Pilgims enteing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
This ancient ecumenical feast, celebrated by Christian churches throughout the world, originated in Jerusalem at the place where Jesus died and rose again. A great church called the Anastasis ( Resurrection) or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built by the Emperor Constantine, was dedicated there 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 today 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.
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 but “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)
As 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.
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.
Jesus said to his disciples: “Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,’ and he says in reply from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.’ I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.”
Be not afraid! Drop timidity, faintheartedness, and inhibition and pray to the Father with confidence and expectation.
The Greek word for “persistence” is actually “shamelessness” (anaideia). From the divine perspective, do the children of God treat him like a miser too sparing to lend? Or do they approach the throne of His Majesty ashamed to make their needs known? Shame is related to fear and is wary of being judged. Adam’s original relationship to the Father in Eden was “shameless” and utterly unaware of himself as divided from his Maker. He approached the Father with the total abandon of a young child.
In the hypothetical situation, the petitioner is compared to a person in the awkward situation of having to wake up a friend in the middle of the night to borrow three loaves of bread for a guest who just arrived. The resistance put up by the friend is a rhetorical device to magnify the generosity of God. In actuality, “The rules of hospitality in the first century required that the entire community assist in entertaining a midnight guest.”1 Verses 5-7 “should be regarded as one continuous rhetorical question.”2 The situation is “unthinkable” under the rules of Oriental hospitality.
For modern readers who are far removed from the historical and cultural circumstances of this Gospel, the device may seem odd. Yet to Luke’s audience, it communicated by hyperbole the lavish generosity and hospitality of God.
Speaking of rhetoric, readers and listeners naturally bring to the text the conditioning of their own times. When St. Augustine read the line about the three loaves, he interjected, “Perhaps this number symbolizes the Trinity of one substance.”3 St. Ambrose wrote, “What are those three loaves if not the nourishment of the heavenly mystery?”4
The patristic mind gravitated to numerology and saw signs of divinity everywhere. Their mystical speculations about numbers often digressed from exegesis of the text proper, but revealed the milieu in which they thought and lived. Their world brimmed with signs and symbols of Christian revelation. In parables and biblical events, representations of representations multiplied in the patristic imagination—evidence of their prayerful and devotional disposition when reading Scripture.
Our era is more matter-of-fact. Modern commentators read “three loaves of bread” and consider it “the equivalent of a meal for one person… there is no need to seek any meaning in the number three.”5
We can appreciate the insights of both ancient and modern commentators as the pilgrim Church traverses the centuries toward final union and communion in the Trinity. Words, signs and symbols do not terminate in themselves but facilitate our transformation into the wordless Word, Jesus Christ.
“And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
Luke changed Matthew’s “good things” (7:11) to “the Holy Spirit.” As the author of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke shows a developed consciousness of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. The Spirit’s personal anointing of each disciple at Pentecost revealed his role as sanctifier of unique persons in the Womb of the Father. Each person is an icon of Christ with an identity unlike any other. The fire of divine love forges, molds, and shapes wholly distinct persons in the image of the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity.
The gift of the Spirit infinitely surpasses earthly goods like the fish and egg of the illustration. The Father is ready and willing to pour out his Spirit on those who ask, seek, and knock.
In our current state of ecclesiological fragmentation, it is sobering to realize the centrality of Christian unity in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in history.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer writes:
“Moreover, it becomes plain in Acts that the Spirit is given only when the Twelve are present or a member or delegate of the Twelve is on the scene. Thus Luke depicts the Spirit-guided Christian community. The reconstitution of the Twelve (1:15-26) is the necessary preparation for the outpouring of the Spirit (2:1-4). This also explains why, though Philip (not one of the Twelve, but one of the Seven appointed to serve tables [6:2-6]) evangelizes Samaria and baptizes there (8:5-13), Peter and John have to be sent before the people in Samaria receive the Spirit (8:17). Similarly, it is only when Paul, indirectly a delegate of the Twelve (see 11:22, 25-26; 13:2-4), arrives in Ephesus that ‘some disciples’ (i.e. neophyte Christians) are baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus and receive the Spirit through the laying on of Paul’s hands (19:1-6). The only exception to this bestowal of the Spirit is the case of Saul himself, who is baptized by Ananias and receives the Spirit through the laying on of his hands (9:17-18). This obvious exception is made at this point in Luke’s narrative to manifest the extraordinary grace shown to Paul, who thus becomes the ‘chosen instrument’ (or vessel of election) to carry Jesus’ name to Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel (9:15)—the hero of the second part of Acts.”6
Does the asking, seeking, and knocking Church pray for that unity which will bring healing to our divisions by the Holy Spirit? Would Samaria (the world outside the Church) believe in Christ and receive the Spirit if Peter (the West) and John (the East) return to full unity as St. John Paul II envisioned in his encyclical, Ut Unum Sint?
The future is a blank slate for those who walk in faith, but Christ has told us all that we need to flourish as his Body:
“Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are” (John 17:11).
In patristic fashion, the Church has received the world as her guest at midnight, knocks on the Father’s door, and receives the three loaves of the Trinity and the Eucharist to feed the hungry.
May we heed the voice of the Good Shepherd and ask “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21).
1Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Luke, Arthur A. Just Jr., editor, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor, Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2003, p. 184.
2 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985, p. 911.
3 St. Augustine, Letter 130.
4 St. Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 7.87.
5 Fitzmyer, p. 911.
6 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981, p. 231.
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.
Pope Francis, speaking in his Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudete et exultate” of “the saints next door” – the ordinary holy people of our world– says “Their lives may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.” (3) They persevere.
The pope also says that canonized saints have their faults and failings too.“Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.” (22)
Later in his letter, Francis speaks about the dangers of modern day Pelagianism and cautions that when some say “ all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that “not everyone can do everything”, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. (49)
Being a saint doesn’t mean you’re perfect, the pope says. 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 bishop in a riotous city. That’s the way the Wikipedia biography mainly sees him.
He was a saint, others said. Why a saint? Well, Cyril was absorbed in understanding and defending the Incarnation of the Word of God. Did the Word of God come among us? How did he come? Who was Jesus Christ? Pursuing that mystery defined Cyril during life.
He thought and wrote extensively about this mystery; it absorbed him. 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, but his quest to know Jesus Christ.
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.