Reflections on Lenten Sacrifice

Yesterday the whole of the Church entered into Lent, that penitential period of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. We marked the beginning of Lent with a contrasting message, one that we are very much from and in this world, “remember, from dust you came and from dust you shall return.” We marked our foreheads with one of the most ancient markings of our faith using the ashes from palms raised in the mimic of celebration from the previous year’s Easter celebrations reflecting on Christ entering the city of Jerusalem. The second message that we are not destined to remain in this world or to be in the world in the life to come. That soon, in forty days to be nearly exact, the Body will be raised and a new covenant will be established between humanity and God.

So with Lent underway, Christians the world over have no doubt began their Lenten obligations, in some cases giving up some sort of an indulgence over the period. Last night during his sermon on the subject, my Rector reflected on what people give up for Lent. He stressed that we do not need to give up something that carries with it any sort of superhuman quality to overcome. He informed us that this Lent he would be giving up the occasional glass of whiskey that he enjoys from time to time. He emphasised that although it is not a daily occurrence, or something that he found he absolutely had to do, it was something which he took immense pleasure in doing when he had the chance. For that reason, he found it a fitting indulgence to give up. And he reminded us that a funny thing will no doubt happen as Lent progresses; by the mere fact that he has make whiskey taboo over his Lenten period, he will probably start to desire and want it more, such is the nature of humans with these sort of things.

I could not agree with Father Travis more on the subject of sacrificing indulgences. Often we get distracted because we focus on what we should be giving up as if Lent is a secular time to “better oneself” or “overcome a particular bad habit.” That is not the point of the Lenten sacrifice at all. It is about giving up an indulgence, about giving up something that you enjoy doing, something that you don’t keep as a dark part of your life (those should be sought out to be eradicated at all times). There is a whole list of things that I could give up for Lent because they are sinful or keep me from God. These are things that I struggle with daily in my life to be more Christian and more holy. These are not things that are appropriate for me to give up during Lent, indeed I should be striving to give them up all of the time and always. What I give up is meant to force me into the desert of my own soul by denying me an indulgent escape that I would otherwise use to avoid being in that desert. Lent remember is a mimic of Christ’s time in the desert before His own public ministry– we too must spend our time in the desert. And Christ’s time in the desert was a further mimicking of the Jewish exile when they spent forty years with no real place to call home, to settle down and worship God.

This Lent let us strive to enter the deserts of our souls, to force ourselves to feel the longing, loneliness and confusion of being part of a temporal world and yet carrying a spiritual hope for the world to come. Let us sacrifice an indulgence that we enjoy in life, that is good for us and not use this time as a secular means of overcoming a bad habit or undesirable trait. Let’s bring ourselves closer to God.

Ash Wednesday 2018

This year, Ash Wednesday falls on the Feast of Saint Valentine (otherwise known as Valentine’s Day). Christopher Hale is quoted on Millennial in a post on this very same subject as linking Valentine’s Day with Ash Wednesday as a reminder of the true nature of love. I would like to expand on that sentiment a little here.

Saint Paul provides the most clear understanding of love in his letter to the Corinthians. He explains that love is more than just words, love is an action. Indeed, as Hale points out, Paul goes so far as to say that love spoken without action is as worthless as a “clashing cymbal,” while a love that’s performed in deed “always perseveres.”

Ash Wednesday opens up the season of Lent. For forty days, Christians from all around the entire world will mimic the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert in the lead up to His own Divine Ministry, which was a further mimic of the forty years that the Jewish people– God’s chosen– spent in exile. Ash Wednesday reaches back in time to the very foundations of our faith, when the Jewish faith began to crystalize into something substantive for the world to consume and understand. The forty years of exile for the Jewish people was a time of great strife and unknown but it was also a time when some of the most beautiful and articulate aspects of the faith were explored, written down and shared among the people. It was indeed while in exile that the Jewish people found their true identity and place in the temporal world. The same can be said of Jesus during his days alone in the desert. Christ is tempted by Satan and rejects all of the Evil One’s presentations because He has a Ministry and a purpose, He has a place in this temporal world. He finds that place during his forty days in the desert and that understanding is manifested in his public ministry which follows. Just as Judaism traces its roots to the exile, Christianity can trace its roots to the temptations of Christ is the desert– that period of feeling lost, alone and in exile from the world where we don’t understand how we fit in.

