Homily of Christmas Midnight Mass 2020
It is the silent night. His arrival goes all unnoticed. But something absolutely momentous has happened – inconceivable, really. Yet it has happened. Beautiful how all this was pointed out in prophecy in the book of Wisdom, where it says, addressing God, “For when peaceful stillness encompassed everything and the night in its swift course was half spent, your all-powerful Word from heaven’s royal throne bounded into the doomed land.” (Wisdom 18:14-15) “Doomed” should be understood in two senses in this text. The Lord comes because the land is doomed, and so he arrives to help. But his coming also spells doom for the land into which he comes, for he arrives quietly and unnoticed within the captured territory that Satan holds in his grip through sin and death.
Luke’s gospel, which we heard proclaimed just now, also describes this remarkably quiet moment within what is otherwise quite a lot of commotion in its few short verses. The great Caesar Augustus has the whole world on the move in obedience to his decree. Whatever the emperor decreed was called good news, just because he said it. That’s pure imperial propaganda, of course, but that’s how language gets toyed with by world rulers. Oh yes, Augustus fashioned himself the ruler of the whole world, and he was flexing this “fact” by requiring a census of all. But in the midst of this movement in every direction for the census, in fact a higher providence is guiding a young and special couple named Joseph and Mary to a specially designated place in fulfillment of prophecy. There’s further excitement to come in the story that Luke is telling, but before that he utters his remarkably quiet and few words. Earlier we had been told that Mary was with child, and now he simply says, “She gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” It is the silent night. It is the holy night. There are only Joseph, Mary, and the new child. Elsewhere the whole world is bustling, and Bethlehem’s inns are packed; and in this quiet scene the most important thing that has heretofore ever happened on Earth is taking place silently and all unnoticed: a baby, outside the city walls, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
Matthew’s gospel, the only other gospel that speaks of the birth of Jesus, is even quieter than this. All it says of the birth itself is “[Joseph] had no relations with her, [Mary], until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.” These quiet, these spare descriptions, are somehow part of the point, part of the message. And we can only receive it fully in a quiet place within ourselves. A reason to cultivate silence. A reason to enter into the holy night.
I say it is momentous what is happening. Nothing greater or more important than this has ever happened heretofore on Earth. What is it that takes place in such deep silence, in such obscurity? What it is is mysteriously revealed in the Entrance Song we sang as the ministers entered the sanctuary. “In holy splendor, before the daystar, I have begotten you.” This is Psalm 2. But that text, an oracle originally uttered by God to Israel’s king, is seen now as a prophecy of this moment, and it describes the child born of Mary as the one whom God the Father begets. He begets him now in time, but the mystery grows deeper, for the one begotten now in time was eternally begotten of the Father before all ages. That one is here now in very flesh. That is the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. That we sang it as our song means that this event, this begetting, invades our space now.
Elsewhere a rather more spectacular scene is unfolding. It has to do with this quiet scene that remains rapt in the peaceful stillness. In the elsewhere, an angel, just one, makes a stunning appearance to – of all people! – some shepherds. I say “of all people” because shepherds at that time were the lowermost rungs of society, and it wasn’t to be expected that an angel would appear to such as these. But most of what the true God does is unexpected. The shepherds themselves were certainly not expecting it, and the text tells us that “they were struck with great fear.” The angel delivers a vital and precise interpretation of the quiet scene of the newborn babe. The angel declares, “Behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy for all the people.” (So much for Caesar’s good news and him being in charge of all the people.) The angel continues: “Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.” Ah, this is the divinely sanctioned interpretation of the birth that we needed. Three titles are applied to the child that explain who he is: Savior, Messiah, and Lord. Two of these titles had been misappropriated by Caesar Augustus, Savior and Lord. But no, Jesus is the only Savior and Lord, and he is Israel’s Messiah who is now “for all the people.” The angel finishes his message making certain that the shepherds – and we who are hearing the story – are clear about whom the angel is speaking. He says, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Lest the shepherds be in any doubt about this one angel’s message, suddenly the whole sky is filled with a multitude of angels singing and praising God, and the song can be about only one thing: the great joy that God is acting on behalf of the whole of humanity and that this joy is meant for everyone. They praise God for this, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
The story does not end there, though what we heard tonight does. But the story continues with a response from the shepherds. This is the gospel text that the Church reads in the Christmas Mass at dawn. But I’ll remind you of it now, briefly. Luke tells us that the angels went away to heaven. It is quiet again. The shepherds decide “to go to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” They go in haste. They are excited. And they see the sign. They “found Mary and Joseph and the infant lying in the manger.” That was the sign. They see it. They understand now the angel’s message. And they immediately started telling others, all of whom were amazed. They tell Mary and Joseph too, for they were not in the place of the angelic appearance. And we are told, pointedly by the evangelist, that “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”
This image of Mary pondering all this in her heart brings us back into the silence of this night. She is an image of the Church and an example for us in this her silent pondering. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown.”
This same quiet, unobtrusive coming of the Son of God into our midst happens all the time for us actually. It may be so unobtrusive that we fail to notice. But if so, this feast is given us to rectify that. The Eucharist that we celebrate each day is this same quiet coming, with all the same characteristics. For those who do not know, for those who do not believe, the celebration of the Eucharist looks like nothing at all. And fair enough! The priest but gently stretches out his hands over the gifts of bread and wine and beseeches the Father to send the Holy Spirit for their transformation. Then he picks up bread and afterward wine and quietly says the words of Jesus over them, “This is my body. This is my blood.” And the transformation is worked. It is the mystery of faith. The Son comes “in the name of the Lord.” The eternally begotten Son is present to us in his body and blood. It is quiet. All unnoticed by the bustling world. But we are here. We know what it means. We ponder it in our hearts. It is momentous. Inconceivable, really. And yet here he is, in this way, in this form.
He lies on our altar as if in a manger. For, after all, a manger is a food trough for animals, but now in this humble place he lies as living bread for us who believe in him. And the manger, made of wood, and the child wrapped in swaddling clothes, these are prophecies of the wood of the cross and the swaddling clothes of Jesus’ burial. The swaddling clothes are left behind in the tomb from which he rises, and it is as risen and ascended Lord that he feeds us with his body and blood, born this night in Bethlehem. Angels, a multitude of the heavenly host, are with us, adoring him now in his presence to us.
So, you see. Here it is the silent night. Here it is the holy night. All is calm. All is bright.
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Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and All the Angels
It is difficult for a large swath of contemporary people to take seriously the Bible’s talk about the activity of angels. This is true of believers and nonbelievers alike. You would think that not believing in God would include not believing in angels, but this is not always the case. You can find people who say— quaintly— that they believe in angels, and it turns out it’s just a way of avoiding the demands of belief in God. They say they are “spiritual”— which makes them kind of interesting, rather sensitive— but not “religious.” Yet push this belief in angels, and you find it’s pretty vague. Actually, there can be no good angel that is not an angel of the one true God.
On the other hand plenty of believing Christians can be uneasy about how to understand the Bible’s angels. All in favor of good ole Jesus, of course, but a little embarrassed if they ought also to believe in angels, which surely must be some primitive symbolic way of speaking that people, more simple than we, could not help but employ in their underdeveloped conditions, centuries ago.
But in fact the entire biblical story, Old Testament and New, falls apart if the angels that are present and active in every stage of it are not taken seriously. Angels appear to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and are present and at work throughout the Exodus, the wandering in the desert, and the coming into the Land. Angels appear to Gideon, to Manoah and his wife; and they are heard singing in Isaiah’s vision of God. These are not decorative additions to stories that would make sense without them. The angels are major protagonists in the playing out of the wonderful deeds of God.
A great deal of angelic life and history— if we could call it that— unfolds in a dimension different from our earthbound human coordinates of time and space and visible things. Knowledge of this angelic life and history is given us through Revelation. From our perspective it happens in a “before” and an “elsewhere.” Angels are creatures like us, and so products of God’s goodness and wisdom acting outside of God’s self. They are rational, with free will, like us; but unlike us, they are incorporeal; they move swiftly through our time and space, penetrating situations with their godlike incorporeal intelligence.
Angelic life and history in a dimension different from our own— this is what is revealed to us in our first and second reading today, from Daniel and from Revelation. Fascinans et tremendum, the vision of God that Daniel saw. We tremble, and we are fascinated. God’s throne is “flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire, with a surging stream of fire flowing out from beneath him.” And we see not only that, but we see in this vision of God the appearance of another who, “coming on the clouds of heaven,” receives from the Ancient One “dominion, glory, and kingship.” This is a vision of the eternal Father and his consubstantial Son. And there in the middle of this scene— and this is the point for today’s feast— are “thousands upon thousands ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads attending him.” These are the angels, created to attend to the glory that is God’s and ready promptly to respond to God’s commands.
The Book of Revelation revealed to us a rebellion in these angelic ranks. One angel, who for his rebellion assumes a perverse form of his original beauty and strength— he becomes “a huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan”— this one angel leads other angels in fighting Michael and his angels. What in the heavens is this fight about!!?? We do not know the details, but we learn this much, and it comes to us as a warning. The Devil, Satan, and its angels are thrown down to earth and Satan is called “deceiver of the whole world.” This angelic battle is surely somehow connected with our situation on earth, where our own humanity, made also in the image and likeness of God, endowed with intelligence and freewill like the angels, is also burdened with a tremendous legacy of rebellion against our good and wise Creator, who fashioned us to share in his glory.
We Christians know that God has sent a magnificent remedy to cure our rebellious humanity. He has sent his only begotten Son to assume a human nature like ours and to plant deep within it the Son’s own personal obedience to his Father for us to share in. The myriads upon myriads of angels who attended to God on his throne and to his divine Son sharing in his everlasting dominion now turn their attention to contemplating that same Son in his assumption of our human nature. This is not my fanciful thinking. I get this from Jesus himself in the Gospel text proclaimed today.
This is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Philip has told Nathanael about Jesus and shares that he believes him to be the Messiah. But when Nathanael hears that Jesus is from Nazareth, his skeptic’s heart asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” A great deal is concentrated into the few verses that follow, and unless we catch the scriptural allusions to the Old Testament, what Nathanael does and says next doesn’t make much sense. The skeptic approaches Jesus, and Jesus takes him off guard by a complimentary and sympathetic remark. He says of him, “Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him.” Nathanael accepts Jesus’ assessment but wonders aloud to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus says, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” This simple remark, in a flash, moves Nathanael from his skepticism to a profound profession of faith in Jesus. He says, quite rightly, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
But how can all this come just from Jesus saying he saw him under the fig tree? Here is where we need to catch the biblical allusion in order to understand. When Adam and Eve, yielding to the deceiving suggestion of the ancient serpent, rebelled against God, they thereafter hid from him, became ashamed of their nakedness, and sewed clothing for themselves from fig leaves. Nathanael, in his skepticism, is likewise hiding from God under the fig tree, and Jesus calls him out from there. In the first garden God called out, “Adam, where are you?” Now Jesus calls Nathanael out. Indeed, he calls each one of us in the same way. “Where are you? I see you.”
