Saturday, February 28, 2015

Second Sunday of Lent: The Divine Madman

Today's first reading is one most people raised in Christian homes will be familiar with: the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. So the story goes, God asks Abraham to sacrifice (read as: literally kill as a burnt offering) his "only son Isaac" on a mountain he will show to him. Abraham tells Isaac they're going to make a burnt offering to the Lord, Abraham and Isaac go up the mountain together. Isaac carries the wood for his own sacrifice, which Abraham laid on his back. Isaac, not catching on to what's going on, asks Abraham how they're going to make an offering without a lamb to sacrifice. Abraham responds: "God himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice." Abraham builds an altar on the top of the mountain, binds up Isaac, sets him up to be burnt-and-offered, and raises his knife and ----

God sends an angel to command Abraham not to dare lay a hand on the boy. As predicted by Abraham, albeit unwittingly, God provides a lamb for the sacrifice; a ram is caught in a bush nearby, which the two sacrifice in place of Isaac.

This story is disturbing. I won't even try to sugar coat it. What kind of father consents to killing his son? How insane does that father have to be? What sort of radicalized faith in a higher power does someone have to have before they say, "Well, sure I'll kill my son and offer him up as a burnt sacrifice." To the original Jewish audience, the story is scandalizing. Abraham isn't just sacrificing his son, he's sacrificing his only son, his firstborn son, his heir. His own promised one, that he waited so patiently for for so many years.

But whether through an ancient Jewish lens, or a modern lens, this story is disturbing. And if you aren't taken aback by it, I suggest that perhaps you are missing the point.

What kind of unfettered love for God does man have to have to kill his own son? To give up his firstborn son? His only son? What kind of unfettered love does God have to have for man to hand over His only Son?

" have not withheld your own son..." Genesis 22:16
"He who did not withhold His own Son, but handed Him over for all of us, will He not with Him also provide for us all other things?" Romans 8:32

God Himself will provide a lamb for the sacrifice.

It is important to note here Jesus' full and free consent -- and yes, desire -- to die for humanity. Unlike Isaac, Jesus consented to His crucifixion and along with the Father and the Holy Spirit in fact planned for it from the beginning of time. God cannot contradict Himself; neither can the Persons of the Trinity contradict one another in their will. Many people think of it in terms of the Father willingly thrusting His Son into the world and having Him killed; few seem to have considered the perspective of the Son desiring to die and the Father allowing it, permitting it. The latter perspective, while not a perfect analogy of the mind of the Trinity (there is no such thing as a perfect analogy of the Trinity) is most in line with the Christian view.

Isaac didn't know that the wood laid on his back was intended for his execution; Jesus knew well what the wood laid on His back was meant for. Isaac didn't know he was preparing a fire of death for himself; Jesus knew well that He was participating in a plan to redeem man from death by His own death. Isaac, we can only imagine, was horrified when he was tied down. Jesus begged for mercy on those who put nails through Him. I don't ever want to see the dread and devastation in Isaac's eyes as he realizes that his father isn't kidding around with that knife. I can only imagine the exasperated love poured forth in the words "Father, into Your hands, I commend my spirit."

St. Faustina called Jesus the "Divine Madman" for His radical devotion to humanity and His unwavering, undying mercy. In her view, He had to be crazy to love us the way He so plainly does. We are as sinful as our commitments are weak. And He loves us anyway. Forgives us anyway. Chooses to die anyway. He loves us.

And His Father loves Him, and His Father loves us, too.

We cannot begin to fathom the love God has for us, but from the story of Abraham and Isaac, we can at least understand that it is beyond our comprehension.

As the old hymn goes, "How deep the Father's love for us, how vast beyond all measure, that He would give His only Son to make a wretch His treasure; How deep the pain of searing loss, the Father turns His face away, as wounds which mar the Chosen One bring many sons to glory."

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Crown of Thorns as a Wedding Ring

The perpetual Adoration chapel I go to every now and then does something interesting during Lent: a crown of thorns is placed upon a crimson pillow with golden tassels atop a small pillar, right next to the altar where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed.

