One of the themes for the First Sunday in Advent is to be
‘watchful.’ In the Epistle, St Paul urges us to ‘know the hour’ and in the
Gospel Jesus tells us that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand.’ The reason for this
watchfulness is aptly given in the prayer after communion: ‘that we may with
worthy reverence approach the coming festival of our redemption.’
For the past 1000 years, the Catholic and Orthodox churches
in Europe and North America have prepared for and approached the Feast of the
Nativity with fasting and prayer. During these days, Friday abstinence is
extended to the one-meal fast on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. And
additional times for prayer – most especially the radiantly beautiful Rorate
Mass – have been provided.
There is also another precious custom kept primarily in the
home that helps us be watching and ‘know the hour.’ That custom is the Advent
The advent wreath consists of two things: candles and
greens. The candles remind us that, as the days shorten and darkness increases,
‘the Light who enlightens all’ will soon be born. And the greens remind us that
this Light who cannot be overwhelmed is also the Life of all.
The Advent wreath helps us keep track of time by the way the
candles are used. Four candles (three purple and one rose) prepare to count
down the Sundays before Christ Mass. Each week, another candle is lit
increasing our anticipation until, in the last few days before the feast, all
four colored candles are burning.
Of course, the candles are not lit merely to provide light.
Like the candles we light in front of our icons and statues, they are symbols
of faith while helping us center our prayers. So also with the Advent wreath.
This outward act of counting down does us most good when it is coupled with the
inward and spiritual action of reading Scripture, praying, and singing a hymn.
Here’s my suggestion, based on long-standing practice: In
the evening, when the day has wound down, turn down or off all other lights,
and light the appropriate number of Advent candles. As these candles shed their
cheerful light with their warm glow, say the Our Father and Hail Mary and
another fitting prayer. You may also wish to read a brief Scripture selection
and sing an Advent hymn or a song in honor of the Holy Mother of God.
Dedicating yourself daily to this simple devotional practice
will heighten your anticipation of Our Lord’s Nativity. It will also make you
mindful of the time, and will assist you in being ‘watchful’ in your words and
actions so that your ‘rough places’ may be made smoother.
This devotional may also bring to mind that Our Lord comes
both to disperse the darkness that too often infects our souls, and to warm the
coldness that we sometimes feel toward God and others.
But let me take this one step further: On Christ Mass Day,
replace the colored candles with four white candles, and keep up the same
practice during each of the Twelve Days until the Feast of the Epiphany. With
this routine, you will enter the New Year with the daily habit of prayer,
meditation, and song. Can there be a better way to chase way gloom from our
homes, and to be ever mindful of Our Lord’s nearness?
Wishing you and yours a joyful preparation for the Feast of
Our Lord’s Nativity, I remain your spiritual father in Christ,
The words that you heard Our Lord Jesus speak to the Pharisees in the Gospel (Mt 22.34-46) are both subtle and profound. They are subtle because they contain not simply the answer that He wishes to give to them, but also a little bit more that they need to hear. And they are profound because they draw us out of ourselves and deeper into the mystery of the love that God is.
Let’s first consider their subtlety. The Pharisees wish to trap Jesus and so they send someone who knows the law, someone who knows the answer to the question he is going to ask. So this is not a curious question. This is not someone saying, “Gee, Jesus, what do you think of this one?” Rather it is a very tricky, craftily devised question to see how Jesus will answer.
What is the first commandment? You all know the answer. You know that the first commandment is that you shall have no other gods. But that is not how Jesus chooses to answer the question, even though that’s what the Pharisees and especially that expert in the Torah expects to hear.
Jesus simply wishes to focus on something that they have forgotten, something that too often is misunderstood by us, something that escapes us because it lives in our emotions rather than living in who we are. And so the first word out of His mouth is “love.” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Love God above all else. If you love something else more than God, then you do not yet love God. And to love God is to love God above everything else, to fear nothing but losing God, and to trust in God more than you trust anyone, or anything else.
Love God with all that you are and with all that you have. That’s the first commandment.
The key word is “love.” A word that has escaped these men, for they were not interested in loving Jesus. They were envious of him. They wanted to trap him and trick him. They wanted to see how they could get him. And anytime you want to trip someone up, anytime you want to get at them, anytime you want to stab them with some word, you do not love.
