Holy Week 2024: Maundy Thursday

On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go to prepare the Passover meal for you?”

So Jesus sent two of them into Jerusalem with these instructions: “As you go into the city, a man carrying a pitcher of water will meet you. Follow him. At the house he enters, say to the owner, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room where I can eat the Passover meal with my disciples?’ He will take you upstairs to a large room that is already set up. That is where you should prepare our meal.”So the two disciples went into the city and found everything just as Jesus had said, and they prepared the Passover meal there.

In the evening Jesus arrived with the Twelve. As they were at the table eating, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, one of you eating with me here will betray me.”

Greatly distressed, each one asked in turn, “Am I the one?”

He replied, “It is one of you twelve who is eating from this bowl with me. For the Son of Man must die, as the Scriptures declared long ago. But how terrible it will be for the one who betrays him. It would be far better for that man if he had never been born!”

As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take it, for this is my body.”

And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And he said to them, “This is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice for many. I tell you the truth, I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.”

Then they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives.

St. Mark 14.12-26 (NLT)

On the Sunday of the Passion we looked at the reasons the cross of Christ matters. The crucified Son of God is the living embodiment that demonstrates God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have life forever (John 3.16). Christ is our one and only hope.

Tonight we will observe Maundy (or Holy) Thursday. Maundy is derived from the Latin word, mandatum, meaning to mandate. What is our Lord mandating us to do? First, he gave us a supper, the bread and the wine, to teach us the meaning of his impending death. There is a reason Jesus chose Passover to die. Enigmatically his death buys our freedom from our slavery to the power of Sin, even as our freedom remains only partial in this mortal life.

Christ is also going to the cross to bear the sins of the entire world, your sin and mine, to spare us from God’s awful judgment on our evil. When we come to the table to receive Christ’s body and blood by faith, we have a living reminder that Christ is with us, both in the bread and wine we consume, and in his promise to us that we are participants in his eternal kingdom, not after we die, but right now. So we have a mandate to feed on Christ’s body and blood.

And as participants in his kingdom, how are we to be good citizens? By following his example of sacrificial love for all. We have the mandate to deny our selfish desires, take up our cross in suffering love, and follow our Lord wherever and however he calls us. We are to embody his crucified love for others, difficult as that can be at times. Christ showed us this when he washed his disciples’ feet that night in the Upper Room. Doing so was another tangible sign that we are made clean by the blood of the Lamb shed for us and we are therefore to serve others to bring Christ’s love to them.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. Bring your hurts, your fears, your sorrows, your disappointments, and your deep longing to be loved and have life to the table tonight. Feed on our Lord’s body and blood by faith with thanksgiving that you are loved and claimed by God the Father whose love is simply not fathomable, but whose love for you is real nevertheless. You have Christ’s holy meal that points you to the cross as the Father’s living testimony about his great and undeserved love for you. Give thanks for that love, even in the midst of this terrible plague that besets us. Christ is our peace. God forbid we fail to take the gift offered us.

Your sins cost God dearly. But God in Christ shows you that you are worth reclaiming, despite your rebellion and stubbornness and pride. Come to the Table with a thankful heart for the gift of life God gives you in Christ and find your reconciliation with the Author of all life as well as his peace. Then prepare yourself to kneel at the foot of the cross on Good Friday with sorrow and gratitude. See your Lord give his life so that you can live and find the healing we all need. Doing so anticipates the great Easter feast.

Holy Week 2024: Saint John Chrysostom Reflects on the Power of the Cross

The cross used to denote punishment but it has now become a focus of glory. It was formerly a symbol of condemnation but it is now seen as a principle of salvation. For it has now become the source of innumerable blessings: it has delivered us from error, enlightened our darkness, and reconciled us to God; we had become God’s enemies and were foreigners afar off, and it has given us his friendship and brought us close to him. For us it has become the destruction of enmity, the token of peace, the treasury of a thousand blessings.

