Early in the 12th century, a church was to be consecrated, however, it was infested with flies. The people had made several attempts to rid the holy place from the pesky insects, but to no avail. It was then that St. Bernard (should we call him Cujo for short?), who was there to consecrate the church, entered the building and shouted, “Excommunicabe eas.” He excommunicated the flies. The following morning, the flies were all dead and the floor was thick with them, so much so, that they had bring in shovels to carry them all out.
It might seem odd that a fly would drop dead as the result of an excommunication, but apparently, St. Bernard was one to obeyed. One historian writes, “In the entire history of Christianity there have been few saints as terrifying as St. Bernard… Tall and haggard, he had a face seared in constant pain—all of it brought about the unspeakable… austerities he imposed upon himself—from which blazed a pair of eyes before whose accusing stare kings, emperors, and popes would tremble.” (Based on that description, I get the image of Rubeus Hagrid from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in my head.)
You would think that not many would be drawn to such a person, but it is reported that mothers would hide their sons when he came to the village to preach, because so many that heard him would run off and join his monastery. How much so? The Cistercian Order of monks, of which he was a member, had three houses / monasteries when Bernard joined. When he died forty-one years later, there were over five hundred. The house where he was abbot grew from a handful of individuals, to over seven hundred. In light of that, I can say, I know absolutely nothing about evangelism. He was a hard man and a man that lectured emperors and popes and everyone else, but the manner in which he proclaimed the Gospel message drew many.
As we know, the saints all have their difficulties and faults. The one that hangs over Bernard is the Second Crusade to the Holy Land. He preached for it and when it failed, he was condemned by many. He died soon after in the year 1153.
Even though the stain of the crusade hangs over Bernard, Fr. John-Julian writes, “Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was the single most powerful person in the entire expanse of Western Europe during the first half of the 12th century—more powerful than any king or emperor, any prince or pope. Indeed, it has been said of him that Bernard ‘carried the twelfth century on his shoulders.’”
Jesus said, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” We are the fruit that Bernard and so many others produced, but each generation owes to the next the continued planting of seeds and bearing fruit. I pray that all of us and that our church—St. Matthew’s—continues to be a place that produces good fruit.
A German Shepherd, Doberman and a cat have died. All three are faced with God who wants to know what they believe in…. The German shepherd says: “I believe in discipline, training, and loyalty to my master.”… ”Good,” says God. “Then sit down on my right side. Doberman, what do you believe in?”… The Doberman answers: “I also believe in loyalty and the love, care, and protection of my master.”… Ah,” said God. “You may sit to my left.” Then he looks at the cat and asks, “And what do you believe in?”… The cat answers: “I believe you’re sitting in my chair.”
Dogs are always marked up as the loyal four legged companion, but even modern science contends that cats are also loyal, they just have a funny way of showing it. Whatever the case, whether it has to do with our four legged companions or the two legged ones, loyalty is a highly prized attribute.
Throughout Scripture, we hear much about faithfulness. There is God’s faithfulness to us: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.” (Deuteronomy 7:9) “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) There is also the call for us to be faithful to God: Jesus said to the Church in Smyrna found in John’s Revelation, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10) However, the idea of “faithfulness” encompasses many different aspects of God’s relationship to us and ours with God. Things such as obedience, perseverance, service, etc., so today, instead of trying to explore them all, I would like to look at one particular aspect of faithfulness and that is loyalty. Particularly, we know that Jesus is loyal to us—“even unto death on a cross”—but are we loyal to him?
We all have an idea what loyalty is, but to get us all with the same understanding: the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines loyal as “unswerving in allegiance,” so loyalty is the act of unswerving allegiance. We can be loyal to more than one thing: brands/stores, sports teams, people, etc., and I would like to say that we only break our loyalty when trust is broken or we lose faith in the object of our allegiance, however… I’ll let you decide for yourself if this is a true statement: Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, wrote, “Of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.” I would like to say it is not true of me, but we all know that would be hypocritical. Therefore, when it comes to our relationship with God, I sincerely believe that we all desire to be loyal, but since the very beginning, we as the human race have struggled.