This is why Jesus then continues with more than what they asked for. For they asked for the first commandment and he told them, “This is the first and greatest of all commandments. But the second commandment is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Notice the order. “To love God is to love our neighbor” (St John Chrysostom). It does not say that to love our neighbor is to love God. For if we put the neighbor first, then we can determine who our neighbor is and how we are going to treat them. And too often our neighbors are people we like, not the people that we think are smelly or dissatisfying to us. And too often the neighbor is the one that we think we can manipulate and bully or use.
Now if we put the neighbor first and say “to love the neighbor is to love God,” then we might be thinking we can get away with something with God. That we can manipulate God and bully Him; that we can say to Him, “See what I have done for you; now here is something you can do for me.”
is often times how our prayers tend to go, even if we don’t say those exact
words. For our prayers tend to be, “God I did my part, now you be fair and do
your part. Do the help that I say I need from you because I did the thing that You
said I should do.”
To put God first; to love God by loving your neighbor—that means that we must love our neighbor in the same way that we love God: with all that we are and with all that we have.
To love our neighbor then is not to try and manipulate him, or to use him, or to bully him, or to see what we can get from him, or to bargain with him. To love our neighbor is to realize that any person put in front of us —not just the ones we like, not just the ones that are agreeable to us, but anyone in front of us—that is the person we are to love. And we are to love with the same love that we have for God: without any fear of losing or being short changed ourselves, without any trust in what we do, without any love for ourselves. That is how we are to love our neighbor because that is how we are to love God.
escaped the Pharisees. It too often escapes us as well. But it escaped them
because, as I said, they were envious, they were jealous, they were trying to
trap him, they were trying to use his words against him. Rather than hearing
what he was saying, they wanted to just listen to the words. Jesus of course
understands this and chooses his words better than we do. He’s very precise in
his language and hits the bottom note just exactly where it needs to be: on the
Now, when Jesus proceeds further He becomes profound. He draws us out of our self, and into the mystery who God is. For our Lord says that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
often we hear that backwards too. Too often we think that in order to love my
neighbor I must first love myself. And since I don’t yet love myself how can I
love my neighbor? And so my neighbor will get no love whatsoever until I’ve
learned to love, and forgive, and be at peace with myself.
That’s not what Jesus says. He says love your neighbor as yourself. Not love yourself and then love your neighbor. That is too often how we operate. Our Lord is urging to do is to think about how we are to love ourselves.
We all know that within us lurks some sort of darkness—some darkness of the soul, some darkness of the mind. We all know that within us lurks some sort of fear and anxiety so that we are unsettled with who we truly are. No doubt, this is why we are constantly trying to shift or shape our identity and say to ourselves: “Maybe I fit here, maybe I fit there, maybe I should do this instead. I’m unhappy with all sorts of things in life: work, friends, family: all these things that annoy me.”
is it then with all this darkness lurking within us, when we’re not very sure
about who we are, with all this unhappiness—even during the times when we’re
peaceful and at rest—how is it then that we can even begin to love ourselves?
We love ourselves when we listen not to what our voice says, not to what we think about ourselves, but instead hear the identity that God has given to us: the statement of love He has spoken to us. For He spoke in the waters of baptism the same word to you that He said to his beloved Son: “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”
we have a choice. Do we believe what God says about us, that He loves us even
though He knows our darkness? Even though He knows our flaws? Even though He
knows we are constantly veering off in the wrong direction and are making
promises that we cannot keep, or will not keep? Even though he knows all of
that, He still loves us.
Do we believe what God clearly says to us? Or do we believe the darkness within us; what today’s prayer [collect] calls the contagion of the devil. The contagion of the devil, among other things, wants us to believe that we really are unlovable people because we cannot really love ourselves.
God’s word is very clear and precise to us: “You are my beloved son; You are my
Now when that sinks in, when we can begin to believe that, and trust that, and live from that, and push aside the darkness and bad feelings that are still there—when we say to them, “Nevertheless, God loves me”—when we’re able to do that, then we can begin to love our neighbor. Not because we’ve fallen in love with ourselves, but because we’ve learned to see our neighbor as the same sort of person that we are: the one to whom God says “This is my beloved son, my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased.”
is the profoundness of the words that Jesus speaks when He says “Love your neighbor
as yourself.” He’s not saying, “First love yourself, and then
love your neighbor.” He’s instead saying, “Love your neighbor with the same
sort of love that God has declared to you; because that is the only love that
you can be sure is true for you; that is the only love that really applies to you.
