Monthly Archives: November 2011

Blessed Among Women

[Continuing Advent reflections with an excerpt from my book, A Place Prepared by God.]

…This visitation of Mary to Elizabeth is extraordinary, and so has been immortalized in the pages of the word of God.  The first extraordinary thing we encounter is the voice of Mary.  Now the voice of a teenage girl is not something that one would expect to merit mention in the Holy Scriptures.  Carrying the Son of God within her, however, Mary could mediate the grace of the Holy Spirit simply with the sound of her voice.  When Elizabeth heard the voice of Mary, “the babe leapt in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41, 44).

Let us not pass this by without reflection: Mary simply greeted Elizabeth, and the result was that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, as was the child in her womb (see Lk. 1:15).  This was just the beginning of twenty centuries (and counting) of wonders associated with Our Lady that proceed from the fact that the Incarnation of God happened within her.  As a result of Mary “greeting” me in the experience I recounted [in the beginning of the book], though I didn’t hear the sound of her voice, but only received her message, the grace of God rushed into me and dramatically changed my interior life.  She could have said no more than “Hello, Joseph” and I would have fallen into ecstasy, simply because at Mary’s voice the grace of the Holy Spirit is given.

Two things happened at the sound of Mary’s Spirit-filled voice, the first of which is little John leaping in the womb of his aged mother, who interpreted it as a leap of joy. The saints have always additionally interpreted it as his sanctification through his spontaneous response to the presence of Christ in the womb of Mary…

The second thing that happened at the sound of Mary’s voice was the filling of Elizabeth herself with the Holy Spirit.  Before we reflect at some length on the result of that little Pentecost of Elizabeth, there’s something else we ought to realize, since, as I said earlier, we do not explore these mysteries for mere historical value or academic interest.  Since this event is part of the word of God, it is living and active; it has enduring meaning for our own time as well as practical application to our own lives.  So if Elizabeth received joy and the grace of the Holy Spirit at the sound of Mary’s voice, we should realize that this is much more than a historical narrative.  For example, if Jesus healed people and cast out demons when He walked the earth, we have to be aware that what the Gospels offer is not a mere account of what happened then.  It is a testimony to who Jesus is, and hence his power to heal and to cast out demons continues to the end of time, for He is the Lord.  Similarly, Our Lady’s “voice” (that is, her presence, though in extraordinary circumstances chosen souls do hear her actual voice) continues to bring the grace of the Holy Spirit and joy to those to whom it is granted that she come to them, for she is the Mother of the Lord.

The first thing that Elizabeth said to Mary, once she was filled with the Holy Spirit, was: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Henceforth no one can have any valid reason for not praying the Hail Mary.  The first line—“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you”—came directly from Heaven, through the mouth of an archangel.  The next one—“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”—came directly from the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of a righteous woman He had just filled with Himself.  As for the rest of the prayer, the fact that Mary is holy is obvious from God’s choice of her for her mission, and we’ll see in greater detail in later chapters what it means that she is the Mother of God and prays for us sinners.  If angels and the Holy Spirit Himself can address her as they have, we have the highest of precedents for lovingly doing so ourselves.

Even if St. Luke hadn’t told us that Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit when she blessed Mary and the Fruit of her womb, we would have been compelled to come to the same conclusion ourselves.  How else would Elizabeth have known the extraordinary blessing Mary had just received?  How would she even have known that Mary was pregnant?  Obviously the communication wasn’t very swift in those days.  Mary didn’t hear the astonishing news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy until six months after the fact, and that news didn’t even come from Elizabeth, but from the angel.  So Elizabeth couldn’t have known what had happened to Mary in the past few days except by divine revelation.

The revelation is even more extraordinary than the awareness of Mary’s pregnancy. Elizabeth called Mary “the mother of my Lord”!  Mary herself was probably still coming to terms with the incredible significance of just Who it was that was now living in her womb, and when she goes to visit her cousin she is greeted with: “You are the mother of my Lord!”  Elizabeth’s humility is also evident, since she speaks to someone much younger than herself with such respect and deference.  “Why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  Behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leapt for joy.”  The very presence of Mary is a gift from God that brings joy and grace, of which Mary’s elder considers herself unworthy.

Blessings continued to flow from the mouth of Elizabeth, who was actually communicating the message of the Spirit to Mary: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”  Blessed is she who believed.  This opens a window onto a fundamental element of the Gospel.  Elizabeth didn’t stop blessing Mary after she had first said, in effect, blessed are you who have this incredible bodily union with God Himself and who are thus wholly transfigured in the core of your being like no one else in the universe.  The evangelist included the blessing concerning faith because the rest of us can’t have the same sort of bodily connection with God that Mary did, but we can share her faith, and this is what all Christians are called to do…

Thanks-Giving

[This is an excerpt from a Thanksgiving Day homily I gave five years ago, emphasizing Eucharistic thanksgiving, but not neglecting the other reasons for the holiday.]