Nathanael’s intense encounter with Jesus brings him to a declaration of faith. But Jesus promises ever so much more concerning himself. He declares of himself “Amen, Amen I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Again, we must catch the scriptural allusion to understand the point. Jesus is recalling Jacob’s dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven upon which “the angels of God ascended and descended.” When Jacob awoke, he exclaimed, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.” Now Jesus is this awesome place. Jesus is the gate of heaven. Wherever Jesus is, angels of God ascend and descend on him.
They who had gazed upon him in his divine nature now contemplate him in his human nature. Thus an angel announces his birth, both to Mary and to Joseph, not to mention Zechariah, the father of his forerunner. Angels are in the heavens singing at Jesus’ birth. Angels attend to Jesus after the devil tempts him. They assist him in his agony in the garden. They contemplate his death together with the stunned and darkening cosmos. They announce his resurrection to the women. They are present as he ascends into heaven. Indeed, through every phase of his earthly existence angels of God ascend and descend on Jesus. How awesome he is! He is the gate of heaven!
Traditionally, monastic life aims to be what is called the angelic life. In a special way our monastery, Mount Angel, and our motherhouse, Engelberg, celebrating this year its 900th anniversary of continuous existence, have been especially dedicated to the angels. This means that we long for the angels’ powers to contemplate and adore God. They surround us and accompany us in all that we do, for Christ dwells in our midst, and they are where he is. We know they surround us especially in our celebration of the Eucharist now, for it is their song that we sing at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are filled with his glory.”
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Simple Profession 2020: The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Today, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is the day, when possible, that we monks of Mount Angel make our first profession of monastic vows. And in any case, as a community we observe this day as the anniversary day of all our professions. When novices profess vows for the first time, all of us in vows are strengthened and renewed by this addition to our brotherhood. And so we thank God and you, dear novices, for your perseverance. Were it not for the blasted pandemic, you might have been doing this a little earlier this year because I was originally scheduled to be in Rome in these days along with all the other abbots in the world for the meeting that gathers the abbots every 4 years at Sant’ Anselmo. That’s off, and I am certainly happy that we can celebrate this profession on Mount Angel’s traditional day.
This is a tradition we follow from our mother house, Engelberg. For centuries then monks in our line have placed the professing of their vows under the care of our Blessed Mother. The day of her birth reminds us of the exquisite tact with which the all-powerful Lord of the Universe plans his quiet coming in the flesh among us. A monk is meant to contemplate all the moves of this divine style of coming and let himself be conformed to such style in the way of life he promises to live. The vows of obedience, stability, and conversatio morum aim to conform us to just that.
Recently, to my surprise— surprise can often be based on ignorance overcome— recently, to my surprise, I came across a collection of texts called “The Academic Sermons” of St. Thomas Aquinas. I didn’t really know of this part of the opus of the great theologian that we instinctively associate with his wondrous Summa Theologica. I was excited when I found a sermon by him on the Nativity of the Virgin, and I could not help but diving in as I prepared for this homily. He begins with something that I think can be helpful to us, and in his way of proceeding, good Dominican that he is, he shows how deeply in their preaching they were rooted in the origins in monastic styles of exegesis. (I say this as a nod to Br. Trent and his brief but formative time in this venerable order.) Aquinas says this: “We read that the birth of the Blessed Virgin is shown beforehand by many figures in the Old Testament. Among other figures it is pointed to by three figures in particular, namely, in the ascent of dawn, in the rising of the morning star, and in the sprouting of a twig from the root.”
How lovely are these images of our Blessed Mother! And we can use them to ponder the vows you are about to pronounce, dear novices, and the vows you have already pronounced, dear brothers already professed, or the vows you are preparing for, freshest batch of novices.
Aquinas develops each of the three in the sermon he preached. He likens Mary’s birth to the ascent of dawn. Deeply intriguing is the beauty of a dawn, growing in majesty and promise in complete silence as the minutes advance, until finally what it promises arrives like “a bridegroom coming forth from his bridal chamber.” It is the sun itself that gives light and warmth and growth and energy to all the earth, but the prelude is already magnificent, and in designing it so, God honors the mother of his Son as the prelude of his own coming among us. Dear Luke, Trent, and Zachary, today is the dawn, the prelude, of your own giving over of your bodies and whole being to God. And Christ, the Father’s Son, is meant to be more present in the world through your generous fiat—beautiful, like the dawn.
The second image that Aquinas develops is Mary as a rising star, and he takes this to be a prophecy of “the integrity of her virginity,” citing Bernard of Clairvaux (a monk!) as his source. The two together note that “stars shine without being corrupted and without diminishment of light.” That’s virginity before, during, and after. Monastic profession completely refreshes what Baptism first accomplished in you. By your vow of conversatio morum, fidelity to the monastic way of life, you vow today to keep your body, heart, and mind chaste in all its dimensions so that you may be worthy tabernacles of the Father’s Son made flesh among us.
The third image that Aquinas develops is Mary’s being compared to a twig sprouting from the root. We easily hear his allusion to the well-known Isaiah text “a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.” But what does this image indicate about Mary? He suggests that since a twig shoots upward on branches which reach for the sky, the twig means to indicate the elevation of Mary’s great contemplative capacity. This is one of those beautiful rhetorical surprises that delights the hearer, as all the best of the Fathers knew how to do. For us as monks, it means seeking things above. In Latin, “twig” is virga, and “virgin” is virgo. So, there’s a word game containing a splendid hint-hint. If you’re a virgo, you’ll be a virga; that is, by being faithful in virginity— chaste in body, heart, and mind (you promise this today)— you will sprout upward, seeking things above, and “be raised toward heaven,” to use Aquinas’ words.
I was happy with my discovery of these riches in the preaching of the angelic doctor and am glad to share them with you today. But it also set me searching. I had always heard of the considerable influence on Thomas of his teacher St. Albert the Great and wondered if there was any direct connection to the passage I have dwelt on here. I didn’t have time to look much, so I’m not sure. However, I did find that St. Albert begins a commentary on the very passage we heard today from Matthew’s Gospel, but he is unable to get past the phrase “the mother of Jesus” without a long pause. I won’t go into it all here, or I might hear a long groan from this assembly. But permit me at least to share how Albert begins. He had started with the phrase that began our gospel passage: “Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary…” And there he stops! This is quintessential lectio divina. The thought of the “mother of Jesus” sends him sailing. He says, “This is the Mother of Jesus, the immaculate mother, the untouched mother, the mother untried by the pain of motherhood, the incorrupt mother, the mother who, by the strength of her virtue, was not put away.”
Matthew’s gospel passage is not directly focused on Mary but “on the birth of Jesus Christ and how it came about.” Yet Mary as the mother of Jesus rivets Albert’s attention, and he undertakes a development on each of the adjectives he ascribes to her. Each of these for us as monks would be something for us to aspire to, for I suggested at the beginning of my homily that we are meant to contemplate all the moves of the divine style of God’s coming in the flesh and let ourselves be conformed to such style in the way of life we as monks promise to live. “Immaculate”— we aim for that. “Untouched”— it means we are given over only to him. “Not put away”— this refers to Joseph not putting Mary away when he at first did not understand how she had come to be with child. Albert explains that Joseph did not put her away because of her virtue, and he means this to be for us also a call to virtue.
Let’s pause for a minute on another detail of the Gospel itself. We are told that Mary is with child “through the Holy Spirit,” but Joseph does not know or understand this. And so, an angel appears to him in a dream. Two commands are given to Joseph by the angel, but to understand their importance it is necessary to grasp the significance of how the angel addresses him. He calls him, “Joseph, Son of David.” Son of David because the passage we heard today is what immediately follows in Matthew’s gospel after listing the genealogy of Jesus, and Matthew is at pains to show that Jesus is the definite son of David. So, it needs must be Joseph, also a son of David, who will give this child conceived of the Holy Spirit his name for his fleshly existence. And it must also be this same Son of David who takes Mary, the daughter of Zion, into his home, and so legitimizes her as his wife. The angel says, “Joseph, Son of David… do not be afraid to take Mary into your home, for it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.”
Dear novices, Luke, Trent, Zachary, I can think of no better advice to leave you with as you make your profession now. “Take Mary into your home.” Dear brothers all, dear Christians all, let us allow our mother Mary to gather us now into her spacious embrace and teach us to say with her, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done unto me according to your word.”
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17th Sunday of the Year A
1 Kings 3:5, 7-12 | Romans 8:28-30 | Matthew 13:44-52.
This morning we are happy to have 11 oblates making their final oblation with us here at Mass, and a few other guests. We are brought here together by God to hear the sacred scripture, and we want to renew ourselves in its promise as we celebrate the Eucharist together.
First, from the story of Solomon’s prayer, we learn that the request for wisdom and an understanding heart is pleasing to God. The scriptural text instructs us precisely in what it is that we should be desirous of, by distinguishing what Solomon prayed for from more-worldly, more expected desires. The Lord was pleased that he did not ask for long life, for riches, for revenge on his enemies. Instead he asks for the understanding heart that knows how to distinguish right from wrong, the heart that can profit others.
The second thing we learn from the text is that God gives a positive answer to the prayer for wisdom, indeed, he grants it in superabundance to one who sincerely asks. “Because you have asked for this,” says the Lord, “I do as you requested. I give you a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you.”
Such a promise – generous, so complete and thorough – made to Solomon, a Son of David, to whom the Lord had promised an everlasting dynasty – such a promise finds its definitive fulfillment not in the historicalSolomon but in Christ our Lord, the definitive Solomon, the definitive David. (The one who said, in referring to himself, “You have a greater than Solomon here.” Matthew 12:42) All those who are called, St. Paul tells us, Jews and Greeks alike, know this: “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:24) In the wisdom of his cross the words to the historical Solomon are fulfilled and refer to Christ. To Christ, displaying his wisdom on the cross we can say: “there has never been anyone like you, and after you there will come no one to equal you.”
This mystery about Christ is surely the treasure buried in a field of which the Gospel speaks. Christ himself is the pearl of great price. To know him, one must put up for sale everything he has to buy that field, to purchase that pearl. Indeed, we must be imitators of Paul (1 Corinthians 4:16), who said, “I have counted all else rubbish so that Christ may be my wealth,” (Philippians 3:8) – my pearl.
One must search. We are speaking of something hidden, something very rare, a treasure. Only with the understanding heart that God alone gives can it be found. It is possible to go down a wrong path, searching instead for a long life, for riches, for revenge on our enemies. “None of the rulers of this age knew the mystery; if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory.” (1 Corinthians 2:8)
Or if I am the merchant in search of fine pearls, this whole created world is the place of my search, but the pearl of great price is finding Christ “through whom and for whom all things were created.” (Colossians 1:16) Beautiful indeed is this world in which we live. The creator has cast a million pearls across earth and sea and sky, but the finest pearl of all is the Word become flesh and dwelling among us (John 1:14), to see him is to see the Father (John 14:9). Such a field, such a pearl – this whole material world, this world of flesh, but Christ come in the flesh as the treasure buried therein, the pearl of great price!
