17 April 2006

The Mystery of the Lord's Mercy

Since last Sunday we have heard, in clear and memorable words, about the treachery of Our Lord’s betrayal. We heard of His unjust condemnation by both the chief priests and Pilate. We have heard of the barbarity of His crucifixion. And we have heard of His death and entombment. Such events should not cause us grief, but great joy. For the Holy Spirit does not cause the holy evangelists to write such words so that we might fear God’s wrath, but so that we might see clearly, and firmly believe, and greatly rejoice in the Lord’s inexpressible mercy.

Let me be clear. You have not heard about a mercy that began when the Father sent His Son into the flesh. Rather, as you have heard today, this mercy begins in the beginning. It begins in the Lord’s love which calls the entire world and then us into existence. And the mercy continues in the Father offering man the world so that we might tend this world with tenderness, and thereby offer it back to Him in unending thanksgiving. Yet our ancestors ruined and marred what our Father lovingly made through His Word. But this does not cause our merciful Father to destroy all and say, “Never again.” Rather, in His mercy, He promises to redeem, to reclaim and to restore us—and, thereby, to make all things new again. As part of His plan, He cleanses the world by a great Flood. And then, as you have heard, in His mercy the Lord prefigures His climactic act by releasing His chosen people from the grasp of satanic Pharaoh, by pulling them dramatically through the Red Sea, and by pointing them to the Promised Land—which they will attain by the strength of the bread He gives, and by keeping His Word and walking in His commandments.

In these things, Our Lord shows that He has always been at work for the salvation of the world. In these things, Our Lord shows that His undying love for His world drives all that He does. And in these things, Our Lord shows that His mercy for us and to us endures forever. And that is good. For if we would believe that the Lord’s mercy begins only when His Son comes into the world, then we might also be tempted to believe that His mercy ends—or, at least, subsides—when His Son ascends into heaven.

Yet the reason we celebrate the mystery of Our Lord’s mercy is not so that we can look back and remember a time when the Lord had mercy, and then pray that someday that time might be repeated. Rather, we celebrate the mystery of Our Lord’s mercy so that we might know and remember, believe and take to heart that Our Lord continues to have mercy on us; that His resurrection has not faded; and that His mercy was personally directed to us when He wondrously resurrected us by submerging us in His Son’s Blood in the waters of Holy Baptism. But most of all, we celebrate the great mystery of Our Lord’s mercy so that we might not fear Our Lord’s wrath, but rejoice in and hold firmly and steadfastly to His mercy.

An excerpt from the sermon preached at the Great Vigil at Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit.

Why Christ Arose

Christ did not rise so that we might live as we please; and choose our own path; and make our own way. Christ Jesus rose because we are incapable of raising ourselves. He rose because our self-makings end in death. And He rose because our promises to start over always fail.

In short, Our Lord Jesus died to put to death who we once were; and He rose to return us to who we are created to be. And who are we raised up to be? Children of the heavenly Father. Sons and daughters of God. And men and women who serve the Lord with gladness. But that is not all. We are also raised up by Our Lord to be brothers and sisters in; lovers of all men; and godly people who live not for ourselves but for one another.

Such living cuts against the grain. Such living is living against our former nature. For our habits enslave us in pride and selfishness. And our old ways addict us to things that are unreal, things that are really no help, and things that often lead to despair.

From these, Christ Jesus has released us. From these, He has delivered us. From these, He has set us free—both by His death, which destroyed the grip of sin and death; and by His resurrection, which gives us this new way of life and this new way to live. For Our Lord’s Resurrection breathes life into our life—both now and forever—because it breathes back into us a true, intimate, and full life with God in Christ

And if we are with God in Christ, then we are also bound together. For the glories of Christ’s resurrection are not offered, one by one, to each individual. Rather, Christ is risen so that we may live the new life together, in His holy catholic Church. This true Church is all those who receive, by faith, His wondrous resurrection; and who keep to that faith by remaining in communion with those bishops who rightly maintain the Father’s Word in the tradition of the holy apostles. For through them—that is, through these men to whom Christ first appeared, and who are the witnesses of His resurrection—to them, the Spirit of Christ was given; upon them the Spirit of Christ was breathed; and in them and their successors, the Spirit of Christ lives.

So the Lord arises to release us from our old selves; and also, to bind us together into His new self—the Self which is His churchly Body where, together, we are strengthened by the Spirit and, through Him, we earnestly await the entrance into the Father’s kingdom in our glorified bodies.