Thanks to the cross we are no longer wandering in the wilderness, because we know the right road; we are no longer outside the royal palace, because we have found the way in; we are not afraid of the devil’s fiery darts, because we have discovered the fountain. Thanks to the cross we are no longer in a state of widowhood, for we are reunited to the Bridegroom; we are not afraid of the wolf, because we have the good shepherd: “I am the good shepherd,” he said. Thanks to the cross we dread no usurper, since we are sitting beside the King. That is why we keep festival as we celebrate the memory of the cross.

…Now do you see why [Saint Paul] appoints a festival in honor of the cross? It is because Christ was immolated on the cross. And where he was sacrificed, there is found abolition of sins and reconciliation with the Lord; and there, too, festivity and happiness are found: “Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed.”

Where was he sacrificed? On a gibbet. The altar of this sacrifice is a new one because the sacrifice himself is new and extraordinary. For he is at one and the same time both victim and priest; victim according to the flesh and priest according to the spirit.

This sacrifice was offered outside the camp to teach us that it is a universal sacrifice, for the offering was made for the whole world; and to teach us that it effected a general purification and not just that of the Jews. …For us [then], since Christ has now come and purified the whole world, every place has become an oratory.

Saint John Chrysostom, The Cross and the Thief

Meditations from the Church Fathers for Holy Week 2024

There was much proclaimed by the prophets about the mystery of the Passover. That mystery is Christ, and to him be glory for ever and ever.

For the sake of suffering humanity he came down from heaven to earth, clothed himself in that humanity in the Virgin’s womb, and was born as one of us. Having then a body capable of suffering, he took the pain of fallen humanity upon himself; he triumphed over the diseases of soul and body that were its cause, and by his Spirit, which was incapable of dying, he dealt our destroyer, Death, a fatal blow.

He was led forth like a lamb; he was slaughtered like a sheep. He ransomed us from our servitude to the world, as he had ransomed Israel from the hand of Egypt; he freed us from our slavery to the devil, as he had freed Israel from the hand of Pharaoh. He sealed our souls with his own Spirit, and the members of our body with his own blood.

He is the One who covered death with shame and cast the devil into mourning, as Moses cast Pharaoh into mourning. He is the One who smote sin and robbed iniquity of offspring, as Moses robbed the Egyptians of their offspring. He is the One who brought us out of slavery into freedom, out of darkness into light, out of death into life, out of tyranny into an eternal kingdom; who made us a new priesthood, a people chosen to be his own forever. He is the Passover that is our salvation.

It is he who endured ever kind of suffering in all those who foreshadowed him. In Abel he was slain, in Isaac bound, in Jacob exiled, in Joseph sold, in Moses exposed to die. He was sacrificed in the Passover lamb, persecuted in David, dishonored in the prophets.

He is the One who rose from the dead, and who raised us from the depths of the tomb.

—Melito, Bishop of Sardis, (d. ca 190), Easter Homily 65-71.

Palm Sunday 2024

He who came down from heaven to raise us from the depths of sin, to raise us to himself, we are told in Scripture: “above every sovereignty, authority and power, and every other name that can be named,” now comes of his own free will to make his journey to Jerusalem. He came without pomp or ostentation. Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish.

—Andrew of Crete, Bishop, Sermon 9 for Palm Sunday

Happy Birthday, Dad

Today would have been my dad’s 101st birthday. The mind boggles. Where has all the time gone???? He’s been dead for almost 20 years and I still miss him every day. Oh, don’t misunderstand. I know where he is and I am not unhappy for him because he is enjoying his well-deserved rest with the Lord as he awaits his new resurrection body. His mortal struggles that weighed him down so badly at the last are over, so no regrets there.

No, I just miss him. I miss being around him and enjoying his company (neither one of us were real talkative but we enjoyed being in each other’s presence without having to say much). I miss his gentle humor and his great wisdom. I miss his huge heart and I REALLY miss his leadership of our family (with mom’s help of course 8-). I could sure use his sage wisdom these days.