The present moment in which we are gathered, listening to the scriptures and trying to understand them, permits us to take these texts a step further and suggest that if Christ himself is the treasure buried in the field of scripture and if he is the finest pearl to be found in the world in which we live, then this treasure is revealed, this pearl is displayed here and now in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Scriptures we have read today all unfold to reveal the eucharistic mystery. A dragnet cast into the sea has brought up the catch of this assembly, and Christ, the definitive Solomon, rules over this vast people with a heart so wise and understanding that there is no one to equal him. Here are new things and old. The sacrifice once offered on Calvary is made new again here, and the whole created world, taken up in bread and wine, is formed into that once offered offering, which is nothing less than the very body and blood of Christ.
This Eucharist is the very place where that of which St. Paul spoke in the second reading occurs: “all things work together for the good of those who love him.” Let us think carefully of this declaration in these our troubled days. All that goes wrong, all that seems unfair, forms of violence, persecution, prejudice, the blasted pandemic – God makes it all work for the good. He molds it all into the shape of his decree that we “should be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Romans 8:28-29) We share that image, to which we have been predestined, when we eat the consecrated bread and wine, the image of his body crucified, of his blood poured out, the image that contains all that goes wrong, all that seems unfair. Thereby are we justified. “Those he predestined he likewise called; those he called he also justified; and those he justified he in turn glorified.” (Romans 8:30)
Being glorified now – that is a description of the Eucharist. That is what is happening here. Great and wise is Christ our Savior: Son of David, Son of Solomon, Son of God! “There has never been anyone like him up to now, and after him there will come no one to equal him.” Glory to him forever and for all ages!
Saint Benedict 2020
Genesis 12:1-4 | Revelation 21:1-8 | Mark 10:28-31
In the sequence this morning we sang of our holy Father Benedict the words, “How like Abraham appearing, Countless progeny endearing with his timeless testament….” Timeless testament, timeless covenant, same word — the deal between Abraham and God. It has worked out rather well. Abraham’s call is at the heart of Israel’s self-understanding, and so at the heart of our understanding of Jesus Christ, in whom, as the descendant of Abraham, St. Paul sees all the promises made to Abraham fulfilled in a definitive way. And then rightly, in that same train, this call of Abraham becomes an archetypal monastic text, already pondered as such at least a century before St. Benedict is ever on the scene. But then, of course, when someone like Benedict appears, well, why not apply it also to him? The Lord most certainly has made a great nation of him, a multitude of monks and nuns and lay people following his wise teachings for more than 1,500 years. And we are directly heirs of all that. We too are in the Abraham line.
Abraham left his kinsfolk and his father’s house and was led to a land that the Lord promised to show him. But Jesus, the definite seed of Abraham, traveled such a journey beyond all imagining. Abraham’s journey was a faint shadow of the journey made by the eternal Son of God, who left the bosom of his Father and journeyed into this land of our exile and was led by the Father to bear the shame of the cross. Now every monk is shaped by a similar call in imitation of Abraham, in imitation of Jesus, in imitation of Benedict, who taught us to imitate “the ancient likenesses that provoke us,” as the sequence states it. When we become monks, we set off to a land that we do not know. We set off in trust. And it is a risk. And a long journey, with many unexpected adventures along the way.
But what exactly is that land toward which we, like Abraham, like Benedict, move? I answer this — and perhaps it is a surprise; I wonder if these two texts have been combined before — with Revelation 21:1-8. The land is “a new heavens and a new earth,” and this is the monastic life. “The former heaven and the former earth have passed away.” Yes, that is the life we left behind when we came to the monastery. A completely unexpected vision suddenly appears before us: “a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” But what is that? Dear brothers, it is meant to be a description of us! Of this monastic community! This is God’s surprising deed, not our own work and merit. In the last place that one would think to find a beautiful bride adorned to meet her maker, (e.g., Mount Angel Abbey, among other unlikely examples), there suddenly appears a beautiful bride prepared to meet her husband. Mount Angel: beautiful and prepared to meet Christ. All this is God’s initiative and doing.
Too much? I exaggerate, you say. Yes, I do because God exaggerates. “Behold, I make all things new!” What? All things except us? No, all things. But it is not forced on us. It is offered in invitation. “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and your father’s house to a land that I will show you.” Shall we go, or not?
Especially striking in this vision are the words in verse 6:21:6, “These words are already accomplished! … To the thirsty I will give a gift from the spring of life-giving water. The victor will inherit these gifts, and I shall be his God, and he will be my son.” Well, yes or no? But as this vision unfolds, we are clearly placed before a choice, a decisive choice. We are required to break with our former way of life: “But as for cowards, the unfaithful, the depraved, murders, the unchaste, idol-worshipers, and deceivers of every sort, their lot is in the burning pool of fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
The realities are stark. But that is Saint Benedict’s gift to the Church and to the world. Not that everyone has to be a monk, but for monks, as part of the whole body of the Church, to show clearly by their monastic life where true peace lies and what things are false and untrue and lead to death.
What is all this that I am saying? Wild speculation? Useless ecstatic visions? John, the seer, the author of the Book of Revelation, admits that he is taken up into ecstasy, but what he sees there is delivered as a message to us all. But I know. We can’t live our whole lives and pass all our hours as ecstatic visionaries. So, I bring myself from the skies back to earth and face Jesus of Nazareth right here in front of me in the Gospel, Mark 10:28-31. Peter asks Jesus what any monk would ask, what any serious Christian would ask, what I ask: “We have put everything aside to follow you. What’s it for? What will come of it?” And how can I help but wonder if any of it makes any sense and if anything will come of my life as a result of it. Jesus answers me. And in effect his promise is the new heavens and the new earth and all of us made beautiful as a bride prepared to meet her husband. It is his doing, not ours. “Behold, I make all things new.” He promises that we who have given up everything to follow him will “receive a hundred times more now in this present age.” Now — and it’s true. Riches in this life beyond all our imaginings. And he adds, oddly, “and persecutions besides.” And that’s true, too. We can be hated too when we witness to the Christ truth. Yes, it’s quite a journey that we sons of Abraham and Benedict are on.
But maybe you are wondering what does any of this have to do with St. Benedict? Shouldn’t I be talking mainly about him? Well, yes, but I’m doing it because St. Benedict is the type who would not have us thinking very much of him. His Holy Rule, which in effect contains virtually all we know of him, drops us in its every detail and prescription deep into the sacred scriptures as the real holy rule. And these scriptures are rolled out in front of us today for this year’s celebration of his feast. I return to the sequence: “How like Abraham… Like Elias he is tended, in truth like Joseph excelling, second Jacob in foretelling, Eliseus working wonders…”
In the course of his remarkable preaching and teaching ministry, Jesus worked hard to expand the horizons of Abraham’s sons and daughters to understand that the promises made to Israel would be extended also to many other nations, even while they would be fulfilled in a marvelous way first among them. Once he spoke of this in this way: “Many will come from the east and the west and will find a place at the banquet in the kingdom of God with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (Matt 8:11) We Mount Angel monks and the many dear Christians friends who are associated with us, are among those “many” who are finding a place at the banquet in the kingdom of God with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” And for us, we owe a lot of that to the way in which St. Benedict mediates the Gospel to us — “How like Abraham appearing!” we exclaim again.
The Eucharist we celebrate today is a pledge of our place at that eternal banquet, for the Body and Blood of Christ, offered to us through the sacrifice of the cross, are given us in this banquet today to make us one body, one blood with Jesus, the definitive descendant of Abraham. This Jesus stands here in our midst right now. Benedict’s wise rule has taught us this. Jesus says still today what John saw and heard in yet another part of his ecstatic visions: “Behold, I stand and the door and knock. If anyone hears me calling and opens the door, I will enter his house and have supper with him, and he with me.”
If anyone has an ear, hear what the Spirit says to the churches!
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Eulogy for Br. Brian Clearman, O.S.B.
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Mass at the Conclusion of Annual Retreat
(Rev 1: 1-19. John 21: 15-19)
During these days of retreat we have had a huge visit to our community from Jesus Christ, appearing among us in vision and delivering a searing message of both love and rebuke. I urged you again and again in the apostle’s words, “If you have an ear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
In the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia that we read together from chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation, the rebukes and the chastening we received — directed to us as a community and to us as individual monks — were clear and penetrating. There can be no doubt that the Lord is trying very hard to get our attention. We are known by Jesus. And yet the fundamental tone and reality of this visitation of our community by the Lord, as he walks among the lampstands of his churches, is a tone of his resurrection victory shared with us. He has opened before us a huge new world of possibility and freshness. The fundamental tone and reality is his love for us. We see this from the very beginning of the vision that opens in chapter 1 of Revelation and that was our first reading this morning. The apostle John ascribes glory and power to — listen to his description of Jesus — “to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father.” If that’s not love, then what is?! (What do you want!)
And in the seven letters we heard so many words of encouragement and affirmation addressed to us by Jesus. “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake… I know your tribulation and your poverty… I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first…” And even in his rebukes he calls us back to love. He says, “But I have this against you, that have abandoned the love you had at first.” And even when his rebuke appears at its harshest, he explains himself, “Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten.” And even before the dictation of the letters begins, the seer, John, tells us he fell down as though dead before the glory of the vision of Jesus. But immediately Jesus touches him with his right hand and says, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever.” And the point of all the seven letters that follow is Jesus’ desire to share his being alive forever with all of us.
In the first reading this morning we heard described the majestic appearance of Jesus, from which same scene Jesus then dictates his messages in the seven letters. Various parts of the Lord’s body are singled out in the vision. We are to contemplate them. Around his chest is a golden sash. The hair of his head is white as white wool or snow. His eyes are like a fiery flame. His feet are like polished brass. His voice is like the sound of rushing water. In his right hand are seven stars. A sharp two-edged sword comes out of his mouth. His face is like the sun shining at its brightest.
The seven sizzling letters follow, but at the end of them this vision is suddenly softened, and we hear him say gently, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” Jesus eating with us and us with him — well, that brings us to the gospel we heard this morning as well. The risen Lord had surprised his disciples with a breakfast prepared for them on the lakeshore, and when they had finished, there was a conversation between Jesus and Simon Peter. But today that conversation takes place right here between Jesus and each of you. He asks, “Do you love me?” Who is asking? The one “who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” He asks again, “Do you love me?” Who is asking? The one who told the church in Philadelphia that all peoples will learn that “he has loved us.” He asks, “Do you love me?” Who is asking? The one who chastens those he loves. Of course, each of us today wants to borrow Peter’s answer as our own and say, “Yes, Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
Dear brothers, our monastic vows were made as our response to hearing the scriptures. We pronounced them within the eucharistic liturgy, after the liturgy of the word and before the bringing of gifts of bread and wine to the altar for their transformation into the Body and Blood of the Lord. Today in this sacred liturgy we wish to renew our vows in response to the scriptures we have heard in these days. And we place our vows as an offering on this altar, asking Jesus to accept it, transform it and offer it himself to the Father as his own. Ah, yes indeed, “he has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father, to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.”
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St. Joseph the Worker and the Holy Prophet Jeremiah
(Readings: Acts 9:1-20 and the Gospel of John 6:52-59)
[The opening remarks in this homily are not offered here in the written text. After those, the text continues.]
