Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hymn of the day: "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus"

This is a great hymn, by a minister of the Presbyterian church in the mid 19th century. Written on the eve of the Civil War, it was inspired by the life and death of his friend, Reverend Tyng, who had been forced to resign from his church due to his strong antislavery views. It's an important reminder that the Christian life is a struggle, and that between the City of God and the City of Man there can be no lasting peace. Check out the great reggae/calypso version by Ms. Carlene Davis of Jamaica.

The song is fairly clearly inspired by the 'armor of God' imagery in Ephesians 6, and the last verse alludes to Christ's letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3.

1. Stand up, stand up for Jesus! ye soldiers of the cross;
Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss:
From vict’ry unto vict’ry, His army shall He lead,
Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.

2. Stand up, stand up for Jesus! The trumpet call obey:
Forth to the mighty conflict, in this His glorious day;
Ye that are men now serve Him against unnumbered foes;
Let courage rise with danger, and strength to strength oppose.
3. Stand up, stand up for Jesus! Stand in His strength alone,
The arm of flesh will fail you, ye dare not trust your own;
Put on the gospel armor, and watching unto prayer,
Where calls the voice of duty, be never wanting there.

4. Stand up, stand up for Jesus! the strife will not be long;
This day the noise of battle, the next the victor’s song;
To him that overcometh a crown of life shall be;
He with the King of glory shall reign eternally.

Washed White in the Blood of the Lamb: Reflections on last Sunday's reading

Here is last Sunday's reading from the Book of Revelation (Rev 7:9-17).

"After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;
And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.
And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God,
Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.
And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?
And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.
For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes."

This passage was the second lesson for last sunday's readings. I love the Book of Revelation, the most mystical and enigmatic book in the Bible, and I love coming back to its beautiful and haunting imagery. When thinking about this passage, I’m struck in particular by the image of the multitude praising God with palm branches, clad in robes that have been ‘washed white in the blood of the Lamb.’

The palm branches, of course, recall the way the Jerusalem crowd hailed Jesus when he entered Jerusalem five days before he would be crucified, on Palm Sunday: for we are told that the crowd ‘took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord’. The people of Jerusalem recognized Jesus Christ as their King and their Redeemer, and in the moment that they saw him riding on the colt, gave him the love and honour that was his due. In that moment, they fulfilled what we are called, as humans, to do for our God, and could not have done it any better. That wasn’t to last, of course. Even then, the voices of a few were raised in discontent, saying, “Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not”. And the voices of evil prevailed, as is the nature of things in this fallen world, and they convinced enough people to join them- or to stand by out of fear, and do nothing, that within five days the crowd had abandoned Jesus to die the death of the most vicious common criminals. Yet the love and service that they had shown him could not be erased, any more than the wounds of the crucifixion could be erased, and the proof is that it would be mirrored and echoed at a still deeper level in heaven. That love was temporary, and tarnished by the weaknesses of fallen human nature: it will be mirrored, at the end of time, by a true and undying love that will never be tarnished and will never falter.

The things of this earth are real, but we have the assurance that they are just shadows and reflections of an even deeper and even more permanent reality. Plato saw this, dimly, in his allegory of the cave. The shadows that his benighted cave-dwellers saw on the rocks were real: they represented, in a real and actual sense, the absence of light. A plant couldn’t grow in those shadows nor could an animal grow warm in them. The shadows were not an illusion. But they were, just as clearly, simply reflections of something even more real and even more concrete. The shadow of a tree, or of a man, is something interesting; but how much more interesting is the real tree, or the real man? In the same way, we can trust that in heaven, all that we love and cherish about this world of ours will be replicated in an even richer and more fascinating way, that we can cherish more deeply than we could ever cherish things in this life. Heaven will have real rivers, and real trees, for St. John tells us, again, “in the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruit…” And a very early Christian vision of heaven, which was never added to the Bible but was widely read in the early church, said that “Every vine had ten thousand branches, and each branch had upon it ten thousand bunches of grapes, and every bunch had on it ten thousand grapes. And there were other trees there, myriads of myriads of them, and their fruit was in the same proportion…” The fact that this doesn’t characterize real trees, or real grapes- no tree, unless it’s been carefully grafted, really bears twelve kinds of fruits- in our world, only means that heaven will be different, and better, then our world. It won’t be lacking any good thing that our world has; on the contrary, all good things will be present, only raised to perfection, and made even better then they are today. As we delight in the fruit of a tree today, we will be able to delight in the twelve kinds of fruit on one tree that heaven will offer us. And as the anonymous writer of the ‘Apocalypse of Paul’ suggests, as the vines of heaven had tens of thousands of times more fruit then any actually existing vine we see in the world today, so the good things of heaven will exceed those of this earth by factors of tens of thousands.

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them”, said Isaiah, over six hundred years before Christ, foretelling with remarkable clarity the beauty and mystery of Christ’s heavenly kingdom. If we know anything about heaven, it’s that we can’t really know anything about it in detail: again, Plato had some dim and cloudy sense of this when he quoted Socrates as saying, "The only real wisdom is knowing you know nothing". But though we can’t really understand heaven, we can get some sense of what it will be like by inference from the things of this earth. Beauty comes from God, and no real and lasting beauty will be absent from heaven, on the contrary the beauties of heaven will surpass the beauties of this earth as a real tree surpasses the shadow of a tree, or as a real cherry surpasses the nasty cherry flavoured cough syrup. We are told that there will be lions in heaven, and calves; that there will be wolves and leopards, lambs and kids. But they won’t be the same, they will be better, and perfected. Think of a creature with all the beauty and grace of a leopard, with the black spots standing out of a golden fur, with the lithe form and liquid eyes, but without being dangerous to life and limb, and without thirsting to devour the kid. That’s hard to imagine: but that’s precisely the point. Heaven is impossible to understand: we can only envision it through inference and analogy. This metaphor of peaceful and meek leopards suggests that heaven will have all of the beauty and good things we see in this world, without any of the bad things that are, in our world, inextricably mixed with the good like weeds are inevitably mixed with flowers in a field. If this combination of all the good things in this world, and none of the bad, seems strange and unearthly, it’s because it is unearthly: such things could never happen on earth, for our earth is irretrievably tainted, under the domination of ‘the prince of this world’. Only when ‘a little child shall lead them’, i.e. when Christ Himself, the Lamb, shall be our King, can we finally experience the peace, joy, and love for which we were intended, and that we crave at the deepest levels of our being. “For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them”, and that Lamb shall do for us what we could never do for ourselves, and will change us into men and women who so far surpass our flawed earthly bodies and personalities as a meek and gentle leopard would surpass the leopards of this earth.