And so love your neighbor as another human that has been loved by God.”
is hard for us to do because we want to push people away; we want to make sure
that we somehow manipulate them or use them.
But if we love them as God has loved us, and if we love God with everything that we are and everything that we have, then we have not simply fulfilled the first and the second commandments. Rather, we’ve been filled with the God whose love is within us. And we’ve not just kept the rules. We have kept the love of God that he gives to us, and that he is for us, and that he is within us.
To this Lord Jesus Christ, the Father’s beloved Son who lives His love in us, belongs all glory, honor, and worship; now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen
Homily on St. Matthew 22.34-46 by Fr John Fenton for Pentecost XVII (13 October 2019)
We have been led to believe that we can do whatever we want. So when someone tells us that we should do something, or that we must do something, or that we are expected to do something, almost immediately our hackles are raised, our pride rears its ugly head, and we insist to ourselves—if not also aloud to others—that we will do what we like, that no one will tell us what to do, that no one can make us do anything, and that we will make our own choices.
And this stubbornness is applauded by those around us. We congratulate each other for being resolute, for being our own person, for standing up for ourselves and our right to free choice. But in fact we’ve become the slave of our selfishness. We’ve succumbed to the deadly sin of pride.
Doing what we like, going our own way, insisting on our choices—that is
not the mind of Christ that the Saint Paul speaks about in the Palm Sunday
Epistle. What does the holy apostle say? “Let
this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” And what is this mind
of Christ? He made himself of no reputation,
and took upon him the form of a servant … and humbled Himself, and became
obedient unto death.
In other words, Our Lord did not do as He liked; He did not go His own way; He did not stubbornly
say, “No one can tell me what to do.” Instead, thanks be to God, Our Blessed
Lord Jesus willingly, freely, and gratefully submerged His thoughts and
desires, and submitted Himself to His Father’s will, trusting that Our Father
in heaven knows best.
In the Passion Narratives on Palm Sunday, Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday
and Good Friday, you will hear this same theme when Our Lord Jesus prays, Not as I will, but as Thou wilt. Not My
will, but Thine be done.
With those words, Our Lord not only determines to be our Savior; He also
shows us the way of salvation. He not only demonstrates that He is holy; He
also leads us in the path of holiness. And He not only conforms His will to the
Father’s will; He also indicates that, if we truly desire to attain the kingdom
of heaven, we must set aside our pride, we must put to death our stubbornness,
we must refuse to go our own way, and instead follow in the Lord’s saving path
For in His tender love for us, Our Savior Jesus Christ both put on our
flesh and suffered our death. In this way, He gained for us the salvation, the
freedom from death, the forgiveness of sins, and the life in God that we desire
and that Our Father has freely given. By His death, Our Lord opened heaven to
us and obtained what we could never obtain on our own.
Yet we can stray from this saving way. And we can damage the holiness
Our Lord gained for us if we let pride have its way by doing not what we must
but what we please.
Let us, therefore, beg the prayers of the Holy Mother of God, of the
Holy Archangel Michael, and of all the angels and saints that, aided and
defended by their holy intercessions, we may follow the example of Our Lord’s
great humility, and remain on the path of holiness by putting to death our
self-will and by living solely in the Father’s will, who has loved us in His
Son and by His Spirit with an everlastin
Fr John W Fenton
The Church and the world prepare for the Lord’s Nativity in two very different ways. And these opposing preparations reveal what each really believes.
The world prepares by putting up trees, lights and other decorations. It also offers “holiday” (or “seasonal”) parties, and thinks nothing of prematurely anticipating christmas day. The world simply can’t wait; in fact, it won’t wait. And so it barges ahead and “celebrates” christmas during the month after Thanksgiving.
The world’s excuse for barging ahead is that “christmas is for the children.” Yet it doesn’t let the children wait for chirstmas. Instead, the world indulges the children. But who are we kidding? The adults are really indulging themselves using children as an excuse; and too often, at the children’s expense.
In doing this, the world shows both its immaturity and its lack of understanding for any celebration. The world shows its immaturity by focusing on itself—its parties, its ideas of how christmas should be celebrated, and its inability to wait. And the world shows its lack of understanding because it believes that the real reason for christmas revolves around the joy it can manufacture for itself.
The Church, by contrast, celebrates not christmas but Christ’s Mass—the day we did not deserve or merit to have Our Lord God come into our flesh to bear our sin, assume our death, and be our Savior. In other words, the Church understands that the reason for Christ Mass revolves around the great and wondrous mystery of Our Lord’s coming down from heaven for us men and for our salvation.