There was the issue of the apple, then the Cain and Abel incident, can’t forget the Tower of Babel or Sodom and Gomorra. The Golden Calf, Bathsheba, Baal worship, just to name a few, and that’s just the Old Testament. With Jesus there were the followers who couldn’t take the teaching, a matter of thirty pieces of silver, and something to do with a rooster crowing three times. Again, I sincerely believe that we desire to be loyal, but our allegiance does take a swerve or two, not because God has broken trust or faith with us, but because we have such a difficult time with… 90’s band, “The The” (that was their name) – lyrics from: True Happiness this Way Lies.
“Baby! (it is not a real song unless it says, “Baby”)
Baby… I’ve got my sight set on you
And someday… you’ll come my way.
But when you put your arms around me
I’ll be looking over your shoulder for something new.”
We want to be loyal to God, but there is always something new. Something shiny. Something distracting. So, what does it take to snap us back, to reaffirm our loyalty to God? Sometimes it is a moment of clarity: what the heck am I doing, I’ve drifted from my God; but in many cases, it takes a crisis, which brings us to our Gospel today.
Each Sunday for the past few weeks, we’ve had to have a review, because we’ve been in the middle of a single teaching from Jesus, and today is no different. What have we heard so far: Jesus, as the Son of Man, will act as our judge on the last day, so we must be vigilant in the care of our soul. We can’t just give it a quick dusting once a month and think all will be well. It needs our daily attention and nurturing. We are building a mansion for our King, so that when he returns he will find a home worthy of his glory. “Why?” is the question for today.
Some of you will remember the events of July 6, 1994 on Storm King Mountain in Colorado. It had been a hot dry summer and lightning strikes were causing all sorts of fires. When those fires pop up in remote areas, hot shots or smoke jumpers parachute in and fight them. This particular fire had been burning for a few days and had reached an area of twenty-nine acres. Not large, but big enough to do something about. Fifty firemen and women went in. Four hours later, fourteen of them were dead. At some point, the fire blew up and moved up the mountain at a pace of eighteen miles an hour. The flames reached 300 feet high and the temperature soared to 2,000 degrees. The blow up took less than twenty minutes to consume that side of the mountain and kill the fire fighters.
Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Sts. Ignatius, Origen, and Didymus all record a saying of Jesus that is not found in the Gospels. Whether he said it or not, if feels true: Jesus said, “He who is near me is near the fire.” Why are we to be vigilant in the care of our souls? Because there is a refining fire that is coming. A fire that purifies gold, a fire that purifies the people of God. A fire that is the saving message of the Gospel. A fire that will bring division, and when that dividing occurs, we must decide where our loyalties lie. If we have not been vigilant, alert, awake… remember: “If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” If we are not ready when that unexpected hour comes, if we have not been loyal to Jesus all along, then on that day, the day of judgment, our souls may be found lacking.
Consider what St. Paul says to Timothy: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” (2 Timothy 2:3-4)
That great soldier, General George Patton stated, “It is a proud privilege to be a soldier – a good soldier … [with] discipline, self-respect, pride in his unit and his country, a high sense of duty and obligation to comrades and to his superiors, and a self confidence born of demonstrated ability.”
We are to be those soldiers of Christ Jesus. Sharing in his suffering and not getting entangled in civilian pursuits, that is, not confusing our loyalties, having an unswerving allegiance to our King so that we might please him and so that on the day of judgment he will say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
My friend, St. Josemaría Escrivá, writes, “The Lord, the teacher of Love, is a jealous lover who asks for all we possess, for all our love. He expects us to offer him whatever we have, and to follow the path he has marked out for each one of us.” (The Forge, #45) Therefore, be vigilant in guarding your soul, so that your loyalty to Jesus will remain unswerving.
