to us. In his glorified state he has become the One who comes. He “will return in the same way.” Now he is become the one who is always coming. This is seen also in the book of Revelation, where the Lord reveals himself and says, “Behold, I am the one who was and who is and who is to come, the Almighty. Once I was dead, but now I live forever.” (Rev 1:8,18) Ascension is a feast in which we too still experience this new form of his presence, a form forever fresh— the form of his always coming— at once more pervasive and more elusive than a single locatable, talk-to-him, see-him, touch-his-wounds kind of presence.
Just before Jesus was taken up, his disciples had asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom?” Today the Kingdom of God is pressing in on us from every direction and with glory. From the past, from the future, and in the present, up from the ground and down from the sky! Jesus—Lord: crucified, risen, ascended, coming!
The Gospel reading this year is from from the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark. These verses reflect an author different from the rest of the Gospel and with a combined knowledge of resurrection stories separate from each other in the different gospels. The same is true for how he speaks of the Ascension. We hear words of Jesus to his disciples just before he is taken up into heaven not reported in any other text. The words here are a commission to go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel “to every creature,” an expression unique to this longer Marcan ending. Patristic commentators noted this difference and made much of it. Jesus’ resurrection affects the whole creation, and the Good News must be proclaimed not only to other human beings but to the whole creation. As the psalmist prophesied, “Everything that lives and that breathes, praise the Lord!” “All the trees of the wood shout for joy at the presence of the Lord.” “Seas and rivers, bless the Lord.”
In this longer Marcan ending there is mention of baptism, something we hear in Matthew’s text but not in Luke’s. Unique to this Marcan text are the words of Jesus that declare that certain signs will accompany those who believe. The signs are unusual in that no other resurrection text speaks in such terms: driving out demons, speaking new languages, picking up snakes and being unharmed by them or by any deadly drink. Finally, cures of the sick will come about through the laying on of hands.
It is the final verses of this Marcan passage that I find especially moving on Ascension Day. We hear a sentence that is not heard in any of the other gospels: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.” (Mark 16: 19) “Lord Jesus” is not a title used anywhere else in Mark or in Matthew. That Jesus is taken up to heaven is similar to Luke’s language in the gospel and in Acts, but only here do we have the further image of him “taking his seat at the right hand of God”— a different image for the mystery of the Ascension, showing that Jesus is completely established in the realm where God is. In the last verse we hear of the disciples going forth from here and preaching everywhere. In Matthew and Luke the disciples are commissioned to do the same, but none of their accounts reports that happening in the very next verse. Finally, something striking is said about Jesus’ continued presence with them even though he is at the right hand of God. We read, “But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.” (Mark 16: 20) We note that Jesus is called “the Lord,” and that he is present to them by somehow working with them and confirming their word.
Jesus “confirmed their word through accompanying signs.” Among those signs we can count the signs of this eucharistic liturgy that we are about to celebrate. As we come forward for Communion today, the words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel will be sung: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:30) The reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood to the accompaniment of these words is their strongest sense fulfilled. Our minds are full of all sorts of images now: the Lord taken from our sight in a cloud, an entrance into a heavenly sanctuary, a being seated at God’s right hand, a decending and an ascending, everything being filled, the Body of Christ being built up to full stature. No matter what and where our senses and faith detect that we are in this movement of prayer, it is his being with us always, even to the end of the age. It is the Lord working with us and confirming the word we preach through accompanying signs, above us through signs of bread and wine transformed into his Body and Blood. In those signs we have in a supreme and preeminent way Jesus—Lord: crucified, risen, ascended, coming!
The most important event of human history, indeed, the most important event that has ever happened anywhere in the created universe, is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and his being raised from the dead by the one whom he called God and Father.
With such words I try to summarize for you all that we have seen and heard in this last hour of our vigil. The whole history of the cosmos is condensed into God’s deed in our midst in this holy night—because the whole history of the cosmos and the history of humanity within it is ordered toward Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. We are in his presence now. We are gathered to him by the radiant light of his risen presence.
This is the night into which God pronounces again and with greater force than ever his “Let there be light.” This is the night, as the Exultet declares, “worthy alone to know the time and the hour when Christ rose from the underworld.” This declaration shows why we are gathered in prayer now in this holy night. It is because resurrection takes place during the night at an hour and in a manner known only to God. The dawn of Easter morning reveals that something had already happened in the night. Part of the resurrection mystery is that in itself it cannot be seen, just as nothing can be seen in the night. But that it does indeed happen—at an hour and in a manner known only by God and by this night—is what renders this night “truly blessed.”
