Lessons & Carols at St Michael’s

After a one-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the annual Lessons & Carols service returns on Saturday, December 18 at 6 p.m., at St Michael Orthodox Christian Church in Whittier.

Lessons and Carols is a special Vespers (evening) worship service consisting of nine Scripture readings and familiar Christmas carols sung by a choir and by the congregation.

The Lessons & Carols choir will be under the direction of Nathan Fratzke with Collin Boothby accompanying the choristers and congregation on the organ. Mr Fratzke and Mr Boothby are both DMA candidates at USC.

There is no charge for the service. However, donations are appreciated to help defray costs and to support the Interfaith Food Center in Whittier.

St Michael Orthodox Church is located at 3333 Workman Mill Road, Whittier CA 90601, at the junction of I-605 and CA 60 near Rose Hill Cemetery and Rio Hondo College.

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Preparing for Christmas: An Advent Retreat

On Saturday, December 11, St Michael Orthodox Church through its Society of St Benedict will host an Advent Retreat. This retreat has been held annually for nearly 30 years, including last year when it was modified due to the pandemic.

This year’s retreat, as in years past, will be in person. It begins at 9 a.m. and conclude at 3 p.m. The Mass (Divine Liturgy) and a few prayer hours based on the monastic schedule will be offered, together with time for silent reflection and opportunity for Private Confession.

The theme of the retreat is “Three Advents,” inspired by these words from a prominent Benedictine theologian and abbot: “[A] third advent lies between the other two. It is invisible while the other two are visible.” The three advents of our God—the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and in Glory—shall be the basis of the three brief meditations offered by the V Rev John W Fenton, OblSB. The purpose of the meditations is to encourage reflection, prayer, and contemplation.

The retreat is designed to aid one’s preparation for Christmas by giving an opportunity to detach from worldly concerns and, instead, to focus on Our Lord’s coming.

During the day, meals will be provided that conform to the Advent fast; however, child-care will not be available.

Please RSVP by completing this form, or email (stmichaelwhittier@gmail.com) or telephone (562.692.6121). A donation is welcome and appreciated to help cover costs and provide assistance to the Ladyminster monastery.

The retreat is hosted by the Society of St Benedict of St Michael’s Church and is open to persons from all faith traditions.

St Michael Orthodox Church is located at 3333 Workman Mill Road, Whittier CA 90601, at the junction of I-605 and CA 60 near Rose Hill Cemetery and Rio Hondo College.

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Waiting for the Savior

A homily for the First Sunday in Advent

Luke 21.25-33

We are waiting for the Savior. These words from St Paul to the Philippians perfectly fit the Advent mood the Church wishes to inculcate in us. So these are words we should do more than simply hear and then nod our heads. We are waiting for the Savior should be a motto to live by, a simple sentence that shapes every decision, every desire.

We are waiting for our Savior, Christ Jesus. So let us wait not down hearted, not in dread. And certainly not nonchalantly, unconcerned, with detachment, without forethought, and not as an agreeable thought that never affects our daily routine. But we get to wait with uplifted hearts, uplifted heads, with eager expectation, with joyful anticipation. And with the excitement, the confidence, the belief that our Lord is coming, and that his advent will usher us into a better world.

So, let us wait with hope, believing that our Lord’s arrival will bring us good things. That is what hope is: believing that good things await us in the life to come.

Our weakness, and so our challenge, is that we don’t really wait. At least not for the Lord. And not for his imminent return or arrival. Most days it’s the furthest thing from our mind, a barely noticed twinge in our hearts. And when the Lord’s advent comes into our minds, when someone or some event reminds us of this possibility, then as quickly as it enters, we push the thought out. Why? On the one hand, we’d rather not be reminded of our mortality, that our days are numbered and will end. On the other hand, we don’t want to face the truth that we’re living our life in the wrong direction – head down, focused by the things that break, fade, mold; and diverted from the things that truly matter most.

And so, we impatiently seek happiness in the affairs of this present life. Instead of looking up, setting our eyes on Jesus, we make every effort to snatch the prizes this world offers: prizes that really do us no lasting good. We gladly receive the goods this life offers while rarely acknowledging and thanking the Giver. We do not truly look for the good and perfect gift that comes from the Father of lights, but instead we think we’ve stumbled upon the good life because of what our hands have worked for and our minds have done.