Let us pray: Father in Heaven, ever-living source of all that is good, keep us faithful in serving You. Help us to drink of Christ’s Truth, and fill our hearts with His Love so that we may serve You in faith and love and reach eternal life. In the Sacrament of the Eucharist You give us the joy of sharing Your Life. Keep us in Your presence. Let us never be separated from You and help us to do Your Will. Amen.
A college professor had the mysterious habit of removing a tennis ball from his jacket pocket as he walked into the lecture hall each morning. He would set it on the corner of the podium. After giving the lecture for the day, he would once again pick up the tennis ball, place it into his jacket pocket and leave the room.
No one ever understood why he did this, until one day a student fell asleep during the lecture. The professor didn’t miss a word of his lecture while he walked over to the podium, picked up the tennis ball and threw it, hitting the sleeping student squarely on the top of the head.
The next day, the professor walked into the room, reached into his jacket, removed a baseball…
Today, we are still in the same conversation that Jesus was having with his disciples in last week’s Gospel as they make their way to Jerusalem.
As a refresher: last week we understood that Jesus, as the Son of Man, would act as judge on the last day, therefore, we need to care for our souls in the same way that we care for every other aspect of our lives. You spend time with your job, family, hobbies, etc., then spend time with your soul, caring for and nurturing it, so that on that last day… well, like they say, live your life in such a way that the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral. Care for your soul in such a way, that on the day of judgment, you are prepared, which brings us to today: the need for vigilance in the caring for the soul. Of not being the one that gets hit square on the head with more than a baseball when we fall asleep or become complacent.
We’ve noted in the past that the authors of the Bible plagiarized a good bit of the Book of Common Prayer, which may explain why, when I went searching for a passage of Scripture, I couldn’t find it. You may recognize it: “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” Well, come to find out, that’s one of the bits they didn’t plagiarize and it is only in the Book of Common Prayer. It is the collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Put another way and in the language we’ve been using, “Assist us Lord in being in vigilant caring for our souls, so that on the day that Christ comes to judge, he may find in us a home worthy of a of King.”
Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2) and again, “The King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’” (Matthew 25:34) We have these passages about Jesus going to prepare a place for us, so the Advent four collect and our Gospel reading gives it a bit of a twist: we’re the ones making ready and being prepared for Jesus, the master and judge’s return. We’re making sure that all is ready for him to take up residence within us. For Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23) We understand that passage as the giving of the Holy Spirit, but there is also our responsibility in maintaining that home, for the one who sent the Spirit, Jesus, will come again.
Those of you who were here long before I came are fond of telling about the time this place needed a new roof. How bad was it? You could literally look up and see daylight. However, at the time, we couldn’t afford a new roof. So, in “church speak,” when a congregation can’t afford to care for the building or simply don’t care for the building, those kinds of jobs become what is known as “deferred maintenance.” Yeah, you have a problem, but because of circumstances or negligence, the problem is not resolved. The house the Holy Spirit and the one that Master, Jesus, will return to is the same way. We recognize a problem in the care of our souls, but we do nothing. Deferred maintenance. We don’t want to spend the time and effort to correct the problem or we just don’t really care, so we justify leaving it. “I know I spend too much time in front of the TV or the computer and neglect family time, but ‘Hey, I work hard all day and I deserve a break.’” Instead of addressing the issue, we push it off, but when the Master returns, he will not be pleased with what he finds.
Not only must we maintain this home of the Holy Spirit, but in preparation for the Master’s return, we must expand it. Consider the parable of the talents. The Master gave the the three servants one talent, five talents and ten talents respectively. The ones with the five and ten talents went out and doubled their money, but the one with only one talent did nothing and the master was displeased, calling him a “wicked and slothful servant!” (Matthew 25:26) The house we are given is only the beginning. We begin with the knowledge of our salvation, but then we are to take that knowledge, discern our gifts, engage the world in such a way that we make Christ known… we are to expand ourselves and the Kingdom of God, not just sit and hold what we’ve got.