That something had happened in the night is what the three women of the Gospel discover when they arrive at the tomb at dawn. The stone had been rolled away from the entrance, and—brave women—they dared to enter in to the tomb where they would have expected to find the bloodied body of their beloved rabbi. They see instead a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe. He said to them, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified. He has been raised…” He declares what had happened in the night. He indicates the only thing that can be seen in this tomb. He says, “Behold the place where they laid him.”
I think this young man might later have written the Exultet! In any case, it was some poet close in spirit to what the young man testifies. I hear him exclaim, “This is the night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.” After this line in the Exultet, there is a shift in the poem from declaration of what has happened to what we could call a contemplative assessment and meditation on what all this means for us. A number of paradoxical statements or unexpected contrasts form the structure of the expression.
The first of these is to declare, “Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.” In effect this is a bold declaration saying that it would be better never to have been born unless we can enjoy the new life we are celebrating in this night. Next, the Father is directly addressed as we declare to him that we grasp the immensity of his love. “O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son.” The contrast between slave and Son puts into clear relief how astounding is what has been done for us. The Father has given away for our sake what is most precious to him, his Son; and the Son has willingly let himself be given away for us. This is quite concretely the shape of “love beyond all telling.”
The next phrases are even more theologically daring. The poet— the young man clothed in white sitting in the tomb!—exclaims, “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the death of Christ!” This is like saying something to the effect of “Thank God Adam sinned because it provoked such an enormously generous response from God.” This daring line of theology is insisted upon in the next phrase: “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” The “logic”—if we can call it that—of these stunning paradoxes is rooted, first, in the need for us to understand the fact that the sin of Adam and his fault could be nothing other than something that we should deeply regret. It is impossible to think that it is something we could be glad about. All this is true. But God’s love and mercy is infinitely bigger than this valid and correct assessment of sin. And so, instead, inside the empty tomb we dare exclaim “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer.”
This church in which we are gathered is that empty tomb filled with light and with the joy of the young man’s song. This empty tomb is the whole world, created anew by the resurrection of Jesus. In it Abraham receives Isaac back alive, and we are their descendants. This empty tomb in which we are gathered is the other side of the Red Sea where we and all the baptized stand safe from the Satan’s furious chase. This empty tomb is where all God’s promises through the prophets are realized in us in this night, where God pledges, “…I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you…” This empty tomb is where we were buried with Christ in Baptism “so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”
Isn’t it amazing how every element of the Earth speaks! Night! And then fire flaming in darkest night. Beeswax and a candle formed by human hands. Charcoal glowing and incense thrown atop it, smoke rising and a sweet aroma. Then water. Then oil. Then bread. Then wine. Human bodies handling all these things and moving about with them. Every element of the Earth speaks, and all together they cry out, “Jesus, the Crucified, has been raised.” It is indeed as the Apostle declares, “All things were created through him and for him.”
God’s deeds in our midst in this holy night move now into an even greater density. From fire and word we move next to the transforming waters of Baptism and through them to the bread and wine of Eucharist. Bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus, crucified and risen. This is offered to God and then consumed by us. We are made one with the one we consume, and it is we that are offered to God as a new humanity. O love, O charity beyond all telling!
In today’s liturgy we carefully remember the death of Jesus, and doing so becomes a magnificent revelation to us of the divine deed in which, yes, death and its horrors are all too real, and in which nonetheless that death is the glorious lifting up of the one who draws all things to himself.
Let us use the second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews to help us penetrate the mystery of the death of Jesus that we have just heard recounted by John the Evangelist. In fact, the whole of the Letter to the Hebrews is a profound theological meditation on Jesus’ death and exaltation in glory. The author uses the categories of Jewish theological thought, as expressed in their scriptures, to grasp the significance of Jesus’ dying and exaltation. Today’s reading combines two short portions of a much longer development in which the movement from death to exaltation is considered as a exercise of priesthood on the part of Christ. His shedding of his blood is in fact the priestly offering of a sacrifice. His exaltation at “the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1: 3) is an entry into a heavenly sanctuary where his sacrifice perpetually intercedes before God on our behalf.
We are perhaps at least vaguely accustomed to such language to describe the death of Jesus, but it is worth our pausing to consider how deep is the insight achieved by the author of this letter when he penetrates the event of Jesus’ death by describing it as a priestly act. In Jewish religion, or in fact in any religion, the offering of a sacrifice is a cultic act, a ritual. It is a symbolic enactment of a people’s desire to offer themselves to a god and to establish themselves thereby in some sort of favorable relationship with the god. But Jesus’ death on the cross is certainly no ritual, no symbolic enactment. His death is the cruel execution of a human being. The author of this letter knows all this. So when the categories of priesthood and sacrifice are used to describe the death of Jesus, a tremendous theological insight is achieved. The claim is that what all cultic sacrifices could only weakly point to and symbolically achieve is now in fact definitively achieved by Jesus, not in a cultic act, but quite literally in his dying and his being exalted at the right hand of the Father. This is a new and definitive sacrifice, a new and definitive priesthood.
