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Abouna’s Reflections

(The) complete individual household or family in Christ[1] has a definite purpose.

It works and exists to glorify God in Christ through the sanctification and the salvation of its members.

By reason of the charity which animates it in virtue of its very constitution,

it also works to bring all the other inhabitants of its own locality into its company

so that they too may enjoy the association with Christ and the life in Him which can never be possessed apart from His Kingdom….

 

Today we are given the great grace to commemorate and celebrate the boundless and life-giving Mystery of Holy Orders, that apostolic chain of divine life that descends through each generation from the beginning of the Church. It is in this divine Rozoh[2] that men are consecrated throughout time and space into the temporal Incarnation of God on earth. These individual men have not merited this gift any more than the ass on Palm Sunday had merited carrying Our Lord through the jubilant crowds of welcome. All the same, it remains a wondrous reality.

The priestly charge is sheer gift, an act of divine mercy both to the man himself and to the community of redemption that is called the Church. The Catholic priest is both son of that Church in time and father to its next generation. Before this incarnational Mystery all mortal men should rightly tremble in awe. To this divine gift are men gratuitously called – and to its corresponding apostolic mission – this is the original and fundamental meaning of “vocation”.

There can be no celebration of mere men in any of this; they are simply the vehicles of the great act of love of the Sacred Heart of Hidden Son in whom He continues to extend the healing work of redemption to all mankind. In this way, the consecrated men whom we call priests are similar to the bread and wine that is used by the Lord God in the Divine Eucharist.

There is a transcendental relation between the Mystery of the Eucharist and the Mystery of Holy Orders. One cannot be had without the other; the Mass cannot exist without a validly ordained priest, and a priest without the Divine Sacrifice is nothing. This is beautifully expressed in our Syriac tradition where the ordaining bishop touches the Sacred Eucharist Elements on the altar with one hand while imposing the other hand on the head of the man to be ordained to the priesthood. The Eucharist Itself, as it were, ordains the man, who in the future will confect the Eucharist as a priest. As wine is pressed from grapes and flour is ground from grains of wheat, so the mortal man must be trodden and ground in order that the singular Light of the Hidden One be made manifest in this redemptive Mystery.

The Priest of the New Testament is one: Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. The Priesthood of the New Covenant is one, exercised by the Incarnate Son of God, the Lion of Judah, the living/slain Lamb of the Apocalypse, and High Priest according to the Order of Melchisedech.[3] There is one God, one Incarnate Word, one Gospel, one Death on Calvary, one Resurrection, one Parousia and one salvation in the divine Light.

The Merciful One invites every person to receive grace and enter into the healing light of salvation, but this mercy is even more pronounced toward the men called priests; in fact, this mercy is twofold. These men have been called to not only be recipients of salvation, as every human being requires, they have also been called to be conduits of that saving grace in their own generation. Praise be to God for His compassionate mercy and gentle path of salvation.

With gratitude for three decades of often overwhelming grace and blessings, and with my personal affection and gratitude to you all for your thoughtful acknowledgements throughout these last months, let us all turn to the Hidden God of mercy, the True-Hope-Who-never-Deceives, and raise adoration, thanksgiving and glory for having called us all to the extraordinarily sublime and beautiful Mystery of the Body of Christ.

The immediate purpose and function

of the local Church is the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Around this central and essential activity

are gathered all the other operations God

has assigned to the local Church….

And precisely because the Mass is a sacrifice,

a corporate and external expression or manifestation of all the other public or private acts of worship,

the Mass is necessarily the act in which the entirety of the local Church’s corporate life

finds its expression and its meaning.[4]

[1] an eparchy or diocese

[2] “Sacrament”

[3] Psalm 110: 4; Hebrews 7: 13-17

[4] From The Concept of the Diocesan Priesthood by Msgr. Joseph Fenton. Emphasis added.