C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, describes this process of maintenance and growth like this: “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
I’ve done my share of home maintenance. In the process, I was electrocuted—more than once—so covered in dirt and grime that I didn’t recognize myself, had paint in my hair that didn’t come out for a week, I’m not even going to talk about the sewer issues, etc. But in the end… the house of the soul requires the same work. Now, I willingly admit, if I have to remodel another house in this lifetime, it will be too soon. Not my idea of a good time, but the work on the maintenance and the expansion of the house of the soul is no burden. Far from it. It can be daunting, but it is intended to be a joy. You are working for a Master, a King who loves you. Who desires to live with you and in you.
Queen Victoria reigned over the United Kingdom for more than sixty-three years until her death in 1901. It is not true of many monarchs, but she was much loved and she made a practice of making unexpected calls on the farm folks who lived in cottages. Any day for these farming families might be a royal day, and the Scots had a chair prepared for her visit. Because any day might see a visit from the Queen, they kept their houses spotless. They were a clean and wholesome people, but her unannounced visits added to the joy of keeping their homes lovely. They had an expression for the joy they found in the work: “Perhaps today, she’ll come my way.” Perhaps today, the Queen will visit us… and perhaps today, our Master, our King will visit us.
“Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!”
Do not fall asleep. Maintain and expand the house that God has given you for your soul and prepare a mansion for Him, worthy of his Glory.
Let us pray: God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy, so that we may share his wisdom and become one with him when he comes in glory, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
When Joan Guzmán was pregnant with her third son, she dreamed “that she carried a dog in her womb, and when it was born it broke away from her and ran with a burning torch in its mouth to set the whole world aflame.” Her son was Dominic who, in the year 1216, would go on to assist in the formation of the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominicans. That dog with the torch in its mouth became their symbol. As a play on the word Dominicans, they are at times also referred to as the Dómini cánes—“the watch-dogs of the Lord.”
Dominicans, known as friars and not monks, are a religious order focusing on preaching and teaching and began after Dominic travelled through southern France where he encountered the Albigénsian heresy, a teaching that declared the physical world as evil and therefore the practicers denied the Incarnation of Jesus. Upon hearing this, Dominic began to preach against the heresy, with little to no success. Not wanting to give up, he went into a forest near Toulouse, France and prayed and fasted for three days at which point three angels and a ball of fire appeared before him. They vanished and he then heard the voice of the Blessed Virgin Mary who instructed him how to pray. Not all scholars agree, but the form of prayer that was given to Dominic was the Rosary. Through the effects of this prayer, the heresy would be put down and it is easy to see today how popular and miraculous that prayer has become.
Dominic began with two friars, working to eradicate the heresy and today the order has grown to almost 6,000 friars throughout the world. Although the Order began in the Roman Catholic Church, there is now an Anglican Order of Preachers that began in 1999 and is officially recognized by The Episcopal Church and they are seeking official recognition from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion.
I mention this, because with the Bishop’s approval, a few months ago I began the inquiry process of joining them. No. It doesn’t require me to move or anything like that, but it is a lifelong commitment to a particular rule of life, which consists of the Daily Office (Morning and Evening Prayer), Noonday prayer, Compline, and one additional hour of prayer and one hour of study every day. I enjoy my time of prayer and I enjoy my time of study, but even for me as a priest, that is a significant commitment, but they don’t allow you to sign up immediately. I’m only in the initial inquiry time, which is followed by Postulancy, which can take up to three years. I’ll keep you posted as I move forward.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus said, “Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him.” Perhaps this is a selfish request, but I as a priest, I ask for your prayers. And I ask that you pray for all ordained and religious, that we may be faithful in seeking God’s glory and not our own.
Due to inherit a furniture factory when his sickly, widower father died, Clyde decided he needed a woman to enjoy it with.
Going to a cafe, he met a woman who was Scarlett Johansson good looking.
“I’m only an ordinary man,” he said, walking up to her, “But in just a week or two, my father will die and I’ll inherit a 20 million dollar business.”
The woman went home with Clyde, and the next day she became his stepmother.