God blessed me richly in giving me a father who loved me and served as a great role model for me and the community in which he lived. For that I am thankful and I try to conduct myself in ways that would make him proud. That’s easier said than done, however. Being who he was, my dad set the bar pretty high and I’m not nearly the man he was, much as I’d like to be.

So happy birthday, dad. I love you. You were and remain one of my greatest heroes. Thank you for giving me the greatest gift a son could ever want—you.

Christmas Eve 2023: Grieving at Christmas

Merry Christmas!

I suspect many who have lost loved ones to death or alienation or suffered from illness or other kinds of brokenness or loss will struggle with this greeting/sentiment. I know first-hand (again) that our emotions and grief don’t always put us in sync with a happy and festive holiday spirit. If you too are one of those folks who are dealing with grief or loss or brokenness this Christmas I would like to offer you my sincere condolences because I know something of your pain and sorrow. But I also want to offer you some real Christian (Christmas) cheer to help you grieve as those who have hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come, not wishful thinking—this Christmastide.

The Church has just finished observing the season of Advent with its hope and promise of the Lord’s return to finish the saving/reclaiming work he started at his First Coming (think Christ’s mighty works, teaching, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension). When that day arrives and our Lord Jesus returns with great power and glory, we believe that God’s perfect justice will finally be fulfilled, including most importantly the abolition of death. What can be a more just solution to the massive injustice of death than resurrection and eternal bodily life lived directly in God’s loving Presence? Living in God’s direct Presence ensures that we will enjoy perfect communion with God, which means complete bliss, free from sorrow or separation or illness or brokenness or death, the likes of which we have never experienced before because the human race (with the exception of Christ) has not lived directly in God’s Presence since our first ancestors got expelled from Paradise (Genesis 2-3). Nothing in all creation can ever produce the kind of healing God’s Presence produces.

And of course tonight we begin to celebrate the 12 days of Christmastide. Christmas, among its many promises, reminds us that we humans—body, mind, and spirit, the whole package—matter to God. We know this because God became one of us to rescue us from our slavery to Sin and Death. Without Christ’s birth we would be people with no future and ultimately no hope. But Christmas announces the historical reality of God’s intervention in human history for our sake and thus announces that we who believe in Christ ARE people with a hope and a future (cp. Jeremiah 29.11). Christmas is the visible and historical manifestation of God’s love for us his image-bearing creatures and indeed all of creation.

So if you are one who struggles to be merry this Christmastide because you are dealing with significant loss or brokenness in your life, remember this: As you simultaneously celebrate Christmas and grieve your own loss, whatever that loss may be, please remember the above promises and take hope in the midst of your grief. By all means grieve, but grieve as one who has real hope because you belong to Christ. I can tell you all this with confidence because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. You can stake your life (and joys and sorrows) on that and I urge you to do so if you haven’t already.

Listen and understand if you have ears to hear. Merry Christmas!

All Saints’ Day 2023: St. Augustine Muses on the Saints of God

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With humans this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”— Matthew 19.25-26

The saints are those who are moved by God’s grace to do whatever good they do. Some are married and have intercourse with their spouse sometimes for the sake of having a child and sometimes just for the pleasure of it. They get angry and desire revenge when they are injured, but are ready to forgive when asked. They are very attached to their property but will freely give at least a modest amount to the poor. They will not steal from you but are quick to take you to court if you try to steal from them. They are realistic enough to know that God should get the main credit for the good that they do. They are humble enough to admit that they are the sources of their own evil acts. In this life God loves them for their good acts and gives forgiveness for their evil, and in the next life they will join the ranks of those who will reign with Christ forever.

—Augustine of Hippo, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 3.5.14

One of the reasons I love Augustine is that he was never afraid to be real. As you read his description of the saints, you cannot help but wonder how these folks can be enjoying their rest with their Lord. I mean, look at their flaws Augustine is pointing out!

Here’s the answer. They have died with Christ and so are raised with him (Romans 6.8) They were buried with Christ in the waters of baptism so that they might rise with him in his resurrection (Romans 6.3-5). And when they were alive in this mortal life, this treasure of life eternal was hidden with Christ in heaven (Colossians 3.3-4), i.e., this hope and promise of resurrection and eternal life is based on their relationship with the risen Christ, who remains hidden from us in this mortal life from his abode in heaven, God’s space.