Blessed are the women and men who take no notice of the spurious and empty foolishness that this world falsely promises. Blessed are those who are able to live beyond the things that distract, beyond the misspent desires, beyond the misdirected loves. These are blessed because they know it is better to become humble with the meek than to share in the vain promises of the proud, the greedy, and the powerful.

Those are truly blessed who say not just with their lips but deeply within themselves, “The Lord is my portion so I will wait for him. The Lord is good to everyone that trusts in him and longs for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good to sit quietly readying the soul to greet the Lord.”

The first step in waiting for the Lord is to deny yourself, to deny your flesh by fasting and prayer. There are other steps. But this first step of fasting coupled with prayer cannot be skipped or done halfheartedly if you truly wish to await the Lord’s advent. For this first step gives you the strength and courage to lift up your head above all the things in this life.

Lift up your head means, live not for the peace and contentment this world can never give. To lift up your head means to live for the best life, the life in God, where everything we have is a gift—not something we have to dwell on, or strive for. But all is a gift given to always directs our heart and mind and whole being in thanksgiving towards God.

We are waiting, St Paul says, because our citizenship is not here but in heaven. We are waiting because we believe that this life is a prelude that trains and sets our way for the life to come. And so, we wait with the confidence that our abiding place is in heaven, from where our Savior will come in order to bring us into himself. And then we will be able to say with Isaiah: “Behold, this is our God; We have waited for Him, and He will save us. This is the Lord; We have waited for Him; We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”

That was the hope of the Old Testament church. They waited with joy and gladness for the salvation that the Christ child would come to bring. Certainly they wavered, oftentimes they got lost. But when they leaned into the Lord’s promises, they were eager for his advent. His first advent. In the manger. In our flesh. On our earth.

His second advent will not be all that different. In our flesh, on our earth, our Lord will come to let us see and understand fully and without hesitation what he has already accomplished in his first advent. He will come not so much to complete, but to help us see what has always been. He will come to give the fullness of the gifts he has already given, a fullness that we have if only we believe. Rare saints have been blessed with seeing this Lord’s coming, saints like John the Evangelist when he saw what the Lord’s coming looks like, and described it in the book of the Revelation. The record of John’s vision is this: everything we think that matters here and now will fall away and be displaced with the unending glorious Mass where nothing can harm or threaten or frighten.

When will this day occur? When you and I, individually, have been given a time for true repentance. For that is what the Lord awaits. He waits, he delays—not to toy with us, not to build character within us, but so that we might be truly ready when he comes. Time for true repentance for many of us, for myself especially, takes a long time. For true repentance is not about feeling guilty or constantly apologizing. True repentance is living in gratitude for the Lord coming into this place, this church, where his kingdom comes, so that we together might receive his flesh and blood in order to give courage and faith to our weakened body and soul.

So, the day of the Lord’s second advent begins with the reception of his body – the body he assumed from us in his first advent, in the manger, in Bethlehem.

Waiting for Christ, then, begins here at the altar. Where we practice for heaven. Where we learn to lay aside all earthly cares—all tweets and buzzes and notifications and messages and ring tones—that force our head down. The more we can disengage, the more we will be living toward the end, and for the end—in the time of true repentance, with heads and hearts uplifted.

May Christ our true God, by his Holy Spirit, grant us time, and the godly desire to desire his advent. To whom, by the prayers of the saints, belongs all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

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Why Celebrate Mary?

Bernadine, an Italian priest and holy man, reminds us that Holy Church is entirely indebted to the Blessed Virgin Mary; because through her we have been judged worthy to receive Christ.

This means, first of all, that Mary is not a minor character in the story of Christ. In her womb, our Lord knits our human nature to His divine nature. From her, He receives all the tenderness that the best of humanity can lavish upon God. By her, He sees what we can truly be if we only give ourselves utterly and completely to the Lord’s will, trusting that He truly wants the best for us—even when Life is threatened, even when Life suffers, even when Life looks defeated, even when Life Himself dies. Mary still says, “Let it be to me according to thy Word”—confident that her Son and His Father have everything necessary in hand.

So, Mary is an integral part of Christ’s story—of Christ Himself. Without her, He has no humanity. And without her, we have nothing holy, nothing pure, nothing worthy to offer the Father as a token—a small but necessary token—of repairing the evil we endure and the evil we participate in.

