Sunday, April 20, 2014

"O happy fault / that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!"

“For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.”                                                       (Saint Augustine)

The Church offers up Easter prayers with both lungs this year -- Deo gratias! We are granted a brief foretaste of a deeper union in Christ between East and West.

                                          [Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre]

From a Palestinian journalist:
"The dwindling Palestinian Christian population celebrated Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and even in Gaza. Eastern and Western Christian calendars were united this year, bringing larger numbers to the celebrations than usual. Israel again this year issued permits for Palestinian Christians from nearby Bethlehem and Ramallah to enter Jerusalem to celebrate the Easter festivities. 
"This season witnessed an increase in Egyptian Coptic pilgrims to Jerusalem. Air Sinai, which used to run four flights a week, increased them to 12, bringing 547 pilgrims to participate in the Easter celebrations. Press reports said that the number of pilgrims participating in Palm Sunday celebrations this year was more than double last year. Some 30,000 are reported to have participated, compared to 12,000 last year. Clergymen in Jerusalem say that the main reason for the increase is that Palm Sunday this year was celebrated on the same day by Christians who belong to the Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical churches. In Gaza, Orthodox Bishop Alexas led the tiny Christian Palestinian congregation in celebrating the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem one week before his crucifixion. The traditional Palm Sunday celebrations follow the same route that Jesus took some 2,000 years ago, starting from the Mount of Olives neighbourhood of Beit Ania, down past the Church of Gethsemane and up to the old city via the Lion Gate. Boy scouts from various local Palestinian Christian churches usually participate in the pageantry, along with believers, church leaders, tourists and lay persons. Palm Sunday marchers on the traditional path carry branches of palm trees and sing hymns as they remember the days leading to Easter Sunday. Easter in Jerusalem is quite special; various churches and religious denominations hold events, church services and colorful pageants throughout the Passion Week.Greek and Cypriot pilgrims who often stay with local Palestinian Christians participate in these events leading to the Easter morning when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus..."

“... the virgin birth, the incarnation, the resurrection... are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of those laws... [It] would never have occurred to human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace, in the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature.”                                                               (Flannery O'Connor)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Christ the Conqueror of Hell

by David Pence                      

Holy Saturday always seems the most mysterious day of the Church calendar. We are in between two vivid earthly scenes. The first is depicted in the last three Stations of the Cross: Christ’s death, His return to His mother’s arms, and His burial.  The second event is on Sunday as eyewitnesses register their stunning reports. Christ’s last words commending his spirit to the Father, and pronouncing his suffering now consummated, are deeply comforting after a night and a day of torture. But what happened from the time of his death to the sighting on Easter morning?

When David went to slay Goliath, he rejected the sword of Saul. He brought five smooth stones – and trust in the Living God –  to his contest. When Christ went to his agony he ordered the sword of Peter back in the scabbard; and bore five open wounds, and trust in His Father, to the Cross.

David brought back the head of his foe to Jerusalem, and many say Golgotha is called the place of a very particular skull (the Philistine giant's). It sits over a grave as well – Adam’s. Christ, too, decapitated his foe – the Prince of this world – no longer Master and now deprived of his sting of death. David’s Lord delivered Adam, Abraham, and a host of others from the prison of death on this day. In the Eastern Church the triumph of the resurrection is depicted as the liberation of the captives. The resurrection of Christ delivers men from the bondage of Satan and initiates the ‘theosis’ of men. The liberated take their place in the Body of Christ, Who will soon be at the right hand of the Father. Finally, we will see man in his proper place.

The Dragon, meanwhile, mortally wounded – and stunned by the loss of so many souls – plots revenge against the new apostolic church which is sent out to exorcise demons, forgive sins, and baptize the nations into a worshipful fighting formation that will ultimately separate Satan from the land of the living.

Holy Saturday emits the same mysterious scent as the time between the Creation/Fall events of the Angels, and the first manifestation of matter. Pivotal angelic contests, transmitted in the shared Patristic traditions of the Orthodox and Catholics, flesh out the Biblical narrative.  These are not ancillary optional tales of the olden days.  Only a drama employing the full cast of divine, angelic, and human characters can hope to present the cosmic scope of these high holy days of our liturgical life.  We learn about these characters as much from liturgical and patristic sources as from Scripture.  This fuller view reminds us not to shrink the glory of this upcoming Octave of Easter to the return of "our friend Jesus" as an individual man who beat the Grim Reaper.  Christ slew death and rises from the depths of a netherworld where he triumphed in a terrific battle.  This is as much Bastille Day as a replay of Lazarus!

The Risen Christ is truly different.  He now incorporates thousands of the liberated in His perfecting Body.  He has freed our father Adam, and demonstrated the original mission of man: to take back from Satan his unlawful dominion on earth.  No wonder our Lord looked so different -- even to those who knew Him best.