… The two scripture readings today are among the most important and most discussed passages of the entire New Testament. They demand (!) our attention. And by giving them that attention, maybe I am best following my holy patron Jeremiah’s absolute devotion to the Word of God, and I’m doing what an abbot ought; namely, opening up the Word for his brothers. And dear St. Joseph “gets” that, for he is always retiring into the background … but also always there.
These are two of the most important passages of the entire New Testament – how so? That the Church has them proclaimed in the liturgy during the Easter season is a first clue. Each of these texts reveals to us in a very different way one same unexpected truth, one same unexpected divine reality and deed. It is this: Jesus the crucified lives his resurrection in his disciples, in his body, the Church.
Don’t let that be a stock phrase that rolls vaguely through your mind as I say it. Let me bring it directly to you, dear brothers: Jesus the crucified lives his resurrection in you, in us, in the monks of Mount Angel, in each of you. Not just kind of, not just partially, not maybe 10 or 20 percent or a bit more in saints. The risen Lord is risen in us! The life we are meant to live is his new life in us.
Saul, breathing out murderous threats against the disciples of Jesus, and an excellent Jewish theologian, was the last to expect anything like this were possible. But then this risen Jesus appears to him as lordly, blinding, glorious light that hurls him to the ground and reveals himself to Saul as, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” That is to say, the glorious Lord Jesus lives and suffers still in his disciples. All the magnificent theology that Paul will subsequently unfold in his wonderful letters is a working out of the consequences of what was revealed to him there on the road to Damascus.
But how can it be that this is so, that Jesus lives his resurrection in his disciples? He revealed this as his plan throughout his ministry, and in his words heard in today’s Gospel we see that he also left us a very concrete means by which this would be brought about. It is not wishful thinking on the part of his disciples that makes this happen. It is he at work as risen Lord through the sacrament he has left us. Hear carefully his words again: “Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him.” Being in him and remaining there – that is what eating his Flesh and drinking his Blood brings about. That is “what happens at Mass.” From the cross he poured out his entire life, not onto the ground but into us! And this exchange with us, this marvelous exchange, is entirely patterned on his being eternally begotten of the Father, which is that the Father pours out his entire divinity into the Son. He says it: “Just as I have life because of the Father ….” This is his entire being as Son, having life from the Father. He continues, “so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.” We are gathered, dear brothers, to receive from him that life now.
We learn these things from the inspired scriptures, and our holy call to the monastic life commits us to penetrating them by a regular practice of lectio divina. We can apply the holy prophet Jeremiah’s words to the passages we have heard today: “When I found your words, O Lord, I devoured them. They became my joy and the happiness of my heart.”
Homily for the Easter Vigil 2020
What a lot of commotion this angel makes in arriving! There’s a big earthquake. A noticeable decent from heaven. The moving of a huge stone, effortlessly and single-handedly, if one may use an expression like “single-handedly” for angels, who have no hands. But maybe we can say something like that, for right after that we see the angel sitting on the stone, and I didn’t know that incorporeal beings would sit down either, much less on something. Anyway, the commotion is not over. The angel’s appearance is like lighting and his clothes as white as snow. Like I say: what a lot of commotion!
(And brothers, before I go on, let me remind you that all the antiphons for Lauds and Vespers during the whole Easter octave will be about this angel. Those ancient Gregorian melodies instruct us in what our mood should be. They are full of wonder and joy, approaching playful in their tone.)
In any case, all this commotion — what’s it for? It’s for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, who came very early in the morning on the first day of the week “to see the tomb.” The guards, who were supposedly guarding a dead man, at the angel’s appearance fall down themselves “like dead men.” And then after this performance, character that he is, this angel, says to the ladies, “What? Did I scare you? I’m sorry.”
But take note, dear friends. None of this commotion is noise that the resurrection makes. It is all just to open Jesus’ tomb and reveal it as empty. The guards had been there the whole while. The stone and its seal were still in place. Then the tomb is opened, and it is empty. Whatever had happened to the body of Jesus happened in the deepest silence of deepest night in a manner known to God alone. With some swift, spiritual, and silent stroke of transformation God raises Jesus from the dead. It is the first action of a new day in a new creation. The angel appears to tell us that: “Jesus the Crucified has been raised up. He is going before you to Galilee where you will see him.”
The women run away from the tomb. That’s the right direction. They are running away from the tomb and the old creation. They are at one and the same time “fearful and over-joyed.“ And Behold! Jesus meets and greets them with his first word in this new world. What is it? “Χαίρετε Rejoice,” he says. The women embrace his feet and do him homage.
Brothers, and friends everywhere, all this describes our encounter with Jesus right now. How is it that we ever know that Jesus is truly risen? We know it because he comes to us. We thought we were going to him, in one particular place, a tomb. No, he is not any more in one particular finite place. He is henceforth wherever he chooses to be. This is his new condition as risen Lord. And he is risen, not for his own sake, but for ours. He is risen precisely to put himself in direction relation with us as his followers. He will find us.
Do you live in a monastery, hidden away from the world? He comes to you where you are! Are you at home in quarantine, separated from others, perhaps behind locked doors and perhaps afraid? He comes to you where you are! Are you in an intensive care isolation unit? He comes to you where you are! Jesus the Crucified is risen precisely to put himself in relation with all his followers wherever they may be.
Resurrection is a completely new world, a completely new creation. Yes, it emerges from the old world and in that way is in continuity with it. But resurrection is “from the dead.” (“From the dead” is a phrase that occurs some 50 times in the New Testament.) Jesus is alive “from the dead.” And he puts us in a relationship with him “from the dead.” He moves us “from the dead” to an encounter with himself. This means for us an intense, new personal encounter with God himself in Jesus.
The intense personal encounter with the risen Jesus happens one by one in an encounter with Jesus that is unique for each one of us. But his new creation also puts us into a new level of relationship among ourselves. He commissions us to witness to one another what we know of him through our encounter with him. And so, our faith grows and spreads, and its very growth and spreading is his risen life within us all, uniting us across all space and time and every barrier, every limitation, every quarantine. Jesus’ resurrection causes the Christian community, and it causes this monastic community. These communities are evidence that he is risen. They could not exist, could not survive, were he not risen.
Jesus is a figure of history. He was Jesus of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate. Dead and buried then. But the Jesus who was is also now a Jesus who is. How do we know? He puts himself in relationship with us. Resurrection is our relation with the Jesus who was and who now is. Resurrection is our relation to one another through the Jesus who was and now is.
How is it then that so often we can feel so little of this, that we live all this so timidly, maybe at about 10 percent? Perhaps it is because we fail to realize or believe deeply enough that resurrection really is a new world, a new creation, a new humanity. It is not simply a ramping up to some sweet new level a material existence like the one we already know on our lovely planet, no longer to be troubled by disease or psychological handicaps. No, rather Resurrection is Christ’s own life within us, or so it is meant to be. On this night and in the tomorrow morning of a new creation, each of us is offered anew an encounter with Jesus after which we can each say with Paul, and all of us say it together, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. Yes, I still live my life in the flesh, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:19-20)
Homily for Good Friday 2020
This gospel passage we just heard is lengthy, and a good deal of its force comes from that fact. It was working its way into us as we listened, and it will continue to do so even now as we move forward in our prayer. We cannot examine it in all its details here. Different parts strike different ones of us in various ways, for the Spirit blows where the Spirit wills once Jesus breathes his last and hands over that Spirit, as we just heard in the inspired writer’s account.
In my lectio during what I am coming to call this COVID time, this COVID year, I am moved to pause a little with you on a moment at the beginning of the gospel passage and on another toward the end. One could pause also elsewhere — and should, eventually over every word and phrase — but tasked as I am by my office to offer a few words at this moment, I hope maybe to help us to penetrate some of how much is happening now in the scriptural words we have heard.
By the way, brothers: It should still be on our minds how many millions of our fellow believers are prevented from gathering together on this day to experience in one same place the force of the Divine Word. Even so, I would remind them and all of us, that wherever Christians are, we have access to this word, and it always delivers to those who desire it, the presence of Jesus and the grace of the event recounted therein.
I said we can pause together for a moment at the beginning of the gospel. The story opens with Jesus and his disciples in the garden. Judas is coming with a band of soldiers to arrest Jesus. The disciples seem unaware of their approach, but — note the evangelist’s emphasis — “Jesus, knowing everything that was going to happen to him, went out and said to them….” That is, he does not hesitate for a moment; it does not occur to him to flee or hide. As he was moving toward Jerusalem to face his crucifixion, a destiny deeply embedded in the mysterious plans of God, Jesus had often taught that no one takes his life from him. He has — his words — “the power to lay it down and the power to take it up again.” (John 10:18) So at this moment in the garden Jesus says to the band of soldiers and guards, “Whom are you looking for?” They answer him, “Jesus the Nazorean.” He says, “I am.”
We are meant to understand this answer as more than his saying something to the effect of, “Well, I am the one you are looking for,” though on the literal level it means at least that. But, in fact, here Jesus pronounces as his own the divine name mysteriously revealed of old to Moses: “I am who am.” This explains why they all fell to the ground when he said it. Usually when someone about to be arrested says, “I’m the one you’re looking for,” it does not have this effect on those who would do the arresting. But the pronouncement of the divine name, by the one whose name it is, does have this effect. Jesus drives the point home. Speaking to them again down there on the ground, he asks, “Whom are you looking for?” Again, they answer, “Jesus the Nazorean.” And again, he pronounces the divine name, adding this time, “So if you are looking for me, let these others go.” Here we see from the very beginning of what unfolds that Jesus intends to go to his death in our stead, in order that we may be let go.
We can remember another time when Jesus said, “I am.” “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” (John 10: 11) And everything that unfolds after that is, as we just heard, the manifestation by Jesus of his divine name: I am who am.
This gospel proclaimed in the COVID year, what can it mean? How frightened we all are … and if not we ourselves, then others are frightened in our country and in many parts of the world and most certainly suffering, and the fears of these should be of concern to us as Christians, for Jesus himself understands them and offers himself in our stead, saying to the disease and to death, “If I am the one you’re looking for, let these others go.”
I don’t mean this in some naïve, magical sense, like, “Okay, Jesus will die, and the rest of us won’t. Pandemic is over.” No, I mean that the death of Jesus that we just heard proclaimed and that we observe in solemn commemoration today transforms the very reality of death itself for every believer and, in principle, for every human being. For Jesus has put himself inside of every human disease and every human death. He offers himself to be present in every suffering human person and in every dying person. And by his presence he offers to join that particular person’s suffering and death to his own offering of himself into the hands of his Father. Entrusting us with himself in suffering and in death into the hands of the Father, we have also in him the sure hope of resurrection.