The passage read in today’s liturgy, selected from a much longer development of these themes, declaims, as it were, this priesthood. These are words that are meant to help us to penetrate the deepest meaning of the cross. “Brothers and sisters,” the announcement begins, “…we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God…” What the eyes of our minds see is Jesus in his agony on the cross; what we understand is that here is a great high priest who is entering the heavenly sanctuary with the sacrifice of his own blood. And this priest is one of us. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” Precisely from what he is suffering in the hour of his dying, Jesus is able to be a priest who sympathizes with us. As we gaze on this scene and discern its sense through the Apostle’s words, we are invited to approach the cross, not described as a place of execution but as ever so much more. “So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” The cross: a throne, thethrone of grace!
The next paragraph of the passage uses the category of the characteristic priestly act of intercession. Jesus’ whole life of prayer, but especially his manner of prayer in the hour of his dying is this great priestly intercession. “In the days when Christ was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death…” With these words we are meant to grasp the loud cry that Jesus emits before he breathes his last. He is praying to “the one who was able to save him from death…” “And,” the passage continues, “he was heard because of his reverence.” What is the “reverence” with which Jesus prays? It is his obedience to the Father’s will, his “not my will but yours be done” that he prayed during his agony in the garden. “He learned obedience from what he suffered,” the author tells us. As the Father’s inscrutable will has it, Jesus’ suffering will take him all the way through to death, precisely to reveal that his obedience is total, his trust, total. This is why his loud cry “was heard.” Mysteriously, the Father’s saving Jesus from death does not save Jesus from dying. Rather, precisely because of the manner of his dying, God exalts him. This exaltation includes his being rendered a saving source for us. This is how the passage concludes: “… and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
Perhaps it is useful to observe once again that the tone and sense of today’s liturgy is by no means simply a mournful remembering of Jesus’ death. We are not pretending, for the sake of dramatic effect on Easter, that we do not know that Jesus has been raised from the dead. No, we are remembering his death as triumph and glory. We are seeing him “made perfect”; we are encountering in the cross “the source of eternal salvation.” “We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens!”
In the Letter to the Hebrews the death of Jesus is simultaneous with his glorious entrance into the heavenly sanctuary. In the Gospel of John this simultaneity is similarly expressed. Jesus’ breathing his last is his handing over the Spirit. From his dead body, opened by a soldier’s lance, blood and water flow from the side of what is nothing less that a heavenly temple and sanctuary, a temple and sanctuary that converge with Calvary. Blood and water began flowing from Jesus’ side on the day of his death, and they are still flowing now, and we are bathed in that stream. In the adoration of the cross, you approach the throne of grace. From the cross, you receive his holy body and blood as your food and drink.
Strength and protection, may thy passion be,
O blessed Jesus, hear and answer me.
Deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me.
So may I never, never part from thee.
+ Transcript: Christ’s heart, as he looks at our assembly, is surely filled with the sentiments he expressed when he said to his disciples at the beginning of the Supper, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (Luke 22: 15) “To eat this Passover before I suffer”: a meal and a sacrifice.
The meal is that prescribed in the first reading that we heard from the book of Exodus. There a lamb is sacrificed; its flesh is eaten; its blood protects the houses of the Israelites. This is the meal that Jesus eagerly desired to eat with his disciples before he suffered. The words we heard from Exodus were surely heard by Jesus and his disciples at that last supper. They heard, as we hear now, “It is the Passover of the Lord.” They heard, as we hear now, “This day shall be a memorial feast for you… a perpetual institution.”
The food and drink of this meal were the language with which the story of Israel’s Passover was told. Jesus draws on all its images now, and he is conscious that he holds all of Israel and all her history in his hands as he takes up bread and wine, and he identifies that whole history with himself and with the death he will undergo on the next day, saying over it, “This is my body, this is my blood, given up for you. Do this in memory of me.” Ah, now yes indeed, “It is the Passover of the Lord,” a new and definitive Passover. Ah now, yes indeed, “This day shall be a memorial feast for you… a perpetual institution.” “Do this as a memorial of me,” he says.