Holy Church is entirely indebted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. We are in her debt, because when the Father chose her, among all women; when He blessed her to be His Son’s Mother; when He determined that, of the billions, she was the one—this Holy Mother did not resist, or lose heart, or go her own way, or waver. She said, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” And in living that, she taught Son to do the same.

Mary is vital to Christ’s life. And so vital to our life in Christ. Not just because she is His mother, but also as His human role model; and a model for us as well. And not just because she nursed Him, but also because she shaped His human character—and shapes our life in Christ.

Yet who shaped Mary? Certainly, her parents, Joachim and Anna. Their faith is legendary, and worth our attention. For like their ancestors before them—like Sarah and Rebecca, like Hannah and Rachel—the parents of the Virgin Mary trusted in God even when all looked lost.

So, Mary’s generation, her ancestors whom you heard recounted in the Gospel reading—these generations are also worthy of our admiration. Sometimes despite their sin and lack of faith. Sometimes because of their courage and faith when it was most needed. Abraham, David, Bathsheba, and Ruth—just to name a few—they are also judged worthy by God because of Mary’s holy and humble assent.

And with them, we are judged worthy. A people worthy of reclamation. A creation worthy of restoration. A society of men and women worthy of being incorporated in Christ. A humanity worthy of being divinized, able to sit with Christ Jesus in heavenly places.

Who knew, then, that when Adam gave that snarky reply; when the first man tried to blame both God and Eve in one sentence; when he refused to own up to his role as protector and tried to fob everything off on the so-called ‘weakness of women’—who knew that his words were prophetic. For what did Adam say? “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.

This statement intended for accusation, now in Mary points to our salvation. And her holiness. And our debt to her. For, blessed above all women, Mary is the woman whom God has given to be with us. She gives us the fruit of the Tree of Life. For blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus. And from her hand we get to taste and see that the Lord is good. From her and through her and with her, we partake of the same God who grew in her womb, and nursed at her breasts. From her we learn to carry Christ in our hearts by faith. And from her, to whom the Son of God Himself was subject and obedient—from her we learn true faith and obedience, and above all true humanity.

Since we owe her so much, it is fitting, then, that we celebrate the birthday of Our Lady, the Queen of heaven—the woman who delivers Joy to the whole world. And the best celebration is not merely to speak of her, but even more so to imitate her now by ascribing all glory, honor, and worship to her Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ: who is adored and glorified with His Father in the unity of the Holy Ghost: ever one God, world without end.

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Therefore We Are Gods

The mercy of God exceeds our religious imagination. For we conceive of religion as moral behavior, deeds of justice, setting right things that are wrong, and doing what should be done. And we think religion is about empathy and compassion for others, conquering our wrong-headed desires, treating others fairly, and not shoving aside the little guys. And we are certain that religion means loving the unlovable, helping the hurting, honoring the honorable, and imitating those who stand up for the right principles.

All of that is good. And all of that is found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and His other ethical teachings. There is nothing wrong with this view of religion—this understanding of the

Christian religion. Except that it does not go far enough. It does not take in the fullness of God’s mercy. It’s limited to forgiveness, kindness, and fair-mindedness—to deeds we wish God to do to us, and that we should do to others.

In God’s imagination, in the image that He has for us, the ethical teachings of Jesus are merely the tip of why He came into the world; why He deigned to become one of us. For Our Lord is ultimately not our role model. He becomes what we are so that we might become what He is. The Son of God wishes to make us sons of God.

And so the only-begotten Son of God took upon Him our nature and became human so that we humans might become gods.

To be sure, not the uncreated God through whom all things were made. For He cannot deny that He made us.

Rather, we are made to be gods so that we might sit with God in heavenly places. So that we might converse with God, banquet with God, judge with God, live as gods.

In this scheme, the angels are servants—ministers who minister to us for God. And everything else—the animals, plants, rocks, dirt, stars and moons, and all other created things—these are the ambiance in the dining room which is God’s heaven. And we sit there with God—eating the food He supplies us, enjoying each other’s company, reveling in speaking with God, marveling at the beauty with which He’s surrounded us.

But how do we get to be gods?

Certainly not by imitation. That’s both silly and unreasonable. For who can be something just by acting in the right way? When can doing fundamentally change being?

And we can’t be gods simply by willing it. For our wills are too weak. And even if they are strengthened by tests, we will never be able to match wits with God.