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Abouna’s Reflections

By their example, the charitable are revealed in the purity of their intention,

in the nobility of the motives

which inspire their conduct;

the latter is always marked

by the seal of honesty,

in such a way that agapè, excluding all meanness,

becomes quite close to fineness

and clarity of conscience ....1

In recent years the notion of charity/agapè has often been debased by the attempt to equate it with affection and “feeling”, clearly this is an impossible task. What passes for Christian love these days is often nothing more than sentimentality; although perhaps well intentioned, it comes across as silly, a bit like ecclesiastical Woodstock. This is tragic. It is also a profound disfiguring and falsification of the great gift given to the world in Our Lord: divine charity, the love of God itself. Agapè is the virtue given to men that allows us to enter God’s own divine charity and to love with the love of God.

As we considered two weeks ago, the basic notion of Christian charity has the basic quality of respect, esteem and even veneration. We could never be commanded to hold affection and sentimental love for our enemies, but we can be taught, and commanded, to hold all in esteem – including our enemies. Well known, this commandment our Lord has given. Examining the Gospels we see this trait of respect throughout; Our Lord treats all with the greatest esteem and deference, even during His trial before the Sanhedrin and in His betrayal by Judas: “Judas, do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”.2

The second characteristic, which can also be taught and commanded, lies in the honesty and nobility of motive and intention. Those who have received the gift of charity are transformed in mind.3

Redemption brings with it a purification of spirit by the virtue of faith and baptism. This clarifies the mind and will resulting in a refinement and elevation of our motives. Worldly motivation must be burned off as dross, and our minds be purified by the divine fire. By faith and charity we are to think and act as the children of God.

By grace and living faith we begin to see the world differently and, as a result, our intent and purpose are transformed. We no longer simply plod along like the rest of the world; with true origin and goal now properly known, we have purpose and reason for our existence – a transformed vision indicates our path in and to the Kingdom of God. All this is included in the notion of “honest and noble motive”.

In practice, this means that while we still continue very much to live in the world, we do so in a different light. We are no longer of the world.4 Where once we simply worked because income is necessary to live, we now render our life’s work as a service to God and neighbor. We still pay bills, of course, but these are put in a corrected perspective within the light of eternal life. All things pass, only the divine endures. Without faith, light and grace all is dust and ashes; but with faith and the light of grace transforming our intent and motive, even the simplest things become beautifully great.

Charity present in our lives reminds us that our trials and hardships, too, are passing. The light of faith allows us to embrace in agapè life’s difficulties, transforming them into “crosses” united with our once-suffering Savior, knowing that all things elevated by grace will triumph finally in the glorious Resurrection.

1From Charity and Liberty by Rev. Fr. Ceslaus Spicq, OP

2 St. Luke 22: 48 In a parallel text, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Our Lord at that moment still refers to Judas as “friend”.

3 Ephesians 4: 23

4 I Cor 7: 29-31

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Abouna’s Reflections

Christians are indistinguishable from other people either by nationality, language or customs. ….

Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by curiosity. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine.

With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their residence, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. ….

They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.

Christians love all, but all persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death; but they are raised to life again. … They are defamed, but vindicated.

A blessing is their answer to abuse,

deference their response to insult.[1]

There is little that needs to be added by way of commentary to this stunningly beautiful text from the early Church. It describes well the true meaning of “parish”.

In these days of Pentecost (and bowing before the sublime Triune Mystery of the Hidden One) during which we commemorate the Presence of the Divine Fire in the sacred Body of the Church, we ask that God enflame our minds in wisdom and enliven our wills in strength that we might each follow such lofty example and replicate it in our own generation.

[1] From the Letter to Diognetus, second century AD

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Abouna’s Reflections

The Christian is precisely the one who knows

that the true reality of the world –

of this world, of this life of ours –

not of some mysterious “other” world –

is in Christ;

the Christian knows, rather,

that Christ is this reality.

In its self-sufficiency the world and all that exists in it has no meaning.
And as long as we live after the fashion of this world,
as long, in other words, as we make our life an end in itself,
no meaning and no goal stand, for they are dissolved in death. ….