It is chilling. It is haunting. It is...comforting.

I am fascinated by the Crown of Thorns donned by Our Lord. The King of kings crowned with a twisted branch which pierced itself into the flesh of His head with jagged thorns, matting His hair into a mess of blood and anxious sweat. The glorious head once carefully held and tenderly kissed by Mary, now met with such abuse and scorn at the hands of those He loves. The head once anointed with expensive oil now dripping with priceless blood.

In Christian marriage, a man and a woman are united in an inseparable bond, a permanent partnership of the life. The meaning of marriage is profound, a "great mystery" as Paul described it; it is a visible image of Christ's relationship to the Church. The husband, taking on the role as "head" becomes a servant to his wife, loving her as a part of himself and offering himself for her to sanctify her. This is a shadow of the Passion of Christ, the suffering servant who handed Himself over to be beaten and killed in order to sanctify us by union with Him in our own suffering and death. In the Incarnation God became man; in the Passion of Jesus Christ, God became husband to mankind.

Which brings us back to the Crown of Thorns. This crown, which is placed upon the head of our Head as we mock Him and spit at Him and beat Him with sticks, becomes for us a sign of Christ's eternal commitment to us. Even when mocked, Jesus remains silent. When beaten, He remains peaceful. He receives this crown with love, all the love He has to give, and offers us in return His whole self, even His very life. He holds nothing back, allowing His own creation to torture Him and harass Him. He remains completely devoted to us even in the midst of our relentless unfaithfulness; "take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity."

Even if we beat Him, even if we spit in His face, even if we mock Him, slander Him, and kill Him. He belongs to us. He receives all we give Him, even when it bruises Him and makes Him bleed. Because we suffer, He chooses to suffer, too.

Jesus Christ, in His Risen Body, chose to retain the wounds we gave Him. He showed them to those He appeared to after His Resurrection as a sign of His sincerity. He will wear our suffering and agony forever, and we will wear His life and glory forever. For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. And not even death will do us part.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

First Sunday of Lent: Jesus is Tempted

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has in every respect been tempted as we are, yet without sin." Hebrews 4:15

Today's Gospel is astonishing. We don't typically think of it that way, though. If you were raised in a Christian home, and especially in a Christian home in which Lent was observed, you've more than likely heard the story of Jesus going into the desert for 40 days to fast. This is the background for Lent; that Christ fasted for us and denied Himself earthly pleasures for us, and during Lent we, in turn, do likewise in order to grow closer to Him and more perfect in imitating Him.

But that isn't what I want to talk about.

I want to talk about His determination to imitate us.

Because Jesus didn't just fast for 40 days in the desert; he was tempted. He subjected Himself to 40 days of torment at the hands of Satan himself before beginning His public ministry. I wonder if this was intentional. Certainly God, being God, intellectually knows, and closely observes, the daily struggles we face, and in His compassion He extends mercy. But before taking on human flesh, God had never been tempted.

At this pivotal moment in salvation history, the same God who aligned the stars and spoke the earth into motion and formed the flesh of man became Himself subject to the allure of the world which He had created and which Adam had brought to ruin. He not only felt the pangs of loneliness, frustration, hunger, but the lures of temptation. He was tempted in every way we are, ever have been, or ever will be.

Satan hates God, and Satan hates man. Imagine his delight in taunting the God-man. He was unrelenting, even taking to Scripture to harass the Son of God. But, as the story so often goes, Satan's tactics were not only to no avail, they endured a profound backfiring.

In taking on flesh, Jesus Christ had given new meaning to the human experience. In dying, Christ would destroy death. In rising, Christ would restore life and give us a share in His own in glory. Man is blessed for eternity by sharing common flesh with Him and woman is blessed for eternity by being the means through which He became one with humanity. Everything Jesus touches He makes new.

Even our experience of temptation.

This is not to say that Jesus has made temptation "good." But, in overcoming temptation as a man, Jesus made temptation something to be overcome. His powerful witness presents an extraordinary example of faithfulness and perseverance. It is important here to emphasize that He was tempted. This is not some fancy language we created to poetically describe something lesser than our experience. No. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, was tempted to sin, and in every way we are.

