This is Israel’s song

Sacrifice of Isaac-Caravaggio 

When we act in accordance with the Father’s will, it is not always easy.

Take the example of the child Jesus. Our Lady and St Joseph took the child Jesus up to Jerusalem so as to act in accordance with the law. Another way of expressing this is to say that, by fulfilling the law, they acted in accordance with the Father’s will.

And in so acting, what sorrow was brought to Our Lady. For it was here in the temple that she heard the words of Simeon: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, and a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” (Luke 2: 34b-35a)

We see here the intertwining of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus – he who is a sign that is spoken against – and the sorrowful and immaculate heart of Mary. For it is through her heart, so full of grace as to be immaculate, that Mary gave her fiat and so conceived in her womb and bore a son, one whose name means God saves, one who desires to save us through the mercy that pours of his most Sacred Heart.

It’s because of this Sacred Heart though that the prophecy of sorrow was delivered unto Mary. No Christ; no prophecy. No Jesus; no immaculate heart. No Sacred Heart, no sorrowful heart.

The sorrow of the prophecy is threefold: the sorrow that her Son would be a sign that would be spoken against; the sorrow that many of her spiritual children would fall; and of course the sorrow caused by her own suffering which, even upon hearing Simeon’s words, commenced.

Recall that his mother, his brother, his sister is the one who does the will of the One who sent Him (cf Mt 12:50). When we act in accordance with the Father’s will, we too can expect to be intertwined with the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and the sorrowful heart of Mary. If we do the will of Christ, we do the will of the Father and to do the will of the Father, is to do the will of the Sacred Heart for the Father and He are one.

In Scripture, the mountain can be associated with sacrifice. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son on a mountain of Moriah. Christ, the only begotten Son of God, offered himself as a sacrifice on the Mount of Calvary.

It is in sacrifice and sorrow that we meet God in a particular way. Sometimes, as with Abraham, we are only asked if we are willing to make the sacrifice. When we show God that yes, we would embrace His will, we find that sometimes our acquiescence is enough and instead of asking us to pick up that particular cross, He takes it from us.

Why does God ask of us to pick it up if it is not His will that we carry it? Even when the cross is taken from us, the mere act of surrendering to His will is a sacrifice, one which pleases Him greatly. But it is also allows us to be purified. Indeed, as Our Lady and St Joseph ascended into Jerusalem with the forty day old babe in their arms, it was a time of purification (c.f. Luke 2:33). God also asks because it is through this surrender, when ahead seems naught but sadness, loneliness and the cross, that He is able to show that He will be with us.

In Exodus, the Lord reveals to Moses, “But I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that I have sent you: when you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain.” (Ex 3:12).

Christ too served God upon the mountain; indeed on the Mount of Calvary, Christ is the one who serves God perfectly. By doing thus, by doing the will of the Father, His cross became a sign of both serving God and sacrifice.

What does it mean that Jesus is set for a sign that is spoken against? “The sign which is spoken against is called in Scripture, the cross. For Moses, it says, made a bronze serpent and placed it for a sign.” So St Basil tells us. But Saint Gregory of Nyssa points out that “perhaps Christ Himself is termed a sign, as having a supernatural existence, and as the author of signs.”

When we embrace our cross, or at the very least pick it up and follow Jesus, we meet God, even amidst the sorrows that the cross can bring. “But I will be with you,” God says. And it is here, in the surrender, in the cross, that we meet God.

In Scripture, God’s people ascended into Jerusalem and into the Temple, the place where sacrifice was offered. In the Psalms of ascent, we prepare ourselves for the sacrifice and we prepare to offer ourselves in sacrifice:

  • Save me O Lord – Psalm 120
  • I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth – Psalm 121
  • For love of my brethren and friends I say, ‘Peace upon you!’ For love of the house of the Lord I will ask for your good – Psalm 122
  • To you have I lifted up my eyes, you who dwell in the heavens…have mercy on us Lord, have mercy – Psalm 123
  • Indeed our snare has been broken and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth – Psalm 124
  • Those who put their trust in the Lord are like Mount Sion, that cannot be shaken, that stands forever – Psalm 125
  • Deliver us O Lord from our bondage as streams in dry land – Psalm 126
  • If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labour – Psalm 127
  • Indeed thus shall be blessed the man who fears the Lord – Psalm 128
  • This is Israel’s song – Psalm 129
  • Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord – Psalm 130
  • O Israel, hope in the Lord both now and forever – Psalm 131
  • Go up, Lord, to the place of your rest, you and the ark of your strength – Psalm 132
  • How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers live in unity! It is like precious oil upon the head – Psalm 133

Like Our Lady, like Christ himself, we can go up to Jerusalem and present ourselves to the Father, offering ourselves as the sacrifice. The sacrifice offered by Our Lady and St Joseph in the Presentation was both a fulfilment of the Law, a purification, and a sacrifice of themselves. The sacrifice offered by Christ on Calvary is both the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of ourselves. We too can go up to Jerusalem, up to Calvary.

The fulfilment of the Law is a fulfilment of the law of love, a love in which He laid down His life for us, His friends. We too are asked to fulfil this law by loving one another as Christ loves us, a love which is embodied by both his Incarnation and by His Passion, for in His humility, He submitted to the former which led to him enduring the latter.

The last sorrow of Our Lady is the burial of Christ, the completioin of the Passion. The first sorrow is the prefiguring of the Passion with the Presentation and it is here that the prophecy of Simeon is first heard. Why then do we count the Presentation as a joyful mystery?

It is joyful because it is a confirmation of Mary’s fiat. In the Annunciation she gives her fiat and in doing so, she freely offers of her whole self. But in the Presentation, her offering is deepened for what was abstract – the Word – is now a concrete reality – the Word has been made flesh. She offers again her whole self, including her love of this child and offers a willingness to endure both His passion and her own passion. Such love is a reflection of, an overflowing of, and a prelude to the great joy that is Christ’s love for the Father and the Father’s love for Christ.

It is joyful because it is through the cross that Jesus goes to the Father. It is joyful because the fruits of the Incarnation and subsequent Passion is the Resurrection:

Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

John 16: 20-22

And in own lives, God may ask for what seems impossible to give but through surrendering to the cross – however poor that surrender is – he transforms the sorrow into an even greater joy. He gives us more than we could hope for. He may ask you to carry that particular cross all the way to Calvary; he may, as with Abraham, ask only for your willingness to give all that you hold dear, but either way He will bless you for your surrender.

And as we ascend into Jerusalem, the words from a psalm come to mind:

Deliver us, O Lord from our bondage

as streams in dry land.

Those who are sowing in tears

will sing when they reap.

They go out, they go out, full of tears

Carrying seed for the sowing:

They come back, they come back, full of song,

Carrying their sheaves.

Psalm 126

…the water became sweet

480px-John_baptist_byzantine

John the Baptist appeared in the desert

As I read last week’s Gospel in an Advent reflection group, these words jumped out at me.

We associate the desert with pain, suffering, danger. It is the place of the spiritually parched. A place where one is on the brink of death, perhaps only just hanging on. A place bereft of life. It is barren.

The desert is where we die of thirst.

John the Baptist appeared in the desert.

I decided to turn to Sacred Scripture. The desert or the wilderness is mentioned over and over but my first thoughts were for the story of Exodus.

The Israelites travelled through the desert after they crossed the Red Sea. Although they had escaped slavery, they were faced with a new threat. For three days they found no water and when they came across water at long last, it was bitter.

But rather than despair, Moses turned to the Lord, crying out to Him and of course the Lord responded. “The LORD showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.” (Ex 15: 25 RSV)

When faced with this world’s valley of tears, when lost in the desert, when wandering in the wilderness, the Lord responds by showing us the tree of his cross. It is ony through uniting the bitter trials of this life with the cross that they become sweet. Even more so, by uniting our sufferings to the cross, they become a means of sanctification through which we move closer to perfect union with God. For Our Lord instructs us to take up our cross and follow him, explaining that we must lose our lives.