Because of this focus, the Church fixes our attention not on self-serving joy or decorations or parties, but rather on our need to repent, fast and pray so that we might be duly prepared, in heart and mind, to welcome and receive this great gift of God’s Love. Therefore, the Church prepares her members for Christ Mass by urging them to slow down, to focus not on this world, and to meditate on the Lord and world to come.
How can we quietly pray and meditate if we are caught up in going from party to party, or in decorating the house and yard? That is a question the Church urges us to consider. But more importantly, the Church urges us to remember that the month between Thanksgiving and Christ Mass is best spent utilizing the ancient Advent discipline of fasting, prayer and confession.
This discipline helps us reset our focus so that we see that christmas is not “for the children.” Rather, Christ Mass is about the Christ Child whom we are unworthy to receive, but who gives Himself to us nevertheless so that we might leave this world and its allurements behind and be joined everlastingly to God our Father in true and holy joy.
I encourage you, then, during this Advent not to be caught up in the world and its fabricated christmas, but to prepare yourself humbly and meekly so that, with godly intensity, you may celebrate the holy Twelve Day feast of Our Lord’s Nativity.
On All Saints Day, the Church does not celebrate all those who were baptized, particularly the faithful who are still living. For the Church does not use the word “saint” lightly. Therefore, she does not refer to any or every Christian as a “saint.” Rather, the word “saint” is reserved for those who have led exemplary lives of holiness. And as a mark of their holiness, these men and women would not see themselves as saints. Rather, they would see themselves as unworthy of this honor.
It is not a mark of pride, then, but a recognition of godly humility when a person is canonized (officially recognized) as a “saint.” And it is a witness to all the faithful that we should strive not to be saints, but to live humbly, “soberly, and justly, and godly in this world, looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ.” (Ti 2.12-13)
The greatest honor bestowed upon a saint, then, is to imitate that person’s life. And there are two things in particular that we should strive to imitate so that we might worthily commemorate the saints.
First, all saints—whether known or unknown—freely confessed Christ and His unending mercy by willingly sacrificing their life. Many of the saints made this confession by spilling their blood as martyrs. Others, however, did not receive the crown of martyrdom, but nevertheless made a great confession by sacrificing all that they had and all that they were for the love of God and the love of all men.
To commemorate the saints by imitation, then, means that we adopt this same attitude of self-sacrifice; that we become willing to give up all our possessions, all our ambitions, all our desires, even our own life if necessary, in order to attain the kingdom of heaven. That is how the saints lived and died; and we honor them by living as they did.
Secondly, all saints strove not for fame, but for humility. All of them desired to be known not for their deeds or writings. Rather, they desired simply to gain true life by losing their lives in a life dedicated to repentance. For they saw themselves as unworthy of even the least of Christ’s mercies, and so lived St. Paul’s creed: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” (1 Tim 1.15)
To commemorate the saints rightly, then, means that we adopt their spirit of repentance and humility; that we strive not to impress others, but instead strive to divest ourselves of all pride and self-serving desires. To live knowing that no one is worse than we are, that all are more deserving, and that the Lord should first save everyone else, even the worst sinner—that is the saints’ spirit of humility and repentance that we should strive to imitate. And whenever we do, we truly honor them.
THE MARGINALIZED, THE OUTCAST, the different, the diseased, the stranger, the warehoused—these are the people Our Lord frequently ministers to in and holds before us as examples of living faith. And so, if we wish to be Christians (i.e., those who have Christ living through us), then we should also show intentional compassion to these same folks.
But who are they? The marginalized are the people whom we—in our mind, in our society, in our attitude—shove to the sidelines and think little of. The outcasts are the people who are dismissed and about whom we say (perhaps not with words) that they don’t deserve our time or our rights. The different are the people that we think don’t measure up to our standards of what is normal or acceptable or good. The diseased are the people whom we’re afraid to approach for fear of catching their physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual ailment. The strangers are those who come from places or cultures that we can’t or won’t understand. The warehoused are the people we shut away in care facilities or detention centers or anywhere else so that we can relieve our guilt of having to face them.
In every instance, these folks are the ignored and the invisible.
Too often, however, we not only ignore but also think that the “others” are higher maintenance and so need more of Our Lord’s time. But when we think this way, we are saying that we are the “normal people.” And that’s a mark of pride, no different from the Pharisees and others who wondered why Jesus ate and reached out and spent time with ostracized.