As it is with physical things like dates and grapes, so with emotional and moral goodness as well. We are able to be good, to a degree, in this life: to love God, and to love our neighbor, but not perfectly. Very far from perfectly, for all of us are tainted by original sin, and by the myriads of sins, large and small, that we choose to commit every day. The Jerusalem crowd knew Jesus for who he was, and loved him, in a way that the authorities of the day did not. But they “fell away from the love that they had at first”, just as we all do, and under the influence of fear they fell into sin, just as St. Peter himself, the first Bishop of Rome, was to do on at least three momentous occasions. In heaven, though, those of us who choose to love God and to love our neighbor will never be tempted to fall away from that love. St. Augustine, in the last book of his ‘City of God’ differentiated two kinds of freedom: “For the first freedom of will which man received when he was created upright consisted in an ability not to sin, but also in an ability to sin; whereas this last freedom of will [in heaven] shall be superior, inasmuch as it shall not be able to sin.” The kind of worship that the crowd of Jerusalem offered to Christ with the palm branches, partial and faltering as it was, was none the less real and intense: in heaven, this passage tells us, it will be mirrored at a deeper and higher level. They shall worship him with palm branches that can never dry up and turn to dust, with voices that never grow hoarse, with “love [that] never faileth” and they will enjoy and revel in the delights of a kingdom that, as the Creed tells us, “shall have no end.” The Apostle Jude tells us that God alone “is able to keep [us] from falling, and to present [us] faultless before the presence of his glory,” and that is why in heaven, when we finally “see [God] face to face”, we will no longer have to worry about falling- falling away from our love of God and of our neighbor, of humanity in general, of our family, friends, and partners in particular- ever again.

Those who hold the palm branches, in St. John’s vision, were clad in white robes: robes that had been made white by being washed ‘in the blood of the Lamb’. I heard a homily once which touched on the point that it’s difficult for us, living in the era where you can just buy some bleach at the store to whiten your clothes, to realize how difficult it was in the age before washing machines to turn clothes really white. Even now, in some parts of the world it’s difficult: living in Africa, my white clothes faded under the hot sun and got discolored by dust very quickly. How much more was that the case in the first century Mediterranean world- a hot, dusty, sunburnt place- and especially on the backwater island of Patmos, to which John the Beloved Disciple had been condemned to work in the mines. Whiteness was something very difficult to achieve, something rare and precious: and as we know even today, certain kinds of stains- from wine, from blood, from juice- can discolour white clothing permanently. St. John promises us, however, that in heaven our robes will be white with a whiteness that could never be achievable on this earth: for white clothing, just like all other earthly things, will be made perfect and reach heights of beauty and purity that we can’t even conceive of in this life. It’s paradoxical to think that washing them ‘in the blood of the Lamb’ could make them white and clean: we know that blood stains are among the most impossible to get out of clothing. There are few things that stain the way blood does. Yet Christianity is full of paradoxes, most notably how, in the Gospel reading that goes with this reading, Jesus can say that ‘the Father and I are one.’ We can believe and accept the teaching of the Trinity, and of the Incarnation, as Christians are bound to, but we can’t really understand it: it’s a mystery, and at some level all we can do is revel in the mystery, and receive it with wonder and awe.

Christ died for our sakes, that by sharing our lives and deaths he might allow us to share in his victory over death and in his triumphal reign. When we suffer, we can remember that he shared our suffering through the thirty-three years of his life, and that he spilt his blood that we might be washed in it, and become clean. This isn’t limited to certain kinds of suffering, though. This passage honours those who ‘came out of the great tribulation’, which is a phrase often used to connote religious persecution and political oppression. I don’t think that’s what it refers to here, though. St. John talks elsewhere about specifically seeing the early Christian martyrs in heaven: “I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus,” and he talks specifically about a vision of the Holy Innocents, the children who were martyred under Herod for having been born around the time of Jesus: “And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father's name written in their foreheads.” It seems likely that if he had been talking about Christian martyrs under the Roman persecutions in this passage, he would have included some reference to that fact. No: I think the tribulation he is referring to is something broader than political persecution or religious martyrdom. He refers specifically to how the Lamb shall deliver the multitude from hunger and from thirst, and how “neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.” The multitude being honoured in this passage includes all those who suffer oppression, not merely from political tyrants but from the elements and from the evils of this world: from famine, from thirst, from earthquakes like those in Chile and Haiti, from having their homes destroyed, from having their crops destroyed, from bitter cold or scorching heat. St. John speaks to all of them in this passage, just as Christ did when he said, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

This world is often a cruel, bitter place, in which people suffer from no fault of their own, in which a heavy rain can wash away a family’s farm on the hillside and a long drought can cause a whole years worth of crops to wither and shrivel up, abandoning some of the world’s poorest people to desperate hunger. Christ, and his Beloved Disciple, call on us to help those of our brothers and sisters who suffer from hunger, from thirst, from lack of adequate shelter or housing, from disease and lack of medicine. But he also calls on those of us who are suffering to have hope, for he shared our suffering, and by his own suffering made us worthy to share in his eternal kingdom. And he is, at long last, the Lamb in whose blood we have been made white, and who shall lead us to living waters, cool and refreshing, that will refresh our souls as much as the waters of this earth refresh our bodies. As much as we weep in this world for our sufferings and pain and for the pain of others, we have the promise that “God shall wipe away all tears from [our] eyes,” and the assurance that in heaven, we will be the flock of the one true Shepherd, the one who leads his flocks to living water, who protects them from all scorching heat, from hunger, and from thirst, and who loves us with a perfect and undying love that will truly never fail.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Simon, Do You Love Me?" Reflections on the Third Sunday of Easter

“So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.”

We lose something when reading the English translation of this passage, because we lose the distinction between different words (different in Hebrew, in Aramaic, in Greek and in Latin) that mean quite different things, but that English translates by the word ‘love’. It’s often been said that in English, ‘love’ can have a whole range of meanings, and can connote very different things. We can speak of love for nature, for animals, for abstractions, for ideals, for nations and classes, for parents, for children, for friends, for lovers, for God, for particular individuals. A schoolboy who says ‘I love baseball’ means something very different then someone who says, ‘I love my girlfriend’, and in turn that’s a different thing from what we mean when we say ‘Paul Farmer loves the poor’ or when we say ‘So and so truly loves God.’

In the Latin Vulgate, Christ says, “Simon Joannis, diligis me plus his?” ‘Diligere’ is the root of our word ‘diligent’: it means to care for, to have a regard for. The noun form corresponding to ‘diligere’ is ‘dilectio’: care for someone or something, disinterested love that is concerned only about the good of the person or thing loved, and not about oneself. This is what the experts in animal behavior call altruism (pure other-centered love, from which all motives of selfish gain and self satisfaction have been removed) and which they have been trying to explain for a very long time. Selfless love, in other words. Latin has a close equivalent to ‘dilectio’, ‘caritas’, from whence we get the English word ‘charity’: traditionally these words have been used at various points in the New Testament to translate the Greek ‘agape’. Theologicans have debated whether or not there are subtle differences in meaning between the Latin words, but they are in any case very close in meaning.