Now understand me rightly. I’m not simply saying, “Hey, everybody, there’s a pandemic, and we’re all going to die!” No. But I am saying, as our holy father St. Benedict urges, that we ought to keep death daily before our eyes. It puts everything in perspective … to say the least. And I am saying that every day for a Christian is a dying — a dying to sin and living already now our risen life in Christ. To do this is something much bigger and better than surviving a virus. Death every day. And new life in Jesus every day. This is the pattern of being conformed by our baptism and by our monastic profession to Jesus. As Paul says in so compact a way in Second Corinthians, “Continually we carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may be revealed.” (2 Cor. 4:10)
One more detail from among the many is this stunning gospel passage. In the last moments before he died, Jesus turned to his mother, and indicating the beloved disciple who was standing by, said, “Mother, behold your son.” We know that we are all to see ourselves in that beloved disciple. He gave us to Mary as children in place of himself. How could he ask that of her? we may well wonder. What a poor substitute. But not so for Jesus. For in his dying Jesus was well aware that he was pouring his entire self into us to become our new life. Henceforth, he lives in us. Mary grasps this at the foot of the cross, and she is in labor from that day on to nurture his life ever more deeply within us. Birth and dying and birth again: painful, glorious, divine! “The Lord gives. And the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Homily for Holy Thursday 2020
With this liturgy we begin the Paschal Triduum, the memorial feast of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection spread out over three days, one feast in three days, in three aspects, which gives us communion in the events we remember, the events of the Lord’s hour, which never passes away.
We in this monastery who are privileged to celebrate the Triduum liturgies as we do every year are mindful of the very strange circumstances throughout the Church in every part of the world. A huge, unthinkable number of churches have had to close their doors to prevent the faithful from gathering in large numbers for this feast, and so, in this way, strangely, to protect them from contamination and spread of the dreadful and very dangerous coronavirus. We too are unable to open the doors of our monastic church to receive the hundreds of guests who ordinarily joyfully join us on this day. It is just us monks. But, dear brother monks, in these days especially we must mindful of our monastic calling to pray for the whole Church and the whole world in all the prayers we offer up to God from this monastery.
Many friends, I know, are joining us through our live stream. We are glad for this contact. But whether other people are actually following us in that way right now or not, I would like to reflect with you, dear brothers, on what this year’s strange circumstances reveal to all of us about the deeper nature of the triduum liturgies. I hope to remind you, dear brothers, of something and at the same time, perhaps, to offer some lines of thought that may also be helpful to people who will have no direct access to these liturgies in these holy days.
I take my inspiration from a fourth century bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, the great St. Athanasius. It was his custom each year to write to his flock a festal letter about Easter. He would write months in advance, shortly after Epiphany, to announce to them the date of the beginning of Lent and so also of Easter, which then and still now varies each year. As you know, Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Such a date was less easily known in the fourth century than it is for now. In any case, St. Athanasius used these annual letters as an occasion to teach about the nature of the feast and to exhort his people to the joy and hope that it annually offered.
In one of these letters he says something surprisingly applicable to the Church’s present situation, where literally millions are unable to attend the liturgies. He says, “The grace of the feast is not restricted to one occasion. Its rays of glory never set. It is always at hand to enlighten the mind of those who desire it. Its power is always there for those whose minds have been enlightened and who meditate day and night on the holy scriptures….”
Think about this. What St. Athanasius is saying in effect is that, on the deepest level, there are no starts and stops to the feasts which remember the great and saving events of our redemption. God has posited his huge deed once and for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is a reality that is always there — that is, always everywhere and anywhere where the faith of believers is ready to detect it and receive its graces. So, Athanasius says, “Its rays of glory never set. It is always at hand to enlighten the minds of those who desire it.” Here is consolation for those who are stuck at home somewhere, sorry and thinking they cannot celebrate the feasts. To them, Athanasius and I say: Oh yes you can! “Its power is always there,” Athanasius says, “for those whose minds have been enlightened and meditate day and night on the holy scriptures….”
So, brothers with me here in the monastery, St. Athanasius was addressing his words to people he presumed would have access to the liturgy. Thus, they certainly apply to us. He did not imagine the strange circumstances in which many of our fellow believers find themselves today. But as I said, he shows us the deeper reality of any feast. The liturgy provides us access to what is always there. There is a level to the reality where we could say the feast is always there. The reality and the feast is Christ himself, established in glory. He is the Kingdom of God. He is the Kingdom of Heaven. He is the crucified and glorified Lord forever at the right hand of the Father. He is every feast. And what he is does not start and stop again and fade away as the days pass. All times belong to him and all the ages, and as Lord he subsumes them all into himself.
Our earthly liturgies, enacted in specific places and times, splice us into this one, all-consuming eternally present reality that is Christ himself. And because we ourselves are still earth-bound and situated within some particular set of finite realities, our access to this all-consuming reality that Christ is takes place by passing through different and various doors of particular feasts. The triduum is a wide set of doors, one after the other, through which we pass ever more deeply into the one same reality: Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ, the night before he dies at supper with us. Jesus Christ, crucified and buried. Jesus Christ, breaking the prison bars of death in his resurrection. Jesus Christ, drawing us to himself ever more deeply through each of these doors, which door he himself is. Dear brothers, this is our paschal feast, and we have entered it now in this very hour.
But what about all those millions of our fellow believers deprived of what we stand within in this moment, including those who may actually be following us now on our live stream? Well, I want to bring forward Bishop Athanasius’ point again and push it a step further. We could say simply that there are other means of access to the all-consuming reality of Jesus crucified and glorified. Liturgy is not the only way. Surely our glorious Lord is not confined to the liturgy and the sacraments as his only means to reach us. At a different point in the same letter, Athanasius says, “He who gave up his Son to death for our salvation, from the same motive gives us this feast, which is commemorated every year.” This is the COVID year. God gives all his faithful this feast every year, no matter where, no matter what the circumstances. Athanasius continues: “Such is the wonder of his love: he gathers to this feast those who are far apart, and brings together in unity of faith those who may be physically separated from each other.”
Dear brothers, I want the depth of our prayer in this monastery to be a huge invisible force released into the world, radiating outward from here and touching first our friends — but all peoples in Christ are our friends — touching our friends and helping them to experience in this COVID year that God “brings together [in this feast] in unity of faith those who may be physically separated from each other.”
My homily today has been about the triduum in general, which begins today with this Mass of the Lord’s supper. In doing that I am echoing the pattern of the role the Lord’s supper plays in relation to Good Friday and Saturday night’s vigil. The supper is full of signs which Jesus himself selects and fashions into a revelation of the meaning of his death. The bread of the Passover meal becomes his flesh offered from the cross as food for us. The wine of the cup of blessing, when the Supper was ended, becomes his blood poured out on the cross and is a new drink for us in a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins. So, in the supper of Thursday Jesus in his intention is already on the cross on Friday. And that cross, all through the long hours of the Lord’s agony, is steadily and powerfully and gloriously invading death’s realm and undoing all its hateful powers. So, Friday’s dying is already also Saturday night’s unexpected victory where Jesus breaks the prison bars of death and rises victorious from the underworld.
Brothers, now is the Paschal Feast that does not start and stop. But in this hour and from this place we enter, through one door after another, into that never-ending realm that is Jesus — crucified and risen, forever pouring out his divine life for the life of the world. He is our feast, the feast that “brings together in unity of faith those who may be physically separated from each other.”
Mass in Time of Pandemic
Lamentation 3:17-26 | Mark 4:35-41
(April 4, 2020)
As monks, we are committed to the practice of Lectio Divina (holy reading) which means that we are committed to understanding the world through the lens of biblical revelation. We want today prayerfully to ponder the COVID-19 threat that hangs over the human race throughout the entire world.
The Bible gives us permission to lament. Indeed, verses inspired by the Holy Spirit take us all the way to the bottom-most level of suffering. In the first reading today from Lamentations we hear of a suffering and fear far beyond our understanding. We can make the words our own as we speak in the voice of the whole of humanity: “My soul is deprived of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; I tell myself my future is lost, all that I hoped for from the Lord … Remembering it over and over leaves my soul downcast within me.”
Tomorrow we begin the great Holy Week. And in the course of this week’s liturgies we will hear other pages from the book of Lamentations. The liturgy places these and similar words in the mouth of Jesus — crucified, dead, and buried. That is to say, that Jesus himself experienced this abyss of suffering and fear. That too is part of the mystery that our monastic pondering must seek to explore. Far beyond our understanding are the ways of God — “as high as the heavens are above the earth, so far are his thoughts beyond our thoughts” — and yet this much we know in a world that can unravel under the forces of sin and death. We know that Jesus himself stood in the depths of the abyss, and that he stands there even now with those suffering and dying, many of them all alone, and with all the rest of us who feel the plague of fear and separation.
The world, with a few vague and half-formed ideas about God and how God should act, might sit in a funk and wonder why doesn’t God put an end to this pandemic. And, of course, if you are going to face the mystery that way, you might as well start by asking why God let the pandemic happen in the first place, if indeed that’s the sort of way God really relates to us. But I call that worldly thinking, and we monks are part of that world too and tempted to such lines of thought. We also, by our monastic profession, are, as I say, committed to a deeper understanding of what is happening in our world through the lens of the biblical story.
So, let’s return to text from Lamentations. The Church hears this lament as a mysterious prophecy and revelation of Christ’s own agony and suffering. In Christ, God himself knows our feelings from the inside. But his feelings and his own prayer do not end in lament. They move forward, and we are meant to follow. There is a turning point where, even though the danger and disaster surround us still, our hearts find a path to hope. We read, “But I will call this to mind, as my reason to have hope: the favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent; they are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.” In our temptation to panic, we might be tempted to blurt out in response, “Okay. Good. What are they, those favor? When?!!” But no, it doesn’t work that way. God is shaping a big lesson for us, a new kind of word to us, pronounced in the syllables of world events, a lesson and a word closer to the surpassing majesty of his wisdom and ways. One hears this word by waiting in silent trust. The same text tells us so: “Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him; it is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord.”
Dear brothers, surely this is the heart of our monastic vocation at this time: to wait for the Lord, to hope in silence for his saving help. Is this a stupid and useless exercise? Well, Jesus lay dead in the tomb with this hope after his seemingly disastrous death, and on the third day God raised him up.
Our hope in God now is based on what God has done in the past. God has raised Jesus from the dead. Will he not grant us all other things besides? Yes, but in his own wise ways, in which we trust.
Even so, what I’m saying here risks being just a line of thought that might help us out only for a while until fear overtakes us yet again. What we need is to discover a strong encounter with Jesus himself inside the very line of thoughts I am putting forward. And don’t we have this encounter with Jesus in today’s gospel if we understand that that sacred text is in fact revealing to us Jesus present to us now in this moment, in this monastery, in our world. We are the actors in the scene.
It is evening, growing dark, the text tells us. (I’ll say!) But Jesus invites us, “Let us cross to the other side” — not the other side of some lake. The other side of fear. And note, it is a journey begun at his initiative. It’s his idea that we get into the boat, and so we do. We’re poised for a pleasant boat ride with Jesus. How sweet! But what happens? As quick as that, “a violent squall comes up.” We mutter, “Good idea, Jesus. Now look at the mess we’re in.” The squall, what is it? It is quite real. It is a pandemic spreading. The waves are breaking over the boat. But the squall is also in our minds and hearts, for we can’t quit imagining how bad this all will be. The waves are breaking over the boat. And at first, we fail to notice something amazing, but the text reveals it to us.
Jesus is present too, as much in the storm as we are, and yet he is fast asleep in the stern on a cushion. Silent, doing nothing, it would seem, even while we are doing everything just to survive. We are allowed to shout at him today the very words his disciples shouted then: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
This is our prayer today. Of course, we hope that Jesus will do now what he did then for his disciples: calm the raging pandemic, calm the squall in our minds and hearts, pronounce over all this, his powerful, divine words: “Quiet! Be still!”