For you see, it is not about the saints or our worthiness. None of us is worthy to stand before God in God’s perfect holiness! Rather, it is about what God has done for us in Christ so that through his death we might enjoy real peace and reconciliation with God (Romans 5.1, 11). In Christ, God condemned sin in the flesh so that we might be equipped to live with God forever, both here on earth in the power of the Spirit and in God’s promised new creation (Romans 8.3-4, 18-25, Revelation 21.1-7). This is what Jesus reminds us of in the passage above from Saint Matthew and that’s why we have hope for the Christian dead and ourselves on All Saints’ Day. Jesus is Lord, even over death!

Is this your hope or are you clinging to something less which is bound to fail? On this All Saints’ Day may God grant you the grace, wisdom, and courage to embrace the hope offered to you in Christ. 

All Saints 2023: N.T. Wright Muses on the Christian Dead

I begin at the end. The bodily resurrection is still in the future for everyone except Jesus. Paul is quite clear in 1 Corinthians 15:23: Christ is raised as the first-fruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ will be raised as he has been raised. The ‘coming’ of which Paul speaks has not yet happened; therefore, clearly, the dead in Christ have not yet been raised. This is actually the official view of all mainstream orthodox theologians, Catholic and Protestant, except for those who think that after death we pass at once into an eternity in which all moments are present—a quite popular view but one which contains many serious difficulties. I do not know whether Paul knew about the strange risings from the dead reported in Matthew 27:52–3, but had he done so he would certainly have seen them as peculiar signs and foretastes, not people actually being transformed into the likeness of Christ as he predicts in passages like Philippians 3:20–21 and 1 Corinthians 15 itself.

We should remember especially that the use of the word ‘heaven’ to denote the ultimate goal of the redeemed, though hugely emphasized by medieval piety, mystery plays, and the like, and still almost universal at a popular level, is severely misleading and does not begin to do justice to the Christian hope. I am repeatedly frustrated by how hard it is to get this point through the thick wall of traditional thought and language that most Christians put up. ‘Going to heaven when you die’ is not held out in the New Testament as the main goal. The main goal is to be bodily raised into the transformed, glorious likeness of Jesus Christ. If we want to speak of ‘going to heaven when we die’, we should be clear that this represents the first, and far less important, stage of a two-stage process. That is why it is also appropriate to use the ancient word ‘paradise’ to describe the same thing.

Let us suppose, then, the ultimate destiny of Christians is bodily resurrection, an event which has not yet happened. This means that all such persons are currently in an intermediate state, somewhere between death and resurrection. Call this intermediate state ‘heaven’ if you like. This brings me to the first really controversial point in the present book: there is no reason in the foundation documents of Christianity to suppose that there are any category distinctions between Christians in this intermediate state. All are in the same condition; and all are ‘saints’.

In the New Testament every single Christian is referred to as a ‘saint’, including the muddled and sinful ones to whom Paul writes his letters. The background to early Christian thought about the church includes the Dead Sea Scrolls; and there we find the members of the Qumran sect referred to as ‘the holy ones’. They are designated thus, not simply because they are living a holy life in the present, though it is hoped that they will do that as well, but because by joining the sect—in the Christian’s case, by getting baptized and confessing Jesus as the risen Lord—they have left the realm of darkness and entered the kingdom of light (Colossians 1:12–14).

This means that the New Testament language about the bodily death of Christians, and what happens to them thereafter, makes no distinction whatever in this respect between those who have attained significant holiness or Christlikeness in the present and those who haven’t. ‘My desire’, says Paul in Philippians 1:22, ‘is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.’ He doesn’t for a moment imply that this ‘being with Christ’ is something which he will experience but which the Philippians, like Newman’s Gerontius, will find terrifying and want to postpone. His state (being with Christ) will indeed be exalted, but it will be no different, no more exalted, than that of every single Christian after death. He will not be, in that sense, a ‘saint’, differentiated from mere ‘souls’ who wait in a another place or state.