From the sermon for Easter Sunday (Resurrection Mass) preached at Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit, 16 April 2006.

15 April 2006

Did Jesus Set Up His Own Demise?

I'm sure that this may be seen as justification for laziness, but quite frankly I've been hard-pressed to find better words this year to explicate to my parishioners the mystery of Our Lord's Passion. Furthermore, I am increasingly loathe to depart from the wisdom of the fathers--especially one whose Tome shaped a formative Council. And I tremble at the hubris of attempting to correct them, cognizant of the fact that they are more knowledgable of the Scriptures, and holier in speech and conduct, than I. So, once again, I borrow from St Leo the Great--not slavishly (as on Holy Wednesday) but paraphrastically. For I have found his words both comforting, and quite contemporary.

As if to excuse the inexcusable; as if to cover up the sin that exposes all our sins; as if to justify the betrayer who exemplifies our betrayal—it is foolishly asserted that Our Lord Jesus elaborately set up and arranged His own demise. Of course, some might say, He did this for the good of all. He just needed help with the details. And so the ends justify the means.

But this means that the Righteous One committed evil by urging one of His own to sin. More than that, it says that Our Lord Jesus was not betrayed and killed by sinful men, but by His own will to complete the task.

Was the wickedness of Christ’s persecutors arranged and plotted out by the Father? Was this unsurpassable crime set in motion by the hand of God? Clearly, we must neither think nor believe this. For it is one thing to say that Our Lord knew what would happen to Him; and another to say that He arranged His own betrayal and death.

The truth is that the desire to kill the Messiah did not spring from the same source as His desire to die. Their desire, fueled by unmitigated hatred, was the ultimate act in trying to be like God. Our Lord’s desire, fueled by immeasurable love, was the ultimate act in restoring us to God’s image so that we might continually mature into His likeness. His desire and will came from the Holy Spirit. Their desire and will was of the devil.

So Our Lord did not incite, but rather permitted, those madmen’s naughty hands. And while He knew ahead of time what would happen, He did not compel them to do the sinful deed—even though, through it, He completed the first half of His mission in our flesh.

For you do know that His mission was not simply to suffer and die. Any man could have done that. But Our Lord’s mission reached its fullness when, after His passion and martyrdom, He descended into hell to release those bound by Satan’s death-grip; and then ascended from the grave, bursting open the gates of death and transforming them into the gates through which the righteous now enter life eternal.

So because His goal was not simply to die, but also to raise us to life; because He aimed not at His self-destruction, but at our restoration; because His will was not to die as a martyred hero, but to grant unending life to those destined to die—for this reason, what Our Lord Jesus undertook could not be reversed, while what the hateful mob did could be wiped out. For He who came to save sinners did not refuse mercy even to His murderers. While they were blinded with rage, He prayed for their forgiveness. In doing so, He converted their evil wickedness into their way—and your way—to Life. And with this, God’s grace becomes all the more wonderful, and the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge is seen to be all the more magnificent and worthy of our unending praise. For it is His mercy which turned the blood they shed into the blood that saved them. It is His mercy that made the body they sacrificed the sacrifice that atones for our sin. And it is His mercy that transformed their cries for His death into our hymns of adoration.

And so, even though He was willing to suffer what He knew had to be—what He knew was coming—that does not mean that Our Lord was the author of their crimes, or one who maniacally set in motion His own death. No one asked, urged, compelled or tricked Judas or the others into doing evil for the sake of good. But when evil was done to Him, Our Lord humbly and dispassionately permitted it so that He could use their madness in order to accomplish their salvation, and your salvation, and the salvation of all creation. And in doing so, He salvaged and recalled many who had a hand in His death—men like Peter who denied Him; and the others, who forsook Him; and the 3000 who 50 days later repented and were baptized in the same blood they had shed.

Yet the ungodliest of men—the “son of perdition” together with many of the priests and leaders—these were inflamed by a hatred that even Our Lord could not put out, because they were unwilling. They did not think the Lord’s promises were believable, and so they preferred their self-chosen addictions of pride, greed, and living life now. And in choosing what they preferred—in choosing against their Lord—they chose their own death. Is it any wonder, then, that Judas saw no way out but to hang himself? For he had not believed in mercy before; and he surely did not believe in it then. But the other betrayer—that is, Simon Peter—he held out hope, just like the Ninevites before him. And like them, he recalled the Lord’s mercy and re-invited the Lord’s cleansing by his tears of repentance.

