Today, the last day of the year, we read in our liturgy from the 1st chapter of St. John’s Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Read in our Mary Garden, we could see Mary in those words, holding up her Child, the “Silent Word” blessing all creation, symbolized by our garden. The responsorial psalm for today calls the heavens to sing and the earth to rejoice. Creation today needs the blessing of the Word.
St. Bridget of Sweden influenced 15th century artists with her vision of Mary placing the Child on the earth outside the stable. Mary, Joseph and the shepherds join the earth itself to receive his blessing.
Finally, here Maximus, the Confessor, speaking about the adaptability of the Word to all in creation.
“The Word of God, born once in the flesh (such is his kindness and his goodness), is always willing to be born spiritually in those who desire him. In them he is born as an infant as he fashions himself in them by means of their virtues. He reveals himself to the extent that he knows someone is capable of receiving him. He diminishes the revelation of his glory not out of selfishness but because he recognizes the capacity and resources of those who desire to see him. Yet, in the transcendence of mystery, he always remains invisible to all.
For this reason the apostle Paul, reflecting on the power of the mystery, said: Jesus Christ, yesterday and today: he remains the same for ever. For he understood the mystery as ever new, never growing old through our understanding of it.”
An adaptable, respectful love. That’s the way God loves us. That’s the way to love others.
When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.
John the Baptist was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness (eremós)” (Mark 1:3; Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:4). At the news of his death, Jesus withdrew to a “deserted place (erēmon topon),” by himself (Matthew 14:13).
In the Bible, the desert (or wilderness) is a place of encounter with God and truth. The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert (eremós) to be tempted by the devil (Mark 1:12; Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1).
Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh with the request: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Let my people go, that they may hold a feast for me in the wilderness” (Exodus 5:1).
The children of Israel never imagined that they would wander in the desert for forty years! The long years of nomadic trial, temptation, and trust in the Lord for daily bread were designed to attune ears to the voice of God. Away from the hustle and bustle of Egyptian cities, God called his people to himself in the wilderness.
The Hebrew word for wilderness (midbar) is translated as eremós in the Greek Septuagint. The biblical concept of the wilderness (midbar) is derived from the noun dabar (speech, word) and the verb dabar (to speak).
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the “word of the Lord” visits patriarchs and prophets with divine guidance and directives (e.g., Genesis 15:1, 4; I Samuel 15:10; 2 Samuel 7:4; 24:11; Jeremiah 1:4). The “Ten Commandments” are the “ten words” given to Moses in the wilderness of Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:13; Hebrew).
In Matthew’s version of the feeding of the five thousand, the crowd followed Jesus into the wilderness and received an abundant feast from five loaves and two fish. As the Father fed the Israelites in the desert with “bread from heaven” (manna) and the word of the Lord (the five books of the Pentateuch and the two tablets of the law) through his servant Moses, he fed them with his own Son, the Word made flesh and “true bread from heaven” (John 6:32).
When the Word of the Lord fills our being, we become a desert oasis for our God.
Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.
Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me believes not only in me but also in the one who sent me, and whoever sees me sees the one who sent me.
Jesus is not a one person mission. Again and again, he deferred all of his actions and words to the Father. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Most Holy Trinity depicts the Son and the Spirit looking toward the Father, the unbegotten origin of the Son and the Spirit. God is, of course, beyond spacetime; thus words like “unbegotten” and “origin,” derived from sensible experience, must be understood as pointers to an ineffable reality.
I came into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in me might not remain in darkness.
John’s Prologue introduces the Word of God who was “in the beginning with God” as Life and Light itself (John 1:1-5).
And if anyone hears my words and does not observe them, I do not condemn him, for I did not come to condemn the world but to save the world.
Earlier in the Gospel, all judgment is given to the Son (John 5:22). Passages about judgment expose the core of the human heart. The voice of God in every heart provokes a search for flourishing. Fear of external judgment corresponds to an inner compass groping for Light, Life, Love, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
Jesus forgave his enemies from the Cross for they did not recognize him as the Son of God (Luke 23:34). But failure to recognize the Spirit of God, Jesus says, is inexcusable (Matthew 12:31-32). These puzzling Scriptures seem to point to the fundamental orientation of our heart toward the voice and Spirit of God—receptivity or rejection?1
Whoever rejects me and does not accept my words has something to judge him: the word that I spoke, it will condemn him on the last day, because I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and speak.
The “word” (dabar) in Hebrew culture is loaded with significance. In Genesis, the word of God has the power to create, bringing light and life into being. A word of blessing, once given, could not be revoked (Genesis 27:1-46). Words have power to heal; they issue forth from the mouth of God to accomplish his purposes (Psalm 107:20; 147:15; Isaiah 55:11). God’s word is a living fire—a hammer that breaks rock into pieces (Jeremiah 23:29).