“Do you care for me?” asks Christ, in essence. Peter answers, “Te amo”, I love thee, but with the meaning of brotherly love. The Greek word here is ‘phileo’, to love as one would love a brother or a family member. This refers to a human kind of love; in the love between brothers, one can distinguish both self-directed and other directed strains of love. For as the evolutionary biologists tell us, love of close relatives came about, in large part, because it was favoured by evolution for ‘selfish’ reasons: in protecting and defending our relatives, we are protecting and defending people who share a good portion of our own genes. Of course among humans, and perhaps among some animals as well, love of kin has become something much more than simply a strategy to spread our own genes, and it is in most cases largely, or mostly, other centered. But still, it refers to a merely human love: ‘dilectio’ refers to something higher, the pure and self-emptying love that God pours out on his creation, and which God the Father and God the Son eternally express towards each other. ‘Dilectio’ is also the kind of love that we are called to show to each other, and to humanity in general: love of our fellow human beings simply because they are human, because they are as capable as us of suffering, and of taking joy, and of making choices for good and evil.

Beyond brotherly love and sacrificial, self-emptying love, there are other types as well. There is romantic love, sexual and erotic love. There is natural affection, such as that we feel for a child. We can feel affection, too, tinged with pity and compassion, for anyone who is suffering or in need. Still another kind of love characterizes what we feel for a good friend. There is the kind of love that we feel for parents, the ones who gave us the gift of life. Still another kind of love is felt for figures who hold authority over us, a love that is bound up with the desire to obey and honour them. There is the kind of love that we feel for our country, or for our church, or for a religious or political ideal, or for nature. These are all very different emotions, with different obligations attached to them and which makes us feel very different things, but they all have one thing in common: they When our friend, or our brother, or our lover, or our child, or even a country or church or movement with which we sympathize comes to suffer, we suffer with them (this is where we get our word ‘compassion’, from Latin, ‘to suffer with’) and cannot be truly and completely happy until we are happy. And when they are happy, even though we might at that moment be in a tragic and unpleasant situation ourselves, we are raised out of our own pain a little bit, and can share in theirs.

Love- in all of its forms- teaches us to identify with another person, to share in their joys and pains, and to devote ourselves to trying to make them happy. And in this way, we are able to share in the eternal love which the three Persons of God pour out for each other, and to participate in that love ourselves. The myth of Genesis tells us that the Serpent said to the first men, ‘And ye shall be as gods’, but as is the nature of the divine economy, God brought truth out of the enemy’s lies, for when he taught us- through our instincts, through the natural law written on our hearts, and through his own Incarnation- to truly love each other, he showed us how, when that love is eventually perfected in the kingdom of heaven, we will really be, in our small and paltry way, ‘like gods’. When ‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’, he recognized all those individual forms of love as good in their own right, but also as just special, and especially intense, cases of something broader: the goodwill and concern for others that we are called to show for everyone. Through his presence at the wedding in Cana, he recognized romantic love as something good; through his brotherhood with the twelve apostles, which the medieval writers called ‘the greatest fellowship the world had ever seen’, he sanctified friendship, and through his Assumption of his mother into heaven, and his coronation of her as queen of heaven, he sanctified familial love forever.

Peter responds to Christ’s question, though, with a half response. He tells Christ that he loves him, but he confesses a mere human love: he loves Christ as he would love a brother, but not (yet) with the selfless care and devotion with which God loves us, and with which God calls us to love each other. Indeed, there was a lot lacking in Peter’s love. He fell away from love when he betrayed Christ three times on Maundy Thursday night: ‘Then Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.” The Apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians that Peter fell away from the truth a second time, out of fear: ‘For before that certain came with James, he did eat with gentiles, but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those of the circumcision…” The noncanonical Acts of Peter tells us, famously, of a third great episode of cowardice and betrayal on the part of the first Bishop of Rome, when he allowed himself to be talked into fleeing the persecution of Nero. He had originally wanted to stay and accept his fate, saying, “Shall we be runaways, brethren?” But his flock had prevailed on him that it would be better to escape and live another day, to preach the Gospel elsewhere, then to be crucified. Peter fell victim to cowardice and to the voice of the crowd, as he had twice before, and fled out of Rome: but on his way out, he ‘saw the Lord entering into Rome.’ The Acts tell us that Peter asked Christ, “Whither goest thou?” and that Christ answered him, “Yea, Peter, I am being crucified again.” St. Peter was so ashamed of this rebuke that for the last time in his life he repented of his weakness, and went back into Rome to accept his fate.

In the history of Peter we see, then, his devotion to Christ, which led him to preach the Gospel as bishop of Antioch and of Rome, and eventually to die for his beliefs. But we also see the limits of a purely human love. Peter had shown himself willing to love Christ with the love of a brother, but until the end he struggled to show the love that Christ called him to show: the love that descends from God, the love that is called ‘dilectio’ and ‘caritas’, the love that ‘beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” This is true of all of us; for with the exception of Christ (and depending on whom you ask, his Mother as well) we are all touched by sin, and by the fall.

St. Augustine said that there are only two real and permanent objects of love in the world, God and the self. All the other loves reduce, in the end, to one of these: to the former at their best, to the latter at their worst, and at the Last Day we will all have to choose between loving God (and our companions and friends of course, but loving God above all) and loving ourselves. “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by love of self, even to the contempt of God, the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” At best, when we love a friend, or a child, or a lover, or a family member, or a leader, or something inanimate like nature, we really love them because of the spark of the divine which we see within them, and because at some level they are infused by God and his goodness. That is why the writer of the Song of Solomon, in a fascinating line, seems to recognize something superhuman and unearthly beauty within his lover: “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?” And again, why the same writer, recognizes that within his lover there is a kind of perfection and flawlessness that points beyond the merely earthly: “Thou art all fair, my love, there is no flaw in thee.” In a purely literal sense, none of us is ‘terrible as an army with banners’ and none of us is truly flawless; but in a much deeper and more true sense, within each of us is a spark of something which is, truly, perfect and terrible, superhuman and supernatural, and when we are touched by love, any kind of love- friendship, romance, familial love- we can see the other person not just at the superficial level as a flawed human being, but also as the work of the Most High God, made in his image and likeness, that we truly are and that we were meant to be.

Love for a particular person- a friend, a lover, a family member- draws that person out of the general run of humanity, and sees them as special and unique in some way, unique as God Himself is unique; for we don’t love a gender as a whole, but one particular person of our favoured gender. This is why, again, the Song of Solomon tells us, “As a lily among thorns, so is my beloved among women” and conversely, “as an apple tree among the trees of the woods, so is my lover among men”, and this, too, recalls the love of Christ, which was particular as well as universal. He wept not simply collectively over the daughters of Jerusalem, but also for the individual Lazarus, and he went to his death not simply for all of us but also for each of us, and he would have done it if only one person- you, or me, or the centurion, or Herod, or the repentant thief Dysmas- were to have been saved by it.

At worst, however, our feelings for another person can be corrupted into a form of self-love, and we can desire their company solely for our own benefit or pleasure. How many people have served the poor not out of any genuine love, but solely for the desire to see themselves as a good person? How many people have had children not because they wanted to bring new life into the world, but solely to carry on the family name? When we do this, we cease to value the other person as a creation of God, good in their own right, and we begin to see them as extensions of ourselves, and means to our own happiness. This is why, within even the best and highest loves, we always see a tension between the human and the divine standards of love, and we always need to keep struggling against selfish impulses and desires, which can pretend to be true love: brass wearing the colors of gold, and the vulture resembling, for a true moment, the form of the eagle.