The fact, then, is that Our Lord God, in His mercy, is determined to save us. So when He was ready, according to His own purpose and without any evil design, the Father led His Son in the Spirit to the top of the mountain where He was crucified, dead and buried. But this was not because Jesus was doomed to die, but in order to redeem us from death’s captivity. For the Word became flesh so that, from the Virgin’s womb, He might put on our suffering nature and be capable of undergoing our death. In this way, and in a great yet wonderful mystery, what could not be inflicted on the Son of God was inflicted on the Son of Man. For although He is very God of very God and the Life of the world, yet for our sakes He truly assumed our weaknesses and, without sinning, became our sin and spared Himself not human frailty. And He did this so that, in His resurrection and by our incorporation into Him in the sacred mysteries, He might—in a wonderful manner—impart to us what belongs to Him, and heal in Himself what is ours.

Therefore, since He has restored us by His resurrection from the dead; since He has not only shown us but also given us such remarkable mercy; and since all life that lives is completely dependent upon the life He died to live in us—let us not give into our pride or grow smug in self-satisfaction by excusing our sin, or the sin of His betrayer. For we have nothing—except what we have received from Him in His Spirit. And we have nothing to give—except to give thanks in His holy Church. And we have no other way to live—except to live the life He has planted within us. And this life is not a life that gives us license to live as we please, but to live only for Him by keeping His commandment to love His Word by loving one another.

Let us, then, love His mercy by being merciful. And let us love His sacrifice by partaking of it regularly. And let us love His love by holding to all His commandments. For Our Lord Himself is our way, and through Him alone do we come to the fullness of communion with the Father. So let us tread the path of His endurance and humiliation by living against our flesh, by resisting evil, by running from sin, by chasing away the clouds of despair, and by living courageously through the storms of fear. No doubt, as long as we are in this life, we shall know the snares of the wicked, the persecutions of the unbelieving, the threats of the powerful, the insults of the proud. But we must also remember that all these things the Lord of hosts and King of glory has successfully passed through in the form of our weakness and in the likeness of sinful flesh. And He has done this so that, when we face the dangers that threaten our life in God, we might desire, not so much to avoid and escape them, as to endure and overcome them and finally gain the victory through Christ Our Lord, to whom with the Father in the Holy Spirit belongs all glory, honor and worship.

12 April 2006

The Son is Not Forsaken by the Father

What follows is what I preached at Holy Mass today. It is my recasting of Sermon LXVIII by St Leo, combined with the latter half of his Sermon LXVII. These sermons present evidence that the early Church did not understand Our Lord's "Eli, eli..." cry to be the lament of a son angrily abandoned by his father, but rather the dual lesson of the weakness of our flesh together with Our Lord's determined will to die for the life of the world. In this way, St Leo's sermon has urged this scribe to look away from the Anselmic view that dominates late-medieval, post-Reformational, and modern day confessional atonement theology.

Representing all the members of His body in Himself, and speaking for those whom He was redeeming in the punishment of the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ uttered that cry which He had once uttered in the Psalm: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from Me, and from the words of My groaning?”

That cry is a lesson, not a complaint. For the Son of God could not have been forsaken by the Father or separated from Him since, in His Person, Christ is both God and man. So it is on behalf of us—the trembling and the weak—that He asks why the flesh that is afraid to suffer has not been heard.

Therefore, when you hear Our Lord say, “My God, My God,” I urge you not to believe that, when Jesus was fastened to the wood of the cross, the almighty God and Father had turned His back on Him. For in Christ’s own person, the natures of God and man are so completely joined that the union cannot be destroyed by punishment or by death.

To be sure, both natures retain their own properties. Yet, in Christ, both are so united that He Who is arrested by the hands of wicked men is the same as He Who is bound by no limits. He Who is pierced with nails is the same as He Whom no wound can affect. He Who underwent death is the same as He Who never ceased to be eternal. So both things are established facts in Christ—both the truth that He suffered humiliation and the truth that He retained His divine majesty. For you must remember that, in Christ Jesus, the Divine power joined itself to human frailty so that God might make what is ours His and, at the same time, make what was His ours. The Son, therefore, was not separated from the Father, nor the Father from the Son. And there was no division within the unchangeable and inseparable Trinity. So, even though the Son alone became man, the Father did not—for this or any reason—separate Himself from the Son any more than Christ’s flesh was separated from His divinity.