I beg you, Jesus, say it now! Do it now! Calm the raging pandemic! Save us!
Jesus pulls me aside in the quiet space of my prayer and gently chides me, “Why are you terrified? Do you not have faith?” In the same quiet space, I risk telling him my reaction to his question, for I know he is a gentle teacher. I say to him, “I don’t think your question is fair. Of course, we are scared. How can we not be?” But then, his very glance at me — his silence — I realize, is his own calling out to me, and now he is trying to wake me from a different kind of sleep. He is calling to us all. He wants to wake us all. He wants to awaken within us our trust in him. And trusting in him, he would teach us, he would give us, his own trust in his Father.
This is his gift to us in the mystery of the Eucharist now. Our simple gift of bread and wine placed on the altar is our poor humanity placed into Jesus’ hands. He transforms it into his sacrificial offering to the Father, the memorial of his death on the cross, and we offer with him that sacrifice of ourselves transformed in him. The Father raises him up. To receive his body is God’s pledge of our communion in the same. Jesus is in our midst today as Lord. “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?”
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Abbot Jeremy regularly offers brief weekly conferences to the monks. Although these are not usually shared with a larger public, we offer this particular conference to help you know more about the spiritual work of the monks during these challenging times of the Coronavirus.
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Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany
This gospel text we just heard 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. There are stars everywhere in the sky and one is brighter than all the rest. Yes, indeed, the text expands with reading.
But we are not celebrating today the imaginative creation of a charming and irresistible story. The 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. Paul’s words in the second reading state it with theological precision. He 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.” Who could have expected this from 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. 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. The gospel delivers the same message but with vivid imagery, nothing abstract about it. “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 in search 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. Of course, the very skies would tell the story for those who know how to read, 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. “We have come with gifts to adore the Lord.” But where is the child? Where is Bethlehem?
We follow the star. The text describes our hearts—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. 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 specific. 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.
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.”
In the middle ages scribes would sometimes fill the margins of manuscripts with stray thoughts or poems of their own. In an eighth century Irish manuscript a story is told of a bold prayer offered by one St. Ita, and that prayer answered. The poem is called “St. Ita’s Vision.” It reads, “‘I will take nothing from my Lord,’ said she, “unless he give me his son from heaven in the form of a baby that I may nurse him.” The poem continues, “So then Christ came down to her in the form of a Baby, and then she sang, ‘Infant Jesus, at my breast,/Nothing in this world is true/ Save, O tiny nursling, You./ Infant Jesus, at my breast,/ What king is there but you who could/ Give everlasting Good/ wherefore I give my food.’”
Her prayer is a bold one, and as such it was evidently pleasing to the Lord, for he answered it as she wished. But what St. Ita received is what we too receive in the liturgy of this most sacred night. In this sacred liturgy the whole Church, formed in the pattern of Mary as model, holds the infant Jesus at her breast; and each one of us is invited to hold this Child and gaze on him. There is much to fathom as he first opens his eyes and connects with our own. Mary— and we— hold him who made us, and he has made himself needful now of a mother— of us. The eternal God takes nourishment now from her, assumes humanity from her— from us— as the instrument of his divinity, as his way of being Emmanuel, God with us. “’Infant Jesus, at my breast,/Nothing in this world is true/ Save, O tiny nursling, You.”
There is much to fathom as we gaze on his features and look into his searching eyes. He looks like Mary… but not only like her. The features of someone else have combined with hers in the child’s face. Whose? Ah, but can’t you guess? We remember the angel Gabriel’s words, “the Holy Spirit will overshadow you… hence the holy offspring to be born will be called Son of God.” (Luke 1: 35) Yes, he looks like his Father as well. “Infant Jesus, at my breast, what king is there but you…?”
Well, the Gospel we just heard tells us of other kings and governors, but it does so to put this child and his birth in its fullest context. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” This is a big deal. The mighty Caesar Augustus has got the whole world moving at his command. He fashions himself, and not without reason, as the great Emperor of Peace. He has built the great ara pacis, the altar of peace, in Rome, at the center of the world, dedicated to Pax, the goddess of peace. His name is not only Augustus, which means worthy of worship, but he is honored as well with the titles “Savior” (soter) and “Lord” (Kyrios).
So, the whole world is moving at his command. And any command of the Emperor was called “Good News” just because it came from him. But what the Emperor and no one else realize is that this movement is being conducted by a Providence higher than the Caesar’s. This movement is putting into place, all unnoticed, a virgin named Mary, betrothed to Joseph of the house of David, placing them in Bethlehem, the city of David. This is fulfilling the prophecy that Israel’s Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So, there they are, those two, and we are told Mary is with child, and “while they were there, the time came for her to have her child and she gave birth to her firstborn son.” This is said so quietly, almost laconically, by the evangelist. It is a huge moment of universal significance for the whole world, which is in movement around this scene and notices it not at all. Perhaps it is said so quietly and simply by the evangelist as a way of expressing how quietly it all happened.
We are told only one small detail of this moment. Mary wrapped the child in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. This implies they are in a stable or a cave, for caves were used around Bethlehem, and still are, as shelter for sheep and other animals. Why were they there? The evangelist offers the explanation, again so tersely, “because there was no room for them in the inn.” But we may suspect that the higher Providence arranged this detail as well. The fact is already packed with meaning. This is the child who will grow up to say, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20) This is the child, when grown, who will be crucified and laid in a tomb outside the city walls. He also comes into the world outside the city walls.
But then the scene changes, and the evangelist must leave behind his understated style to state what happens beyond the stable elsewhere. “Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.” Now this is exciting! We are about to witness a heavenly interpretation of the quiet scene of the child wrapped in swaddling clothes elsewhere and laid in a manger. The angel says to the shepherds, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
Wait of minute! “Good news”? Isn’t that what Caesar Augustus is in charge of? “For all the people”? Isn’t the emperor in charge of “all the people”? Well, it is an angel speaking. So, the simple shepherds are inclined to listen. We would do well likewise to be so inclined. Here is the angel’s message. It is an interpretation of the scene we have left behind in the stable. The angel solemnly declares, “For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Wait a minute… again! The angel has called the little baby in the cave “Savior” and “Lord.” These are titles for Caesar Augustus. And between these two titles for the child the angel has sandwiched another: “Christ” or “Messiah.” If this is so, indeed, it is something for the whole world. Not Caesar Augustus but Jesus is Savior and Messiah and Lord!
The angel said there would be a sign for all this: “you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” This is the scene we left behind. But how is it a sign? A sign of what? The Holy Spirit, the ultimate author of the holy scriptures, uses the pen of the evangelist to insert details in the sacred texts that we are meant to ponder. And then the same Holy Spirit will guide those who ponder those details in faith. Through the centuries rich understandings of this sign have been uncovered. The swaddling clothes, natural enough for a newborn child in the practice of those days, are meant to help the child feel snug and safe. It is nurturing, and that this divine child lets himself be nurtured and needs it is part of the sign. But it is seen as a prophecy too, a prophecy that he who lies in a manger will ultimate lie in a tomb after being crucified. He will be wrapped again in swaddling clothes and laid in that tomb. And significantly these clothes will be left behind when the tomb is found open and the body of the Lord Jesus is not there. So, that’s a sign if we know how to read it.
And the manger. How is that a sign? Ponderers of this detail found their way to an Isaiah text: “An ox knows its owner, and an ass its master’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people has not understood.” (Is 1:3) This state of affairs is about to be undone— and by shepherds no less! Ox and ass have already presented themselves to their Lord, and the shepherds will come hurrying along as well. And there’s more about the manger! A manger is a food trough, and the bread come down from heaven is there as true food for us, and “Bethlehem” means house of bread, and a manger is made of wood and so is prophecy of the cross. And we receive his body from the manger of his cross. And so the manger and the cross are the true ara pacis, the true altar of peace for all the world.
“Good message, Angel,” I find myself wanting to say to this heavenly messenger. There was only one. But “suddenly there is a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel” that appears to the shepherds and now to us. As angels surround us now— this is Mount Angel, after all!— let us reach back to the scene with which we began, the scene that so sweetly describes what is happening for us now in this sacred liturgy. “Infant Jesus, at my breast,/Nothing in this world is true/ Save, O tiny nursling, You./ Infant Jesus, at my breast,/ What king is there but you who could/ Give everlasting Good/ wherefore I give my food.”
How do we give this tiny infant in our arms food? We bring bread and wine and place them on the true ara pacis, the true altar of peace, this altar here around which we are gathered in this holy night. The Holy Spirit will overshadow our food, just as he overshadowed the Virgin Mary at her assenting nod, and the holy offspring born on this altar will be called Son of God. He is given into our care in holy communion tonight, and as we come forward we will hear sung again and again the very voice of God the Father saying to his Son in our arms, in our bodies, “In holy splendor before the daystar I have begotten you.” A multitude of angels surrounds us singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
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Homily for Fr. Augustine’s Funeral
Readings from the Mass of Christian Burial
Sirach 44:1-1; Philippians 4:4-9; John 20:19-23
When a Christian has lived his life well, it ought to be possible at his funeral to read passages of sacred scripture that provoke a reaction something to the effect of “Yes, his life was like that. That is his story too.”
“When a Christian has lived his life well,” I say. Not meaning a flawless saint. Not meaning someone who never did wrong or harm. Not meaning a life without mistakes. Rather, meaning one who knew his sins and weaknesses and clung to Christ and the mercy and redemption that Christ continually offers. Meaning, in the case of a monk, someone who lets himself be formed by well-established and ancient patterns of wisdom, someone, indeed, who relies on the sacred scriptures as a sure guide for living. Monastic life is this. It is St. Benedict’s school of the Lord’s service, a school which offers a concrete and detailed program for living out of the scriptures and letting one’s life be formed by them.
So here we are at the death of our beloved confrere Fr. Augustine. 70 years a monk! And we can read a few passages of scripture today and easily think, “Yes, that tells the story of Fr. Augustine’s life. He inhabited those texts. He owned them.” We could read many more and react the same way. But to say such a thing about Fr. Augustine—or about any other good Christian who dies in the Lord—is not to make of their funeral a canonization. On the contrary, in a Catholic funeral we pray earnestly for the departed loved one, making intercession for him before the Lord, beseeching the Lord to forgive his sins and admit the deceased into the Lord’s glorious and majestic and all holy presence.
Just two months ago in the place where Fr. Augustine’s body lies now, Br. Israel lay there, having just pronounced his solemn vows as a monk. Many of you were present. And as I prayed over him the solemn monastic consecration, I beseeched the Lord to receive this new monk’s offering, declaring to the Lord that it was an offering made with repentance and tears. Such an offering does not last the length of a religious ceremony. It lasts every day for years and years and years. Fr. Augustine made this same offering of repentance and tears 70 years ago in this same place. He was faithful to it until death. Yes, of course, scriptures read can sound like the story of his own life.
