Pilgims enteing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
This ancient ecumenical feast, celebrated by Christian churches throughout the world, commemorates the dedication of a great church in Jerusalem at the place where Jesus died and rose again. Called the Anastasis ( Resurrection) or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it was built by the Emperor Constantine and was dedicated on September 13, 325 AD, It’s one of Christianity’s holiest places.
Liturgies celebrated in this church, especially its Holy Week liturgy, influenced churches throughout the world. Devotional practices like the Stations of the Cross grew up around this church. Christian pilgrims brought relics and memories from here to every part of the world. Christian mystics were drawn to this church and this feast.
Tomb of Jesus
Pilgrims still visit the church and the tomb of Jesus, recently renovated , after sixteen centuries of wars, earthquakes, fires and natural disasters. They venerate the rock of Calvary where Jesus died on a cross. The building today is smaller and shabbier than the resplendent church Constantine built, because the original structure was largely destroyed in the 1009 by the mad Moslem caliph al-Hakim. Half of the church was hastily rebuilt by the Crusaders; the present building still bears the scars of time.
Scars of a divided Christendom can also be seen here. Various Christian groups, representing churches of the east and the west, claim age-old rights and warily guard their separate responsibilities. One understands here why Jesus prayed that ” All may be one.”
Egyptian Coptic Christians
Seventeenth century Enlightenment scholars expressed doubts about the authenticity of Jesus’ tomb and the place where he died, Calvary. Is this really it? Alternative spots were proposed, but scientific opinion today favors this site as the place where Jesus suffered, died and was buried.
To be a saint doesn’t mean you’re perfect, Pope Francis says in his exhortation “Gaudete et exsultate“, on holiness in today’s world. That’s good to remember when we consider St.Cyril of Alexandria, the 4th century bishop of Alexandria and doctor of the church, whose feast is today, June 26th.
If you read his online biography in Wikipedia–where many today look for information about saints – you’ll find that he was deeply involved in the messy partisan politics of his time, when Christians, Jews and pagans fought and schemed to control the city that was then probably the most important city in the Roman empire. Some called him a “proud Pharaoh;” “ a monster” out to destroy the church, an impulsive, scheming bishop in a riotous city. The Wikipedia biography mainly sees him that way.
He was a saint, other biographies say. Why a saint? Well, Cyril was absorbed in understanding and defending the Incarnation of the Word of God. How did the Word of God come among us? Who was Jesus Christ? Pursuing that mystery defined Cyril during life. It was at the heart of things for him, and the voluminous collection of sermons, letters, commentaries and controversial essays he left bears out that interest.
He thought and wrote extensively about this mystery. The way he came to express it was used at the Council of Ephesus (431) and became the way we also express it in our prayers. Mary was the Mother of God. The One born of her was not simply another human being. Her Son was true God, who would be truly human and eventually die on the Cross. God “so loved the world” that he came among us as Mary’s Son.
What we see as “the totality” of Cyril’s life, his “life’s jouney”, the “overall meaning of his person”, to use the pope’s words, is not his involvement in the violent politics of his day. Yes, that was there. But his abiding quest was to know Jesus Christ.
“‘The Word was made flesh’ [John 1:14], can mean nothing else but that he became flesh and blood like ours; he made our body his own and came forth man from a woman, not casting off his existence as God, or his generation of God the Father, but in taking to himself flesh remaining what he was.
“This is the correct faith proclaimed everywhere. The holy teachers taught this and so they called the holy Virgin, the Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word or his divinity began from the holy Virgin, but because that holy body with a rational soul, to which the Word, personally united, was born of her according to the flesh.”
— St. Cyril of Alexandria, First Letter to Nestorius
“When poisonous pride swells up in you, turn to the Eucharist; and that Bread, which is your God humbling and disguising himself, will teach you humility. When the fever of selfish greed rages in you, feed on this Bread; and you will learn generosity. When you feel the itch of intemperance, nourish yourself with the Flesh and Blood of Christ, who practiced heroic self-control during His earthly life, and you will become temperate. When you are lazy and sluggish about spiritual things, strengthen yourself with this heavenly Food; and you will grow fervent. Lastly, when you feel scorched by the fever of impurity, go to the banquet of the Angels; and the spotless Flesh of Christ will make you pure and chaste.”