Usually on Thanksgiving Day I make some remarks about the choice of readings for the Divine Liturgy, since they are, well, remarkable (1Tim. 6:6-11,17-19 and Luke 12:13-15,22-31). They are remarkable inasmuch as they are counter-cultural, and may even be seen by some as throwing a wet blanket on the usual self-indulgent festivities. While everyone is overeating and overdrinking, Jesus says: “beware of greed, for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” and “do not be anxious about what you shall eat… instead, seek the Kingdom of God…” And St Paul warns the wealthy (and those who want to be wealthy) that they are setting themselves up for ruin and destruction, and not to set their hopes on uncertain riches, but to be content with God’s providence.

Thanksgiving does mean gratitude for what the Lord has granted us, materially and spiritually, but it does not imply luxuriating in comfort and abundance. Rather, it implies a response that shows that we care as much about others as God cares about us. “Thanks-giving”: first we thank, then we give, so that others may be able to thank.

God has ways of rewarding those who are generous with what they have received from Him. I remember making a fairly large donation to the poor at one time, and wondering if I was perhaps giving away too much, due to our own financial situation. Well, that same day a woman walked in, and without a word of explanation handed me the exact amount I had just given away. So I knew that I had done the right thing (it was the right thing anyway, but that kind of confirmation is always welcome!). And that is not the only time such things have happened. God not only loves a cheerful giver, He rewards a generous giver.

While we are celebrating Thanksgiving, let us not limit our reflections or actions to the sphere of material things. We should all make the effort to be present on Thanksgiving Day at the ultimate act of thanksgiving, the Holy Eucharist which, I’m sure you’ve heard many times, means “thanksgiving.” We often give thanks in our liturgical prayers. In the priest’s prayer before the “Holy, holy, holy,” we give thanks several times: “It is proper and just to sing hymns to You, to bless You, to praise You, to thank You, to worship You…” After a short summary of what God has done for us, we continue: “For all this we give thanks to You… for all that we know and do not know, the manifest and hidden benefits bestowed upon us. We thank you also for this Sacrifice, which You have willed to accept from our hands…”

We thank God the Father for the sacrifice of his only-begotten Son, by which we are sanctified and saved, and that this sacrifice is made present to us, in its fullness of grace and love and spiritual fruitfulness, every time we approach the holy altar to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. This is a gift for which mere thanks are not enough. So we fall down in worship before the Lord, and we recognize in gratitude our responsibility to live what we receive, to be other Christs in the world, to live his Gospel and to allow the grace of the Holy Eucharist to refashion us in the likeness of God which we had lost through sin, and which is daily obscured by our perseverance therein. God has a continual remedy for our continual failures, but we should not take his grace for granted, lest we share the fate of that lazy servant who “begins to…eat and drink and get drunk,” thinking his Master is a long way off, and that his accountability can be postponed. But the Master suddenly shows up and catches him in the act of his unfaithfulness and punishes him severely.

So let us be faithful stewards of the gifts of God, whether they be food, clothing, and shelter, love and friendship, protection from visible and invisible enemies, the gifts of grace in the sacraments and scriptures and in prayer, and the hope of eternal life. Let us receive all in a spirit of humility and gratitude, and with a responsible resolve to be good to others as God has been good to us. And remember, as we pray in every Liturgy, that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming from the Father” (James 1:17), so in seeking first his Kingdom we receive everything we need, in this age and in the age of glory to come.

Let It Be Done

[This is an excerpt from an ancient (2003) homily I gave on the Annunciation to Mary.  The Advent fast starts very soon—November 15 in the Byzantine Tradition—so it’s not too early to start reflecting on these mysteries.]

…Now, when the angel came to Mary, it was something that kind of took her by surprise: she was not expecting an angel that day. When he came and said, “Rejoice, Full of Grace: the Lord is with you!  Blessed are you among women!” the Scripture says she was troubled by this greeting.  Now, why was she troubled by this greeting?  I mean, after all, she was the sinless one, the Immaculate Conception, the chosen one for this unique mission in salvation history.

The problem was, she didn’t really know it—and that’s where her humility comes in.  Because, if she knew it, if she was aware, fully, of all that it meant, she could say, “Yes, of course. I am the Immaculate Conception.” Centuries later she did say that, when she came as Heaven’s Queen to St. Bernadette, but she wasn’t prepared to say that when she was a fourteen-year-old girl, receiving this heavenly messenger.