Why.are we to lose our lives? We lose our life in order to gain new life, the fullness of life that is found in perfect union with God. I don’t think it is a co-incidence that the Israelites were without life-giving water for three days since it foreshadows the three days when Christ lay dead in a tomb and our world was bereft of He who bears the water of life. But as we profess in the Creed, on the third day he rose again: through His death that we experience the glorious joy of the Resurrection.

This Scripture especially speaks to my heart when I think about sin. When St Peter reflected on how he denied Christ, “he went out and wept bitterly“. I have denied Christ through particular sins and though I may not weep, I feel the bitterness of my sin.

But I do not need to despair. Instead, I can take my burdens to Christ in confession. Here, through His great sacrifice on the cross, the Lord takes what is bitter and makes it sweet through sacramental absolution and the great gift of His forgiveness.

When in the valley of tears through my own fault, when lost in the desert through my own fault, when wandering in the wilderness through my own grevious fault, the Lord responds by showing me the tree of His cross

My heart may still feel sad but my mind knows that it is a time of great thanksgiving and joy for the Lord is truly kind and merciful.

O give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever.

Reach out your hand

It is beautiful to start with Our Lady, she who carried the Word made flesh in her heart and her body, she through whose co-operation Our Lord was brought into the world. In the great hymn the Magnificat, Our Lady speaks of Him who puts forth His arm in strength.

If we are called to imitate Christ, what does it mean to put forth our arm in strength? We are asked to put it forth in the strength of faith. Another way, perhaps, of saying ‘put forth your arm’ is ‘reach out your hand’.

Jesus appears to Thomas, after the Resurrection. “Reach out your hand.” This is what Our Lord says to Thomas who doubts. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Caravaggio_-The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Caravaggio –  The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

 

Why his side? Because the soldier had already pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water from the Sacred Heart of Jesus, from He who is a fount of mercy in whom we can trust; from the one who says, “Do not doubt but believe.”

Where else do we see a flow of water and blood? The first plague of Moses. With his staff, Moses struck the river and water turned into blood. Moses did this that Pharaoh’s heart would yield.

“Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” This is the message Our Lord God sent to Pharaoh.

The first sign of Jesus, the one which revealed his glory and caused his disciples to believe in Him, was the turning of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. He turned water into wine and the disciples, their hearts did yield. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

At the Last Supper, Jesus took the cup of wine. “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” And so, through another miraculous sign, the wine was turned into blood – into His Precious Blood. And why is this Blood poured out? For the forgiveness of sins, that our heart would yield to His Sacred Heart, and that we would be let go from our slaver to sin so that we may worship Him.

From water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana, and from wine into Blood at the marriage supper of the Lamb, Our Lord fulfils the sign of Moses and frees us from the yoke of slavery.

At that same supper of the Lamb, the disciple whom Jesus loved was reclining next to him and leaned back against Jesus. He, the disciple, placed his trust, his love , his life, his will, his future in the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, hidden behind His chest. He was leant back against Jesus, he yielded to him and he was set free.

The first plague of Moses was the turning of water into blood. The first sign of Jesus was the turning of water into wine. And the last sign of Jesus, before His glorious resurrection, is the blood and water which poured out from his side as he hung from the cross.

“Let my people go,” said Moses and the new Moses bowed his head and gave up His spirit so that His people might be let go.

How exactly did Moses turn the water into blood? Through the power of God, and with a staff, the staff that had been turned into a snake; the staff that had swallowed up the staff of the Egyptian magicians who practised the secret arts: evil.

And from whence did come this staff? It was the sign from God for Moses. It was the staff which is the desert – in the wilderness – the Lord God told Moses to throw to the ground.

“So he threw the staff on the ground, and it became a snake; and Moses drew back from it. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Reach out your hand, and seize it by the tail’ – so he reached out his hand and grasped it, and it became a staff in his hand – ‘so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abrahama, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.’

And of course later, “the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ “

And many years later, Jesus explained that, “just as Moses lifted the snake in the desert, so the Son of Many must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

And not much later again, the Son of Man – the new Moses – the Lord Jesus Christ – is indeed lifted up. The cross – a symbol of a torturous death, a sign of slavery, subjection and evil – is now, through the power of God, transformed into a symbol of victory, of self-sacrificial love. Light swallows up the darkness just as the staff of Moses swallowed up the staffs of the Egyptian magicians.