We need Christians today like St. Justin, the 2nd century philosopher we remember June 1. “We need to make our teaching known,” he said. Still true today.
In Justin’s time, philosophers were the mentors and teachers of Roman society and were welcomed in the forum and private homes of the Roman world. St. Paul addressed them in Athens with limited success.
Born in Nablus in Palestine of Greek parents, Justin studied all the philosophers of his time in Alexandria, Athens and Ephesus. It may have been in Ephesus around the year 130 that he encountered Christianity when, walking along the seashore, he met an old man who told him the human heart could never be satisfied by Plato for “the prophets alone announced the truth.”
“After telling me these and other things…he went away and I never saw him again, but a flame kindled in my soul, filling me with love for the prophets and the friends of Christ. I thought about his words and became a philosopher..” (Dialogue 8)
Justin was influenced, not only by Christian teaching, but also by the example of Christians he met:
“I liked Plato’s teaching at first and enjoyed hearing evil spoken about Christians, but then I saw they had no fear of death or other things that horrify, and I realized they were not vicious or pleasure-loving at all.” (Apology 2,12)
s a philosopher Justin championed the cause of Christians who were increasingly being attacked by society. Donning a philosopher’s cloak he taught and wrote in Rome about the year 150 AD. He was a new kind of Christian, a Christian philosopher engaging Roman society on its own terms. He gave Christianity a Roman face and voice.
Justin defended Christians against the charge they were atheists and enemies of the Roman state. Christians were good citizens, he wrote, who pray for Rome, though they don’t worship in temples, who had no statues of gods or who did not participate in the religious rites of the state. Justin’s writings give us a unique picture of 2nd century Christianity and early Christian worship.
In his “Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew” Justin offered the traditional Christian defense of Christianity to a Jewish antagonist. The Jewish prophets predicted the coming, the death and resurrection of Jesus, Justin argues.
In the documents of Vatican ii, Justin is recognized as an early example of Christian ecumenism. (Evangelium Nuntiandi 53) Through the Word of God all things came to be, he said. The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, but Justin linked the biblical Word to the Logos of the philosophers. “Seeds of the Word” were scattered throughout the world, Justin claimed. Every human being possesses in his mind a seed of the Word, and so besides the prophets of the Old Testament, pagan philosophers like Heraclitus, Socrates and Musonius lead us to Jesus Christ, Justin said. (Apology 1,46)
A prolific writer and teacher, Justin was an early Christian intellectual using his talents to promote his faith, Unfortunately only three of his writings come down to us. Other Christian intellectuals followed him, using the tools of philosophy to dialogue with the Greco-Roman world.
Finally, rivals in Rome pressed charges against Justin as an enemy of the state and he was brought before a Roman judge along with six companions. Sentenced to death, they were beheaded probably in the year 165 AD. The official court record of their trial still survives.
We are living in a time of wars and climate change. Can we do anything? Let’s not be afraid of big ideas. Why not think big?
In September 2015 world leaders at the United Nations agreed to work for 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The goals aim to “eliminate poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change, while ensuring no one is left behind. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while also tackling climate change and environmental protection.” https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/development-agenda/
The 11th goal of Sustainable Development is “making cities safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable by 2030. Sustainability differs from city to city, but quality of life means among other things, adequate housing, work and employment, clean water and air, access to public transportation.
Andrew, brother of Peter, says to Jesus when he asked his disciples to provide food for a hungry crowd: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” (John 6:1-15)
Duk Soon Fwang, an artist friend of mine, has been thinking a good while about that little boy and what he brought to Jesus. “We don’t know the little boy’s name and he only has a few loaves and fish to give. He’s like me,” she said. “But Jesus sees what he brings and makes it more.”