At first glance, our Gospel reading appears to be about two different topics. First we have the young man asking Jesus to settle a dispute over an inheritance, and in the second we have a parable that speaks of greed, but it is underneath both topics that we find the point Jesus is conveying.
Just moments before our Gospel today, Jesus had been teaching the same crowd and had said to them: “I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” (Luke 12:8-9) Jesus does not state that he is the “Son of Man,” but it is implied, and in this roll, he acts as the judge who will either acknowledge you before the Father and the angels as one of his own or he will deny you as one of his own. From John’s Gospel: “The Father has given [Jesus] authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:27-29) Jesus makes the eternal judgment with regard to the final outcome of our lives. It is then the person in the crowd asked, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus responded, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”
I always read Jesus’ response as saying, “Not my department. I’ve got other fish to fry,” but a closer look shows that Jesus may have truly been looking for an answer. “When you ask me to be a judge over you with regard to the inheritance, your recognizing my authority over temporal things, but do you also recognize my authority, as the Son of Man, to judge eternal things? Specifically, your salvation.” Jesus was not denying his authority to judge, he simply wanted to know if the person asking about the inheritance was also accepting Jesus’ authority over his soul. It is with that understanding that the second part of the Gospel makes more sense.
We know that the farmer was already a wealthy man, because he obviously had enough land to produce a crop that would fill all his current store houses and he had the money to tear them down and build larger ones to store the bumper crop. When complete, he says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” With all that he has, the farmer believes himself to be set. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” God called the man a fool, not because he was rich or because he had stored up for the future. God called the farmer a fool because he wrongly believed that because his earthly needs were satisfied, he was set. His material needs were taken care of, so what more could he want? The author of Ecclesiastes asked, “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” The answer: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Put another way, “Worthless of worthless! “All is worthless.” All the efforts the farmer put into storing up his crops were worthless, because, in the meantime, he forgot to care for his soul. He forgot to work as hard at storing up treasures in heaven as he did storing up treasures on earth. And when the Son of Man, the Judge, comes with all the authority of Heaven, the farmer’s final end: “You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting.”
“The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (Genesis 2:7) The man became a living soul. God breathed his breath into us. He breathed our souls, made in his image, into us, and this soul—realized or not—is our most precious possession, and we will be judged, based on the condition of that soul at the end of days. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)
Did you know that this coming Saturday, August 10th, is National Garage Sale Day (FYI: the following Saturday is National Thrift Shop Day—I promise I’m not making this up). Anyhow, not everything you purchase at a garage sale is worth the $0.25 you paid for it, but in 2007, a family in New York purchased a small bowl for $3.00. They put it on a shelf in the living room and more or less forgot about it until 2013. In 2013 a friend came by to visit and was astonished. That bowl was from the Northern Song Dynasty in China and was approximately 1,000 years old. The bowl was placed at Sotheby’s Auction House for sale. Original estimates had it going for $200,000. It didn’t. Someone in London purchased it for more than $2,000,000.
Why would someone sell a $2,000,000 bowl for $3 at a garage sale? Answer: they did not know what they had and therefore did not know what it was worth.
The same can be true of the soul. We put a $3 price tag on it and never give it a second look. We can become complacent, never thinking we will be judged; therefore, we spend great amounts of time building up and filling our store houses and very little time caring and working for our souls. However, God cares very little for our store houses and their contents. Instead, he looks at us and sees our souls, and in so doing, sees his own image and for that he cares greatly.
So, what are we to do? How do we go from viewing our souls as $3 trinkets to our greatest possession? St. Paul answered that for us in his letter to the Colossians that we read, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (Colossians 3:2)
What are we to do? The Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, “The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.”
What are we to do? We are to recognize that Jesus is the judge and that the soul deposited within us has the greatest value. Then we are to set our minds on the things above and let the Light in. In this, we receive, not an earthly inheritance, but an eternal inheritance. St. Peter writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5)
As you apply yourself in the care of your family, job, hobbies, etc., apply yourself to the care of your soul, because on the last day… it’s all that matters.