I wonder sometimes, if she might have thought to herself, something like: “Why don’t I do all the bad things that all the other boys and girls in Nazareth do?”  But she probably didn’t even think like that, because she just lived a simple life and loved God with her whole heart. In those days they didn’t have to make their First Confession. Imagine if she had to do that!  If she was lining up with all these little kids, and they had to make their First Confession, and she’s thinking, “Oh no!  What do I say?  I don’t have any sins!  Like, I really don’t have any sins!”  She’s the only one who could say that.

Anyway, it was something that troubled her.  And that reminds me also of her humility: “Why am I the chosen one?  What does he mean, ‘Full of Grace,’ and that the Lord is with me?”

There’s a story from the desert fathers, where the devil tried to tempt one of the old monks with pride.  The devil appeared in the form of an angel, and said to him: “I am Gabriel, and I have been sent to you!”  The old abba said: “Forgive me, but you’d better check and make sure; you must have been sent to someone else. As for me, I am unworthy to receive an angel.”  Then the demon immediately disappeared—because the monk’s humility unmasked the devil’s attempt to incite him to pride.

Our Lady, too, was humble enough not to think, “Well, at last!  The angel has finally come: Where have you been?”  No; she was troubled by his greeting.  So he tried to allay her fears, giving her some really astonishing news about what was going to happen to her, should she accept.  And so he began to talk about the Son, the Savior, who was going to be conceived in her womb.

He went on about all these great things, and she must have been not only very intelligent and perceptive, but also a very down-to-earth and practical person because, after this great litany of wonders that was about to happen, she said, “But how is that going to happen? Because I do not know man!”

This raises another question, too.  Some mystics have said—and it may be true; it’s at least a plausible explanation, and even though this was not common at the time, it was not unheard of—perhaps Mary had planned to live a celibate life with Joseph anyway. Because, you would think, if she was already engaged to Joseph, and the angel came and said, “You are going to bear a son,” she’d say, “Well, sure; I’ll probably have ten sons!  You know, I’m going to be married shortly; and I’ll have children; and so, this one’s going to be the Messiah—that’s wonderful!”

But when he said, “You’re going to bear a son,” she said, “How shall this be?”  So, it must have been that she was not thinking of having children as any other ordinary wife would have children. You get that sense from the way the dialogue goes.

Anyway, the angel simply explained to her what was going to happen:  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, this child is the Son of God”—and what that did to her, to hear that, who knows?  That’s an incredible thing to hear!  But again, because of her humility and her love for God, she didn’t try to figure it out.  She didn’t try to fathom what was going on; the whole thing must have seemed like a dream to her.  So she just said, “I’m the handmaid of the Lord. Whatever you say, whatever God says, that’s what I’ll do.”  And the angel said, ‘OK.  That’s all that I’m looking for.”  And so it happened.

And so this “Yes” of Our Lady is something that is really at the heart of Christianity—not only because we see the great result of it, that this “Let it be” brought our Savior into the world, but that this is the approach, the attitude, of the humble, God-loving person toward God: “whatever You say, I am your servant.”  She learned her lesson, and knew very well what to do, for we see, later at Cana, that she says to the servants: if you want to be servants of the Lord, “Do whatever He tells you.”

That counsel of hers, to do what she did—“Let it be as you say,” and to tell us, “Do whatever He tells you”—has been whispered by the lips of the Mother of God into countless hearts and souls down through the ages, as the way to salvation.  If you listen to the voice of the Mother of God, that’s what you’ll hear: do whatever He tells you. You are a servant of the Lord: let it happen in your life, according to His word. What happened with Mary’s surrender was unprecedented: the Holy Spirit, God, came upon her, and the power of the Most High, of the Father, overshadowed her, and she became pregnant with the Son of God.

There’s something, too, that happens in the Liturgy.  There’s a certain moment in the Liturgy when the priest, if he’s paying attention to what’s going on, realizes what he’s soon supposed to do, and he’s wondering with trepidation: “How can I change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ?  I’m only a man!”

But the deacon has the answer.  And he gives it in the same words as the archangel.  He says, at that moment: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”  That’s how it’s going to happen; that’s how the Son of God appears here. As He appeared in the womb of the Virgin Mary, He comes here, too, by the power of the same Spirit.  Then the priest, being relieved at that point that God is going to do the work, says a prayer, a blessing:  “May the same Spirit act together with us, all the days of our lives.”

This is what we want to enter into now: may this same Spirit—the Spirit that changes bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, the Spirit that “worked” the Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the same Spirit who assures us that with God nothing is impossible—may He work together with us, all the days of our lives.

So, let us give thanks to God, to Christ especially, for coming into our lowliness, and for not being ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters.  And let us give thanks to Our Lady for her humble, loving surrender on our behalf, for the sake of us all, saying “Yes; I don’t understand this, it’s too great for me, but since You’re God, and I’m your handmaid—let it be done!”  That’s how we have to look at it, and that’s the way that we follow her.