So how do we get to be gods?

We get to be gods by consuming God. By taking God into the innards of who we are: into our bodies, so that God’s divine nature meshes with ours; into our hearts, so that God’s love transforms our misdirected loves; and into our souls, so that we might have God’s mind, His will, and therefore desire precisely what He desires.

Us becoming gods begins not with us. And it’s not about God snapping His fingers, like some wizard or magician.

Us becoming gods begins with God taking a body from us—taking into Himself the fullness of our weakness and vulnerability, the fullness of our propensity to sin, the fullness of everything that limits us from being gods. In His Son, God becomes the worst and the incompleteness that we are and offers and sacrifices it wholly, totally, completely, entirely to His Father on the altar of the cross in order to transform it in His Body.

And when He has accomplished this mission, when “It is finished,” He then uses the blood that was the price, the blood that poured from His side—He uses that blood to cleanse and purify us so that we are ready and prepped to consume God. And then flesh that was laid, dead, in the tomb, and then raised and glorified when He walked from the tomb—that flesh He feeds into us.

That Body and Blood, which was capable of carrying and containing every human—that Body and Blood Our Lord Jesus, by His Spirit, then feeds into us in order to transform us, in order to make us more human than we thought we could be. But above all, He feeds us His flesh and blood so that we might become gods.

Gods we are, because we partake of God. Gods we are, because the Son of God as fed into our bodies our own bodies transfigured in His body. And gods we are, because the Spirit of God has used the flesh of God to transform our minds into the mind of Christ.

Now this is our salvation. Not just that we do right by God, but first that we receive Him who did right by God, who gives us the right to be called ‘children of God’ because God’s blood courses through our veins, God’s flesh is knit to our flesh, and God’s desires are working in our minds.

And so we are gods. Because God actually, truly lives in us—in the innards of who we are.

This is what Our Lord Jesus means by the word “Life.” To live is to be the gods God made us to be. And ‘those eat My flesh and drink My blood’ have My life in them—My Life which is God’s life, which now lets us be called, and be really, in truth and in love, sons of God, and therefore gods.

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The Fear in Pride

St Luke 18.9-14

Pride often masks fear. The fear that I won’t be seen. The fear that I won’t be loved. Loved for who I say I am. Loved for the good I present to you. So, pride masks the fear that I won’t be loved on my terms.

This kind of pride is an arrogance which quickly descends into hell because it degenerates into wrath and envy. And then feeds all the other passions: lust, greed, overindulgence, and despair. Pride is the mother of all of these ungodly desires; and it is toxic—both for the proud person and for those it influences.

You see this pride in the Pharisee. Not in every Pharisee, but certainly in the Pharisee Jesus draws. The Pharisee who goes into the temple to pray. For this Pharisee is not content to show God his goodness. The man needs to judge and tear down another in order to build himself up. And as he does this, the Pharisee shows that he truly envies the publican. For just as Cain intuited that his offering was no offering, so this Pharisee intuits that his prayer is no real prayer—so he has to brag rather than pray.

So blind is the Pharisee that he cannot see himself. So hateful that he loves only himself. So envious that he resents humility and despises repentance.

Repentance and humility are not about being beaten down. They’re not about refusing to look up or be glad. Eeyore is not the model of humility. For “humility is not thinking less of yourself; humility is thinking of yourself less.”

Repentance and humility begin with fear. But not the fear that’s afraid of getting lost, the fear that fears not being seen, the fear of being mistreated, the fear that fuels being offended.

Repentance and humility begin with the fear of being loved by God. Because we know we are undeserving of His kindness. It is not the fear of the weak and timid, but the trembling of those who are truly loved—who are attracted and drawn in and warmed by Love’s love.

This kind of fear is not afraid. Because this godly fear arises not from a bad conscience, which we want to hide. Rather, this godly fear arises from a true faith, which says that the Lord’s mercies are too wonderful; we cannot reach them; they can only be given.

The Lord’s mercy is too wonderful to understand, too bright to behold. And His mercy requires a deep-cleaning which is both painful and necessary. A deep-cleaning that I must do by saying aloud the truth about myself.