Nor does Paul imply that this ‘departing and being with Christ’ is the same thing as the eventual resurrection of the body, which he describes vividly later in the same letter (3:20–21). No: all the Christian dead have ‘departed’ and are ‘with Christ’. The only other idea Paul offers to explain where the Christian dead are now and what they are doing is that of ‘sleeping in Christ’. He uses this idea frequently (1 Corinthians 7:39; 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–15), and some have thought that by it he must mean an unconscious state, from which one would be brought back to consciousness at the resurrection—so much so, perhaps, that it will seem as though we have passed straight from the one to the other. The probability is, though, that this is a strong metaphor, a way of reminding us about the ‘waking up’ which will be the resurrection. Had the post-mortem state been unconscious, would Paul have thought of it as ‘far better’ than what he had in the present?

This picture is further confirmed by the language of Revelation. There we find the souls of the martyrs waiting, under the altar, for the final redemption to take place. They are at rest; they are conscious; they are able to ask how long it will be before justice is done (6:9–11); but they are not yet enjoying the final bliss which is to come in the New Jerusalem. This is in line with the classic Eastern Orthodox doctrine, which, though it speaks of the saints, and invokes them in all sorts of ways, does not see them as having finally experienced the completeness of redemption. Until all God’s people are safely home, none of them is yet fulfilled. That is why the Orthodox pray for the saints as well as with them, that they—with us when we join them—may come to the fulfilment of God’s complete purposes.

In particular, we must take account of the well-known and striking saying of Jesus to the dying brigand beside him, recorded by Luke (23:43). ‘Today,’ he said, ‘you will be with me in paradise.’ ‘Paradise’ is not the final destination; it is a beautiful resting place on the way there. But notice. If there is anyone in the New Testament to whom we might have expected the classic doctrine of purgatory to apply, it would be this brigand. He had no time for amendment of life; no doubt he had all kinds of sinful thoughts and desires in what was left of his body. All the standard arguments in favour of purgatory apply to him. And yet Jesus assures him of his place in paradise, not in a few days or weeks, not if his friends say lots of prayers and masses for him, but ‘today’.

All this brings us to a point which many take for granted but which many others will find controversial or even shocking. I do not believe in purgatory.

…The arguments regularly advanced in support of some kind of a purgatory, however modernized, do not come from the Bible. They come from the common perception that all of us up to the time of death are still sinful, and from the proper assumption that something needs to be done about this if we are (to put it crudely) to be at ease in the presence of the holy and sovereign God. The medieval doctrine of purgatory, as we saw, imagined that the ‘something’ that needed to be done could be divided into two aspects: punishment on the one hand, and purging or cleansing on the other. It is vital that we understand the biblical response to both of these.

I cannot stress sufficiently that if we raise the question of punishment for sin, this is something that has already been dealt with on the cross of Jesus. …The idea that Christians need to suffer punishment for their sins in a post-mortem purgatory, or anywhere else, reveals a straightforward failure to grasp the very heart of what was achieved on the cross [Emphasis mine].

…We have been fooled, not for the first time, by a view of death, and life beyond, in which the really important thing is the ‘soul’—something which, to many people’s surprise, hardly features at all in the New Testament. We have allowed our view of the saving of souls to loom so large that we have failed to realize that the Bible is much more concerned about bodies—concerned to the point where it’s actually quite difficult to give a clear biblical account of the disembodied state in between bodily death and bodily resurrection. That’s not what the biblical writers are trying to get us to think about—even though it is of course what many Christians have thought about to the point of obsession, including many who have thought of themselves as ‘biblical’ in their theology. But what should not be in doubt is that, for the New Testament, bodily death itself actually puts sin to an end. There may well be all kinds of sins still lingering on within us, infecting us and dragging us down. But part of the biblical understanding of death, bodily death, is that it finishes all that off at a single go.