The Good News did not end at the death of God who hung from a cross. Because in being thus raised up on a cross, He exposed His Sacred Heart to us. In being raised on the cross, He allowed the spear to be put into His side so that blood and water could pour out. And the Good News did not end at the death of God because as well as being raised on the cross, Jesus was raised from the cross.

The great I Am told Moses, “Reach out your hand…so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – has appeared…”.

And Jesus, the one who said, ‘Before Abraham was, I am’, is raised from death and appears to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here, see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

 

[I think most of the Scripture quotes are NRSV but I’m not sure if they all are!]

Battle Scars: He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Pieta_(1876)_modif_2After wasting too much time on Facebook, I called quits on it until report card writing is finished. Since I haven’t been able to make witty status updates about the painfulness of report card writing, I have been listening to music to distract myself as I write them. I suppose I could instead have offered it up for the souls in purgatory but I didn’t think of that until now.

A song that I really love is Battle Scars by Guy Sebastian featuring Lupe Fiasco. I really like what Guy Sebastian said on the behind the scenes video: “We just really wanted to speak to people from all walks of life and I guess everybody has battle scars.”

Christ knows what it is to have battle scars.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.” 

John 20: 19-20

Battle Scars

Where do battle scars come from? Battle wounds. Wounds caused by sin: by our own sinfulness and by the sinfulness of others. In Christ’s case, the battle scars are caused not by His sin – for He is without sin – but they are caused by our sin. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.”  (1 Pet 2:24)

Hope the wound heals but it never does
That’s cause you’re at war with love
You’re at war with love

It’s so true, isn’t it? So long as we are at war with love – Love Himself – the wounds won’t heal. When we’re at war with Love, the wounds are ripped open over and over.

But the song doesn’t always get it right:

Now you’re down on the ground screaming medic
The only thing that comes is the post-traumatic stresses
Shields, body armors and vests don’t properly work

When we’re down on the ground, screaming, Christ is the medic and into our wounds, into our brokenness, Christ pours out love and mercy from the depths of His Sacred Heart. On this battlefield, Christ gives us his Church, the field hospital. And the shields, armour and vests of this world don’t properly work but Christ gives us the shield of faith, the armour of God, the breastplate of righteousness.

I wish I couldn’t feel, I wish I couldn’t love
I wish that I could stop cause it hurts so much
And I’m the only one that’s trying to keep us together

In the Garden at Gethsemane, Jesus was deeply troubled. He prayed that the cup would pass from him. Jesus is the suffering servant, the one who underwent the agony and the passion. Yet through all this, Jesus loved. He loved until it hurt. He loved until death. He has never stopped loving no matter how much our continued sinfulness hurts Him. He is the one trying to keep us together.

These battle scars don’t look like they’re fading
Don’t look like they’re ever going away
They ain’t never gonna change

The scars of Christ did not go away. Luke’s Gospel recounts how Jesus said to the disciples, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.” But the wounds of Christ had changed. They are now part of the resurrected Christ.

See, you hoped the wound heals, but it never does
That’s cause you’re at war with love
Hope it heals, but it never does
That’s cause you’re at war with love!

It is only when we stop fighting Love, we can allow ourselves to be healed.

The man going from Jerusalem to Jericho was half-dead on the side of the road. But the Samaritan was moved with pity. “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.”   (Lk 10:34)

Will we stop fighting Christ and instead allow him to bandage our wounds? Be anointed with the oil, His Holy Spirit. Be healed by the wine: His precious blood poured out for us on the cross and at the mass.

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”                 (1 Pet 2: 24-25)

These battle scars don’t look like they’re fading
Don’t look like they’re ever going away
I ain’t never gonna change

Please pray for all those who suffer PTSD. Please pray for all those who are returned from war. Please pray for those who despair. Please pray for those who are obstinate in not changing. And please pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, especially those who were in the military.