Also every line of the Gospel we just heard will help us to enter deeply into the meaning of the entire Triduum. The first sentence locates the scene in the context of Passover and then solemnly declares, “Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass [over] from this world to the Father.” The Triduum is, in fact, this hour; and this first line of the gospel is the solemn declaration that that hour has come. It has come for our community, here and now.
Love is the meaning of this hour. The evangelist says so with utter clarity and simplicity: “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” Love is what Jesus expresses in the washing of his disciples’ feet, but what he does here first in symbolic gesture he will later do in actual fact. Jesus’ death will be his ultimate expression of love, here described as his loving them “to the end,” that is, loving them completely, to the end of his life, by the giving of his life. Love and death stand side by side here in the terrible drama that is about to unfold, and the sweet sentence about love is immediately followed by the ominous declaration, “The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.” But then just as quickly the next sentence reveals a Jesus completely in charge of the scene. It begins, “So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God…” What Jesus is about to do here he does with full awareness of the authority and mission entrusted to him by his Father, and he does it with awareness that this is his special Passover, his having come from God and his returning to God. The sovereign calm with which Jesus steps into his hour reminds us of his extremely forceful words during his ministry: “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.” (John 10: 18) Judas who will betray him, soldiers who will arrest him, his own people who will hand him over to the Romans, those who will be charged with crucifying him— none of these takes Jesus’ life from him. He freely lays it down. And so even though right here and now he finds himself in the dark atmosphere of Judas’ decision to betray him, Jesus rises from the table and takes off his outer garment.
We see how carefully the evangelist has brought us to this moment of Jesus’ unexpected action. It is Passover, it is his hour, it is love to the end, it is the devil’s inducement of Judas’s betrayal, it is Jesus’ full awareness of his going to God. Now what Jesus does is presented as if in slow motion by the evangelist, for there are seven verbs, one after the other; and it is clear that the gospel writer wishes us to contemplate and ponder Jesus’ every gesture. We are told that Jesus rose from the supper, took off his garments, took a towel and tied it round his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to washhis disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist. What we contemplate in these carefully delineated moves is a symbolic enactment of the death that Jesus is about to undergo on the morrow. It is another version of the symbolic enactment that we have already seen in his actions around the bread and wine, in which he likewise referred by use of signs to the meaning of his impending death. Every one of the seven verbs can be understood on a first level to describe in a literal way the action that Jesus performs, but they are used in such a way that they simultaneously describe dimensions of the powerful and mysterious hour into which he is entering.
For example, when we read that he pouredwater into a basin— we who know already where this whole story is going—how can we not see here an image of the blood that he will pour out for us on the cross? Then he began to washhis disciples’ feet. And so in this way we have an image of the purpose of the blood he pours out. It means to be a cleansing for us. What by rights we ought to do for ourselves—if we could—is instead done for us by another. Having washed the disciples’ feet, he driesthem. Ah, how thorough is the Master in his service for us! In the same way that the evangelist stretches out these verbs for us to contemplate slowly the action of Jesus, we must imagine the minutes that pass over each of the disciples’ feet as Jesus slowly washes them and dries them. He humbly handles their bodies with his own. He is expressing his love for them “to the end.” They are amazed by his careful touch, and they are struck silent.
At the end of his symbolic action, Jesus reclines again with his disciples and takes the opportunity to develop an instruction on what he has just done. Understanding the symbolic action to indicate his death, we would be right then to understand what he next says as referring to that death for our sake. He says, “If I your master and teacher have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” He is saying much more here than that we should literally wash one another’s feet. As this supper’s conversation unfolds in the chapters of the Gospel that follow, Jesus will say the same directly. He says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” And then immediately he adds, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15: 11-12) The commandment for us is clear, and the Apostle John draws the unmistakable conclusion for us in his first letter: “The way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (1 John 3: 16)
+ Transcript: St. Benedict, with the monastic rule he crafted in the first half of the sixth century, is considered the father of western monasticism. And Benedict’s monasticism is considered the seedbed and driving force of all that is healthy and wise in the culture of the Middle Ages and beyond. For those who study history, the genealogy of this pedigree is not really in dispute… but, alas, it is not much understood anymore by most people in our times. An awful lot of water has flowed under the bridge between the best of the Middle Ages and our own times. Even so, to deny that an unbroken thread still connects those distant times to our own would be a profession of historical ignorance and, worse, a declaration— however unwitting— of despair. It is a prejudice of our epoch that the Middle Ages have little to offer us, much less something from the 6th century. But that is a prejudice, and at least our epoch is in principle in favor of overcoming prejudices. Let’s see if we can overcome an instinctive prejudice against the past and its lost wisdoms. They may be useful for our present predicament.