Yet these are precisely the folks Our Lord reaches out to. On purpose. And with compassion. In the Gospels, these folks are the publicans, the sinners, the lepers, the Samaritans. They include St Photina (the Samaritan woman at the well), St Matthew, Zacchaeus, St Mary Magdalen, the 10 lepers, the “yapping” woman who begged from crumbs from the Master’s table, and St Dismas (the “good thief” to whom Jesus promised Paradise).
No doubt, Our Lord feels for and identifies with the marginalized. Because He Himself was marginalized, outcast, and ignored. By His own people. “He came to His own and His own received Him not.” In fact, they often attacked His origin (suggesting He was a bastard), His ethnicity (saying He was from Samaria, and so not a real Jew), His education (questioning His credentials to teach), His authority (who is He to forgive sins).
Yet I think the primary reason Christ identifies and aids the marginalized is because He sees that we need them more than they need us. For in the sidelined Our Lord sees in them both a greater appreciation for His ministry and help, and therefore a greater empathy to those in a like position. And in this way, they become our teachers.
In a way that challenges our pride, it works like this. For my salvation, I must not only see the marginalized. Even more so, I must see not that they need me but that I need them! This is best expressed by the beggar who once asked why passersby were denying their way to salvation by refusing to help him.
The path to salvation, then, is a path which humbly says these words to all those whom society shoves aside: ‘I take your suffering and burden so much that it becomes my own. In taking on your travails, I become marginalized myself and then can see things differently and with more compassion, just like you do.’ That’s the real stuff that takes courage: humility to admit we need them and their suffering and perspective more than they need us and what we can offer.
That’s why Our Lord frequently ministers to folks that I tend to ignore or push aside. It’s not just because Our Lord is compassionate, nor even to show us what mercy looks like. And it is certainly not so that I can thank God for my blessings and the times of been so close to being “one of them.”
Rather, the marginalized are God’s gift to me so that I might work on my own salvation while learning from them how true compassion works.
It certainly appears and feels like our lives are very busy. One result of this apparent busyness that I’ve noticed personally—and perhaps you also—is that we are forced to prioritize our tasks. Which of the many things demanding our attention will we do?
Setting goals so that you maintain your focus on the important things is the key to all productivity apps, planners, workshops, and calendars. Know what is important, and make sure it is not pushed aside—that’s what’s crucial.
Regrettably, when we think of goals, we think selfishly—about ourselves, our work, our families. We also tend to divide life into fragments—our health life, our work life, our family life, our recreation life, our financial life, our retirement life. Into this lump of “lives” we throw “spiritual life” or “church life.”
This way of dividing life is not what Our Lord Jesus had in mind when He said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” or “I am the Resurrection and the Life” or “I am the Life of the world.” With those statements, Our Lord was not begging to be a part of our life. Neither was He asking us not to forget Him in our many “lives.” And neither was He making more demands on our life.
Instead, with these statements, Our Lord urges us to think of life differently. Not as segments or “many lives” which create a whole, but to see life as Christ Himself. He says, in effect, “I am your life. Apart from Me, you can do nothing. So if I am not your whole life, you have no life.”
Our Lord urges us to think of life differently. “If I am not your whole life, you have no life.”
These words sound demanding, but they are actually quite freeing. For if we take them to heart, we no longer need to “get a grip on life”—He has a grip on us. And no longer do we need to get our “lives” to line up, or prioritize our various “lives”—for Christ Jesus is the only life we have that is worth living.
Think of it this way: In the end, what good is your financial life, your work life, your health life, etc.? While these may improve the quality of your life now, they don’t improve Life Himself, nor your living since your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Seeing Christ as your Life shapes, forms and determines all your other “lives.” So, for example, you go to work and earn money for only one reason—to live in Christ by attending Mass and helping others. And that is not just the Christian way. That is Christ Himself.
For this reason, going to church ought not be a goal. Instead, you should see it as the place where you truly live your life—the Life that Christ is, the Life that Christ lives in you. For Holy Mass is the place where you receive the only nourishment that will see you safely from this life to the life to come. So Holy Mass is the only place where you live the life that none of your other “lives” give—the eternal life that you enjoy in part now, and then fully one day face to face with Christ your Life.
Mass is the only place where you live the life
that none of your other “lives” give.