In the Mosaic world, word and life (also law and life) are so closely intertwined that they are virtually indistinguishable:
When Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them, Take to heart all the words that I am giving in witness against you today, words you should command your children, that they may observe carefully every word of this law. For this is no trivial matter for you, but rather your very life; by this word you will enjoy a long life on the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.
Jesus, the Word of God, offered himself to the world as Light and Life. A heart shriveled, closed to love, and sunk in darkness is a heart condemned.
The words of Christ proceed from the Father, for “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30).
And I know that his commandment is eternal life. So what I say, I say as the Father told me.”
The new Moses elevated the equivalence of word and life to Word and Eternal Life. Jesus is the Word sent forth from the Father to heal and give life to a broken and dying world.
1 More than conscience, the Spirit of God produces the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22).
Darkness, turbulent waters, and a mighty wind threatened to capsize the disciples into the whirling vortex of chaos. The image recalls the antediluvian waters at the dawn of creation.
and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters—
Genesis 1:2 (New American Bible Revised Edition)
The One who brings order out of disorder stepped out onto the surface of the deep. Fear struck the hearts of the disciples who, in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, thought they were seeing a ghost (Mark 6:49; Matthew 14:26).
“I AM. Fear not.”
Egō eimi. The Greek words for “I AM” in John 6:20 match the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton in Exodus 3:14. The holy, almighty and ever living God—I AM WHO AM—is the Alpha and the Omega with a human voice and face in Jesus Christ. Moses parted the Red Sea by the power of God. Jesus commanded the wind and waves by his own power.
The Spirit of God in the Word of God pacified the waters as “in the beginning.”
And the earth was tohu vavohu (without form, and void); and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Ruach Elohim (Spirit of God) was hovering upon the face of the waters.
Genesis 1:2 (Orthodox Jewish Bible)
Innocent Job deluged by wave after wave of suffering extolled the God of all creation who “stretches out the heavens,” recalling Genesis 1:1, and “treads” or “walks on the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8), anticipating the Son of God walking on water centuries later.
They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading.
Many commentators, including St. John Chrysostom, have thought that this last statement needed reconciling with the accounts of Mark and Matthew which explicitly state that Jesus entered the boat. Reading the line with the lectio divina approach, however, Noah’s ark comes to mind. The Lord of all creation is neither in nor out of the ark, but encompasses all space and time and brings the boat safely to land, with the sign of the Spirit (an olive branch in the beak of a dove).
He was a burning and shining lamp, and for a while you were content to rejoice in his light. But I have testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me… For if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me, because he wrote about me.
John 5:35-36, 46
The children of Moshe Rabbeinu (“Moses our Teacher”) had difficulty accepting the Messianic claim of Jesus of Nazareth. Wonders and signs failed to convince; teachings in the synagogue alienated. Mysterious references to his invisible, inaudible Father “who testified on my behalf” eluded not only his adversaries but even his friends (John 5:37; 14:9).
The tablets of the Ten Commandments were akin to the tree of life for Israel, guarded in the ark of the covenant by two cherubim as at the gates of Eden (Exodus 25:18-22). The word of God, living and active, fed the Israelites in the desert of exile as refreshing, spiritual drink. Yet Jesus called into question the confidence of those who prided themselves as faithful keepers of the law shaped by the divine word.
…and you do not have his word remaining in you, because you do not believe in the one whom he has sent.
Jesus’ lamentation was devastating, for to be void of the word of God meant death and destruction.
You search the scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf. But you do not want to come to me to have life.
The first statement may also be read as an imperative: “Search the scriptures, because you think that you have eternal life through them.”1 Moving from the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures) to the man, Jesus, required a gigantic leap of faith.
The awe-inspiring, wholly transcendent God of Mount Sinai spoke to Moses “face to face” from between the two cherubim over the ark in the tent of meeting (Numbers 7:89). The ark represented the ultimate manifestation of God’s physical presence on earth (shekinah). For a man to claim to be God in the flesh was the height of blasphemy.
Jesus, a Jew among Jews, understood the trauma and dissonance surrounding his person and work. Thus he appealed to the testimony of John the Baptist, his Forerunner, and especially to Moses, Israel’s foundational teacher and lawgiver. The appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus at the Transfiguration ratified his status as the true Messiah and Son of God.
The following poem is a reflection on Jesus’ appeal to his witnesses in John 5:31-47.