To love is to sacrifice the immediate “now” for the long term “then”. Love that is served up immediately, in some impulsive manner, is not love, it is lust or at best infatuation. Real love demands an outlook toward the future, toward what is next and what is to be. For this reason, Christian weddings are celebrations about the present (two people declaring their love for one another), as it is a celebration about the future (promises of raising Christian children and growing old together). Love and sacrifice are inseparably linked and we can see the impact of a world that values one aspect over the other when we see how many failed marriages and miserable people there are in unhealthy relationships. Sacrifice demands equal respect for the future as well as the present. You cannot justify giving up something today for the betterment of tomorrow, if you have no concept, no idea of what tomorrow is, in fact it would be illogical to give up anything beneficial today if you cannot articulate an understanding of tomorrow.

Ash Wednesday is the first day when we take the time to put ourselves in our own exiles from the world, in our own deserts to be lost, lonely and confused. We do this because we sacrifice ourselves in order to be prepared and be ready for our own ministries to come. We remove ourselves from this world in order that we may more accurately find our own place within it. And we do all of this out of a spirit of love that is propped up by sacrifice and penitential acts.

Today is not about wearing a symbol of our faith proudly on our foreheads (as some secular minded people might have us believe). Today is about reminding ourselves that we are dust– we are from this world and into this world we will die again. We make this first act to remove ourselves from this world because of the immediate contrast to the message that Christ brings us. We are not meant for this world as a final destination, but we are here now and we are part of it now. We must detach ourselves in order to find our place within it– in order to craft our ministry and enter back with the confidence of a saint.

O almighty and eternal God, who hast dominion over both the living and the dead, and hast mercy on all whom Thou foreknowest shall be Thine by faith and good works: we humbly beseech Thee that all for whom we have resolved to make supplication whether the present world still holds them in the flesh or the world to come has already received them out of the body, may, through the intercession of all Thy saints, obtain of Thy goodness and clemency pardon for all their sins. Amen.

Christmas Eve-Eve

When I was younger and the lead up to Christmas had much more anticipation surrounding Santa Claus and presents, my brother and I would call the day before Christmas Eve, Christmas Eve-Eve. It was a childish joke that played on linking the night before Christmas (when we would have a big family party at the house and exchange gifts with our cousins) with the actual day of Christmas in an effort to shorten the countdown to the entire affair. As I grew older and left the house, Christmas Eve-Eve fell out of my lexicon and became a day to finish up last minute gift buying and preparations for the Christmas season. And now that I am an adult, I am enjoying reflecting back on how Christmas Eve-Eve came to be and how it still exists as a thing within my life, including my spiritual life.

Advent is all about preparation. “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3). These words are giving true meaning when John the Baptist speaks out in John’s Gospel, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord…” (John 1:23). In the catholic tradition, we light a set of four candles one by one each Sunday as we count down the remaining days of preparation in anticipation for the feast which celebrations the Incarnation and birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We read passages such as those from John’s Gospel that speak of preparation from John the Baptist and readings from the prophet Isaiah who spoke clearly of the coming of Christ. We also look at letters from Paul which speak of the second coming of Jesus and our requirement to always be ready and on guard because “of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (Matthew 24:36). We reflect on the three aspects of the Incarnation of Christ; in the flesh as a child, in body and blood in the Eucharist and in glory at the Second Coming.

Christmas Eve-Eve started for me as a child trying to close the gap in the wait between the start of Advent and Christmas day itself. It was a childlike view of Christmas as a time to exchange gifts with my cousins and spent the night eating and playing around the house with them and the whole family. It meant no school for a chunk of time and spending time outside in the snow. I had very little responsibilities because I was a child and as a result the wait and preparation held little or no meaning. Today, as an adult, I do have responsibilities and there are certainly a long list of temporal duties around Christmas that add physical weight and meaning to the Advent preparation. This sort of preparation can add to stresses and anxieties that arise from the holidays, like those Anna Dimmel writes about here in A remedy for what we don’t like about Christmas. But we cannot forget, as she writes, we can find Christ and spiritual meaning in these stresses and anxieties as well. And this year in 2017 is especially unique because the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve will fall on the same day, with services occurring in the morning and late evening with two very different meanings. Linda Ryan writes about this in her post A Short Ending to Advent.

On Christmas Eve-Eve we all stand on the threshold of the whirlwind that becomes the next few days. In the temporal world we will visit with friends and family, eat a tremendous amount of food, keep warm, and expend a lot of energy being social. In the spiritual realm, hopefully a lot of us will find time to go to Church and listen to the Word of God and celebration His Incarnation and birth among us here as fully human and fully God. Indeed there is a longing to feed the unbounding joy that is within each and every one of us who acknowledge that Jesus is Lord, and joining with fellow Christians and celebrating that event is an expression of that joy and thanksgiving.