What I’m saying, then, is that in all our busyness, in all our frustrations and stresses of living life, in all our goals and priorities—let’s not lose focus. It’s so easy to do—even for me. But we must always remember not only what is important, but also what our life truly is, and what makes our life worth living. It’s not the many things we do, the stuff we can accumulate, the ladders we can climb, the goals we can achieve, or the quality we attain.
Our life and our living is Christ Jesus—whom the Holy Spirit gives us time and again most surely only in the Holy Mass.
Because of this, I urge you to keep your eyes focused on the Mass. Everything else comes and goes. Everything else fades or is used up. But the Eucharist served in the Mass remains, and always comes through.
This means that everything else that’s on our busy schedule can—and should—be sacrificed for the sake of hearing Our Lord’s Word and receiving His Holy Communion.
So when you plan, “do not look at the things which are seen, but at the [sacramental] things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
For a parish that is under the patronage, and exults in the merits, of so great an Archangel, it is most fitting that we learn of his appearances in other times and places. Here is the description of one such feast that we celebrate this month.
That the blessed Archangel Michael, whose name means Who is like unto God?, is the prince of the faithful Angels who opposed Lucifer and his followers in their revolt against God. Since the devil is the sworn enemy of God’s holy Church, Saint Michael is given to it by God as its special protector against the demon’s assaults and stratagems.
Various apparitions of this powerful Angel have proved the protection of Saint Michael over the Church. We may mention his apparition in Rome, where Saint Gregory the Great saw him in the air sheathing his sword, to signal the cessation of a pestilence and the appeasement of God’s wrath. Another apparition to Saint Ausbert, bishop of Avranches in France, led to the construction of Mont-Saint-Michel in the sea, a famous pilgrimage site. May 8th, however, is destined to recall another no less marvelous apparition, occurring near Monte Gargano in the Kingdom of Naples.
In the year 492 a man named Gargan was pasturing his large herds in the countryside. One day a bull fled to the mountain, where at first it could not be found. When its hiding place in a cave was discovered, an arrow was shot into the cave, but the arrow returned to wound the one who had sent it. Faced with so mysterious an occurrence, the persons concerned decided to consult the bishop of the region. He ordered three days of fasting and prayers. After three days, the Archangel Saint Michael appeared to the bishop and declared that the cavern where the bull had taken refuge was under his protection, and that God wanted it to be consecrated under his name and in honor of all the Holy Angels.
Accompanied by his clergy and people, the bishop went to that cavern, which he found already designed in the form of a church. The divine mysteries were celebrated there, and there arose in this same place a magnificent temple where the divine Power has wrought great miracles. To thank God’s adorable goodness for the protection of the holy Archangel, the effect of His merciful Providence, this feast day was instituted by the Church in his honor.
It is said of this special guardian and protector of the Church that, during the final persecution of Antichrist, he will powerfully defend her: At that time shall Michael rise up, the great prince who protects the children of thy people. (Dan. 12:1) (Source)
These words that we just said: they are so much more than a joyful Easter greeting. To greet one another with these words is to proclaim to each other the most fundamental, the most significant, the most impactful, the greatest truth of our hope, both at this moment and as our last moment nears.
St Paul says this clearly with these words:
[Now] if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. 14 And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. … 16 For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. 17 And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! 18 Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. … 20 But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.
So to say “Christ is risen” is to proclaim your certainty that Our Lord’s resurrection from the dead makes a difference for you. To say “Christ is risen” is to declare that you live in the confidence that you shall not die but live. It is to be able to stand over a grave and say “This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous shall enter.”
That is what it means when we say, “Christ is risen!” It is not just the celebration of an historical fact. Our Paschal greeting also means that those who die trusting in the Lord will also be raised to stand with the Lord in His heavenly kingdom, celebrating in eternity the Divine Liturgy that we celebrate here on earth.
We will make this eternal celebration in glorified bodies. And so that is also what “Christ is risen” means. It means that your body, the actual physical body that is inseparable from who you are, the body that God carefully fashioned and created—individually, uniquely, for you—that body is not to be despised or belittled or abused or mutilated. For it is both a gift, and a promise.
Your body is a gift because, even though it is truly yours, you had nothing to do with its shape, its size, its characteristics, its genetics, its background. All that you are, in your body, is a gift from God. So don’t denigrate it, and don’t try to make it something it is not, or something it was not given by God to be. Instead, receive, accept, and rejoice in this gift—and all the gifts—that God graciously gives.