In Christ’s question to Peter we see the tension between divine and human standards of love. “Do you love me?” This is a powerful question, that all of us can identify with, because we hear it so often in our own lives. We think of it especially in the context of romantic love, and indeed it’s a question that people ask and are asked all the time, of their husband, wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend. How happy we are when we can really, and with perfect sincerity and honesty, answer ‘Yes’, and when we can hear the same answer back. This is why the great prayer of the Abbe Perreyve, addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, asks of her to ‘have pity on those who love one another and are separated.’ But how often are, we, like Peter, only able to answer this question in a partial and deficient way?

This is a question that we often face, just to take one example, in the context of sexual relationships. I happen to think that the sexual revolution was, like many revolutions, a good and necessary thing that went quite a bit too far; I don’t think that homosexuality, or contraception, or premarital sex are necessary wrong, for example. But with increased freedom should come increased responsibility as well. The first question, and the most basic question, should echo Christ’s question to Peter: “Do you love me?”, and in any sexual relationship, the answer to that question should be ‘yes’, in the full and complete sense that Christ meant it, and we shouldn’t, like Peter did, try to qualify or limit that. Sex is intended to be an expression of the deepest and most intimate union- physical, emotional, and spiritual- of which we are capable in this life, and outside that relational context, it’s not serving its full purpose, and is being robbed of its true nature. Unfortunately, many of us when asked that question can’t truly and fully answer ‘yes’. So many people don’t think about the reality that every sexual act involves a small, but real, possibility of creating a new human life, and don’t ask themselves if they would be willing to help take responsibility for that life if the birth control failed. But how can that failure to think about the other person’s needs really be called love? A great many other people answer ‘yes’, but that answer only lasts, in their mind, for a couple days or weeks, and again, how can something that ephemeral really be called love? I can’t help but think that if more people really thought about that question, and how they would answer it- and asked themselves if they really could answer ‘yes’ before taking a relationship to the next level- that we would have fewer unwanted pregnancies, fewer abortions, fewer broken hearts, fewer divorces and broken relationships; and most of all, less casual and uncommitted sex at nightclubs, parties, et cetera.

This is a question that we face not merely in personal relationships, though, but in the life of nations as well. Simone Weil said that what we call love for our country can involve two separate and mutually opposed kinds of loves; and that here, our moral failing is usually not that we don’t love our country enough, but that we love it with the wrong kind of love. True love for our country should involve compassion and honesty; we should love it as a parent loves their child, having a realistic understanding of where it goes wrong, of the good things as well as the bad things in its history, and should strive at all times to correct our nation and to make it better. Corrupt love for our country tends to see it as something incapable of evil, something objectively better than other countries, a false idol that we “exalt above all that is called God.” We tend to hear this a lot these days from political leaders who tell us that America is the greatest country in the world, or is in some sense an expression of God’s desires for humanity. Really? Was slavery in the American South an expression of a nation ‘under God’? Was Jim Crow? Was the genocide perpetrated against the Native Americans? Was the colonization of the Philippines? Was the development of monopolistic capitalism, that threw vast numbers of people off their lands and out of their workplaces as huge fortunes were consolidated into the hands of a few? Was the development of an economy based on consumption, greed, the desire to make more money and have more nice things than one’s fellows, was that an expression of God’s will? Was the destruction of the natural environment? What about American support of tyrants throughout Latin America in the name of anticommunism? What about the Vietnam War? What about Hiroshima?

Other countries have committed sins of their own, of course. But ours should be our special concern, precisely because they are ours, and should keep us from seeing the United States as an especially good or especially perfect country. Love for one’s country. like love for one’s child, should not lead us to see them as better then they are, or to deny their human flaws, or to try to persuade them that they are perfect just the way they are. My old high school principal, an Episcopal priest, used to say that a very unhelpful, and very common thing to tell a kid in school is that they are ‘perfect just the way they are’. That isn’t true love, that is idolatry. We can all see this kind of distorted, unhealthy love in the way that some parents try to go into their kids’ schools and talk the teachers into giving them a better grade then they deserve. We should see that the same kind of distorted love for our country is equally unhealthy. To really and truly love our country means trying to correct her and make her better than what she is today: as St. Augustine says, “Love, and do as you wish. If you accept, accept through love; if you correct, correct through love….in all things, let the root of love be within, for of that root can spring no evil.” If we could answer the question that our country asks of us, “Do you love me?” with the answer that Christ sought, and not the answer that Peter gave, how much better would we be, and our world as well.

For this is what Christ calls us to do: when we are asked this question, as we are all asked implicitly or explicitly, sometime in our lives, to think about our answer. He wants us to answer ‘yes’, and most of us at some level want to answer ‘yes’ too, but often we don’t think about what that ‘yes’ involves. Christ calls us to a kind of love that is deeper, more lasting, and more complete than that which we are capable of on our own. He sanctified all of our human loves, but he also showed us through his life, that they were just aspects of an even greater love, and gave us hints of what that self-emptying, self-denying love might be like: “Charity seeketh not her own.” He warned Peter, as he warned us, of the cost that love sometimes involved, by predicting his crucifixion: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God.” But he also showed Peter the great and unbounded power of that love, when he forgave Peter the shame of his terrible betrayal. Let’s think about this beautiful, and powerful passage, and about the love that forgives wrongs and reconciles friends, and let’s try to make sure that in our own lives, when we are asked the question that Christ asked Peter, we can answer ‘yes’ with truth, with sincerity, and with understanding and acceptance of what it involves.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hymn of the day....

To the tune of 'Aurelia'. By Samuel John Stone, 1866.

The church’s one Foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is his new creation
By water and the Word:
From heav’n he came and sought her
To be his holy bride;
With his own blood he bought her,
And for her life he died.

Elect from ev’ry nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth,
Her charter of salvation
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food.
And to one hope she presses,
With ev’ry grace endued.

Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed,
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.

The church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord to defend,
To guide, sustain and cherish
Is with her to the end;
Though there be those that hate her,
And false sons in her pale,
Against or foe or traitor
She ever shall prevail.

‘Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace for evermore;
Till with the vision glorious
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great church victorious
Shall be the church at rest.

Yet she on earth hath union
With the God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won:
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we,
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with thee.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"My Lord and My God": Reflections on Thomas Sunday

Last Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, commemorates the appearance of Christ to Thomas the Apostle; for that reason it’s called Thomas Sunday, or alternatively Low Sunday. It’s always been a particularly meaningful day to me, for reasons I’ll go into below. I was actually at church services on Saturday night and Sunday last weekend so got to hear two different takes on the Gospel reading; here is my own take.