UPDATE:  Here are some further links on the subject, including an ancient homily about our Lord’s harrowing of hell.

And a sermon delivered in 2002 by one of the leading lights of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Also a post by Taylor Marshall, which explains the bizarre teaching of the late Hans Urs von Balthasar; and an exchange in 'First Things'  between a critic and a priestly defender of the Swiss theologian.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday and the Anthropology of Sacrifice

by David Pence

"... and thou hast brought me into the dust of death"                                    (Psalm 22)

On this Good Friday let us renew an old custom of speaking no words, except those of the liturgy or communal prayer during the three hours of Christ’s crucifixion from noon to three o'clock. If ever there was a day that our Christian nation should declare as holy, it should be this day of the ultimate sacrifice.

Anthropologists say there are three elements to every sacrifice:

 1) a setting aside
 2) a sacred killing
 3) a communion

In many animal sacrifices a setting aside of some  specially designated animal, a killing of the animal often by a set aside priest is followed by some portion of the animal being eaten as a sign of union between those who eat and the gods. In Christ’s sacrifice we see the setting aside of the one perfect Victim -- the Anointed One (Christos). We hear him cry out: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” And He is killed.

As we leave that haunted hill (where they say David buried the skull of Goliath) we read the rest of the words of Psalm 22 which Jesus invoked. After many verses depicting the numbering of his bones and the casting of lots for his garments, we hear that the innocent victim “will proclaim your name in the assembly,” that “all the ends of the earth will worship you,” and that “deliverance is brought to a people yet unborn.” When we read the “forsaken verse” in the context of the whole Scripture and the practice of the Church, we find our Lord foretelling the Communion that will come from his sacrifice. From his vantage on the cross, our Lord sees the Masses of the future made present at Calvary. From the ends of the earth, God's name is proclaimed in the liturgical assemblies.

Moderns hesitate at the language of sacrifice. They would rather tell the story of Christ in the language of nonviolence and the salvation of all. It seems too primitive and bloody a tale. But sacrifice entails separation and killing—a sword that divides and a sword that slays. These must precede Communion. It is part of the Grammar of Sacrifice.  Sacrifice ('sacrum facio) means to make holy. Holiness is not so much a statement about morality as one about separateness. We are being offered access to the One Who is Separate. “I am God who art Holy and because I am Holy you shall be Holy." In our prayers and gestures and liturgy, God must be approached as the HOLY ONE who is ultimately separate from all creation because He is the Creator. There is also in this cast of characters an unredeemable Evil One who has spread a pall of death, sickness and darkness over humanity. In some radical way, man must be separated from the world, the flesh and the devil. All three must be killed for man to enter fully into communion with the God who is Holy.

The cosmos -- which man has only very recently begun to depict accurately -- is revealing to us the reality of election amidst widespread dissipation. Most of matter is heading out into oblivion, and those huge frightening angelic creatures who have been cast out of heaven and now roam the earth seeking the ruin of souls are going to be cast into the isolation of death at the final reckoning. Christ died to restore humans to our original mission and our role as priests, who in the ultimate sacrificial drama are going to participate in the killing of the victim who deserves to be slain. We will join in the exorcism of the Evil One. He was cast out of heaven by Michael. At the death of Christ, he was dethroned from the netherworld. Through the priestly power of the Church from now until the Last Judgment we are participating in casting Him out of our lives into Hell.

Adam was the first set-aside priest who was supposed to cooperate with the Angels in obeying the will of God to cast out Satan and dominate the earth. Out of all matter in the galaxies, some matter on the planet Earth was set aside for life. Out of the soil of life, only Adam was formed by a spiritual soul. Adam failed in his mission, so the new Adam came and died for the sins of humanity. We are now restored to our original mission. Our salvation is not the end of the story. We have been let out of jail to resume the contest that precedes communion. From now on, at the Mass we are at Calvary with the one-time victim who has become the eternal high priest; and the killing is of the Evil One and all the attachments we have to him. The communion is the assembly of the new people foretold in Psalm 22. Those words of Our Lord seemed a cry of despair, but were indeed a promise of the means of our salvation and the restoration of our nature.

Good Friday was predicted:
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up.”

And the Eucharist initiating the great separation of the Last Judgment was likewise foretold:
"Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself."

"The LORD is king, and he rules the nations... All mortal men will bow down before him."                                    (Psalm 22)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

He who cleansed the temple, now cleansed the priesthood so He might dwell among us

An explanation of feet-washing at the birth of the Christian priesthood by Dr. Pence:

On the night before He died, Christ formed the foundation of the Church by a new command of ordered love. This commandment was not the general order that each of us is to love our neighbor as ourselves.  He issued a more particular command to His chosen apostles: to love one another “as I have loved you.”  Christ 'transmitted to the apostles the Kingdom received from His Father' (Pope John Paul II on the Birth of the Church, August 1989).