More than that, remember that Our Lord decidedly and unequivocally has determined to knit our flesh to His divine nature. Without an constraint or necessity, He has become one of us. So that He might cleanse and scrub us clean from our brokenness, our ungodly passions, our perverse pleasures—everything that contributes to the death of body and that threatens our life in God. This is why Christ came in our flesh, why He was tempted, why He suffered, and why He died—to purge our bodies of their rottenness, to convert our suffering into a means for renovation, to make our death the way to fullness of life, and to restore in us His image.
Our Lord does this by taking our flesh into the grave, by burying the body He so lovingly made. Not to destroy it. Not to replace it. Not because it’s merely a shell. Heaven forbid!
For how can we think of being human without a body? How can you be you without being all that God made of you? And how can you truly be in God’s image if His image is merely a mirage or metaphor?
Because Christ Himself so honors your body by becoming flesh, because Christ Himself loves you in your body—with all its warts and charms, with all its disorderliness and promise—because Christ loves you with your body, and in your body—that is why Our Lord Jesus determined to sacrificed Himself on the cross and then rise from the dead.
He entered the grave with a body which suffered, and arose with a body incapable of suffering. He entered mortal, and arose immortal. He was buried in a body very much like yours, and came out with a glorious body. Not a complete different body, but the same body transformed.
So the same Jesus, in His flesh, who went into the tomb, is the same Jesus, in that exact same flesh, who rose from the dead.
And Our Lord retained His body in order to glorify your body. He retained His body not to annihilate, but to transform your body.
That is the great and wonderful promise that lies behind the words, “Christ is risen!” For, as I said before, the words “Christ is risen” are so much more than a joyful Easter greeting. Those words hold the promise of our resurrection.
But not simply our resurrection on the last day. Even more so, our resurrection now, today, here. For we kneel before altar trembling, blemished, perhaps even disfigured inside or out. Yet we arise glorified, renovated, refreshed, filled with hope. And why? Because we have received, not a reminder, not a figure, not a picture, but the actual flesh and blood of Our Resurrected Lord.
And with His glorified Body and Blood coursing through our veins, we now have the hope, the promise, and the truth of His resurrection in our bodies—not just for the future, but also for today.
Let us, therefore, rejoice with exceeding joy. For the resurrection of Jesus means that our bodies—the most unique and significant part of who we are, the very image of God Himself—all that makes you who you are is raised from the decay of sin, from the fear of hardship, from the distress of suffering, from the corruption of our passions, from the deterioration of your body. All of that is raised in Christ’s resurrection, so that we can stand unsullied, cleansed, purged, and restored before our heavenly Father; who, with His Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, throughout all ages or ages.
Holy Week in the Western Tradition: A Brief Synopsis
Holy Week consists of two parts: the first four days, beginning with Palm Sunday; and the Triduum Sacrum (“holy three days”), which celebrate with particular solemnity Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
During the first half, the words of St Thomas should fill our hearts and minds: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” (Jn 11.16) Through the liturgical rites, we follow Our Lord and, in heart and mind, follow Him by participating in His sufferings and death. Yet our focus is not to pity Our Lord, nor effect a somber mood. Rather, we participate by being immersed in His self-sacrifice, understanding that we must also put to death the deeds of the flesh, so that we might rejoice fully and full-throatedly as we are raised and glorified in Him.
During the second half of Holy Week, the Eucharistic liturgy, together with the Divine Offices (most especially the three Tenebrae services), draw us into more profound participation while, at the same time, inculcating in us the depth of joy that is located in Our Lord’s Passion. During these days, the words “Behold how He love[s] [them]” (Jn 11.36) should capture our meditations.
Briefly, these days may be summarized as follows.
Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week, when we remember Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Immediately after Lauds, the blessing and distribution of the palms take place. Each person receives a palm, and the clergy lead the faithful in procession around the Church, while joyful chants are sung culminating in the hymn “All Glory, Laud and Honor.”
When the worshippers return, the Mass commences. During the Mass, the faithful hear the First of the Passion Narratives, from the Gospel according to St. Matthew. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord as the fulfillment of the promised King Messiah. “Christ our King, intercede for us!”
At the Mass, we will hear of Our Lord’s preparation for burial by Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. While she anoints Him with fragrant oil, we also are reminded of Judas’ betrayal and, more sadly, his impending impenitence. May the Lord’s Spirit soften our hearts to be more like Mary!