The Incarnation

It is fitting that in this final week (yes it is still the Third Week of Advent, but Christmas day comes very shortly after the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year) we reflect on the doctrine of the Incarnation and its meaning within Christianity and specifically the catholic church.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

This is the foundational line from the Gospels that articulate in a sort of mystic way the Incarnation of Jesus as both God and child. There is a story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew (and virtually no mention of the story in the Gospel of Mark) but I think that this line from John is perfect. It is simple and yet terribly complex; which is a spot on summation of a foundational event in Christianity. Indeed, what separates Christianity from every world religion is found within the Incarnation; a God who comes down and becomes fully human while remaining fully God.

In the original Greek versions of the Gospel, John writes ‘the Word’ as Logos, which is a very important idea worth exploring some more as we speak of the Incarnation. The Logos was almost purely a Greek concept that was imported into various sects within worlds that were influenced by the Greeks (at that time the Greeks were like the United States when it came to culture and arts). It can literally be translated into English as the Word, which works well because such a label is illusive and broad, just the same as that of the Logos. The early catholic church was without question influenced by Greek culture and society. One of its biggest salesmen was Paul who was a hellenistic Jew that spoke and wrote in Greek. And rounding the early first century within the early church we see leaders like Justin Martyr and Cyril of Alexandria link the Logos to that of the Greek understanding of the concept; a seed-bearing Logos that would spread ideas of itself around humanity and then having that Logo dwell in humanity in the form of Jesus the man and Christ the Lord. Cyril of Alexandria himself would go further and add that the coming of Jesus through the Incarnation occurred in order that the Logos may be united to defiled human flesh thus making all humanity capable of sharing in His divinity. It is also interesting to note how early church fathers placed a clear distinction on Jesus as the Messiah (a purely Jewish concept) and Jesus as the Christ (a more hellenized concept). Despite the word itself being purely of Greek origins, it is likely that many gentile Greeks who would have been preached to about Jesus Christ would have assumed it was a familia nom as opposed to a title that bequeathed universal glory. But it was an intentional development by the church fathers which was undoubtably influenced by the Holy Spirit.

Saint Augustine writes that, “He whom the world could not contain was contained in a mother’s womb,” when remarking about the Incarnation. C.S. Lewis writes in a Grief Observed that “…the Incarnation leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.” I am rather fond of this aspect of the Incarnation. It is indeed a concept that could not have been reasonably conceived by humans. It is impossible that anyone would have proposed and organized an entire religion around the idea of a God who becomes the nasty and brutishness of their creation. It separates Christians from every other religion in the world. Jesus had spit like we have spit. The coming of the Word in the form of flesh gives us a focal point in the material world in which all of humanity (and creation for that matter) is limited to. It is as if God is one cloth hanging against a separate cloth and creation is another hanging against it. They are separated at first, but are now united by the needle and thread that is Jesus Christ, made of the same substance of the Father and of the Father in every way, the Word becomes flesh and becomes the mediated between God and man forever. An entire focal point for all of creation. He breathed as we breathe (and probably had bad breath from time to time). He bled like we bleed. And yet He was totally God. There were no changes made to the Word when it became flesh, it remained fully and completely the Word, in addition to being full and completely human. And we know that He was different because although He spit as we spit, His spit made the blind see. And although He breathed as we breathe, His breath brought dead men back to life. And although He bled as we bleed, His blood paid the ransom for all of humanity as a result of the Adam’s Fall. He was both fully human and fully man.

And what better sacrament to we have in the catholic church than that of the Holy Eucharist to articulate this concept for us. Every day the Incarnation is not just replayed or reenacted at the hands of the Priest, it literally happens again and again. Since it was instituted by the Word made flesh. The bread and wine brought to the altar become the body and blood of Jesus in the same was as the body and blood brought into Mary bore a child that was the power and glory of God. And just the same as the body of Christ tastes and feels like bread even after the miracle of transubstantiation takes place on the altar, the body of the Son of God was like that of a human. If I can digress a bit here, and be permitted to indulge in a silly analogy in order to better illustrate my point. Suppose one of the children who came rushing to Jesus licked His face or hand, indeed His face would have tasted salty as ours and His hands probably clammy and perhaps a little dirty as our at times do as well. The same is true of the bread and wine after it becomes the body and blood of Jesus. And yet the saltiness, clamminess and dirtiness of the flesh of Jesus certainly does not diminish His glory and the fact that He is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

In fact we can venture to say with certainty that there is no Eucharist without the Incarnation and vice versa. Not just for the obvious fact that the Incarnation was how the man of Jesus was conceived into this world, but because you cannot have the body and blood of Christ without the flesh and veins of a human being. For reasons we will never be able to comprehend (but in faith we hope some day will be revealed to us), we require the body and blood of Christ as Christians for spiritual and temporal nourishment as part of the physical Body of Christ here on earth. In order for this life giving substance to exist and to be present here, God needed to take the form of man and literally create the body and blood of Christ in order that it may be shared from generation to generation to nourish the entire Body of Christ while we labour and wait for His Second Coming. The Logos became flesh and blood so that we may share and nourish on it indefinitely until He returns in glory. What an amazing cyclical existence and surely one that contributes to the entire concept of Christianity and a truth “hanging together” as C.S. Lewis once remarked.