I don’t have much time. I’m going to limit myself to 30 or 40 minutes. But I want to speak with you about a complicated question that I have thought about and tried to live for more than four decades. So, I must cut to the chase. I don’t intend to offer a concise history lesson about St. Benedict. Rather, I want to share with you, however briefly, how I think Benedict’s sixth century monasticism offers —gently, as invitation— a critical, fresh, new orientation for how we might confront the big life questions posed to us by the swiftly shifting landscapes of our cultural contexts, shifts that seem to be provoking unprecedentedly aggressive and disoriented responses.
The patient is sick. Let me try to describe him. I am talking about all of us… and no one in particular. If I were to talk about any one of us in particular, well, we may find on a sliding scale from 1 to 10, people that are doing more or less pretty well. No, I’m talking about what we look like as a culture, as a mass of people moving around our cities, our farmsteads, our globe. I’m talking about how we relate to one another, what we think about, how trends move us, what we are afraid of, how we drive our cars, what we eat, how busy we are, what we act like in boarding planes. That mass of people is the sick patient, and every one of us participates in the pathology. Benedict’s vision of monastic life is an antidote to the pathology. It brings health to the individual, and it can also contribute to the health of the culture as a whole.
Very early on in the Prologue of his Holy Rule, Benedict uses the words of a psalm to address the would-be monk, and he places those words in the mouth of God. He describes a scene that very much fits as description of our own times. He says, “Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice [again] saying…” (RB Prologue 14) Before I tell you what the voice of the Lord says, note the scene where the voice sounds. It is the Lord seeking an individual in the midst of a multitude. I have just outlined the multitude of our own troubled culture, what I described as people moving around our cities, our farmsteads, our globe. This is where the Lord’s voice sounds. What does he say? He says, “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” (Ps 33: 13, RB Prologue 15)
Now, isn’t that the question!?! It’s a good question whoever poses it. Who doesn’t perk up in hearing it posed? And yet, for St. Benedict, it is God who poses it. When I ponder on this fact, on this grace, I can’t help but hear sometimes a tone almost of bewilderment in the voice of God as he gazes on the beautiful beings that he created in his own image and likeness. When he says, “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” it is almost as if we can hear him continue, “There doesn’t seem to be.” In any case, not in the multitude qua multitude. God’s heart is broken, and God goes seeking among the multitude someone, anyone, who yearns for life.
What makes me think that the multitude is not well? You see it in the faces of so many when we are out and about. Manners, clothing, gait, styles of driving, and hours upon hours spent in virtual worlds where with impunity we can be scathingly ill-mannered or immoral and held unaccountable. And if you don’t see much of that where and how you live, good. But somewhere not far from you, it is happening; and you are only for the moment preserved from having to see it. And also, somewhere not far from you, the weak, the lonely, the unlovely are passed over quickly by the multitude strong enough at present to gather greedily some of fleeting pleasures of this life. And in the midst of this stampede, this rush, this din, the quiet voice and question of God is gently posed: “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?”
Let’s return to the text of St. Benedict. He continues, “If you hear this [question] and your answer is, ‘I do,’ then God directs these words to you…” We need to pause again before hearing the words of God that St. Benedict offers next. If your answer is “I do.” It seems easy at first. God asks, “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” Who wouldn’t say “I do”? Well, I’m suggesting that we live in a multitude, a culture, that doesn’t seem to care. For it is God who is posing the question. Do you really want to listen to God? Do you really want to say “I do” to God? God is about to speak. Duck! Get ready! Hide!… if you can. Do you mean it when you say to God, “I do”? Well, so that we can read on, let’s presume that you do mean it, as best you can. Then let’s listen to the answer that Benedict next formulates, taking his words still from the psalm and placing them still in the mouth of God. “If you hear this and your answer is ‘I do,’ God then directs these words to you: ‘If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim (Ps 33: 14-15).’” The message of God continues, but let’s pause to digest this much.
For life and to see good days, we must do something. It can be simply put even if not simply done. God says, “keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit.” This is not happening in the multitude. Is it happening in you? Don’t let the multitude be the excuse for its not happening in you. God is searching among the multitude for someone, for anyone, who really longs for what we were made for in his image and likeness. And there is more that the individual who responds can do. (I don’t say “must do” as if to say, “you damned well better or you’ll be damned.” No, I say “can do,” because the Lord is inviting, and he will help.) The something else is this. God says, “turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim.”