I’m fascinated by Thomas because, first and foremost, he was the Apostle to my people. He was martyred, around 72 A.D., in Mylapore in Southern India, after a career of evangelization that had led him through the Middle East, through Persia, and through India. Mylapore (by interpretation, ‘City of the Peacock’) is the neighborhood of Madras, India where my maternal grandmother grew up, and where a number of my relatives on my mother’s side still live, and where I have visited several times since I was a child; the family home is just a few miles from the Tomb of St. Thomas. I visited there about two and a half years ago, the last time I visited India. St. Thomas is very important to the Christians of Southern India- though we are now divided between Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Nestorian*, and Jacobite** confessions, we all tend to respect his memory, and some Indian churches even take his name (‘Mar Thoma’, or ‘Father Thomas’). The Apostles were bidden by Christ to “go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”; Thomas’ particular calling was to show the love of Christ to my ancestors, to the people of my blood, and so I feel that I have a particular spiritual bond to him. My people were his special concern in life, and I hope, he still watches over us from his throne in the communion of saints today as well.

I’m fascinated by him, too, because he is an example of doubt- doubt that was temporary, answered, and sublimated into a stronger faith than ever, but still doubt nonetheless- for an age which is, quintessentially, an age of doubt. We live in an era in which very little is taken on faith, in which some people feel driven to doubt and question everything. Natural science itself demands a certain faith that the universe is orderly, lawful, reasonable, and that honest and objective inquiry can uncover the truth, but in the late twentieth century with the rise of the toxic ideas of postmodernism, people have begun to doubt even that. We can identify ourselves with Thomas, and see ourselves in him, and hope that as with him, our doubts may be dispelled, our questions answered, and we may experience the kind of revelation that he did. Thomas is the perfect and quintessential apostle for an age in which we wonder if we can have faith.

Lastly, I’m fascinated because of the traditions that attached to him after his death, but are consistent with the scriptural evidence. If we put together the accounts in John’s Gospel with the traditions and noncanonical writings attributed to Thomas- the ‘Acts of Thomas’, the ‘Gospel of Thomas’, and the like- we get a picture of someone who was very attached and drawn to dualistic ideas: the idea that evil is a great power in this world, that it is something independent, real, and strong against which good needs to struggle, that this world is under the domination of evil, and is something that we should strive to escape, not to enjoy. Taken too far, of course, these ideas can slide into dangerous errors- Manichaeanism, most famously, which held that the world itself was created by the evil counter-god, equally powerful to the true God, and was irredeemable. But there’s little reason to believe Thomas ever himself slid into the error of thinking the world was essentially evil and irredeemable. The picture one gets from reading the ‘Acts of Thomas’ seems to have dualistic ideas pretty much as far as one can, while still remaining faithful to Christ and to the basic essence of the Christian faith. I’ve always found the dualistic heresies very interesting, and felt that for all their many errors, they were on to something in their sense that evil was something independent, eternal, and powerful, to be struggled against and taken seriously, not simply a ‘privation of the good’ to be laughed away. I think Thomas was drawn to some of those ideas too, which makes the story of his ‘conversion’ to belief in the Resurrection- a physical and literal Resurrection- all the more powerful. More on that in a minute.

People sometimes talk about Thomas as though he was morally culpable for his inability to have faith- some yahoo preacher was saying this on Family Life Radio last year, which I found too annoying for words. Let’s remember that Thomas was the one who had had the courage and love for Christ to exhort the Apostles to be willing to share in his martyrdom: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” He was no shrinking violet. Let’s remember too, that “Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus was not with them when Jesus came”, and he had to accept the Resurrection of the God whom he had seen die, on the testimony of others. Would you have accepted it? Their belief can’t be compared to his: they had seen the risen Christ firsthand. Thomas hadn’t. Peter had doubted at first, as had the other apostles, and it had taken a miracle to convince them, just as with Thomas.

Thomas was a pessimist; he had said, “Let us also go [and] die with him”, because he was realistic enough about this fallen world, dominated by evil, that he knew that living a good life is seldom easy, and often leads only to suffering and tribulation. Out of that pessimism flowed an unwillingness to believe what seemed like it was too good to be true. How great would your happiness be if you knew that the One to whom you had pledged your life had miraculously conquered death and hell, and allowed you to conquer it too? But conversely, how much greater would your pain and despair be if you learned later that that hope had been misplaced, and that the Enemy had merely been toying you, showing you the vision of liberty, of beautiful green gardens and blue skies, of children playing in the fields and birds in the air, before slamming your cell door and enclosing you in darkness forever? Villiers de Lisle Adam’s short story ‘The Torture of Hope’ explores this well. It is the story of Aser Abarbanel, an old Spanish Jew proud of tracing his lineage back to the Judges of Israel, who languishes in the prisions of the Inquisition, on the night before his execution at the stake. The Inquisition allows him to escape, by leaving doors open and halls unguarded, and set no barrier in his way as he races to freedom: and then, when he is finally leaping out into the sunlight, into freedom, he feels the Inquisitor’s hand on his shoulder, and “Aser Abarbanel with protruding eyes gasped in agony in the ascetic's embrace, vaguely comprehending that all the phases of this fatal evening were only a prearranged torture, that of HOPE….” St. Thomas knew, at some level, how bitter such a torture could be. He didn’t refuse to believe in Christ, he refused, temporarily, to believe in his friends, precisely because he knew, and feared, how great the torture of hope, of false hope, of hope betrayed, could be.

Oscar Wilde, once said this: “Once in his life may a man send his soul away, but whoever receives back his soul must keep it with him forever, and this is his punishment and his reward.” That could serve as the story of Thomas’ life, as well. He who had, momentarily, wavered in his faith and been unable to rely on the testimony of his friends, returned with a stronger faith then ever. In the Gospel of St. John, it is Thomas who is the first of the Apostles (leaving aside the Prologue itself) who confesses that Jesus Christ is God: “My Lord and My God!” This acclamation, so powerful in its humility, its faith, and its love, is what Christians used to say (beginning in the thirteenth century) at the point in the Eucharist where the priest elevates and displays the Host; it’s no longer said explicitly, either in Catholic or Anglican churches, but we should still say it to ourselves silently. Those words come from Thomas, and they are a reminder to us, not just of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, but of Thomas’ return to a stronger faith then ever. That we honour Thomas in this way is a powerful sign of how doubt can lead us to a stronger faith.

How strong was the faith of Thomas? It was strong enough to lead him to sell himself into slavery to finance his trip to Persia and India. It was strong enough to live for twenty years, a stranger in a strange land, driven by his faith and love to heal the sick, to care for the suffering, to carry out miracles, to war against devils and evil powers, and to spread the gospel of Christ. According to fourth-century traditional accounts of the Assumption of Mary, he was brought back to Ephesus by a miracle shortly after Mary’s death, and was the only one privileged to see her assumed into heaven; and the one who had doubted the word of the apostles was now the one on whom the responsibility fell to convince the others. “And the apostles….all asked pardon of the blessed Thomas, on account of the benediction which the blessed Mary had given him, and because he had seen the holy body going up into heaven.” Regardless of what you believe about this story- and I think the Assumption certainly happened, whether or not we have an accurate account- this is a beautiful example of how God allows us to change ourselves, and how his providence puts us, in our lives, into positions where we can for the first time see things from other people’s points of view, just like in trying to convince the skeptical apostles, Thomas could experience what it was like not just not to believe, but also not to be believed. Thomas’ faith led him, finally, sentenced to death for encouraging the wife of the King of Madras to embrace celibacy, to walk up onto the hill outside Mylapore, in the company of four soldiers, to pray, and then to accept his death with these words: “Fulfil the commands of the one who sent you.” His last prayer, we are told, before he was riddled with spears ended with this beautiful line: “I have become a bondman; therefore to-day do I receive freedom.” Death, for Thomas, represented final freedom because there would now be no separation any longer between him and his beloved Lord.