And as Christ’s Death “trampled down death” because in it the ultimate meaning

and strength of life were revealed,

so also does our dying with Him unite us

with the new “life of God”.[1]

We learn, we love, and we live right here; and while some among us would prefer to do it all somewhere else, in fantasy – especially the loving part – reality has a way of slapping us down to make us realize that we are here.

When Our Lord spoke about charity at the Last Supper, that is love which is inspired by grace, infused into the human spirit allowing us to participate in the eternal divine Charity that is God, He spoke of interpenetration of the lover and the beloved. All love requires some form of common experience, but divine charity takes this to wholly other level: there is a true indwelling among the lovers.

A quality of the gift of charity (agapé in the Greek Gospels) is to dwell in the one whom one loves.[2] Note the order: we perceive, we come to know, and then we love. To refuse knowledge is finally to refuse love and friendship. This could be likened to a work situation where one might know a pleasant woman at the office with whom brief conversations are shared here and there around the office and during breaks, but this is an acquaintance, not a friend. Friendship can only blossom and flourish with further knowledge that allows us to see and love more. If we were to say that that fellow employee was “a friend” but then went on to refuse further invitations, conversation over dinner for example or “meeting up” it would be a contradiction. It would be like saying that we have a friend but we are indifferent to learning more about that person. This would not be friendship, nor even a condition in which friendship could develop.

One cannot love what one does not know. There are sadly many who claim that they love God but who have no desire to know Him any better. They claim that they can love without “knowing” but this is illusory. This is equivalent to “having a friend” for whom one has “no time”. A marriage without communication is not a stable one. A marriage with a refusal to know the other spouse would be dead. Presumption of that spousal knowledge is perhaps even more lethal.

Knowledge inspires love, and love provokes further desire to better know the friend. Perfect love – charity at its best – achieves union between the lovers. By grace, God dwells in us and we in God; and this charity transfigures us “from glory to glory”.[3]

This is why God has spoken personally to mankind. He did not leave knowledge of Himself to be grasped merely by weak human minds in philosophical contemplation – always a precarious task open to self-deception. He gave us knowledge of Himself by the Word so that we might not only know but also come to love in free response.

Translated into the world of grace and redemption this means that our natural human heart was created for God and ultimately God alone; it is animated, healed and elevated by grace; illuminated by revelation; enflamed by charity and oriented to the things of God from within the human life where it first found us, right here. This divine knowledge and love transform everything.

Understood correctly, charity is not something for “later” any more than salvation means only “after death”. Divine love, grace, salvation and the transformation by the Holy Spirit begin now, today, at this very moment; should we choose to receive this divine love and return gracified love in return, this is what our God and Savior meant by the “good” or “luminous” heart receiving the divine word.[4] For these reasons the Church has never seen anything as escaping from its purview, even sin is included as that which must be remedied and healed.

For twenty centuries the Catholic Church has adored, loved, pondered, considered and lived the Gospel. During this time she has developed beautiful teachings on every aspect of human life – both natural and supernatural. Most Catholics are perhaps unaware that there is an overwhelmingly rich patrimony of doctrine concerning things as sublime as the Most Holy Triune God through family life, and even down to the nuts and bolts social and economic organization of society. Of course, the Church does not lay out specifying details as each human culture and society has its own needs, but she does lay out the principles by which we are to think and approach life. “Heaven” is only meant to be the state into which we enter at death because we have freely followed the course of grace in life. It is the logical effect of a gracified life.

This is the meaning of Fr. Schmemann’s emphasis on the “true reality of the world” as being “this world, of this life of ours”. Christianity is an incarnate religion of an incarnate God, whose disciples make up His visible Body, the Church.

Salvation begins each day in grace, and when we love and enter the Beloved our ultimate salvation is assured. While at the same time it is also true that should we neglect grace day after day, we also tear down that assurance.

Our neglect or indifference today indicates the future abandonment eternally after death.

Let us rather be on the side of here and now, and in grace learn to know and to love in the true and actual “plan of salvation”.