Maybe you are thinking, “No, I can’t really do that.” But the Lord would not invite if he did not intend to help. Listen to what follows. St. Benedict moves from the psalm to a passage from Isaiah, but still always simply delivering God’s word into this present context. “Once you have done this,” God says, “my eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers; and even before you ask me, I will say to you: here I am (Is 58:9. RB Prologue 18).” God saying to me “Here I am.” Even before I ask, God saying to me “Here I am.” Isn’t this what my heart and yours is longing to hear? Isn’t this what every human heart in the troubled multitude longs to hear? St. Benedict himself says as much in what immediately follows in the Rule. He says, “What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life.” (RB Prologue 19-20)
We should note in this monastic vision of things how much initiative is attributed to God. It is he who is searching for us, not the other way around. It is he who says “Here I am” even before we ask. For St. Benedict, the deepest sense of life is located in our response to this divine initiative. In other words, the condition for living well our human existence, the condition for fulfilling a particular role or vocation, the condition for “doing something beautiful for God” with our lives is not so much a set of capacities or qualities or right attitudes or stunning talents. It is rather, more simply, a yearning for life and a desire to see good days. It is grasping that this yearning is implanted in the depths of my being by the God who made me. And it is responding in our troubled world to Good News; namely, the Good News that God is seeking for just such people who are yearning for life, and God is longing to say to each one, “Here I am.”
Perhaps all this sounds too easy, too sweet. Unreal. Naïve. Life isn’t at all this easy, and today’s troubled world needs something much more sturdy than a religious pep talk. Well, I’m not giving you a pep talk. I’m announcing Good News. I’m announcing the Gospel. We are not the inventers of the Gospel. We don’t make it happen. God does. But we are entrusted with announcing it, testifying to it, risking to trust in it. So, where is the problem? Why isn’t any of this easy when somehow it should be, when we long for this kind of simplicity?
Let’s dig in a little more deeply into what St. Benedict has said so far. In just a few short lines he has put into clear relief three fundamental elements of the mystery of the human person in relationship to God. These elements are, first, a question posed by God: “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” Second, there is the response from some actual person who says, “I do.” And third, there is the response of God to the response of the person. God says to that one, “Here I am.”
Yet we must not think of this “Here I am” of God as some lucky prize or reward for having had the good sense to say “I do” to the question. The mystery is deeper; and we, the multitude, have all somehow lost sight of it. For in fact God’s saying “Here I am” is what lies at the origins of the whole created order and more deeply at the origins of the creation of the human person formed in God’s own image and likeness. God has created beings like ourselves, beings designed originally to see a marvelous world about us and to stand in awe of it, to hear it whispering God’s “Here I am.” God has created beings like ourselves, designed originally to look at one another and to marvel, to fall in love, to connect deeply and in joy and to hear again in that experience the whispering of God who says, “Here I am.” It was all meant to be spontaneous, natural, pure, innocent.
But we have fallen, and we hear God’s voice with difficulty and only sporadically. The multitude qua multitude looks at the created world and exploits it and is destroying it. God is not noticed at all in this use of his creation. The multitude qua multitude looks at one another and sees nobody, only a mass of men and women hurrying about with faces never seen and eyes never meeting. Who can fall in love with a crowd? No one thinks of God when the masterpiece of his creation, the human person, is gathered in mass. This is why St. Benedict, himself testifying to the Good News in his troubled times, announces a new version of God’s “Here I am.” It is not the “Here I am” of the origins, but rather the “Here I am” of a God who is in search among the lost multitude for someone, anyone, who longs for what we were created for. So the question “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” is in fact launched by God as an appeal to conversion, as an invitation to recovery and repentance, as a return to innocence which his initiative is offering and makes possible.
So now everything depends on whether or not someone can say “I do” in answer to God’s offer. “I do yearn for life and desire to see good days.” The catch for us now is in saying “I.” For you don’t say “I” to no one. If so, you’re only talking to yourself, and you are left to yourself. Good luck!
No, “I” say “I” to a “you.” And in this case, I am saying “I” because someone has said “you” to me, and I am answering. And here is what is utterly noteworthy, to say the least. Here is what is astonishingly Good News. It is God who is speaking. It is God who says “you” to me. Can I really utter my “I” as my free response to his question? If I do, I live. I find life. I see good days.