Now confessing my truth requires that I admit that my truth is not the truth. Confessing my truth requires that I not excuse or explain away or dismiss with “becauses” and “reasons” for why I have done what I’ve done. Confessing my truth requires that I own the sins the Lord identifies—not the ones I think don’t apply anymore because I’m convinced they are from another time, or don’t fit my science. Confessing my truth requires that I admit not that I’ve been human, but that I’ve become less human by giving into the things—the words and the deeds—that everyone else says are okay.

Ultimately, confessing who I am is both laying myself bare, and then asking for the courage to amend. Not just do better, but change. From the inside. To transform what I prefer, how I think, what I’m sure I know. And to discard my chosen identity for the identity the Lord supplies. For the Lord speaks His love to me, not so that I love me better but so that His love radiates through me. And the Lord wants to feed me with His Body and Blood, not so that I can digest Him but so that He consumes me.

In that word of absolution spoken by the priest individually to me, to you; in that food placed into my mouth and yours at this holy altar—there “we gain the strength we need to approach Our Lord and enjoy Him. We do not find it, however, until we embrace the mediator between God and men—the man Christ Jesus. He calls and says, ‘I am your Way, your Truth, your Life.’ And He offers the food which we lack the strength to eat; the food which He mingled with our flesh” so that we might then have courage and the drive to lay bare who we truly are, knowing that He had already laid Himself out for us.

The publican wanted this. Courage brought him into the temple to pray. Courage that was rooted in the hope, the promise, the truth that “there is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love?”

So, the publican goes into the temple to pray. Because he was not afraid, even as he stood trembling in fear. The fear that he knew himself too well. The fear that he might not live up to his promises. And the fear that the Lord’s kindness was too wonderful, nearly incredible, approaching impossible.

Yet the publican prayed. Unafraid of the Pharisee’s judgment. Unafraid of what others would say. Unafraid of the priest hearing his confession. Unafraid, because the Lord’s mercy blinded him to everything he saw, and drowned out what others said, and calmed every anxiety he felt.

And this is true humility. Humbling yourself before the Lord God, casting every care and every fear and every bit of yourself on Him. Locating your burdens in the burden of His cross. And then seeing your true self in His mercy, in His absolution, in His statement that says, “You are mine. I have called you by your name. You are my beloved One. I am well pleased.”

The publican goes home justified, not because he had the right attitude but because he refused to let pride mask his fear—a pride that would have kept him away from confession. Instead, he feared the Lord but was not afraid. And so, he got what his heart desired: God, being merciful to him, the sinner.

May God, through His Son in the Holy Spirit, be merciful to us and bless us. To whom belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.

Acknowledgements: CS Lewis; St Augustine; Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Now A Woman Ascends

Enoch. Perhaps Moses. Definitely Elijah.

These men anticipate the ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ. They precede Him by letting us think that it is possible for visible, material, created humans to sit in the realm of God’s invisible, immaterial, uncreated kingdom. These prophets point to our salvation. That it is more than forgiveness, more than hope after the grave. Our salvation is an unending and joyous relationship with our Lord God, in His home, where angels truly serve us, and the saints and blessed dead return to us, and we to them.

Certainly, Jesus’ ascension is the climax foreshadowed by these prophets. Certainly, Our Lord’s bodily assumption into heaven is the ultimate destination which these men were uniquely blessed to anticipate—just as they were uniquely blessed to walk and talk with our Father and radiate His divine light.

Only by anticipation, only with a hope of things to come, only by pointing forward, only in what faith trusted would be—could these men ascend.

Yet now a woman ascends. She does not prefigure, but fully realizes. She does not anticipate the Lord’s ascension, but participates in every note, every aspect, every detail—in the fullness of what He has already accomplished for the salvation of all. So, this woman ascends not to point forward in hope. In her ascension she declares what has already been; and what is true and firmly established.

It is most fitting that a woman—and this particular woman—is the first to ascend after Christ. For Mary offered herself fully to God, and submitted her hopes and dreams to His will. Her identity was no longer her own but forever tied to her Son. For His sake, to give Him her flesh, Mary refused the fruit of pleasure and knowing, and instead desired nothing but the fruit from the Tree of Life who took His flesh from her flesh. This godly, immaculate, holy and pure woman contained in her womb Him whom the world cannot contain. And so it is most fitting that she first tastes the fully ripened fruit of His saving work; and that she is the first to join Him in His throne room.