[1] From For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy by Alexander Schmemann

[2] St John 17: 23-26

[3] II Cor 3: 18

[4] St. Luke 8: 15

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You are a Fire always burning, but never consuming.

You are a Fire consuming in Your heat

all the soul’s selfish love.

You are a Fire lifting all chill and giving light.

In Your light, You have made me know Your truth.

You are that Light beyond all light,

Who gives the mind’s eye

supernatural light in such fullness and perfection

that You bring clarity even to the light of faith.

In that faith I see that my soul has life,

and in that light receives You Who are Light.[1]

Things remaining the same can have varying effects in their actions depending on the disposition of the receiver. For example, the same sun can both melt wax and harden mud. Light can allow us to see so that we do not stumble when walking, and it can also cause pain and blindness to those whose eyes are weakened by sickness. The same heat can both bring warming comfort as well as burn up dried grass and cause forest fires. Fire can purify metals from dross and can consume what is inflammably dried up.

The presence of one and the same thing thus can have various effects depending on the recipient. So it is with God; He loves and sanctifies from an infinite Heart – even dying for us and conquering death – and yet not all are ultimately saved by that unique Love. Have we made ourselves wax or mud? Does grace soften or harden our spirit?

This prayer of Saint Catherine of Siena is a stunning reflection of the image often used by the Syriac Fathers: God is Light and Fire. It is an image that is easy to understand, or at least to grasp if not to comprehend.

Saint Ephraim referred to the sun as an image of the Most Holy Trinity. Although the natural sun is not a revelation of the Triune Mystery of God, as the shamrock is not either, it is does hold a fitting symbolism for those who already know Him to be Threefold Personality as revealed by our Savior. That said, the image still remains an apt one to convey a fuller understanding of the works of God.

Saint Ephraim spoke of God as the Divine Sun, that is even as the natural sun exhibits fire, heat and light, so the Harp of the Spirit wrote of the Divine Trinity as Fire, Heat and Light. The Logos illumines and for this reason is represented by the light of the sun, while the Spirit that enkindles the divine fire of charity within us is aptly referred to the heat of the natural sun. As light and heat originate in the solar fire, so the Divine Word and the Holy Spirit originate each from the Divine Fire that we call the Hidden Father. So the one sun, one light, one heat, speak of the One Father, one Son, and one Divine Spirit in Gift.

As we can find ourselves out in the natural cold – especially in Maine for much of the year – we can also find ourselves physically in shade, even in darkness. In our lives these physical conditions can suggest the spiritual realities of lack of charity, the obscurity of sin, and the darkness of selfish egocentrism. Sin can easily swamp us. Our “default settings” by birth into this fallen world are just that: cold, dark and separated from God.

As noted in the prayer of Saint Catherine above, the divine heat of grace is to consume our selfish love and turn us outwardly from our ego. The divine fire is to enlighten us and enlighten us so that transformed by faith into the perfection of that supernatural light we can enter a more profound and ever greater understanding of the one true Faith. Enkindled and enlightened in this way we are then disposed to “receive You Who are Light”.

As has often been repeated, God did not become Man and die on Calvary so that we be made simply “good people”. As Saint Catherine portrays so well in her prayer, Our God and Savior came into this world to transfigure us and make us transcend the merely human, and wounded life we received once at birth. This is the meaning of “returning to Paradise” often repeated throughout the Great Fast. Good education can make for “nice” people, but only grace, the true Faith and the Divine Mysteries can make us the children of God. Only as divinized offspring can we enter the fullness of the Kingdom of Light (Heaven).

May we each form the desire to enter into the spirituality laid out by our Fathers (and Mothers) in the Faith: to enter the magnificent Light that the divine Heat may enkindle us, burn away our selfishness, so that we may be transfigured progressively over the days of our lives and finally and definitely enter into the Divine Fire in that blazing Brightness which is the Fullness of the Kingdom of God.

This is the only path and place where the human heart can find true rest.

[1] Saint Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, tran. By Suzanne Noffke, as quoted in An Easter Sourcebook p. 147

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