Much can be said about the Incarnation of our Lord. It is after all the defining characteristic of the whole of the Christian faith. Along with the Holy Eucharist, the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ, we can look upon the Incarnation as linked faithfully to the Eucharist. Together they represent the two stable and everlasting bookends that is the Christian faith.

1st Sunday of Advent

And so begins a new Liturgical Year and how fitting it is that in this first season we slow down and remember the coming of Christ “in flesh in Bethlehem, in our hearts daily and at the end of days in glory.” The beginning of the year within our cyclical readings and liturgical arrangement commences with a period of waiting and preparation. The year before having ended after a stretch in Ordinary Time, the whole Catholic Church is now waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ. Just as the world, just over 2000 years ago, hoe hummed along into a period where the Word would become flesh and dwell among it. Just as it hoe hums along as Christ is born daily in our hearts through our devotion and obedience of His commandments today. And just as it will hoe hum to the last second of it’s own existence in the face of the glory of it’s Creator.

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. It is like a man travelling abroad: he has gone from home, and left his servants in charge, each with his own task; and he has told the doorkeeper to stay awake. So stay awake, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn; if he comes unexpectedly, he must not find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’ (Mark 13:33-37)

The beauty and mystery in understanding the season of Advent and the coming of Christ in a threefold manner is manifested in the relevance of what Jesus is saying to each point. When we focus Advent on the coming of Christ in flesh, we see how the Word was made flesh in this world while all it stood in ignorance of His coming. Focusing how Christ in our own lives daily, we remind ourself and heed the call to “stay awake.” And it is certainly clear in this passage that Christ is speaking of the end of days here. All three understandings of Advent which are concurrent and distinct are present in Christ’s words from the Gospel of Mark.

In the part of the passage just before the readings today, we are reminded of the events that are supposed to culminate and signal the end of times. During his sermon today, Father O’Brian touched on this sensitive subject, especially with how some have come to view or articulate what Christ calls the “elect.” Indeed, all baptized Christians, who serve His Bride the Catholic Church are the elect. And what is important to note is that those who serve the Lord and His Holy Catholic Church will be separated by God at the end of time. However, the focus of today is on what Christ says in the readings, and we can look at what Christ is saying here as a quick addendum to what He spoke about earlier (but not officially captured in today’s readings), when He spoke about the end of days. We must be careful, because although the end of days will come and Christ will be glorified before all of creation once and for all (after a period of terrible events on humankind and the whole world), we do not, cannot and will not know when it will happen. It is as if the owner has left and he has not told us when he will return. We must continue to do all of the things the owner wants and likes around the house, for at any time he could return from his journey away.

There are many times in the Gospels when Christ illuminates a concept from the Old Testament (and His own jewish upbringing and teachings) and then swiftly tacks on a newer concept that is related and yet radically different than the original thought. It is what makes His explanation that He comes not to condemn the law but to fulfill it even more powerful. In this instance, Jesus speaks of the end of time, which would not have been a foreign concept to the group of Jews with whom He is presumably speaking. Indeed, the Jewish faith is enriched with the concept of God’s glory manifesting itself in totality at the end of the time. And furthermore, speaks of great retribution for God chosen people (we could say the Jewish concept of the ‘elect’) which comes alongside the coming of glory of God. I would wager that many in the crowd Jesus was addressing would have been nodding their heads in agreement as He spoke of the wars with nations against nation and kingdoms against kingdoms. It was not a foreign concept that the end of times would unfold in such a manner. But then Jesus speaks of something different. He humbles the Jews by saying very clearly that no one will know when the day of reckoning and glory will come. In one instance, He goes so far as to say that not even the Son knows of when the Father will impose His will for the end of time on humanity and the whole world. This is new and this is radical. It means that we cannot put off our requirement as the elect to serve God and His Church, to be a constant reminder and presence in this world of Himself. We cannot say that this debt shall be repaid tomorrow. We cannot say that this fight shall be ended tomorrow. We cannot say I will make amends tomorrow. For there may indeed never be a tomorrow.

Advent is about waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ in the flesh at Christmas, in our hearts daily and in glory at the end of time. May we recommit ourselves to Christ this Advent as we all wait and prepare for the coming of Christ. We do so today with an understanding that the end of days may come at any time, and without any warning, and therefore as the elect we are all called to be ready now and prepared now. Stay awake.