God is immense—infinite, which is more than immense. God is all holy. Who can stand in God’s presence? And yet sweet and gentle and courteous is God’s approach to us. He never overwhelms, never imposes, always leaves us free. God even lets it seem to us that our yearning for life and desire to see good days has its origin in ourselves and not in him. But that seeming is not a mistake. It is God’s gift to us. It is our liberty, our free will, our ability to choose. The Book of Deuteronomy reports God as saying, “Behold, I place before you today death and life. Therefore, choose life.” But the drama lies in the fact that we don’t have to choose life. God’s saying “Here I am” is at the origin of the world and the origin of our own existence. But the mechanism of desire and choice is given us by God precisely as a gift that lets us respond yes or no to the God who addresses us. And whatever I respond, it will be I saying “I” to God. Either I say, “I do choose life,” or I say, as Satan did in his own fall, “I will not serve.” This answer to God—this “I” pronounced in response to God—determines every person’s existence, and God defers to our choice because God does not impose. If God were to impose, it would not be love that is offered by God, nor could it be love from us offered in return. It would not be a relationship.
Every person’s answer determines his or her existence, one’s life in the world, who one is. If I say to God who offers, “I yearn for life, and I desire to see good days, and I will follow the way you show me,” then I become the person God designed me to be, that is, a person in relationship with God, a person in love with God because I see that God first loved me and gives me life. I become a person in love with the world God created and in which he placed me as my home. I am careful of it and joyful in its beauties. I become a person in love with other persons, for I recognize them as summoned and challenged by the same kind of dramatic choice that determines my own existence. I love actual people whom I come across in the course of my own life unfolding, but in principle I am disposed to honor and love all persons, for we all share this common dignity. I am talking about what the Bible says we are: the image and likeness of God.
It’s a choice, I’ve said. Life is a choice. “True and eternal life,” as St. Benedict calls it, is a choice. This is St. Benedict’s teaching, based in the Scripture itself. And the monastic practices and way of life that he formulated in his Rule are a program— he calls it a school— where we learn to choose rightly, where we can recover from mistaken choices, and where we live in relationship with the created world and with one another in the way that God designed. It is a way of life patient of human weakness and the legacy of bad choices which we all inherit from the history of our race. Nonetheless, it consistently corrects these with gentle disciplines and admonitions which refuse to let us fool ourselves. Benedict also calls his monastic instructions a process and a way of life. And he promises that in following the instructions, life grows sweeter and ever more precious. He says, “As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” (RB Prologue 49)
I have described for you some of the deep structures of St. Benedict’s monastic Rule. These deep structures have had their impact on more than the monks who actually lived in monasteries. I said that this monastic life turned out to be the seedbed and driving force of much that is heathy and wise in the culture of the Middle Ages and beyond. In short, it is the driving force of the culture of Christian Europe and, so, derivatively, of much of our own culture. But, of course, everyone knows that these Christians cultures are dying. I spoke of the evidence. I spoke of what we look like as a culture, as a mass of people moving around our globe— the creation slowly destroyed, faces never seen and eyes never meeting, our culture as sick patient with every one of us afflicted by the disease. Our culture lives as if God did not exist and as if he did not address us. I suggested that Benedict’s vision of monastic life is an antidote to the pathology. It brings health to the individual, and it can also contribute to the health of the culture as a whole. Let me finish by summarizing the hopeful message in St. Benedict’s own words, which we have pondered together this morning.
“Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice [again] saying: ‘Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?’ (Ps 33: 13) If you hear this [question] and your answer is, ‘I do,’ then God directs these words to you: ‘If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim (Ps 33: 14-15).’” Once you have done this,” [God says,] ‘my eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers; and even before you ask me, I will say to you: here I am (Is 58:9).’ What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life.” (RB Prologue 14-20)
+ Transcript: This gospel text we just heard, the inspired story proclaimed in our midst, has strongly marked the Christian imagination from the time it was first set down. Our images somehow go beyond what is in the text itself, but not inappropriately. It is what Gregory the Great said about the Scriptures in general. He said, “They expand with reading.” And so we picture the scene in different ways, sing about it, portray it in painting and sculpture and embody it in traditions and gift giving. One thinks of camels, treasures in handsome coffers, the exotic dress of the magi, the kings, the wise men or whatever we call them. And the art is amazing. Incredible landscapes as backdrop, flamboyant clothing, the magi lined up in various expressions of awe and adoration and satisfaction— the Christ child seated on the throne of his mother’s lap while kings prostrate before him and the child kindly pats one of the old guys on his bald head. There are stars everywhere in the sky and one is brighter than all the rest. Maybe in the background phony Herod is his palace pacing nervously or grinding his teeth. Yes, indeed, the text expands with reading.