What did we hear in the scriptures today? The passage from the Book of Sirach is one familiar to us monks. We hear it not infrequently throughout the year at Vigils whenever we celebrate in the liturgy the memorial of a holy monk. It is a wonderful and inspiring passage that praises people called “godly men, our ancestors.” They are called “subduers of the land…, seers in prophecy…., sages skilled in composition… composers of melodious psalms, writers, stalwart, and solidly established.” Fr. Augustine, from his youth, locked right into all that. He leaned into a text like this and with attention imitated what made our ancestors godly. By ancestors I mean great monks of old, but for Fr. Augustine it would mean also the great monks of this monastery and its early days. He caught their spirit and embodied it very deeply. In fact, he has lived just over half of the history of this 138-year-old monastery.
The monks of Mount Angel hear me speaking to them from time to time of what I call “the monastic way and the Mount Angel way.” Fr. Augustine and our ancestors were definitely both of these. And I have to say that I fear the passing of his generation. I said as much some twelve years ago when I gave the funeral eulogy for Fr. Thomas Brockhaus in 2004. Fr. Augustine’s death is in some ways the tail end of an era. And, as I say, I fear this ending. Yet this passage from Sirach gives me hope, and it assigns to us monks of Mount Angel a responsibility. We heard proclaimed—and I think of Fr. Augustine and the great monks whom he imitated—we heard proclaimed, “Their wealth remains in their families, their heritage with their descendants. Through God’s covenant their family endures.” Through God’s covenant—this is our hope as we lose a great monk. God is faithful. He made a great monk out of Fr. Augustine, who made and continually renewed his monastic profession as a repentant sinner. My dear confreres, the faithful God will also make monks out of us if we yield to his challenging graces. Today we lay Fr. Augustine to rest alongside scores and scores of his ancestors in the Abbey cemetery. And we hear the inspired scriptures describing the scene: “Their bodies are buried in peace, but their names live on and on. At gatherings their wisdom is retold, and the assembly proclaims their praises.”
In the second reading we heard a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. It too coincides with the life of the monk we are laying to rest today. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: rejoice.” This makes me smile when I think of Fr. Augustine, because he tried for years—kind of—to be grouchy and austere. It didn’t really work. Joy and a positive disposition more and more overtook him in the way that grace will overtake us and win out. “Your kindness should be known to all,” the Apostle urges. How many of you are here today because that was your experience of him?
But something else especially catches my attention in this passage from the Apostle Paul, and it is quintessentially monastic in the traditions in which Fr. Augustine was formed. It’s a list of “whatever’s” with adjectives that leave the door wide open in a generous way and have led monks through the centuries to develop an extremely varied range of pursuits and interests. I know that the word “whatever” has become newly minted slang among generations younger than Fr. Augustine’s or mine to express a dismissive indifference to whatever someone may have just said with conviction. A shrug and a cynical “whatever” is meant to suggestion that the other is a fool and that you really can’t expend the energy to deal with such a one. By contrast, the Apostle Paul’s whatever’s are an antidote to the sardonic poisons that infect the present cultural mood. I want to suggest that Fr. Augustine—precisely as a monk—tried steadily for a lifetime to give himself over to all the whatever’s that the Apostle urges on us. Paul 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.”
Fr. Augustine—recognizing the excellence of the Aalto library from the moment it opened and working tirelessly to raise the level of the collection and the study that occurred therein. Fr. Augustine—beautifying our Divine Office during decades of his life. Fr. Augustine—tirelessly collecting materials that would chronicle the history of this monastery. Fr. Augustine—beautifying the station path with flowers and shrubs of every sort (“a subduer of the land in kingly fashion”). Fr. Augustine—celebrating Mass early each morning, unseen and with exquisite reverence, on a side altar of this abbey church. About all these sorts of things and more, St. Paul had said simply, “Think about these things.” Well, Fr. Augustine did.
One more thing for now. (A brief homily cannot begin to cover the story of grace in any Christian’s life.) Last but not least. The Gospel today. I chose it so that we could honor and give thanks to God for the extraordinary confessor that he raised up for us in Fr. Augustine. Surely many of you are here today because you have been blessed by the gracious and holy way in which Fr. Augustine received your confession of sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation. You received his wise and firm counsel, and you were consoled by the prayerful and authoritative way in which he delivered over to you Christ’s absolution of your sins. The Gospel text shows us that forgiveness of our sins is the first fruit of Jesus’ resurrection. Fr. Augustine received in his life a special grace for administering this sacrament. Surely, he had experienced somehow his own personal version of this gospel scene in his priestly and monastic vocation. The risen Lord presents himself to him, no doubt in some form of prayer or meditation. He hears deeply the Lord’s greeting, “Peace be with you.” And he takes totally to heart the Lord’s commission, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Next there follows the marvelous scene, what is no less than the institution of the sacrament of reconciliation on the very day of the Lord’s resurrection. Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive they are forgiven them….”
For decades Fr. Augustine devoted himself to administering this sacrament. I remind the seminary community that you have a beautiful icon of this very gospel scene in the main hall of Annunciation. Pass it remembering a great confessor, and pray that God will raise up for all of us and the churches you serve suchlike confessors for our future.
The Gospel shows us that the forgiveness of sins is the first fruit of the resurrection of Jesus. But the sacrament of Reconciliation is designed to restore our Baptismal purity so that we might worthily offer the Eucharistic sacrifice and have holy communion in the same. Fr. Augustine was nourished during his whole life on the Lord’s Body and Blood, which we too offer and receive now in this holy Mass. We offer it for the repose of his soul. And we know that in receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood today we receive the same pledge that Fr. Augustine received and on which he and we count: the pledge of eternal life through communion in the divine life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All praise and glory to the awesome, majestic, holy, and undivided Trinity!
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Solemnity of Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Archangels,
the Patronal Feast of Mount Angel Abbey
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—blood of the Lamb—and Word.
Today at Mount Angel 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 the name of our monastery and seminary—Mount Angel—is a special grace which marks our particular lives and defines our vocations. This is our place, either for a while or for life. For all of us, what we are doing here is immensely important in the sight of God, and angels are with us every moment of every hour. Thus, we call the place Mount Angel.
From its very beginnings monastic life has been understood as “the angelic life,” meaning that monks are meant to live like angels. Our first reaction to hearing this ideal might be to roll our eyes, doing so perhaps with a smirk or even a bitter smile. But let’s think about it a bit. St. Benedict says that the monk is to prefer nothing to the Opus Dei, that is, to the life of the praise of God in the choir throughout the day and into the night. And he says, “We must always remember, therefore, what the Prophet says: In the presence of the angels I will sing to you (Psalm 137:1). Let us consider, then, how we ought to behave in the presence of God and his angels, and let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.” Even the ranks of choir stalls, so distinctive of monastic church architecture, are meant to be an image of rank upon rank of angels in heaven singing God’s praise.
Monastic life is the angelic life also in the sense of the warfare we are hearing about in this second reading. So, not a static life of peaceful praise, but praise in the midst of the warfare that St. Benedict describes already in the opening lines of the Holy Rule. He addresses the would be monk saying, “This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.” (“Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels battled against the dragon.”)
Unquestionably one of St. Benedict’s key chapters in the Rule is the chapter on humility. He is clearly influenced in that chapter with images from the Gospel passage we heard 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, “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.
St. Benedict, in the chapter on humility, sees these angels going up and down over the monk as he works at climbing the ladder of the 12 steps of humility. This is a ladder that the monk ascends, St. Benedict says, paradoxically by going downward, and it will be angels that transform this downward movement into an upward ascent. St. Benedict dares to apply to the monk this image that Jesus applies to himself because he understands that the monk practicing humility is a profound imitation of Christ. More, that Christ is living in the monk as he seeks to ascend this ladder by descending to humble acts and thoughts.
The first reading from the Book of Daniel let us see what angels see. “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.
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 human 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.”
Then we sing the Sanctus at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. This song is revealed to us as the angelic song, and we sing their 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.
Homily for the Mass of Solemn Profession
of Br. Israel Sanchez, O.S.B.
What a mysterious passage this is, the first reading from the book of Genesis. It fascinates, it draws us—wondering—into its details. Do those details tell of us as well? Jacob—his name will be changed to Israel before the story is over—leaves his wives and possessions behind and is found alone in the night. Oh, but is the sacred text in this way describing also a monk? Next we hear, “then some man wrestled with him until break of dawn.” “Some man?”—how discrete the Scriptures can be, almost tongue in check. Mysteriously Jacob was wrestling with God. Again, is this perhaps also a description of a monk? This wrestling—wrestling with God—took place through the entire night, and neither one prevailed over the other.
But then could it really be God with whom Jacob contends, for surely God could win hands down if it were to come to wrestling with a mere man? No, something unsuspected of God is revealed here; namely, that he is a fair fighter. He does not overpower with his power. He lets a man be strong in his presence, to see what he can do with his own power and his own wits. The man might not prevail over God, but neither does he lose.
In the end God asks Jacob a penetrating question, though it seems normal enough. “What is your name?” he asks, and Jacob simply tells him. But then the mystery deepens, and God says, “You shall no longer be spoken of as Jacob, but as Israel because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed.” Israelis the new name of the man who has wrestled with God in the night and has survived till daybreak. This is still language foreshadowing the monastic life. But at this point the struggling man, the struggling monk’s heart blurts out what he was wondering all the night he had been wrestling. He says to God, “Do tell me your name, please.” That is, he fought through the whole night to know him, to name this force that his own powers could not master. But Israel is refused his request, and the Lord recedes into his mystery with a statement that will draw Israel behind him. He says, “Why should you know my name?” and then he bade him farewell. “I have seen God face to face,” the new Israel exclaims, and then he limps for the rest of his life because of this wrestling with God.
My dear Br. Israel, surely you can see the story of your own life to date in this story, and I think also something of your future is revealed to you here as well. It’s not entirely clear, but you have wrestled with God, andyou are still here. And you can exclaim about it all, “I have seen God,” unless you refuse to draw the obvious conclusions from your life marked by so many blessings, albeit blessings in the struggle.
The gospel passage we heard takes us a step further into this mystery of your vocation as a monk, a vocation (the monastic one) which is, among other things, a sign for the Church of the patterns embedded in every Christian vocation. The gospel shows us that Jesus knows all the Jacob stories of Genesis and that he also knows the meaning of the name Israel. For someone has brought a man named Nathanael to meet Jesus, just like someone—actually many people—brought you, Br. Israel, to do the same. But Jesus knows Nathanael—knows you—already. Jesus says, seeing the seeker and skeptic walk toward him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no guile in him.”
That is, he sees him/you as one who can contend with God, one who is not easily fooled. Yet in this wrestling match Jesus quickly upends this true Israelite. Jesus tells him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you.” He was echoing on purpose the Lord’s words to the prophet Jeremiah, and Nathanael caught the allusion. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, says the Lord.” And deep inside the mystery, without things entirely cleared, Nathanael exclaims—Israel exclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.”