He was tempted by the things that tempt you. He was tempted by the things that tempt me. He proves to us, in His own perfect humanity, that it is human to be tempted; we aren't disgusting, we aren't worthless. We are human.

And He proves to us that, even if we can't overcome our temptations, He can. Jesus wasn't tempted for no reason. Jesus was tempted for us. He was tempted before He began to minister. He was tempted in order to not only know our experiences but to know them from our perspective. He was tempted that we might trust Him, not only as someone who speaks the truth, but as someone who has been where we are.

It is often our first inclination in our temptation or our sin to hide in shame. But we don't need to. Jesus is with us in the deserts of our lives. His scandalous love has been exposed to all the things our senses have been exposed to.

We are not too dirty for Him. We do not make God unclean by touching Him. He makes us holy by embracing us, even in the midst of our sin.

"Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." Hebrews 4:16

Monday, February 9, 2015

My Take On Suffering

"Compassion" means "to suffer with."

An important question going around the last week or so has been "Why does God, if He is good, allow us to live in a world of suffering?" This is an important question and it should never just be brushed off with timeless cliches or out-of-context and unexplained Scripture passages. This question cuts to the depths of the human condition and exposes a wound as old as man, first present in Eve and passed on through every generation since: the brokenness of the heart which quietly cries, "Does God care about me?"

There are perhaps no words to truly respond to this question with a due amount of justice. Who can look at the immense level of desperation present in the world today -- anguish, misery, sickness, hunger, abuse, and death -- and come up with something to say about God's love that comes from a sincere place?  The question of suffering has puzzled and distressed theologians for centuries. Not the question of where it comes from, no; Christians have firm belief that suffering is the result of sin entering the world, and death the wages we're paid by it. It is important to note here a necessary distinction: God does not cause suffering, sin does. But why, again, does He allow it?

It is an astonishing assertion of the Christian religion that God wants to marry us. Throughout the pages of Scripture He describes His love for us as many things, but more often than any other analogy He describes humanity as His bride. One of the most amazing things we know of God's love for us is that He desires with His whole being, His whole heart, to pour Himself into us and become, so to speak, "one flesh" with us, to make us share in His Being in every way: all of His joy, all of His majesty, all of His peace and hope and love He wants to make our own. But it is not as though He only desires that we become like Him. Indeed, He desires as well to become like us in every way. A God whose love is so extravagant, so helpless, so devoted, so obsessive can not look at our suffering and be content enough to simply alleviate it.

He wants to be one with us. He wants to be part of us. He wants to be one of us. He wants to marry us.

And I wonder if the Crown of Thorns is His wedding ring.

I've often heard the Cross of Christ described as the "marriage bed of the Lamb," the place where He laid down His life and poured Himself out to the point of death in order to create new life in us. It is a strange concept to consider: that God would marry us by our suffering. But in fact, this is truly what we believe. We believe that when God died on the cross He didn't only experience His own suffering and death but the whole sum of our suffering and our death along with us. Compassion. To suffer with. This is precisely what makes the cross redemptive -- it plunges God into our death, so that we can be brought out by Him into His life. It is the consummation of the purpose of the Incarnation, the glorious exchange by which God in Christ gives Himself to man and man in Christ gives Himself to God. Suffering and death are put to shame by this magnificent display; they won't get away by simply being done away with and forgotten, no. They will become the very means by which God saves His people. Death becomes its own demise.

It is this which gives Paul confidence in his profession: "I boast all the more gladly in my weakness so that the power of Christ may dwell in me." (2 Corinthians 12:9) Suffering, because of God's great love, no longer has the final say and, while it cripples us, mangles us, starves us, and kills us, it is forever the cause of its own embarrassment. Suffering no longer distinguishes us from God; it is yet one more thing we have in common with Him, and because of it, because of Him, we will one day crush it under the weight of our glory.

"Where, oh death, is your victory? Where, oh death, is your sting?" 1 Corinthians 15:55