When Mary ascended, the angels rejoiced. And they glorified and praised and adored Christ her Son. For she shows them that Christ expended His energy and worked His healing not for Himself, but for all humanity—which is now typified by His Holy Mother. For I must repeat myself: our salvation is more than forgiveness, more than hope after the grave. Our salvation is an unending and joyous relationship with our Lord God, in His home. To show us that this is true and real and authentic and possible, Mary is taken up into heaven.

Our queen has gone up before us. She has gone before and has been caught up in glory, so that we may follow her as children follow their mother. Borrowing words from King Solomon, we cry out, “‘Draw us after you, let us make haste’ and follow in your wake as we yearn for what you have, and Him whom you deliver to us.” This holy Mother is even now pleading our cause to her Son. That’s why she ascends! She now stands before Him, praying that her Son be who He truly is—and that we begin to see and believe that He is the mercy, the compassion, and the grace of God in human flesh. So, she transacts the business of our salvation since we are not nearly holy or righteous as she is.

Mary enters the realms of heaven—like those ancient men. She enters to show that earth can now be joined to heaven; that the lowest person can sit with God; that her prayer to be exalted by humility has been answered. For the woman despised by her own kin, nearly disowned by her own spouse, almost closeted by so many Christians—she is now exalted and literally lifted up to be what she always was: the best of all humanity.

Consider this: Mary is the best offering humanity can give to the Lord God. She is the only creature that our God found worthy to join Himself to. She is the first from whom God takes the matter, which lets God inhabit our bodies. And now, this holy and perfect woman gains greater dignity, and the highest rank, because she suppressed her desires and gave herself wholly to God.

As we have heard, only one thing is needful when Christ enters the world; when He enters to be with us; when He enters into our flesh; when He enters the stillness of our heart. Only one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

What is that one thing? To quit what we find so necessary, to lay aside every earthly care, to stop being anxious and stressed about so many things—and, instead, to locate our life, our identity, our desires, our being in Christ, who sits now beside us, who even now wishes us simply to hear and retain and take to heart what He gives.

The blessed Virgin Mary chose that good part. And not only is it not taken away from her; it is enlarged and increased. And, in return, she is magnified and venerated and admired and revered.

That’s not what she sought. That’s not why she said, “Let it be to me according to thy word.” But her humility is honored and rewarded in a most splendid manner: by the Son calling His Mother to Himself in the same trail that He blazed—resurrected after three days, and then ascended with a chorus of angels.

Mary’s humility summons us to cast all our cares upon Christ, because he cares for us. Mary’s humility urges us to imitate her by zeroing in only on the one thing needful.

The Holy Mother rooted herself in what her Son gave, in the inheritance of faith and love that He provides. And now she abides the full assembly of the Saints.

May this woman, who is blessed above all men; this woman, who has gave her all for mankind; this woman, who is now honored above all angels and men—may she continue to intercede for us to her Son so that we might, even now, live in her humility in order to attain the heights to which she draws us; even to her Son Jesus Christ, who with His Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, is glorified in all the Saints.

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Raising Our Human Nature

An Ascension Day Homily

It sounds like the angels are rebuking the disciples. As if they’re saying, “Stop staring. He’ll return. Stop standing there with your mouth open. This is not the end. And stop gazing. Don’t you see what’s really happening?”

In truth, great and unspeakable joy filled the disciples when they saw Jesus ascend. They had spent forty days with Him in His resurrected body. They had learned much. And so they knew that, when He ascended, Our Lord was taking human nature—our human nature adhered to His—raising it above the dignity of all celestial beings, beyond the heights of Archangels, without any limit of ascent until He reached the right hand of the Father.

There, our human nature sits in heavenly places. And there it shares in the Father’s glory; there, where God and humanity are united in Christ Jesus.

So the disciples were not afflicted with sadness. They were speechless in wonder and awe, amazed for joy, filled with great joy as they saw what Our Lord did for them in His ascension.

You see, our Blessed Lord Jesus does not ascend for His sake—so that He can finally escape this miserable existence; or to show His triumph.

Our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ ascends into heaven so that what is His can be yours. He ascends so that what He lived and overcame and won in His body, can be planted and resident and lived out in your body. Christ ascends so that the fullness of His deity can live in the fullness of your humanity. Christ Jesus ascends so that your corrupted and dying human nature, can be fully transformed and transfigured by His divinized human nature. And Jesus ascends so that He can truly live His Life in you and through you; and so that you might live to the Father in Him.