It’s the nature of God to bring good out of evil, and to turn the Enemy’s designs to good ends. That is why Goethe’s devil says, “I am a part of that power/ That always willeth evil, and always worketh good.” In the same way, Our Lord took the doubts of Thomas and turned them towards good, making them serve purposes that Thomas could never have foreseen. In the story of Thomas’ conversion we see some of the major challenges that would convulse the Christian faith for the next two thousand years, set forth in advance and refuted in advance as well. Consider again the Lord’s challenge to Thomas: “Reach hither thy finger and behold my hands; reach hither thy hand and thrust it into my side….”. Within eighty years after the Crucifixion, schools of thought would arise that held that Christ had merely appeared to be human, and had been a purely divine being that never actually took on human flesh. These groups, persisting for several centuries, often claimed inspiration from Thomas, and their beliefs that Christ was not truly a human person tended to grow out of an exaggerated dualism (which Thomas appears to have held to a lesser degree). Through asking Thomas to touch his hands and side, Christ refuted the Docetists*** in advance, and used Thomas himself as the vehicle by which those who claimed to be intellectual disciples of Thomas were refuted. And this, incidentally, is one hint that the Gospels were faithful recordings of the truth and not works of propaganda composed to fit an agenda: the teachings in them were often unclear to people at the time, and their full meaning would only become evident centuries later. One gets the sense reading them that the writers did not fully understand what they were writing, but wrote nonetheless as the facts compelled them to do.

The Docetists of the succeeding centuries would claim over and over again that Christ was _only_ divine and not human as well, and that he lacked a human body; but though they would appeal to Thomas, the testimony of Christ through Thomas himself refuted them. Thomas, who had leanings towards Docetism, was made the vehicle and agent of the refutation of Docetism, by which the Faith was spared from a particularly dangerous and ever-present intellectual threat. This is another sign that what we have to deal with here is the mysterious and the miraculous, and not merely the mundane: no human wisdom, but only the divine wisdom of Christ the Incarnate Word could have chosen the most Docetic of the apostles to refute Docetism, just as he picked the despised tax collector Matthew to preach Christ to the very people from whom he had collected the hated Roman taxes, and the student of the Law, Paul, to refute the idea that the Law saves us. There can be no better symbol, for our time and for all times, of the way Christ brings good out of evil, and how he turns even our weaknesses and faults to good ends: “For my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Doubt is not evil, nor is it a sickness: it is an inextricable part of the human condition. The ability to have faith also presupposes the ability to doubt. Christ himself was racked by doubt in the Garden, when we are told that “in an agony he prayed more fervently, and his sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling upon the ground”, and then again when he hung on the cross and said, “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” The doubt that Thomas experienced came about for good reason, and was an expression of a natural, and healthy, pessimism that is a necessary bulwark against following every rumour or fad that comes down the pike. But it’s important to remember, too, especially in our skeptical age, that Thomas did not remain in his state of doubt, and that when his doubts were resolved, his faith was deepened and strengthened to a greater degree than ever, such that for the first time he confessed Christ’s true divinity. As the great book ‘Life of Pi’ said, while doubt is a natural part of the human condition, “choosing doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation”.

There’s a lot more to say about Thomas, and I could talk for many more essays about him: delving into the stories about his journey to India, his experiences there, and his struggle against a great devil in the form of a serpent. I’d encourage you all to look at the ‘Acts of Thomas’: though it’s neither history nor canonical scripture, there’s lots of powerful and compelling testimony there, much of which makes reference to historical figures that only someone well acquainted with first century India would know, and I believe there’s much truth there. But that’s another story, for another time. The story for us today is the story of that night a week after Our Lord rose from the dead, when Thomas became the vehicle by which Our Lord proved he had a real body and human nature, when his doubts were conquered and his faith turned into something stronger than ever and unwavering even unto death, and in which his power was made perfect in Thomas’ momentary weakness.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. Look kindly on those who struggle to believe, on those who have lost their faith, on those who have never had faith, and on those who are waiting for a sign of your presence. Have mercy on all those who seek the truth with a sincere heart, and lead them, as you led Thomas, to know you, who alone are the Truth. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

*The Nestorians (a small group of Christians in Iraq, Iran and India) hold that Christ comprised two separate persons, the divine Word and the human Jesus
**The Jacobites (or Syrian) Church holds (along with the churches of Armenia, Egypt and Ethiopia) that Christ had a single nature that comprised divine and human aspects
***Docetism is the belief that Christ was fully God, but lacked a human body and only appeared to be a man

Sunday, April 4, 2010

My favourite Easter hymn....

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The strife is o'er, the battle done,
The victory of life is won,
The song of triumph has begun,

The powers of Death have done their worst,
But Christ their legions hath dispersed,
Let shout of holy joy outburst,

The three sad days are quickly sped,
He rises glorious from the dead,
All honour to our risen Head,

He closed the yawning gates of Hell,
The bars from Heaven's high portals fell,
Let hymns of praise his triumphs tell,

Lord, by the stripes that wounded thee,
From death's dread chains thy people free,
That we may live and sing to thee,

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

- Unknown 12th century author, translated by William Pott (1861)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sealed in blood: a meditation on the Passion of our Lord

Yesterday was Good Friday, the day that Jesus Christ was executed. I'd like to express some thoughts about this occasion, the most solemn day in the Christian year, before the Easter Vigil this evening. The Passion moves me to tears, literally, and it has ever since I read the accounts for the first time, years ago. No less so today.

This is the day that God the Incarnate Word, God in human form, hung upon the cross. For our sakes, not merely for all of us, but for each of us. For your sins, and for mine, and for those of Herod and Pilate, and Barabbas, and for those of his own disciples, and for every leper and sick woman who came to him, and for those of Lazarus, and Cyrus, and David, and Manasseh, and Antiochus, and Sennacherib. This is the day that Our Lord endured the agony in the garden, the scourging by Herod's men, the interrogation of Pilate, the mockery of the crowd, the blows of the Roman soldiers, the nails in his hands and feet, the crown of thorns, the spear in his side. This is the day that the Perfect Man, the Second Person of the Trinity, endured the shameful death of a common criminal, and endured the mockery and abuse, physical and mental, of those whom he had come to save.