During the Mass, the Second of the Passion Narratives, from the Gospel according to St. Mark, is read. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord as the Suffering Servant, who willingly and freely bears the weakness, brokenness, and sin of all humanity. “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold Him who takes away the sin of the world!”
During the Mass, the Third of the Passion Narratives, from the Gospel according to St. Luke, is read. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord as the merciful Physician who readily sacrifices Himself to heal our souls. Nowhere is this more poignantly presented than in the exchange between Christ and Dismas (the “good” thief on the cross). Lord, grant us this same mercy!
Following Vespers, the first of three Tenebrae services is prayed. Tenebrae is a service of prayer conducted in near-darkness. This service includes a candle ceremony, where candles are extinguished at the end of each psalm and the Benedictus. The central feature of this service is the mystical application of the Lamentations of Jeremiah to our participation in Our Lord’s Passion, and a glorious explanation of Psalm 54 (55) by St Augustine.
The Institution of the Mystical Supper is the focus for the Holy Thursday Mass. The Gloria in Excelsis is restored with joyful bells, and the Readings recall the events when Our Lord gathered with His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion. We hear that Our Lord loves us to the end, and calls us to love one another in the same way. In an interesting juxtaposition from Holy Monday’s Gospel, we see Our Lord washing the feet which will carry the Gospel throughout the world. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the Gospel of peace!” (In imitation of Our Lord sending His apostles, in both Eastern and Western Rite cathedrals the Bishop, as the icon of Christ surrounded by his disciples, enacts the mandatum by washing the feet of thirteen males.)
After all have received Holy Communion, the Blessed Sacrament is processed to the Altar of Repose where it remains for adoration until the Pre-sanctified Liturgy on Good Friday.
After Mass, toward the end of Vespers, the Altar is stripped while Our Lord’s prayer on the cross (Psalm 21 ) is solemnly chanted. Following Vespers, the second Tenebrae service is prayed. Once again, the Lamentations of Jeremiah are mystically applied to our participation in Our Lord’s Passion, and St Augustine instructs us on Psalm 63 (64).
Our Lord’s Death on the Cross is commemorated with the Solemn Liturgy for Good Friday. The service is moving in its starkness and consists of four parts: hearing the Lord’s Word, the Solemn Prayers for all persons, the Veneration of the Holy Cross with its “reproaches” (improperia), and the reception of Holy Communion from the Pre-Sanctified. During the first part, the faithful hear the fourth Passion Narrative from the Gospel according to St. John. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord ascending His throne in glory as the triumphant King, as the sign declares.
Following the Liturgy, the third Tenebrae service is prayed. The ceremony is nearly identical to the previous two Tenebrae services. After completing the Lamentations of Jeremiah, St Augustine reminds us of the significance of Our Lord’s two natures as they relate to His Passion.
The Western rite knows two celebrations of Our Lord’s Resurrection. The first and most ancient is the Great Vigil which, in the first seven centuries, was kept throughout the night and climaxed with the celebration of Holy Communion at dawn on Easter Day. In the past 13 centuries, the Great Vigil has been assigned, in both Eastern and Western churches, to Holy Saturday afternoon or morning. (In recent decades, not a few Western churches have begun celebrating the Paschal Vigil later in the afternoon or evening, while also retaining the Easter Sunday Mass.)
During the Paschal Vigil, worshippers gather quietly in the entrance for the blessing of fire. Then the Deacon leads the faithful into the Nave. While the worshippers are taking their places, the ancient Easter hymn of praise (Praeconium) is sung and the candles of the faithful and throughout the church are lit. Following this candlelight ceremony, Old Testament prophecies are read. This Service of Readings is followed by the blessing of the Baptismal font. The Litany of the Saints leads the faithful to a joy-filled celebration of Holy Mass. The service concludes with an abbreviated form of Vespers.
The Resurrexi Mass (“Mass of the Resurrection”) is the chief celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection. It commences with the blessing of the faithful with the holy water that was blessed at the Great Vigil. Then the Mass proceeds, with the Gloria in Excelsis sung once more with great joy! While the usual order of the Divine Liturgy is maintained, it is augmented with the acclamation of “alleluia” numerous times, and with the beautiful Easter sequence (Victimae paschali laudes) as well as many familiar Easter Scripture readings and hymns. In addition, flowers once more decorate our altars, and joy pervades our hearts and minds as we proclaim, “Christ is risen: He is risen indeed, alleluia!”