She’s almost completed a painting of the boy and Jesus, which you can see above.
At Mass this morning, we read that gospel story before we brought small pieces of bread and a cup of wine to the altar. I remembered what she said. This is our story. We bring what we have and God makes it more.
The Christmas Season draws to a close after the Baptism of Jesus, which we celebrate this Sunday. The Christmas celebrations are over. Ordinary time begins. Does that mean there’s nothing to do till Lent and the Easter season?
Sure there is. Ordinary Time is a time for daily prayer, and daily prayer is never over. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy said that daily prayer is at the heart of the Christian life and created a daily lectionary of scripture readings so “ the treasures of the bible be opened more lavishly for the faithful at the table of God’s word.” (SC 51)
The daily lectionary is a treasure for praying with the scriptures, but don’t take it for granted. Treasures, Jesus said, are usually hidden and you have to dig for them. That’s what we do in daily prayer. The liturgy is always a “work”, our daily work, an important work, a daily prayer. It’s the “summit” of the Christian life. We’re always at the beginning, not at the end.
We begin Monday to read the Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of Mark from our lectionary. There are feasts of the Lord and his saints to celebrate in the days ahead. It’s a lifelong learning we’re into, a school God provides,and we learn day by day.
Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? (Luke 14:28)
An architect must have the end in mind before embarking on the construction of an edifice. Jesus’ comparison of discipleship to a tower might lead one to measure spiritual progress by the success of our external projects, plans, organizations and institutes. What is the “tower” of which Jesus speaks?
The saints tell us that the answer is theosis—deification or divinization. “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (St. Athanasius). According to St. Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833), the true aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.
By baptism, every child of God becomes “a new creature… a partaker of the divine nature… and a temple of the Holy Spirit. The Most Holy Trinity gives the baptized sanctifying grace… giving them the power to live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”1
St. Seraphim further explains:
He who has the grace of the Holy Spirit in reward for right faith in Christ, even if on account of human frailty his soul were to die for some sin or other, yet he will not die for ever, but he will be raised by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ Whotakes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), and freely gives grace upon grace. Of this grace, which was manifested to the whole world and to our human race by the God-man, it is said in the Gospel: In Him was life, and the life was the light of men (John 1:4); and further: And the light shines in the darkness; and the darknesshas never swallowed it (John 1:5). This means that the grace of the Holy Spirit which is granted at baptism in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, in spite of man’s fall into sin, in spite of the darkness surrounding our soul, nevertheless shines in our hearts with the divine light (which has existed from time immemorial) of the inestimable merits of Christ. In the event of a sinner’s impenitence this light of Christ cries to the Father: ‘Abba, Father! Be not angry with this impenitence to the end (of his life).’ Then, at the sinner’s conversion to the way of repentance, it effaces completely all trace of past sin and clothes the former sinner once more in a robe of incorruption spun from the grace of the Holy Spirit. The acquisition of this is the aim of the Christian life…2
The seed of grace planted at baptism must be watered, fertilized, and cultivated to flourish into a mature organism. Earthly attachments block the Son-light and water of the Holy Spirit from reaching the divine seed.
Great crowds were traveling with Jesus, and he turned and addressed them, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after mecannot be my disciple (Luke 14:25-27).
Matthew’s version reads: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). The Greek verb for “hate” (miseó) means “to love less.” Since God the Father contains all persons, however, the love of Christ does not diminish other relationships but embraces them.
Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’ Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:18-33).
In the analogy, term A (building and military resources) is mapped to term B (renunciation of all possessions). From a material point of view, the analogy seems incongruous as they are opposites (addition and subtraction). However, Jesus is speaking about the inner tower of the spirit and the conquest of the ego, which detachment accomplishes by increasing faith, hope, charity, the virtues and fruits of the Holy Spirit. In the spiritual life, the laws of mathematics and physics are inverted: material and ego contraction leads to spiritual expansion.