The central passages here are Romans 6:6–7 and Colossians 2:11–13, with the picture they generate being backed up by key passages from John’s Gospel. Both of the Pauline texts are speaking of baptism. Christians are assured that their sins have already been dealt with through the death of Christ; they are now no longer under threat because of them. The crucial verse is Romans 6:7: ‘the one who has died is free from sin’ (literally, ‘is justified from sin’). The necessary cleansing from sin, it seems, takes place in two stages. First, there is baptism and faith. ‘You are already made clean’, says Jesus, ‘by the word which I have spoken to you’ (John 15:3). The word of the gospel, awakening faith in the heart, is itself the basic cleansing that we require. ‘The one who has washed’, said Jesus at the supper, ‘doesn’t need to wash again, except for his feet; he is clean all over’ (John 13:10). The ‘feet’ here seem to be representing the part of us which still, so to speak, stands on the muddy ground of this world. This is where ‘the sin which so easily gets in the way’ (Hebrews 12:1) finds, we may suppose, its opportunity.

But the glorious news is that, although during the present life we struggle with sin, and may or may not make small and slight progress towards genuine holiness, our remaining propensity to sin is finished, cut off, done with all at once, in physical death. ‘The body is dead because of sin,’ declares Paul, ‘but the spirit is life because of righteousness’ (Romans 8:10). John and Paul combine together to state the massive, central and vital doctrine which is at the heart of the Christian good news: those who believe in Jesus, though they die, yet shall they live; and those who live and believe in him will never die (John 11:25–6). Or, to put it the way Paul does: if we have died with Christ, we shall live with him, knowing that Christ being raised from the dead will not die again; and you, in him, must regard and reckon yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:8–11). ‘Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God’ (Romans 5:2).

We mustn’t let the upside-down arrogance of those who are too proud to receive free grace prevent us from hearing and receiving the best news in the world.

In fact, Paul makes it clear here and elsewhere that it’s the present life that is meant to function as a purgatory. The sufferings of the present time, not of some post-mortem state, are the valley we have to pass through in order to reach the glorious future. The present life is bad enough from time to time, goodness knows, without imagining gloom and doom after death as well. …The myth of purgatory is an allegory, a projection, from the present on to the future. This is why purgatory appeals to the imagination. It is our story. It is where we are now. If we are Christians, if we believe in the risen Jesus as Lord, if we are baptized members of his body, then we are passing right now through the sufferings which form the gateway to life. Of course, this means that for millions of our theological and spiritual ancestors death will have brought a pleasant surprise. They had been gearing themselves up for a long struggle ahead, only to find it was already over.

So many have been afraid or embarrassed to utter the clear warnings of the New Testament about the peril of neglecting the gospel that they have become unable to articulate the clear promises of the New Testament about the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead.

I therefore arrive at this view: that all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. This is not the final destiny for which they are bound, namely the bodily resurrection; it is a temporary resting place.

For All the Saints? Remembering The Christian Departed (SPCK, 2003).

July 2023: The Power of the Gospel

We sat down to table and the officer began his story: “I have served in the army ever since I was quite young. I knew my duties and was a favorite of my superiors as a conscientious officer. But I was young, as were also my friends, and unhappily I started drinking. It went from bad to worse until drinking became an illness. When I did not drink, I was a good officer, but when I would start drinking, then I would have to go to bed for six weeks. My superiors were patient with me for a long time, but finally, for rudeness to the commanding officer while I was drunk, they reduced my rank to private and transferred me to a garrison for three years. They threatened me with more severe punishment if I would not improve and give up drinking. In this unfortunate condition all my efforts at self-control were of no avail and I could not stay sober for any length of time. Then I heard that I was to be sent to the guardhouse and I was beside myself with anguish.