This newly ordered love of an elected group of men with the power to forgive sins, cast out demons, and heal the sick shapes the sacred fraternity of the priesthood and the Church. This sealed-character relationship with Christ that is fully realized in bishops, and shared by priests and deacons, is the sacred bond from which Christ’s earthly presence in the Eucharist is made real. The Kingdom of God is now present as the new Adam and His sons are incorporated as priests into the communal love of the Trinity.

Just as the Levitical priesthood was born in a bloody battle, so the new priesthood was ordained in a struggle. It was essential that the priestly bond be shaped by the deep love of Father and Son, the filial fraternity of Sons and brothers -- not polluted by incestuous counterfeit or betrayed by avarice for gold or fractured by arrogant pride.  This priestly bond was prepared to receive the 'generation of the Church by Christ's redemptive death' [JP II], as well as the two comings of the Holy Spirit: sealing their power to forgive sins on Easter night, and sweeping them into the public manifestation of their mission on Pentecost Sunday.

Before the priestly prayer was said and the newly ordered love covenant was established, Judas was expelled from the room – discreetly but definitively.  And before that, the necessity to wash the priestly bond clean of the Evil One was demonstrated by Christ in the washing of the feet.   Peter (like so many of his clerical successors today) saw the Lord on his knees as an act of humility and service. He was having none of it. But Jesus corrected him: “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand."

The washing itself was not an act of self-negation, but an authoritative act by Christ establishing a new priesthood which would sanctify and rule his Church.  Christ’s action was foreshadowed by the priestly consecration when “Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water” (Leviticus 8:6 and Exodus 30:17-21). After Christ entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, one of his first acts was the cleansing of the Temple. On Holy Thursday, He would wash the new priests of the new Temple. This same order of consecration is described in Numbers when Moses first consecrates the altar, and then "takes the Levites from the Israelites and purifies them" with "the water of remission."

Christ’s washing was a casting out of the Evil One who was polluting the collegial body of the new priesthood (“for He knew who should betray Him.”)  Priestly acts of exorcism, healing and forgiveness of sins are spiritual acts of authority -- as was the Lord’s washing of his apostles. Thomas Aquinas saw the command to “do as I have done” in the washing of the feet as a command to laymen to forgive one another's trespasses.  For prelates, Aquinas saw this as an order to sacramentally forgive sins.  Every act of forgiving sins is an expulsion of one Spirit of authority for the sweeter yoke of another.  It takes authority to set the captives free.  Every baptism is an exorcism. The water that lifted the Ark left many others drowned; and the Red Sea which split for the Jews closed on Pharaoh’s army. If Christ had to rid himself of one of his own – numbered among the Twelve – why should his followers be spared the same troubling duty?  “If I your Master washed your feet, you should wash one another’s feet.”  This was a priestly purification command, which preceded the Love command. It was a bestowal of authority and the assignment of a duty. The Eastern Liturgy prayer of that night puts it this way: “When Thy glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of their feet before the supper, then the impious Judas was darkened …”

Christians who have no apostolic priesthood can be excused for misinterpreting the foot-washing command as a general ordinance (see Foot-washing Baptists).  English monarchs can be admired as they pass out money to the poor, inspired by the King of kings on His knees (see Maundy money). Many early Christian communities integrated foot-washing as a favored part of Eucharistic liturgy – a sort of kiss of peace with an added touch of humility – (see Saint Ambrose, d. 397). All these practices are understandable.  For Christ was indeed a servant leader. He preached it often; thus, to match His persistent general teaching with that particular iconic moment seems irresistible.

But Jesus personally handed his apostles the Body and Blood, and no one dwells on His being a waiter! Likewise, when he separated his apostles from the power of the Evil One, we shouldn’t over-interpret His bended knee.

The love which will save us from the Evil One is the powerful sacramentally-ordered love of Christ and his purified apostles. Christian love is an ordered love, and the washing of the apostles’ feet manifests the authoritative love of a High Priest instituting a new ordinance.   We must insist that priestly ordination, the power to cast out sin, and the necessity of apostolic fraternal correction which constituted the substance of Christ’s act not be lost in the Zeitgeist.  We are not recounting this story to soothe priestless Protestants or feckless feminists.

The spotless purity of the Marian Church can only be safeguarded by a protective authority ready to cleanse and do battle.  Wherever Christ appears too publicly, He will be attacked.  Saint Joseph had little time to coo with the baby Jesus before He was leading His sacred charges into the dangers of a nighttime flight.  So, before Christ entrusted His presence with the new priesthood, he burnished some of them and expelled others.  The shirking of duty by Peter, the uncertain voice of Thomas, the cowardice of all the others must be confessed, repented, and reformed. The perfidy of Judas had to be washed away and expelled.