Our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ ascends into heaven so that what is His can be yours

Christ living in you and you in Him—that’s hard for us to believe because it doesn’t fit our lived experience. When we were baptized into Christ, when we receive His body and blood into our flesh and blood, when we hear and celebrate Our Lord’s ascension—we don’t feel differently or act differently. Nothing seems to have changed—in us, in our life, in our world.

But Our Lord’s ascension is not about your experience or how you see or what things look like. How self-centered! Our Lord’s ascension requires faith in Him—that He has paid the debt of Adam; that He has destroyed death by His death; and that He has already, in His body, raised our human nature to the Father’s right hand so that we can fully, perfectly, and completely share in His divine nature.

And it takes faith to believe the Lord’s enduring promise—a promise tied only to the Truth that He is: that He persistently draws and entices us more and more fully into Himself so that we might know and participate in the communal relationship between God and humanity in Christ.

This promise has not degraded or eroded. It has remained as firm and sure as it was when Our Lord first spoke it.

St. Paul says: When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.” And what is the chief among the gifts He gave? The Promise of the Father. That Promise is the Holy Spirit. And that Promise was kept not just on the day of Pentecost, but at every Mass, and in every Sacrament.

Every time the Gospel is proclaimed, every time the Eucharist is offered and served, every time our bodies are anointed, every time life in God is depicted in Holy Matrimony, every time the Absolution is spoken individually, privately, deliberately, decidedly into your ears: there is the Holy Spirit bringing to your remembrance and planting deeply within your heart and soul the Life Our Lord is and gives. And that is the Promise and Comfort of the Father—not that you are calm and settled simply for a moment, not that you immediately feel better, but that He renews your life and hope in God.

Everything else is going from bad to worse. Heresies seem more numerous and more inventive now than ever before. Behavior and morality seems more degenerate and degrading now than ever before. Faith in God seems more detached and impersonal than ever before. And the reality of the Church seems more unreal and invisible now than ever before.

Yet Our Lord’s Promise—that Holy Spirit by which He gives His saving gifts—that remains sure and true. And regardless of how things look or feel, the Spirit offers the Father’s sturdy and unflinching love to us in Christ Jesus.

Whether we stand with the faithful to receive Christ’s gifts; whether we will listen and believe; whether set aside our earthly cares and self-serving desires—that’s on us. But the Spirit of God does not back away.

We might remain stubborn, wanting to live for our pleasures. And we might insist that God come to us on our terms. And we might even try to mold Jesus’ words to fit our twisted ideas. But the Spirit will not abandon us, nor withdraw God’s mercy from us.

He remains the true and faithful Promise of the Father that Our Lord gives. He will urge us to live like this matters, but He will not force us to love Him. He will offer to transform our ungodly energy, but He will not make us receive the Lord’s gracious gifts.

To breathe our poisoned air—that is why Our Blessed Lord descended into our lower parts. And to resuscitate and renew and reinvigorate us by His perfect and Holy Breath—that is why Jesus ascends.

With Our Lord’s ascension, all things are made new again. With Our Lord’s ascension, even the lonely and single are grafted into a family—the family of the Church. With Our Lord’s ascension, even our bodies which cause us so much trouble can be transfigured as His was. And with Our Lord’s ascension, even our minds and souls which are liable to sin can be converted and renewed.

And so Our Lord Jesus ascends, not to leave us to work out our own life. Rather, Christ Our Lord ascends so that all that you might become all that He is. He ascends so that, by His Spirit, He may descend into each one of us—into our hopes and aspirations, into our cells and corpuscles, into our muscles and joints, into our skin and bones, into our flesh and blood. Christ Our Lord ascends all so that He might live and move and have His being in you. Christ Our Lord ascends all so that God might truly and really live and dwell in you.

And Our Lord Jesus ascends so that we might ascend, in our bodies, with Him and stand with Him in heavenly places; so that the entirety of our human nature, body and soul, might enter the kingdom of heaven; so that we might, in our bodies, actually stand, converse, and communion intimately with our Father.

To this Lord Jesus, who sent the Promise of the Father so that we might live in Him, belongs all glory, honor and worship.

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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

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!”


HOLY MONDAY

At the Mass, we will hear of Our Lord’s preparation for burial by the 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!