Theosis by the grace of the Holy Spirit is our “tower” and “victory.” Our projects and apostolates are an overflow of the work of the Spirit. St. Paul discerned the need to prioritize the inner tower and combat from his apostolate of preaching: “No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (I Corinthians 9:27).
The Holy Spirit lays the first cornerstone of the tower, Jesus Christ:
“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:19-21).
The Holy Spirit arms us in the battle for theosis:
“Finally, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:10-17).
St. Seraphim’s blueprint and battle plan is simple yet profound: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”
1Catechism of the Catholic Church 1265-6.
2 St. Seraphim of Sarov, On the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit, Conversation with Motovilov. Although St. Seraphim was canonized by the Orthodox Church, St. John Paul II counted him among the saints for the Catholic Church: “Man achieves the fullness of prayer not when he expresses himself, but he lets God be most fully present in prayer. The history of mystical prayer in the East and West attests to this: Saint Francis, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and, in the East, Saint Serafim of Sarov and many others.” From Crossing the Threshold of Hope, trans. Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 18.
We’re reading Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians and the Gospel of Luke together these days at Mass. The two may be more closely connected than we suspect, if my reading of Pheme Perkin’s, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels ( Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA) is correct. Luke wrote some years later than Paul, but his audience would be much like those found in the church of Corinth.
Theophilus, to whom Luke dedicates his gospel, could easily be one of Corinth’s better-off Christians, who surely would recognize the lack of concern for the poor that Jesus condemns in Luke’s gospel as present in his own community as well. That unconcern appeared at table, in the celebration of the Eucharist in the Corinthian church, and Paul condemns it. (1 Corinthians 11, 17-22) Luke presents Jesus, over and over, at table, condemning the same unconcern for the poor as well.
Luke begins Jesus’ ministry in Galilee with his visit to Nazareth (Luke 4, 16-30) where he’s not recognized by his own who know him too well and are ready to throw him to his death over the hill.
The Corinthians–how many we are unsure– fail to recognize the humble Savior whom Paul preaches. “I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2, 1-5)
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is the teacher and Lord bringing God’s word to the towns of Galilee. He brings God’s word to Corinth as well, but the Corinthians are attracted to the various disciples of Jesus, causing “jealousy and rivalry among you…Whenever someone says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another,’I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely men? What is Apollos, after all, and what is Paul? Ministers through whom you became believers, just as the Lord assigned each one.”
God plants and waters the growth of his church; the disciples are disciples, only disciples, who must have “the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians, 3, 1-9)
Luke has a church like Corinth in mind when he writes his gospel. How about our church too, as we take sides. “I belong to…” Good to read these two readings together now.
Fr. Don Senior, in his biography of Fr. Raymond Brown the American scripture scholar, says that one of Brown’s best books was “The Churches the Apostles Left Behind.” Scholars like Brown and Senior say the apostles left churches behind, not one monolithic church that was everywhere the same. The Gospel of Mark, for example, is different from the Gospel of John and it comes from a church different from the church represented in John. There was not one orderly church, but squabbling, disorderly churches, yet churches just the same.
The New Testament churches were developing churches, the scholars say. They describe them as being on a trajectory. They’re not set in stone or isolation or perfect; they’re interacting with each other and their time. And by the power of the Spirit they’re developing slowly into the church that Jesus wants to bring about.
These insights have great consequences for ecumenism, for one thing. The churches the apostles left behind help us understand Christian churches today and the challenge to keep on a trajectory towards Christian unity.
That’s true also of the particular church we may belong to. I’m thinking of something one of the people who comes to our 11 o’clock Mass here at the monastery told me recently. She enjoys the different priests who celebrate that Mass here, she said. “You’re all so different. In fact, I don’t know why you don’t kill each other.”
Certainly one of the reasons why we don’t kill each other is the presence and patience of Jesus himself. For all his complaint about his own generation, Jesus never gave up on it, but gave himself to it day by day, as he does for us. Our prayer and liturgy together keeps us on the path that leads to what God wants us to be.