"The Lord will wash away the filth of the daughters of Zion; he will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire." (Isaiah 4:4). It was Irenaeus who recalled these words when he beheld the new Moses washing the feet of Aaron and his sons. When Irenaeus reflected on the washing of feet at the Last Supper, he did not see a Christ adding service hours to His resume.  He saw “the Word Himself ‘…washing away the filth of the daughters of Zion,’ when He washed the disciples' feet with His own hands. For He who washed the feet of the disciples sanctified the entire body, and rendered it clean.”
(Irenaeus, Book IV Chapter 22, Against Heresies)

The reintegration of the washing of the feet in the Holy Thursday liturgy is a very recent event (1955). It is not surprising that we are still learning the deep significance of this ancient ritual. It may be that it would be better placed in the morning Chrism Mass centered on the bishop and his priests.  For many, the male-only character of the foot-washing seems an affront – but so is a Church built on a male priesthood, the Real Presence of Christ, and a sacramental form of confession.  The flattened de-sacralized spirit of modernity and the congregationalist mentality of Protestants can make no peace with the authoritative masculine fraternity that Christ instituted on Holy Thursday to maintain His Living Presence among us.  Rather than inviting the ladies and grade-school girls to join in the foot-washing festivities, let us more deeply reflect on what we have received and render a more profound account of this pivotal event in the life of Christ and the Church.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The week that changed the world


"Judas betrayed Christ with a kiss, the sign of friendship and love. The betrayal and crucifixion of Christ carried the ancestral sin to its extreme limits. In these two acts the rebellion against God reached its maximum capacity. The seduction of man in paradise culminated in the death of God in the flesh. To be victorious evil must quench the light and discredit the good. In the end, however, it shows itself to be a lie, an absurdity and sheer madness. The death and resurrection of Christ rendered evil powerless."                                                                                           (from an Eastern Orthodox website)

Holy Week is when everything slows down, and truth presses its claims: will I keep settling for a superficial embrace of our Lord, or am I ready to submit to the schooling of the Holy Spirit -- the only One who can teach us how to become "partakers of the divine nature"?

Easter 2014 can be either False kiss or true Communion.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Like precious oil running down on Aaron's beard, down on the collar of his robes"


Russian priests are the ones that seem closest in appearance to the patriarchs who served the temple altar of ancient Israel.

In the fullness of time, the modern world will witness the churchmen of the East -- acquiescing to the commands of the Holy Spirit -- accept the proffered hand of their Western counterparts. And the latter will acquire a depth and a seriousness of manly purpose that they lacked.


By becoming the actors of history that the King of Eternal Glory intended, the sons of Adam will truly show (in the words of Saint Peter) that they are "partakers of divine nature."


Sacred Scripture "cuts all the way through, to where soul and spirit meet"

In Miss Stowe's 1852 classic, Tom is being driven in a wagon to be re-sold at auction. The slave trader is congratulating himself on his merciful nature in limiting the fetters to Tom's feet.

"As to Tom, he was thinking over some words of an unfashionable old book, which kept running through his head, again and again, as follows: 'We have here no continuing city, but we seek one to come; wherefore God himself is not ashamed to be called our God; for he hath prepared for us a city.'  These words of an ancient volume, got up principally by 'ignorant and unlearned men,' have, through all time, kept up, somehow, a strange sort of power over the minds of poor, simple fellows like Tom. They stir up the soul from its depths, and rouse, as with trumpet call, courage, energy, and enthusiasm, where before was only the blackness of despair."

UPDATE:  Corrie ten Boom was a survivor of Ravensbruck -- a German concentration camp north of Berlin. Her sister, Betsie, died there in 1944. (Another woman who lived to tell of her experience at Ravensbruck was Fiorello LaGuardia's sister Gemma).

Corrie ten Boom writes:
"As for us, from morning until lights-out, whenever we were not in ranks for roll call, our Bible was the center of an ever-widening circle of help and hope. Like waifs clustered around a blazing fire, we gathered about it, holding out our hearts to its warmth and light. The blacker the night around us grew, the brighter and truer and more beautiful burned the word of God... 'Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.'
"... It was not a wish. It was a fact. We knew it, we experienced it minute by minute -- poor, hated, hungry... Not 'we shall be.' We are! Life in Ravensbruck took place on two separate levels, mutually impossible. One, the observable, external life, grew every day more horrible. The other, the life we lived with God, grew daily better, truth upon truth, glory upon glory.
"Sometimes I would slip the Bible from its little sack with hands that shook, so mysterious had it become to me. It was new; it had just been written. I marveled sometimes that the ink was dry."