[Scripture quotes are NRSV]

He bears us on His shoulders

By Titian

Christ Carrying His Cross by Titian

I love to read and I love to buy books. Sadly, I am lacking considerably in the virtue of persistence so I have more than a few books that I have bought, started and never finished even though they are good books not to mention the books that I have bought and not started even though they look like good books!

Quite some time ago, I purchased a hard-copy soft-cover edition of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation on The Joy of the Gospel. I started reading it and I was highlighting and underlining and loving what it said. I never even finished Chapter One.

Recently, I joined a reading group with Fr Jordan SJ since they were tackling Evangelii Gaudium, it was a night that I was free, and since Fr Jordan is the bee’s knees.

One sentence particularly struck me: “Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders.” This sentence is found in the context of a reminder of God’s tirelessness in forgiving us and it brings to my mind two key images.

First, Jesus bears the cross on His shoulders.

“Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.  So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Gol’gotha.” 

(John 19: 14 – 17 RSV)

We are the ones who send him off to be crucified. Every time we choose the prince of this world over the prince of peace, every time we choose an opportunity to develop in vice instead of virtue, every time we try to justify ourselves rather than allow ourselves to be justified by him, we join those who say, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!”

The idea comes to mind that we are Christ’s cross itself. But instead of spurning us and turning away from the cross, He picks us up, embraces us, and bears us, in order that we might, through the mercy and saving action of God, share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.

In private revelation, St Bernard of Clairvaux learnt from Our Lord that His most painful wound was the wound He received carrying the cross on His shoulder. “I had on My Shoulder while I bore My Cross on the Way of Sorrows, a grievous Wound which was more painful than the others, and which is not recorded by men.” Startlingly, Padre Pio also had a shoulder wound, in addition to the stigmata, and he stated that this was his most painful wound.

St Augustine talks about how, to the profane world, the cross is a laughing stock. And without the eyes of faith, surely it stretches incredulity. A king – one who the faithful claim is God Himself – carries his people on his shoulder, carrying them unto his own death that they may live? But out of Jesus’ great love for us and out of Jesus’ desire that we would be reconciled to the Father, it is precisely this which he does. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders.

The other main image that comes to mind is, of course, the Good Shepherd who carries us on his shoulder.

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.”

(Luke 15: 4 – 5 RSV)

This is a beautiful image for the sacrament of confession, where Jesus absolves us of our sin and reconciles us to the Father. It is an image of the whole Christian life where we wander off, searching for “something other than God” until we are lost, seemingly without hope, but with infinite patience Jesus goes out and searches for us until He finds us, a reminder that it is always, always,  God who initiates. Having found us, if we let Him, He bears us upon His shoulders and carries us home.

And of course, “the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:7) which brings us back to the cross. Having laid down His life, the Good Shepherd has the power to take up this same life again which He does, carrying us on His shoulders as He does so that we have share in his divinity.

Pope Benedict XVI talked about this in his homily at the mass of his inauguration:

“The first symbol is the Pallium, woven in pure wool, which will be placed on my shoulders. This ancient sign, which the Bishops of Rome have worn since the fourth century, may be considered an image of the yoke of Christ, which the Bishop of this City, the Servant of the Servants of God, takes upon his shoulders. God’s yoke is God’s will, which we accept. And this will does not weigh down on us, oppressing us and taking away our freedom. To know what God wants, to know where the path of life is found – this was Israel’s joy, this was her great privilege. It is also our joy: God’s will does not alienate us, it purifies us – even if this can be painful – and so it leads us to ourselves. In this way, we serve not only him, but the salvation of the whole world, of all history. The symbolism of the Pallium is even more concrete: the lamb’s wool is meant to represent the lost, sick or weak sheep which the shepherd places on his shoulders and carries to the waters of life. For the Fathers of the Church, the parable of the lost sheep, which the shepherd seeks in the desert, was an image of the mystery of Christ and the Church. The human race – every one of us – is the sheep lost in the desert which no longer knows the way. The Son of God will not let this happen; he cannot abandon humanity in so wretched a condition. He leaps to his feet and abandons the glory of heaven, in order to go in search of the sheep and pursue it, all the way to the Cross. He takes it upon his shoulders and carries our humanity; he carries us all – he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.”