So why, then, did Jesus cry out with a loud voice and way, “Why have You forsaken Me”? To notify all men that He wished not to be rescued, not to be defended, but to remain in the hands of cruel men so that He might be the Savior of the world and the Redeemer of all men not by misery but by mercy; and not by the failure of comfort but by His determination to die.

Yet by praying to the Father, Our Lord Jesus shows that this determination is not His alone; that He is not the only one determined to act on our behalf. For the blessed Apostle says that the Father “spared not His own Son, but gave Him up for us all.” And he says, “Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify it.” Hence, the giving up of the Lord to His Passion was as much of the Father’s will as it was of His own will. So if the Father did “forsake” His Son, then it was only because the Son also abandoned Himself in a certain sense—but not as if He was fleeing in fear, but as if He was voluntarily withdrawing or hiding His full divinity. For the Crucified restrained His divine might, and refused to use His power, so that He might secretly deceive death and the devil.

For how would He—who had come to destroy death and the author of death by His Passion—how would He have saved sinners if he had resisted His persecutors? The Jews, then, believed Jesus had been forsake by God. For they were able to commit such unrighteous cruelty. Yet they refused to understand the mystery of His wondrous endurance. So they blasphemed and mocked Him saying, “He saved others, Himself He cannot save. If He be the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we believe Him.”

But the Savior’s power would not be displayed against the blind rage of the foolish scribes and wicked priests. And the redemption of mankind would not be delayed by obeying the blasphemer’s evil tongues. For if they had truly wanted to recognize the deity in the Son, they would have remembered His countless miracles which confirmed true faith. In fact, they acknowledged as much when they said that He saved others. But those many great miracles, done openly and in public, does nothing to soften the hearts of those who resist the Holy Spirit. And so all of God’s benefits towards them are turned into their destruction. So even if Christ had descended from the cross, they would have remained in their sin.

Therefore the insults of empty exultation were scorned by Our Lord. And the Lord's mercy in restoring the lost and the fallen was not turned from the path of its purpose by insult or mockery. For a unmatched victim was being offered to God for the world's salvation, and the slaying of Christ the true Lamb, predicted through so many, ages, was transferring the sons of promise into the liberty of the Faith. The New Testament also was being ratified, and in the blood of Christ the heirs of the eternal Kingdom were being enrolled. The High Priest was entering the Holy of Holies, and to intercede with God the spotless Priest was passing in through the veil of His flesh. In such a fine manner, a transition was being effected from the prophetic Torah to the apostolic Gospel, from the synagogue to the Church, from many sacrifices to the One Victim. So when the Lord gave up His Spirit, that mystic veil which hung before and shut out the inner part of the Temple and its holy recess was torn, by sudden force, from top to bottom. For Truth Himself was displacing figures, and forerunners were no longer needed in the presence of Him they announced. To this was added a terrible confusion of all the elements, and nature herself withdrew her support from Christ's crucifiers. To be sure, the centurion in charge of the crucifixion, fearful at the sight, said “truly this man was the Son of God.” Yet the wicked hearts of the Jews, which were harder than all tombs and rocks, is not reported to have been pierced by any regret or repentance. So it seems that the Roman soldiers were then readier to recognize the Son of God than the priests of Israel. The Jews, then, were deprived of all the sanctification imparted by these mysteries; and they turned their light into darkness and their “feasts into mourning.”

But let us not follow their lead. Instead, let us prostrate our bodies and our souls, and worship God's Grace. For He has poured out His grace upon all nations. And let us, each day, beseech the merciful Father and the rich Redeemer to give us His aid and enable us to escape all the dangers of this life. For the crafty tempter is present everywhere, and leaves nothing free from his snares. With God's mercy helping us, which is stretched out to us amid all dangers, we must steadfastly faith resist this devil so that, though he never ceases to assail, he may never succeed in carrying the assault. And let all religiously keep and profit by the last few days of our fast. And let no excesses mar the benefits of such self-restraint. For the things which pertain to sobriety and temperance must be the more diligently observed in these final days, so that our brief zeal might teach us a lasting habit. And whether in works of mercy or in strict self-denial, let not one minute pass without being faithful so that, as the years and time glides by, we may increase in good works and not squander our opportunities to do good. For to devout wills and religious souls God's Mercy will be granted, that He may enable us to obtain that which He enabled us to desire, Who liveth and reigneth with our Lord Jesus Christ His Son, and with the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.