The lamp of the law given to Moses2 Illumined prophets, priests and kings. Pharaoh’s rival esteemed Christ’s reproaches More than Egyptian glitterings.3
Elijah’s word burned like a blazing torch, Calling fire down from the heavens.4 John prepared the way for the fan to scorch,5 The Lamb’s lamp waking to penance.6
Dim was the lamp in the Light of the Word Born in the beginning with God.7 Hearts filled with the word recognize the Word, Acknowledging the love of God.8
He who has seen me has seen the Father9 Though his form is invisible.10 Alone I am not, but from my Father— His charaktér made visible.11
Moses, Elijah and I are aflame— Lamps in the triple Light of God.12 The Torah and Prophets proclaim That I AM WHO I AM, your God.
1 See New American Bible (Revised Edition) footnote to John 5:39.
2 Psalm 119:105.
3 Hebrews 11:26.
4 Sirach 48:1, 3.
5 Luke 3:17.
6 John 1:29; 5:35.
7 John 1:6-9; 1:1-2.
8 Inverse of John 5:38, 42.
9 John 14:9.
10 John 5:37; 1:18; 6:46.
11Charaktér from Hebrews 1:3: image, stamp, or imprint. Click phonetics for the pronunciation of charaktér.
12 Transfiguration of Jesus: Mark 9:1-8; Matthew 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36. Triple Light refers to the epiphany of the Holy Trinity.
Yet just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down And do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, Giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it.
The living word of God waters the earth and awakens seeds, gives bread to the hungry and manna to the spirit. The word proceeding from the mouth of God is “sharper than any two-edged sword,” able to create and recreate the world (Hebrews 4:12). The Voice that spoke light and life into being with a word sent forth his Word to divinize the earth.
The Word of God uncoiled the serpent with a word:
One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.
In the midst of temptation, Jesus taught us to turn to our Father:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and do not subject us to the final test, but deliver us from the evil one.
Our Father provides daily bread for the body, mind, soul and spirit. Nourished by his Word, may we become words in the Word and bread for others by our mercy.
Another Forty Syllables for the Forty Days of Lent:
Water from Heaven breaks and opens seeds… Our Father speaks and from his mouth proceeds Returning Son, crushed wheat of Calvary, Divine Bread and seed-bearing Energy.
On Ash Wednesday, we remember our origins—that we are dust of the ground. In Hebrew, adam (humankind) and adamah (ground, land) are cognate. No preposition links adam (humankind) and aphar (dry earth, dust) min-hā·’ă·ḏā·māh (of the ground), indicating the closest affinity between humankind and dust of the ground.
Like a mother, the Lord God blew into the nostrils of adam the breath of life. The word for breath (neshamah) is derived from the Hebrew verb nasham (to pant or gasp like a woman in labor). Since labor pains were pronounced a penalty after the transgression, postlapsarian language strains to express the inexpressible.
God who is beyond thought and speech “clothed Himself in our language, so that He might clothe us in His mode of life,” writes St. Ephrem the Syrian.1
It is our metaphors that He put on— though He did not literally do so; He then took them off—without actually doing so: when wearing them, He was at the same time stripped of them. He puts on one when it is beneficial, then strips it off in exchange for another; the fact that He strips off and puts on all sorts of metaphors tells us that the metaphor does not apply to His true Being: because that Being is hidden, He has depicted it by means of what is visible.2
Language that developed “east of Eden” now serves as a bridge over the chasm between creation and its Creator.
Mystics testify that the journey into God eventually leaves words and thoughts behind. The Dominican mystic John Tauler (c. 1300-1361) writes of this divine abyss:
No one can imagine the solitude which reigns in this wilderness, no one at all. No thought can enter here, not a word of all the learned treatises on the Holy Trinity with which people busy themselves so much. Not a single word. So inward is it, so infinitely remote, and so untouched by time and space. This ground is simple and without differentiation, and when one enters here, it will seem as if one has been here from all eternity and as if united to God, be it only for an instant. This experience sheds light and bears witness that man was everlasting in God, before his creation in time. When he was in Him, he was God in God.3
The language of the mystic can be misinterpreted as denying the distinction between God and creation, but it is actually pointing to an experience beyond words. Trying to express in words a wordless reality is like trying to produce a whole sheet of paper using a pair of scissors. Language is a scissor.
Jesus calls us to return to oneness with God. When Eve’s mind turned to the question of the serpent, her thoughts scattered and dispersed from one-pointed union. Adam became distracted along with his wife. Ever since the exile, humans have been looking to their left and right for approval rather than living directly in the Light of God.
“[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
Looking left and right is not only an external phenomenon but an internal one as well, in self-congratulation and self-righteousness. When the left hand knows not what the right hand is up to, the person is single and simple:
“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light.”
“The Father and I are one,” Jesus said (John 10:30). The “I” of the Son of God includes adam, all humankind, which he assumed. Hidden prayer draws us into that original intimacy and communion with the Father:
But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
Words enfleshed God till God became flesh. When the Word enfleshed Stripped flesh of words, Flesh became God.