Jesus accepts your profession of faith. But in doing so he also promises you more than you could have dared to imagine. He says, “Amen, amen I say to you, you shall see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” This is a reference to Jacob’s dream, had before his wrestling match, where he saw a ladder reaching into heaven on which there were angels going up and down on it. We monks know well that our holy father Benedict used this image to construct one of the most crucial chapters in his Holy Rule, the chapter on humility, where he teaches that the monk ascends a ladder to heaven by going downwards in a lowering of himself by renouncing his own will. As the monk goes downward in his faithful monastic practices, angels accompany him in his descent and take him simultaneously upward in an ascent to heaven, thus fulfilling Jesus words, “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
But, Br. Israel, this is not spiritual gymnastics developing muscles for nothing. In your promise now to live the monastic practices faithfully in this monastery until death— where you ascend by descending— the heavens open for you and you see Jesus! Angels are ascending and descending on him, and their fleet-footed movement catches you up into their swift exchanges, and you see that you are in Jesus, and their descent and ascent is swirling over you. You are both in heaven and on earth at the same time as a monk. You are right here at Mount Angel for the rest of your life, and right here you are where God is in Jesus. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven, and it shall be called the house of God.” (Gen 28:17)
The solemn and ancient rite of monastic profession which we are about to begin enacts these Scriptures in your own life exactly now. And enacting the Scriptures in this way— by your solemn vows—will unfold and flower and reach its climax in the eucharistic mystery. You are about to be solemnly consecrated as a monk. The ritual unfolds in two fundamental movements:
- in the first part, the ritual enacts your movement toward God.
- in the second part, the ritual reveals God coming toward you, accepting your offering it and consecrating it.
I know you’ve studied this already. But I’m reminding you of it now just before we do it and hoping to make clear to the many witnesses here what you are doing.
After this the ritual blends—I could even say “bleeds”—into the celebration of the Eucharist as we are accustomed to celebrate it. But today, in order to make it especially clear that the bread and wine prepared on the altar are meant to be signs of our very selves offering our bodies as a living sacrifice, we will perform the ancient rite of mystical burial, a ritual which speaks by the signs we make and the sacred words of Scripture that will be sung. “I have died. And my life is hidden now with Christ in God. I shall not die but live, and proclaim the praise of the Lord.” This defines a solemnly professed monk.
No transcription available.
Abbot Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B., presents the keynote address to the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, gathered in Vancouver, Washington, on August 29, 2019.
Homily for Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit
Opening of School Year at Mount Angel Seminary 2019 – 2020
First Rdg: 1 Corinthians 12:4-13
Gospel: Luke 10:21-24
How beautiful it is to see the church full of students—new and returning—with Msgr. Betschart at the helm, along with professors and formation directors and spiritual directors and support staff of every kind. Diocesan priests and seminarians, Missionaries of the Holy Spirit and Carmelites; Hilltop employees, friends, and volunteers. And at the center of it all, this monastic community. As has been said before of the Catholic Church: “Here comes everybody!”
We are here to invoke the Holy Spirit on our school year—a gift that is always bestowed when prayed for in faith. What does this Spirit look like? How will we know if it has been given? Ah, in all sorts of ways! So says the first reading from 1 Corinthians.
“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.…”
But this describes Mount Angel—monastery and seminary—hard at work, on any given day. I look out among you and I see, “Gifts that differ.” “But one and the same Spirit produces all of these.” This is the Holy Spirit for whom we are praying at the opening of this school year, and these are the Spirit’s gifts.
Yet the mystery is deeper than the Holy Spirit passing out a bunch of gifts that will help us survive a school year. This “many gifts, one Spirit” pattern leads to and forms another “many, one” pattern; namely, many parts, one body: the body of Christ! That is the body that the Spirit forms with many gifts. St. Paul said it explicitly: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body … and we were all given to drink of the one Spirit.” This is Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary, which in our life together manifests the mystery of the Church.
In the Gospel we heard this: “Jesus rejoices in the Holy Spirit…” and exclaims, “O Father! I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth.” What a magnificent manifestation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity! This gospel scene is an icon of the Holy Trinity, a revelation of its mystery, a revelation of the inner reality of God!
Jesus rejoices in his reality as Son, and his joy is the Holy Spirit, [—this is what it means to say “Jesus rejoices in the Holy Spirit.”—] and that joy is his unique knowledge of the Father and the Father’s unique knowledge of him. But Jesus also shows in this Gospel passage—it is he himself who is in our midst and speaking now—that he is about to share this unique knowledge with us—“No one knows who the Son is except the Father and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” This knowledge and joy are called communion. This is the divine communionthat is God’s very own life, God’s very own “godness.” And we are given a share in this Communion—a share in divine life.
This divine communion and our share in it guides the whole vision of Mount Angel Seminary. It structures the graduate curriculum in theology. Deepening this communion is the goal of our formation program, spiritual and human. And this communion is the good news that we are preparing ourselves to announce and share with others by our training in pastoral ministries. In the seminary you will encounter it every day and at every turn.
We are beginning a big project today. A school year opens— a lot of work, a lot of study, a lot of thought—effort—learning to live together in love, preparing ourselves for service of God’s people. And underlying and accompanying and overlaying every bit of work and study and thought and life together—prayer!
- Prayer that praises God for his magnificence and beauty and endless mercy.
- Prayer that begs every day for divine strength for tasks beyond our strength but to which we are mysteriously called in any case.
- Prayer that intercedes for our troubled world and prays for peace in every land and in every heart.
We have to begin this project, this big project, this school year, with gladness and hope because God is infinitely merciful. Together with many other sinners and fools we can go to heaven; we can share in the divine communion! This is the joyful good news with which we have been entrusted. No, you don’t remain a sinner and a fool and go to heaven anyway. Changing your life is possible. Growing and learning is possible. Holiness is possible—for us all. Why? How? Because “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body.”
Immense is the mercy. Lavish are the graces. And so, don’t lose sight of what you’re doing and for whom you are doing it. My dear students—and indeed, I address myself to everyone present here no matter what your role—as you are learn about the wondrous mysteries of creation and redemption, and as you are schooled in acquiring amazing traditions, and as you learn to love one another and serve one another more and more in your life together, I use Jesus’ own words and address them to you about all you will learn in this upcoming school year: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” To say that less elegantly and with secular language: we are lucky to be at Mount Angel. I know, the same kind of stuff also happens elsewhere. But for us it is happening here, and it happens in a Mount Angel way. So, be glad; be grateful; and don’t complain: “Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary—here comes everybody! We want the whole world to know and share in what we know and share in on this holy mountain.
This is a Mass of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes now. We ask the Father to send the Spirit to transform our gifts, to make them “become for us the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” And it happens.
“Since we live by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s lead” (Gal 5: 25). St. Paul said that. Have a good school year. Get smart, everybody.
Homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary
Today’s solemnity is about the body of Mary. It is also about the body of Jesus. And it is about our bodies in relation to theirs. It is about the one body of Christ. When I say body, I don’t mean body as opposed to soul. Body and soul are not opposed to each other in biblical faith. Bodily is how I am who I am, but I am certainly more than my body. There is a life force that animates my body. We call that the soul, and it produces a me that is me bodily but cannot be reduced to my material body. For a corpse, fresh dead, is no longer a me or a somebody, but the me or the somebody still exists. Where? How? And what was it all for, life in the body, if death awaits us all and yet we go on somehow still from there?
The redemption we have in Jesus – the Messiah, the Lord – deals with all this. All bodies, living and dead, are being drawn now into the vortex of his own once dead body which has been raised up and filled with divine glory and which, in the mystery of his Ascension, draws all things to itself and fills the universe in all its parts. (Eph. 1:23)
A little over two months ago, on June 2, we celebrated the solemnity of the Ascension of Jesus. There is something absolutely wondrous about that divine arrangement whose force and power we feel every year in the late spring … and then through all the rest of the year. Jesus being taken from our sight is the precondition of his presence everywhere as risen Lord. Not the precondition of his being everywhere as God, but the precondition of his being God now in our human nature, which suffered death, and is now glorified and divinized in him.
Something similar is true of Mary in the mystery of her Assumption. In today’s feast, through this sacred liturgy, we make contact – bodily contact – with Mary, with the Marian reality in which she is established in virtue of her Son’s resurrection and ascension. We are about to enter the eucharistic mystery, and as we do so, we will pray in the preface, addressing God with wonder and thanks in these words, saying to him of Mary, “rightly you would not allow her to see the corruption of the tomb since from her own body she marvelously brought forth your incarnate Son …” But, of course, we can extend the thought. Her bringing forth of the incarnate Son has as its point of arrival the glorified and ascended incarnate Son – her son! – who draws into his one body all the members of the Church, “Christ, coming to full stature.” (Eph. 4:13)
Only in that way does Mary arrive in the condition of being the mother of us all in the way that was assigned her by Jesus from the cross, when he said, indicating the beloved disciple who represents us all, “Mother, behold your son.” And to him, representing us too, “Behold your mother.” (John 19:26-27) Mary’s assumption renders her present everywhere precisely in her human nature and in her being mother. This is the shape of her unique communion in her son’s resurrection and ascension. The Assumption renders Mary capable of being everywhere and in every age, effectively being the mother of all the living. Under the cross Mary is still singing her Magnificat, praising God that she has become mother also to us. “He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation,” she sings in prophecy about us. (Luke 1:50)
Jesus is present to us now as Son of the Father and Son of Mary. Mary is giving her Son as a gift to us. But our encounter with the Son effects also our communion with him in one body, our being made to be who and what the Son is. He joins us to all that he is, to all that he has from the Father. (John 17: 22) And Mary’s motherhood is concretely operative in this union. Mary is mother to Jesus not just in his birth but throughout his lifetime. And during the death of Jesus her motherhood is brought to an immensely more encompassing level, for at the foot of the cross this motherhood expresses itself – enacts itself! – in her consenting to the death of her Son as the means whereby his whole divine being as Son is poured out for the life of the world. Jesus assigns her to be mother to the process of every human being taking up this gift of the Son’s life and making it his or her own new identity. These are Mary’s labor pains, begun under the cross and continuing still for us in our times. Mary nourishes this new life in each one of us, caring, as she has always done, for the life of her Son, but now caring for that life as it exists in all those for whom the Son poured out his life on the cross. Don’t think of this only as vaguely affecting all of humanity. You and I are right in the center of this story in this very hour. “Behold a great sign in the sky: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.” (Rev. 12:19-20)
Mary’s care for us happens especially in the Eucharist. When we receive the Son’s body and blood, she then nourishes it in us and loves us. She does not love us as another in addition to her Son. She loves us precisely as being one with her Son. She regards us and exclaims, “Here at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” (Gen. 2:23) Those were once the words of the first Adam as he gazed on Eve. But now they are the words of the new Eve, the mother of all the living, as she gazes on her glorified Son and on us in him. Even the second Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ, received his own humanity from this new Eve. The condescension of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is absolute and complete in this arrangement. Through Mary, through Mary’s glorified body, all the divine life of the Trinity flows into the created universe and establishes it in communion with the Trinity’s eternal uncreated being. Only through her motherhood do I become one with the Son of the eternal Father. “Blessed is the womb of the Virgin Mary which bore the only begotten Son of the eternal Father!” “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should be mother also to me?”
(No transcription available.)
(No transcription available.)
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.
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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.
Abbot Jeremy regularly offers brief weekly conferences to the monks of Mount Angel. Although these are not usually shared with a larger public, we offer this particular conference, which he gave a year ago to help the monks of Mount Angel prepare their hearts and minds for the Triduum.
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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.”