But we are not dealing here with entertainment, with a charming and irresistible story. This sacred text reveals the presence here and now of an invisible reality unfolding in our very midst, on this very day, in this very hour. For twelve days now we have heard the Christmas story proclaimed in various ways again and again. The only Begotten Son of God took flesh of the Virgin Mary and has come to dwell among us. Clear enough what the proclamation is and that this is cause for immense joy. But today a further and crucial dimension of that reality is unveiled before us. Let’s use Paul’s words in the second reading to be sure we get it right and to state it with theological precision. Paul says, “the Gentiles are now coheirs [with the Jews], members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” This is a huge turnabout in understanding for the zealous Pharisee Saul, who once believed that scrupulous observance of the Jewish law was the only path of salvation available not only for Jews but for anybody at all. Salvation for Jews alone and not for many of them. But no, now Paul announces a gospel, unexpected good news in Christ Jesus. Yes, Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises God made to the Jewish people; and indeed, Jesus cannot be understood apart from those promises. But now “the Gentiles are coheirs [with the Jews], members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
There’s wonderful content in those words, but maybe it can sound a little technical and abstract. Well, let’s say the same thing with the words of the gospel. “And behold, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem.” Magi— they represent all the nations other than Israel. They represent the longing of the nations for what God promised Israel. They represent the wisdom of the nations searching for the true God. And if they cannot arrive exactly at their destination, they are zeroing in on it because they are sensitive and open to cosmic signs, and all the earth and all the heavens proclaim the wonderful news of the Only Begotten Son of God come among us in the flesh. How could they not? For the Incarnation touches material being at its very core. “We have seen his star at its rising,” the Magi say. (They call it “his star,” for that is what it is. All the stars are his, and “he calls them each by name.”) “We have seen his star at its rising,” they say, “and have come to do him homage.” The evangelist tells us that not only Herod but also all Jerusalem were greatly troubled at hearing this. Why? Well, who should know better if not God’s chosen people when and where the newborn king of the Jews is, the one to whom homage is due? And yet they have missed the clues that the Magi find in the sky.
I said that we are not dealing here with a charming tale, but with an inspired text that reveals a reality occurring here and now in our midst. What is that reality? The reality is the longing in our own hearts which is nothing less than the longing of all the nations, a longing to encounter the one true God. And it is amazement at learning that such an encounter is possible in an unheard of and unimaginable way; namely, that Jesus Christ, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, is present in our midst here and now in the flesh that he took on for our sake and which he uses as the instrument of his divinity, active in our midst to save us. “And behold, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem.” We are the magi. Jerusalem is here. But where is the child? Where is Bethlehem?
We follow the star. The text describes ourhearts— what the grace of this day and the feast are meant to cause us to feel. We read, “They were overjoyed at seeing the star.” This is because the star “stopped over the place where the child was.” That place is here and now and all that God is doing in our midst today even as I speak to you. The text continues in its revelation of this present moment. “They saw the child with Mary his mother.” We see the child with Mary his mother. I’m not speaking about a special vision induced by force of imagination. We are not meant to squeeze our eyes real tight and pretend we are in a stable in Bethlehem. The child and his mother are here where we are. Faith lets us see them, for how could the Lord of the Universe not be present here and now under the form that he assumed to make himself so readily and attractively available to us. So we see them by faith, and the text dictates to us our next move. “They prostrated themselves and did him homage.” Ah, who among us does not long to do the same?!
Isaiah the prophet (in the first reading) rouses us to joyful and awestruck adoration. “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem!” he says to us. “Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” Let’s get concrete. Our light, the glory of the Lord shining on us— what is it? It is the face of Jesus, the eternal Son come in the flesh. “Radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth! Jesus, Lord at thy birth!” Isaiah says, “Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow.” The joy that begins for us at Jesus’ birth will never cease to grow and expand in us. Every day we strain forward to grasping it somehow the more. We shall tread a path of infinite progress in joy. We will never reach a point where we say, “Yes, I’ve thought all through now for a number of years and well, yes, it’s pretty great. God has sure done a lot for us. But no further thoughts on this would take me any farther.” Ridiculous.
The Eucharist we are about to celebrate is the gateway that opens wide onto the realm of infinite expansion of our joy. We know where this whole story goes. We see “the child” with Mary his mother not only in Bethlehem but also at the cross. And we see that one risen from dead and pouring out his Holy Spirit on Mary and the disciples gathered in the Upper Room. We see the crucified and risen Lord ascended into heaven, and Mary assumed with him into that same place and same condition. Yes indeed, we “see the child with Mary his mother.” And we know that the Eucharist is the memorial of all this, which is to say, that all this becomes present here and now on our altar, and from our altar we offer it as adoration and thanksgiving to the Father for the immense love he pours out on us in his only Begotten Son. Our offering now is not literally gold, frankincense and myrrh, but rather, as the Prayer over the Offerings will proclaim, “he who by them is proclaimed, sacrificed and received, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.”