Finally, let us open our hearts to the Holy Spirit so that, as we pray in the Liturgy, the same Spirit will work together with us, will heal, enlighten, transform us, and be with us all the days of our lives.

Divine, Holy, Immortal, Life-giving…

In case there is anyone who comes to one of our Divine Liturgies and wonders if we truly believe that the Holy Eucharist is the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the priest intones this immediately after Holy Communion: “Having received the divine, holy, immaculate, immortal, heavenly, and life-giving, awesome Mysteries of Christ, arise, let us worthily thank the Lord!”  No one would be foolish enough to say that about mere bread and wine!

I’d like to look briefly at these adjectives that attempt to describe the Indescribable, in the hope of renewing your faith and devotion to Our Lord in this, his most precious Gift to us.  First of all, we say the Eucharist is divine.  That in itself should make it clear that what we are receiving is not some sort of symbolic memorial of the Last Supper, but is, as Jesus Himself said, his own flesh and blood.  The Holy Mysteries are divine not in the relative sense of being “of God” or somehow related to God (as, for example, our Eucharistic service is called the Divine Liturgy, or Our Lady is sometimes called the Divine Mother because she is the Mother of God), but in the absolute sense of being the very body and blood of a Divine Person, the Second Person of the All-Holy Trinity, incarnate from the Virgin Mary for our salvation.  Hence worship is due to the Holy Eucharist as to the Son of God Himself, for the Eucharist is the Son of God Himself—manifested and communicated in a sacramental form.

Since I’ve mentioned “holy” several times in reference to the Divine Eucharist, let me simply say that holiness is inseparable from divinity.  God cannot be divine without at the same time being holy—all-holy, the Source of all holiness.  So we call the Body and Blood of Christ the Holy Eucharist, or the Holy Mysteries, or Holy Communion. Holiness is of the very essence of God, and He communicates his own holiness to us—insofar as we have the capacity to receive it—through the Holy Eucharist.

The next adjective is “immaculate.”  This is again self-evident.  It literally means, “without spot,” so in reference to the Holy Eucharist it means utterly pure, perfect, flawless, without the slightest hint of anything that is beneath the transcendent dignity of God—which is fitting for that which is divine and holy!

“Immortal” again refers to something that belongs to God as one of his essential attributes.  Our souls are immortal, but only because God has shared his immortality with us.  Nothing can be immortal without the direct, creative intervention of God.  St Ignatius of Antioch, one of the earliest of the Apostolic Fathers to witness to the reality of the Eucharist and its celebration in the Early Church (he lived in the first century and died a few years into the second), called the Holy Eucharist the “Medicine of Immortality.” Jesus Himself said: “The bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world… This is the bread that came down from heaven… he who eats this bread will live forever” (Jn. 6:51, 58).

Speaking of Bread that came down from Heaven, the next adjective is “heavenly.”  If the Holy Eucharist is divine, it is certainly heavenly, for Heaven is where God dwells, and Heaven is whence the Son of Man came to this world, to offer his Body and Blood as a sacrifice for our sins, and to give it to us as food, that we might, as St Augustine said, eat and drink the price of our redemption.  We ought never to forget that our communion with Christ in the Holy Eucharist literally connects us to Heaven and all its mysteries.  He is the Bread from Heaven, and those who eat this Bread He will raise up on the last day, to live in Heaven with Him forever.

Next is “life-giving.”  This, too, is clear from the Gospel of John.  Jesus said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…” (6:53-54).  It can’t be clearer: if you receive (worthily) the Holy Eucharist, you will have eternal life in you; if you don’t, you won’t.  So the Holy Mysteries are rightly called “life-giving.”

Finally, the Holy Eucharist is “awesome.”  It is unfortunate that this rich term has been grossly cheapened in colloquial usage, so much so as to become almost meaningless. Nowadays, anything from new clothes to a new cell phone to a night at some club to one’s favorite food is “awesome.” If I ever wish to use the term, I try to rescue it by saying “awe-inspiring” or, from the perspective of the subject, “awestruck.”  Something that inspires or strikes us with awe is something that takes our breath away, that works in us a kind of holy “fear and trembling,” that is so astoundingly brilliant, glorious, and beyond all description so as to leave us speechless with wonder and amazement.  When we realize that Jesus Christ, truly present in the Holy Eucharist, is divine, holy, immaculate, immortal, heavenly, and life-giving, then we fall before Him in awestruck wonder and worship.

Let us never approach the Holy and Divine Mysteries with anything less than the fullness of the faith and love and adoration of which our hearts are capable.  Then let us arise and worthily thank the Lord.