"He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One" jeered the crowd. But, of course, that wasn't his purpose. The nature of God is to love, and love demands an object, it takes no fulfilment in itself, for as it is said, "Charity seeketh not her own". Or as William Blake, a great poet given to dualist-Christian strains of spirituality said, "Love seeketh not itself to please, Nor for itself hath any care." For all of eternity, even when our world and our universe didn't exist, the Father and the Son had poured out love for one another. Jesus Christ was more than happy, at the slightest hint of a request, to save, succour, and help others. But He who could multiply loaves and fishes to feed five thousand people would not turn stones to bread to feed himself, and He who could save others from death refused to turn aside from his own fate. Even at the last, he could called on his father, and been freed by "more than twelve legions of angels", but He who was the master of fate, at the moment of his death, chose to submit and die.

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Even in the hour of his death, Our Lord remained the good shepherd that did not fail to think of his flock more than of himself. As he walked up the hill to the Place of the Skull, bleeding from the wounds of scourging, his head torn by the crown of thorns, so weak that they needed Simon the Cyrenian to carry his cross for him, he heard the weeping of those in the crowd who felt for him, and his first thought was not of his misery but of theirs. "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children". Christ forgave those that mocked, beat, and crucified him, to the last man, pleading their ignorance to His Father, the author of justice. He thought not only of the mothers and daughters of Jerusalem but of his own mother, whose perpetual virginity had left her childless and alone, and as he hung on the cross, dehydrated from blood loss, his parched lips wet only with the taste of vinegar, his suffocating lungs straining with each word, he granted the care of the Virgin Mother of God to John the Beloved, his best friend and the one to whom, one day, he would appear in glory and grant a vision of the Last Things. "When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!"

And most intimately of all, as he slowly died of suffocation, thirst, and blood loss, his very body disintegrating as it had begun to do the night before, when in his agony the vessels in his body began to rupture and "his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground", with the crowd jeering at him, the soldiers casting lots for his clothing as had been foretold centuries earlier, he heard a voice of praise and humility from the very last place it could have been expected. The dying criminal hanging next to him accepted his guilt and deserved punishment, contrasted his own guilt with Christ's innocence, and said to Christ simply, 'Remember me'. Not asking for salvation, or for release, or for any benefit of his own, but merely asking to be remembered. And he received the promise, the greatest promise ever made to a man, "Verily I say to you, this day shalt thou be with me in paradise."

Church tradition tells us this man's name was Dysmas, that he was freed that very day, when Christ descended into hell to preach to the dead, and that he entered as among the first saints into the kingdom of heaven. The orthodox account in the Gospel of Luke suggests that the criminal said this in response to the other criminal's challenge, "If thou art the son of God, save thyself and us'. But the extra-canonical Gospel of Peter, providing an alternative (and quite nearly as old) passion narrative puts it a little differently: here Dysmas takes the initiative, challenging the crowd, 'We have been made suffer thus because of the wrong that we have done; but this one, having become Savior of men, what injustice had he done to you?' This portrays him in a more assertive light, not merely failing to be evil but actually, in the last moments of his life, taking a stand in favour of the good.

"Verily I tell you, this day shalt thou be with me in Paradise." None of us is truly lost until the end: the story of St. Dysmas shows us that even in our last moments, on our deathbed (or who knows, maybe even in the next life) we may be confronted with the Presence of God and have the opportunity to turn away from evil. And we can be delivered from evil just as Dysmas was.The accounts given by Luke and by the anonymous author of the Gospel of Peter give us warning, though. The crowd, even seeing this last expression of love and forgiveness, still contained those who continued to be obdurate in their hatred and contempt for the good. There are those who would rather embrace hatred and evil, as self-destructive and unhappy as they are, then admit they were wrong. The orthodox accounts suggest that the soldiers had no need to break the legs of Christ because he was already dead, but the author of 'Peter' says this was done as a deliberate act of malice, to make His death slower and more painful, out of spite for Dysmas' repentance. "And having become irritated at him, they ordered that there be no leg-breaking, so that he might die tormented." There are people and beings who hate good more than they love anything in its own right, and whose driving principles are almost purely negative: to destroy what they dislike rather than to build up what they like. The soldiers are among them; watching this Divine Man die in agony, all they could think about was who would get his clothing, and were more interested in quibbling over a carpenter's meager clothes than having the slightest touch of sympathy or compassion for him. And when challenged and rebuked by a dying criminal who might easily have chosen to think of his own plight rather than think about the injustice done to Jesus, they chose to sneer at him and out of spite, to make the death more painful even then it already was. And in that act they chose their side, as much as the repentant thief Dysmas chose his. All of us, when confronted with the presence of God, have the choice to accept Him or to deny him, and if we choose not to love him then we will hate him. As Fr. Alexandre Kalomiros says, "In the same furnace steel shines like the sun, whereas clay turns dark and is hardened like stone."

"He was in the world, and the world was made by him, yet the world knew him not." The soldiers saw Love Incarnate on the cross, and there souls were turned to hate just as the soul of the thief and the Jewish women were turned to love, for as John the Beloved Disciple tells us, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not." No one can remain untouched by that Presence, and if we do not soften our hearts and turn to him then we become hardened and turn away from him. There is no neutrality when are brought face to face with "Love Divine, all loves excelling": the direct experience of Christ will inspire in each of us either an overwhelming attraction or an overwhelming revulsion, and confirm us either in obedience or rebellion; it will no longer leave us the shelter of ignorance. That is why Christ gave us that terrifying warning, "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have had sin: but now they have no cloak for their sin." To have a genuine religious experience is a very serious business, because it strips from us the cloak of ignorance, the genuine and innocent lack of knowledge of an honest atheist or a child, that excuses so much. When we see Christ we are, finally, "without excuse", and face at last the terrible responsibility of choosing to join either the repentant thief or the sadistic soldiers.

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." This was the divine mercy and love of Christ, that even in the hour of his death, he refused to be touched by rancor or by bitterness towards his persecutors. He who had told his followers, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you", was never unfaithful to his own words, not even when he was dying a more painful and more agonizing death than he could have imagined, betrayed by Judas and denied by Peter, mocked by the crowd that had hailed him five days earlier. This was truly the last temptation of the Enemy, of whom it had been said that at the end of the forty days in the desert, he 'departed until an opportune time'. That opportune time, for the last and greatest temptation, the temptation to spill the cup his Father had given him instead of drinking, to refuse to say 'Thy will, not mine, be done', had begun last night on the Thursday when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had then been pitched on the knife edge between faith and despair, as much as when he was standing of the knife edge of Solomon's Portico and the Enemy said, "If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down...." And that excruciating moment of temptation stretched on, and on, until three o'clock on the next day when Jesus Christ breathed his last. He must have thought about how he could get out of this mess- by denying his Divinity, by denying his Kingship, by pleading with Pilate, by demonstrating miracles to Herod, by calling upon the holy angels. But to the last, he stayed faithful, and death with the last temptation as he had dealt with all the others, and saying in so many words, "Retro me, Satanas."