“One day I was sitting in the barracks deep in thought. A monk came in to beg alms for the church. Those who had money gave what they could. When he approached me he asked, ‘Why are you so downcast?’ We started talking and I told him the cause of my grief. The monk sympathized with my situation and said, ‘My brother was once in a similar position, and I will tell you how he was cured. His spiritual father gave him a copy of the Gospels and strongly urged him to read a chapter whenever he wanted to take a drink. If the desire for a drink did not leave him after he read one chapter he was encouraged to read another and if necessary still another. My brother followed this advice, and after some time he lost all desire for alcoholic beverages. It is now fifteen years since he has touched a drop of alcohol. Why don’t you do the same, and you will discover how beneficial the reading of the Gospels can be. I have a copy at home and will gladly bring it to you.’

“I wasn’t very open to this idea so I objected, ‘How can your Gospels help when neither my efforts at selfcontrol nor medical aid could keep me sober?’ I spoke in this way because I never read the Gospels.

“‘Give it a chance,’ continued the monk reassuringly, ‘and you will find it very helpful.’

“The next day he brought me this copy of the Gospels. I opened it, browsed through it, and said, ‘I will not take it, for I cannot understand it; I am not accustomed to reading Church Slavonic.’

“The monk did not give up but continued to encourage me and explained that God’s special power is present in the Gospel through his words. He went on, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later. One holy man says that “even when you don’t understand the word of God, the demons do, and they tremble”; and the passion for drink is without a doubt their work. And St. John Chrysostom in speaking about the power of the word of God says that the very room where the Gospel is kept has the power to ward off the spirits of darkness and thwart their intrigues.’

“I do not recall what I gave the monk when I took the copy of the Gospels from him, but I placed the book in my trunk with my other belongings and forgot about it. Some time later a strong desire to have a drink took hold of me and I opened the trunk to get some money and run to the tavern. But I saw the copy of the Gospels before I got to the money and I remembered clearly what the monk had told me. I opened the book and read the first chapter of Matthew without understanding anything. Again I remembered the monk’s words, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later.’ So I read another chapter and found it a bit more comprehensible. Shortly after I began reading the third chapter, the curfew bell rang and it was no longer possible for me to leave the barracks.

“In the morning my first thought was to get a drink, but then I decided to read another chapter to see what would happen. I read it and did not go. Again I wanted a drink, but I started reading and I felt better. This gave me courage, and with every temptation for a drink I began reading a chapter from the Gospels. The more I read, the easier it became, and when I finally finished reading all four Gospels the compulsion for drink had disappeared completely; I was repelled by the very thought of it. It is now twenty years since I stopped drinking alcoholic beverages.

“Everyone was surprised at the change that took place in me, and after three years I was reinstated as an officer and then climbed up the ranks until I was made a commanding officer. Later I married a fine woman; we have saved some money, which we now share with the poor. Now I have a grown son who is a fine lad and he also is an officer in the army.”

—The Way of a Pilgrim

What a wonderful story of the multifaceted ways in which Christ works in our lives! The issue here is alcoholism, but don’t restrict the lesson to that. Christ can heal any affliction if we let him. Notice first how Christ uses human agency (the monk) to introduce the young soldier to his Gospel. Notice how the monk abandoned his agenda (begging alms for the church), at least temporarily, to address a person’s needs that he perceived. We have to be ready to see others in pain if we ever hope to help them address it. Notice too the monk’s gentle persistence and the faith he has in the transformative power of the Gospel in people’s lives, a faith based, in part, on past experience.

Next, pay attention to how Christ used circumstance instead of understanding to stay the young soldier’s hand from drinking. He read the Gospel without understanding it, but was prevented from going on a drinking binge because he had lingered too long in his quarters to read it. Was it really coincidence that the soldier found the gospels before he got to his drinking money? This is how God typically works to control the circumstances of our lives in a wise and loving way, but we have to pay attention to realize it!

Finally, mark how understanding occurs—through persistent reading. Ask anyone who reads the Bible regularly and systematically and you will hear this same answer. God grants understanding to humble minds willing to submit to his word (as opposed to trying to make his word submit to their agendas, which sadly many try to do, especially today) through our persistent reading of his word. God doesn’t beat us over the head to make us learn (usually). Instead he uses ordinary people and circumstances along with our own efforts to speak to and transform us. Under normal circumstances it would have been best if the soldier had read the gospels with others and learned how to interpret them from the tradition we have, but that didn’t happen in this case. No problem, though. God can use even less than ideal circumstances to break through to us, as the young solder discovered. That may not be sexy enough for some of us but it is much more effective over the long haul.