09 April 2006

Sacrificing the Will

How does Our Jesus save us? In the same way that we are saved. By submitting entirely to the will of the Father. By sacrificing all self-chosen beliefs and liturgies; by sacrificing all self-serving hopes and fears; by sacrificing the will with the confidence that what the Father wills is best and shall prevail.

So Our Lord Jesus first sacrifices Himself—His will, His desire. And by doing so, He becomes the most pure, the most holy, the most spotless sacrifice which is offered for the life of the world.

Because He willingly sacrifices His will; because He deliberately submits Himself entirely to the will of the Father; because He determines to lose His life in order to gain the world—for this reason Our Lord Jesus both saves us with an unmatched love; and He also shows us the way we receive and give thanks for and live from this sacrifice. So His sacrifice is both our salvation, and our example. His sacrifice both is the way we are reconciled to the Father, and shows us the way we live a life of reconciliation. His sacrifice both is the path that leads to full communion with the Father, and demonstrates the way we live that communion in the Spirit.

For when He was being served up for our salvation, Our Lord thought not of Himself. Neither did He fear. Neither did He seek to hide. Neither did He get angry. But serenely and compassionately, as He saw His own forsake Him and His own deride Him and His own torture Him—for them He said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

For these He sought pardon, from whom at the time He was still receiving injury. For He took no thought that He was being put to death by them, but only that He was dying for them. (St Augustine)

An excerpt from today's sermon.

02 April 2006

Abraham's Vision of the Mass

In today's Gospel, Jesus says that Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.

Which day was that? Which day rejoiced the heart of Abraham? St John Chrysostom says that "'My day,' seems to me to mean the day of the Crucifixion, which Abraham foreshowed typically by the offering of the ram and of Isaac."

Let me add, however, that Abraham does not simply see Good Friday. He sees the Holy Sacrifice; which is to say that he sees the Lord’s Day—that is, Abraham sees the Holy Mass. For at the Mass, in the Spirit, you see the Love of the Father. There He lies—the only-begotten Son—in all His glory on the altar. The Son, who in love, was both sacrificed and sacrificed Himself; the Son whose Body was broken so that we might eat and live, and whose Blood was shed so that it might be poured down our throats; the Son who offered Himself so that we, who will taste death, might now taste Life Himself.

It’s this day that Abraham saw and rejoiced to see. And he saw it as he stared at his son, his only son, whom he nearly killed, but whose life was ransomed by the ram of God.

God's Mercy in the Law & Commandments

Several times in the Gospel, Our Lord Jesus urges us to keep His word. To this urging He often attaches a sure promise. Here is one of those instances:
I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” (Jn 8.51)
This correspondes to what the Holy Spirit spoke through the mouths of Joshua & David. Joshua tells the children of Israel to take careful heed to do the commandment and the law which Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, to love the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways, to keep His commandments, to hold fast to Him, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Josh 22)

And David commands his son, Solomon, to walk in His [the Lord's] ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His judgments, and His testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses. Then David adds this promise:
that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn; that the LORD may fulfill His word which He spoke concerning me, saying, ‘If your sons take heed to their way, to walk before Me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul,’ He said, ‘you shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’
How are we to understand these words? How are we to understand these commands?

The Law and commandments flow from the mercy of God. For they are handed down not as a test, not to threaten, but so that we might be safe-guarded from our own self-destructive ways and so that, through them, we may safely attain the kingdom of heaven.

Now should we refuse to walk in the way of the Law and in the works of the commandments, then they accuse us of going our self-chosen way--that is, against the Lord's way. But it appears that the primary use of the Lord's Law is merciful; so that we might remain in the way which is Christ Jesus our Lord.

"Come to Me"

Our Lord lovingly appeals to the Jews, and also to all the hesitant, to all the wary, to all the unwilling, to all the fearful. Our Lord urges them all to lay aside their hatred and meanness, and to see past their fears. For they fear that He will take away their place and nation. They fear that they will lose out on the zest of life. They fear that they’ll lose control. And they fear that it’s a trap—that God the Father is more like the fathers and men they’ve always known—abusive, demanding, cold-hearted, selfish and uncaring.

“Come to Me,” Our Lord says. “And walk away from your fears. Come to Me, and know—truly know—My Father. For He is not like your father, who lies to you every chance he gets; and who is in it only for himself. For your father is the father of lies. But My Father—He is the Father of Life, the Begetter of Truth. He not only loves. He is Love. So lose yourself and your fears, and come to Me. For by heeding My word, you shall never see death.”

An excerpt from today's sermon.