HOLY TUESDAY

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 bares the weakness, brokenness, and sin of all humanity. “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold Him who takes away the sin of the world!”


HOLY WEDNESDAY

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 the Psalm 54 (55) by St Augustine.


HOLY THURSDAY

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 [22]) 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).


GOOD FRIDAY

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.


PASCHAL VIGIL

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.


EASTER SUNDAY

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!”

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Making Use of Lent

However hard this past year has been, it has been necessary for our health and the health of others. We have sacrificed much: our movements, our usual interactions, our normal routine, and sometimes even those healthy release valves (groups, therapists, gyms, etc.). As a parish, we’ve done all we can to adapt, and you are to be commended for your patience, understanding and care. Additionally, I’ve seen several instances of individual best practices and person-to-person compassion—all of which is laudatory.

If we’re honest—myself included—some­times our worst self has bled through: by giving into fears or anxieties, by being less civil and well-mannered, by thinking the worst of others or leaders, and by letting our convenience overtake concern for others.

When we see these latter thoughts and behaviors arise in us, we should (again, in honest self-reflection) ask how well we’ve maintained our spiritual health. For example, have we spent more time complaining than praying; more time searching for stories that confirm our conclusions than searching the Scriptures; more time distrusting others than building up our faith in God; and more time sinking into ourselves than strengthening our relationship with Our Father.

For myself, it has been easier not to ‘redeem the time.’ Perhaps for you, like for me, it has been easy not to be more diligent and earnest in prayer; or not to using extra time to read the Scriptures or other spiritual treasures. Instead, it’s been too easy to set aside prayers entirely or pray only minimally, because it’s hard to focus or because something else seems more interesting.

Lent is the time when our prayers can transform how we speak; when our fasting can increase hunger for Our Lord; when our meditation on His sacrifice and mercy can grow a desire to be merciful to others.

When this happens (even apart from pandemics), we develop spiritually unhealthy habits: griping and judging, fearfulness and despondency, apathy and indifference, meanness and pride, overindulgence and licentiousness. I don’t wish to suggest that these unhealthy habits are primary, or that they overrule the well-doing that I’ve seen. However, times of stress certainly requires us to be more on guard, and helps us focus on behaviors we might have missed or dismissed as unusual.

Lent is the time to work on developing healthy habits. It is time when our prayers can transform how we speak; when our fasting can increase hunger for Our Lord; when our meditation on His sacrifice and mercy can grow a desire to be merciful to others.

In brief, Lent gives us the opportunity to ‘redeem the time’ (Eph 5.16) by encouraging us to draw closer to Our Lord, and to focus on what matters most. In this way, Lent is a great gift—as perhaps this pandemic has been or can still be.

There is no greater time to make use of this gift of Lent than now, as we begin to see the relaxation of some of the previous restrictions. Immediately, our thoughts will turn to getting back to “normal.” But is the old normal something we really want? Wouldn’t it be better to use this Lent (and the lessons from the pandemic) to establish a spiritual ‘new normal’?

Lent generally—and this Lent in particular—gives us time to stretch our spiritual muscles; to cultivate the garden of our souls; and to strengthen our hope. It gives us time to pick up our prayers, and to establish spiritual best practices, to set in place a routine that strengthens our spiritual well-being.

In brief, if we let it, this Lent can help us do what St Paul urges: ‘redeem the time.’

To do that, we need more than resolutions and promises. We need to look carefully at the gifts Our Lord has given us—even in these hard days. We need to take to heart the gift of His Body—both in the Sacrament and in the Church; His Body gathered as well as His Body sacrificed and distributed.

There we will see, I’m convinced, the hope that has truly sustained us, the life that has truly nourished us, even when we devalued it or cast is aside. For the Lord’s Body contains within itself all sweetness, all goodness, and all generosity. That we have made it through these days, then, means that He has seen us through. That our worst fears have not occurred means that Christ, in His Body, has protected and guarded us. And that we will be able to embrace each other means that His embrace has not failed us.

So let’s neither look back with regret for how we should have used the time better; nor forward in a fantasy of what one day we might do. Let’s instead live for now, focused on Our Lord’s presence in the present. And in doing so, let’s return with hearts full of gratitude, and with the desire to be as diligent about our spiritual health as we’ve been about keeping physically safe.

May God be gracious and merciful to us all.

-Fr John

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