1 St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Faith, no. 31. From The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, trans. Sebastian Brock (Cambridge: Aquila Books, 2013), 85-6.
3 Sermon 44 from Johannes Tauler, Sermons, trans. Maria Shrady, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1985), 148.
Saturday of the First Week in Ordinary Time (Year I)
Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 2:13-17
An eye for microscopic detail, a steady hand, and ultra-fine motor skills are required of surgeons in the operating room. Cataract surgery or blood vessel repair demand technical finesse and expertise.
Medicine has advanced by leaps and bounds in the modern era as studies of the most intricate anatomical structures have reached the nanoscopic scale, even to mapping the entire human genome.
If the life of the body (bios) is complex, how much more delicate must be the life of the spirit (zóé)? What kind of scalpel or nanoscope divides and heals the thoughts and intentions of the heart?
A surgeon’s scalpel is a non-living tool that divides living tissue, but the divine scalpel is a “living” (zaó from zóé, divine breath of life) and “active” (energés, energetic) personal being who is all eye and light. Nothing slips from this all-seeing, razor-sharp eye because all things are contained in it.
Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.
The “word of God” is first of all Scripture, post-patristic commentators point out, critiquing the Fathers for misapplying the Johannine Logos to Hebrews.1 However, lectio divina (sacred reading) is not only a study of words in a book but encounter with the living God. Receiving the word by ear and heart unites the hearer to the Word himself by divine, energizing grace.
The Spirit of God transports human persons from the word to the Word, from the eye to the “I AM,” and from the ear to the silent Voice in the depths of God.
“What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,” this God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.
1 Corinthians 2:9-10
The sword of the Spirit makes our spirit one with his by cutting away all that is alien to divine grace. Delicate incisions between soul (psuché) and spirit (pneuma), “joints and marrow” of our inner being purify our nature for divine communion. Thoughts, reasonings, intentions, images, forms, dreams, concepts and ideas are all illuminated by the Spirit.
But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 1 Corinthians 6:17
The transformation from the psychological (psuchikos: animal, sensuous) to the spiritual (pneumatikos: of the Holy Spirit) is the work of God.
Now the natural (psuchikos) person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God, for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it, because it is judged spiritually. The spiritual (pneumatikos) person, however, can judge everything but is not subject to judgment by anyone.
1 Corinthians 2:14-15
The human person is the new temple of the Holy Spirit, of the same nature by grace as Jesus the great high priest who has severed the curtain between humanity and the Father.2
From henceforth all children of the Father are one in the Son of God. All are one in the priesthood of Christ:
But you are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises” of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 1 Peter 2:9
Untouchables, pariahs, “tax collectors and sinners” are all loved and welcomed by our high priest and humble shepherd.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.
1 Examples of this critique can be found in Meyer’s NT Commentary and Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges.
2 Mark 15:38; Matthew 27:51; Luke 23:45; Hebrews 10:19-20.
Saint Bruno (c. 1033-1101), Founder of the Carthusians, Statue by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1767)
“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority…”
If the Lord returns this very second, well then, are not “…the ends of the earth” where we currently stand?
May we pray for the mercy and grace that we ourselves be truly converted to Christ, for if all the world were to focus on that, then all the world would be set “on fire”.
To truly “preach” the Gospel is to be truly transfigured. For it is the power of His glory, in us, around us, despite us, that brings others to Christ.
A single man standing absolutely still—but who has Christ truly within him—brings more healing and peace to all the world than an army of men continually running around the globe glorifying themselves in His Most Sacred Name.
For redemption is always by His power, for His glory, and within His Kingdom. It is HIS Church.
May we approach Him in our absolute nothingness, for that is all we truly possess.
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“…forgetting the past and pushing on to what is ahead…”
What is the past? A remembrance of things past. Of what has been. Of what is not now. Of what is no longer today.
What is re-membering? A putting back together of what once was. Of what was once whole. Complete. United. Unified. A re-attachment of “bodily” members currently detached. A body made whole, brought back into health. It is healing. It is “being” fulfilled.
What is to forget? The act of properly re-membering. Beyond elimination. Beyond denial. It is re-valuation. It is re-deeming. Of value. A re-establishment of worth. An instance of humanity made universality worthy once more.
What is worthy? What has value? The future lived presently. Proper hope brought into active being. Knowing ‘now’ is a perpetual tomorrow, lived fully today.
It is tomorrow’s air breathed as we currently speak.
A human being living in heaven.
A human being “knowing” heaven was once, is now, and will be forever.
Worthy is a person “forgetting the past and pushing on to what is ahead…”