If you are struggling with your faith, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this story and its lessons. Maybe you should even pick up the gospels and start to read them yourself. Here is indeed balm for your soul!

Augustine of Hippo Reflects on Knowing God and the Search for Life’s Meaning

Where did I find you, that I came to know you? You were not within my memory before I learned of you. Where, then, did I find you before I came to know you, if not within yourself, far above me? We come to you and go from you, but no place is involved in this process. In every place, O Truth, you are present to those who seek your help, and at one and the same time you answer all, though they seek your counsel on different matters.

You respond clearly, but not everyone hears clearly. All ask what they wish, but do not always hear the answer they wish. Your best servant is he who is intent not so much on hearing his petition answered, as rather on willing whatever he hears from you.

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you; now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

When once I shall be united to you with my whole being, I shall at last be free of sorrow and toil. Then my life will be alive, filled entirely with you. When you fill someone, you relieve him of his burden, but because I am not yet filled with you, I am a burden to myself. My joy when I should be weeping struggles with my Sorrow when I should be rejoicing. I know not where victory lies. Woe is me! Lord, have mercy on me! My evil sorrows and good joys are at war with one another. I know not where victory lies. Woe is me! Lord, have mercy! Woe is me! I make no effort to conceal my wounds. You are my physician, I your patient. You are merciful; I stand in need of mercy.

Is not the life of man upon earth a trial? Who would want troubles and difficulties? You command us to endure them, not to love them. No person loves what he endures, though he may love the act of enduring. For even if he is happy to endure his own burden, he would still prefer that the burden not exist. I long for prosperity in times of adversity, and I fear adversity when times are good. Yet what middle ground is there between these two extremes where the life of man would be other than trial? Pity the prosperity of this world, pity it once and again for it corrupts joy and brings the fear of adversity. Pity the adversity of this world, pity it again, then a third time; for it fills men with a longing for prosperity, and because adversity itself is hard for them to bear and can even break their endurance. Is not the life of man upon earth a trial, a continuous trial?

All my hope lies only in your great mercy.

The Confessions of Saint Augustine, 10, 26. 37—29, 40

Feast of the Ascension 2023: N.T. Wright on the Ascension of Jesus

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians. Sometimes this is because many people think that Jesus, having been divine, stopped being divine and became human, and then, having been human for a while, stopped being human and went back to being divine (at least, that’s what many people think Christians are supposed to believe). More often it’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this; and, after all, why did we suppose we knew what heaven was? Only because our culture has suggested things to us. Part of Christian belief is to find out what’s true about Jesus and let that challenge our culture.

This applies in particular to the idea of Jesus being in charge not only in heaven but also on earth, not only in some ultimate future but also in the present. Many will snort the obvious objection: it certainly doesn’t look as though he’s in charge, or if he is, he’s making a proper mess of it. But that misses the point. The early Christians knew the world was still a mess. But they announced, like messengers going off on behalf of a global company, that a new CEO had taken charge.

What happens when you downplay or ignore the ascension? The answer is that the church expands to fill the vacuum. If Jesus is more or less identical with the church—if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created a high road to the worst kind of triumphalism.

Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church—when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him—only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.

Conversely, only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Jesus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand—when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present—are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus.

— N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.

Feast of the Ascension 2023: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (2)

There is no need to doubt the literal nature of Christ’s ascension, so long as we realize its purpose. It was not necessary as a mode of departure, for ‘going to the Father’ did not involve a journey in space and presumably he could simply have vanished as on previous occasions. The reason he ascended before their eyes was rather to show them that this departure was final.  He had now gone for good, or at least until his coming in glory.  So they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and waited – not for Jesus to make another resurrection appearance, but for the Holy Spirit to come in power, as had been promised.

—Understanding the Bible, 103.