"He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One." No: the true Christ of God, infused to the last cell of his body with the love and charity that comes down from heaven, thought in his dying three hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of the Beloved Disciple, of the faithful women of Jerusalem weeping over his death, of the condemned and repentant criminal next to him, of the crowd who in their ignorance and weakness consented to his death. Perhaps he thought of others too, but he didn't think of himself. He pleaded from the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" But like Job, who had said, "Though he slay me, yet shall I trust in him", he remained humble and obedient and did not see, even in his most forsaken hour, a licence to betray his calling.

"Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?" The extra-canonical Gospel of Peter dates from probably the late first century; it was treated as credible by some of the Church Fathers and probably represents an independent testimony of the Passion, differing in many details (but not in theological import) from the canonical gospels. It puts this famous saying differently, "My power, my power, why hast thou forsaken me?" We can compare these two accounts and see something quite interesting (it's quite possible Jesus said the same thing in two slightly different ways). In the extra-biblical account, Jesus is confessing that the 'power' which animated him was the same as the power of God, and that he had, within himself, a divine nature as well as a human one.

"And it was then about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the earth until the ninth hour; and the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst." As the moment of death, the moment at which the power of evil became triumphant, for a day, over the Author of Good, the moment at which God Incarnate died the death of a criminal, and at which rebellious humans succeeded in killing the one who had come "that they might have life and have it abundantly", the world itself seemed to quake at the horrendous injustice done to him through whom this world itself was made. We are told of the great eclipse and earthquake by Matthew, and Luke, and the author of 'Peter'; Matthew backs up the sense of how much this represented the overturning of the natural order by telling us that a number of dead people broke from their graves and came back to life, in a kind of creepy foreshadowing of the Resurrection which would come in a day and a half. When this earth's Author and Maker was put to death, the earth itself seemed to shudder in horror.

"The veil of the temple was rent in the midst." The great earthquake that tore in half the curtain of the Temple, which revealed the secret inner sanctum which was meant to be forever concealed, must have been seen as a terrible portent; "Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God". It would be like an earthquake ripping appart St. Peter's Basilica or the temple at Tirupathi, though more so, for the Jews much more than Hindus or Christians had a sense of God's total otherness. They believed the inner sanctum, behind the veil, was consecrated to the Most High God, and only the High Priest himself, on one day of the year, could enter into the Presence without being struck dead. The tearing apart of the veil would have been seen as ipso facto evidence, terrifying and numinous, that a great sacrilege had happened. Whether or not this earthquake was a miracle, there is evidence from non-Christian Greek sources, cited by Eusebius of Caesarea, that a great earthquake did rock the eastern Mediterranean in the year 32-33 AD, and there may have been Roman records, noted by one 'Thallus' of a great eclipse over Judaea as well. We normally draw a sharp distinction between the spiritual and natural universes, but perhaps here is one of those few instances where the separation breaks down, as it does during any miracle, and where nature itself seemed to be overturned by the enormity of what had just happened. As the earthquake was a natural disaster, the tearing of the temple veil was a supernatural one, that foreshadowed in an eerie way the destruction of the Temple itself forty years over, and that must have struck the people of Jerusalem as a terrible omen.

"It is finished," said the Lord, in Latin "Consummatum est." The English translation does not do justice (and who knows, Christ may have used Latin). Christ was saying, "It is accomplished", or perhaps, "It is consummated." Romantic love is (very often) consummated by the act of coitus, and if the woman is a virgin, then this may involve blood. Christ's consummation of his love for fallen humanity, too, was sealed in blood, the blood that poured from his torn forehead and his pierced hands and feet. The blood of the virgin's bed when she surrenders to her lover recapitulates the blood through which the love of Christ and his Bride was consummated. It is, of course, a commonplace observation, made by innumerable theologians, poets and mystics down the ages (and interestingly enough, the Hindus have an equivalent theological concept) that erotic love, and the act of coitus, are at their best a carnal figure of a spiritual reality, symbolizing and incarnating (in the literal sense of the word) not merely the spiritual communion between lovers, but the everlasting covenant and communion between Christ and fallen Man, which was initiated by the Incarnation, as a romantic relationship is initiated by a first date, and consummated by his death on the cross. It is no accident that in early modern English of Donne and Shakespeare, 'to die' was used as a euphemism for the sexual climax. For something in human nature and in our souls recognizes that there is a hidden, obscure but inescapable connection between pleasure and suffering, between love and death, between sex and the mystery of the Cross. The physical act of love is the closest thing we can experience in this world to perfect union with another, and that perfect union was what God the Son accomplished through his Incarnation, sealed with his blood as the writers of old used to seal letters with wax. Every stroke of the scourge, every blow from the soldiers' fists, every cut from the crown of thorns, every issue of blood from the wounds in his hands, his feet, his side, every drop of blood that mixed with his sweat in the Garden as the red wine mixes with water at the Eucharist, was a further expression of his boundless and perfect love for us, just as every kiss and caress of the lovers is an expression of their love for each other. For as it said, "by his stripes we are healed."

"Consummatum est." It is perhaps for that reason that the wounds of Christ, and the streaks of his precious blood, are eternal. When Christ comes again in glory, at the end of the world to defeat the armies of evil, St. John tells us in his Apocalypse that even then, innumerable ages after the Crucifixion, he will bear the wounds of his sacrifice: "He was clad in a vesture dipped in blood, and his name is called the Word of God," and again, "in the midst of the elders stood a lamb as it had been slain." For this act of supreme love was so great and so momentous that it can never be forgotten or diminished, not even visually: Our Lord wears the marks of his suffering forever. For the past can be transcended, and out of evil God brings good, but evil can never be made not to have happened, and the past can never be replayed. Yann Martel, in his bestseller "Life of Pi", puts it well: once a dead God always a dead God, even though resurrected. If God's death was to have any meaning, instead of being a sham and a farce, as Martel puts it, the death must be real, and that means that for the rest of eternity, the Trinity must be in some way wounded by it. I have no idea what Martel's personal faith is, but here he brilliantly puts the essence of the fundamental debate between orthodox Christianity and the Docetic schools of thought, and shows the fundamental flaw of Docetism. Christ accepted that permanent, everlasting injury to himself out of love for us, and for the rest of eternity he wears the marks of his Passion, just as so many military officers wear their decorations for the rest of their lives.

"Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round", this is what the Lord must have felt in his last minutes, as he remembered the prophecy, "the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet". But he knew that it was worth it, just as a man and a woman, after months of getting to know each other, after building up love through friendship, mutual devotion, and sacrifice, know that it is worth it when they make love for the first time, because in this act of supreme love, Christ knew he was accomplishing something great for his people. He had told his disciples, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man should give up his life for his friends," and being perfect in all ways, he followed this logic to its perfect conclusion.

"Consummatum est." And truly, how much was really consummated in that moment? In the moment of his death were consummated the three hours of his dying, the three years of his ministry, the thirty-three years of his life, the countless generations that God had been speaking to the people of Israel, the countless millenia of human history, the many millions of years of animal evolution, the very history of our universe itself. It was all leading up to Christ, its center and its focus, and all those endless ages finally found their purpose when he spoke his last words from the cross: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."