Let us pray:
For Your mercies’ sake, O Lord my God,
tell me what You are to me.
Say to my soul: “I am your salvation.”
So speak that I may hear, O Lord;
my heart is listening;
open it that it may hear You,
and say to my soul: “I am your salvation.”
After hearing this word,
may I come in haste to take hold of you.
Hide not Your face from me.
Let me see Your face even if I die,
lest I die with longing to see it. (St. Augustine)
For us, when a person—or any living creature for that matter—dies, we understand the necessity for burial or cremation. The process of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” just isn’t that pleasant. During the time of Jesus, within Jewish culture, cremation was not practiced, so everyone would buried in the ground or in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock, but did you know that—according to legend—burial in the ground goes all the way back to Adam and Eve and the murder of Abel? The legend states:
“Adam and [Eve] came and sat by the corpse [of their son Abel whom Cain had murdered], weeping and mourning for him – but they did not know what to do with Abel’s body. A raven whose companion had just died said: I will teach Adam what to do. The raven took his dead companion, dug the earth before the eyes of Adam and his mate, and buried him in it. Adam said: We will do as the raven.” And so the practice of burial began, based on the teachings of a Raven.
Within Holy Scripture, there appear to be many traditions and teachings with regard to the burial of the dead, but no specific laws dictating how it should be done, and most of these traditions were practiced in the burial of Jesus: the body anointed, wrapped, and then placed in a tomb. As we read today, the tomb that Jesus was buried in belonged to Joseph of Arimathaea, who had gone to Pilate and requested the body of Jesus so that it could be properly buried.
These are events which we are all familiar with. The crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We talk about these things often. We also talk about how we will have eternal life through Jesus, and that there is a place prepared for us, but the one thing we will avoid talking about like we would avoid the plague—whether because of self preservation or simple denial—is the topic of our own death and burial. (And now you’re all depressed… sorry, but that’s not my intent.)
Ignatius of Loyola writes: To almost all the questions that might be asked about you the answer would be “perhaps.” Shall you have a large fortune, great talents, a long life? “Perhaps.” Will your last hour find you in the friendship of God? “Perhaps.” After this retreat, will you live long in a state of grace? “Perhaps.” Shall you be saved? “Perhaps.” But shall you die? “Yes. Certainly.”
We shall all die and someone will place us in the ground or a mausoleum or a niche in a columbarium. Because of this fact, the Saints will ask us to keep this event of our own death always before us. St. Benedict wrote in his Rule, “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily.” Not to dwell morbidly upon it, but as a reminder to remain vigilant watch over your soul, so that when that time does come, you are not caught unprepared.
A story from the desert monks: “News spread that an elder father lay dying in the desert of Skete. The brothers came, stood around his deathbed, clothed him and began to cry. But he opened his eyes and laughed. And he laughed again, and then again. The surprised brothers asked him, ‘Tell us, Abba, why do you laugh while we cry?’ He spoke, ‘I laughed at first because you fear death. Then I laughed because you are not ready. A third time I laughed because I am going from hard work to enter my rest – and you are crying about that!’ He then closed his eyes and died.”
Don’t be afraid to think of the “last things,” keep them before you, not with a heavy heart, but the heart of one who is persevering until the end and one who will receive the reward of joy and peace.
“HE WHO follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.” Those words have been read by more people than any other words printed except those printed in the Holy Scriptures. They are the opening sentences of The Imitation of Christ by my 15th century friend, Thomas à Kempis. I would share with you my favorite passages of this great work, but then I would pretty much have to read the entire book to you.
Since it was first published in 1471, the year of Thomas’ death, there have been 6,000 different editions published. That’s one new edition, every month, for 500 years.
I’ve told you the story before: I’ve read all sorts of devotional / inspirational books. From Oswald Chambers to the more contemporary, but in every case, it took me less than about a month to become completely bored or frustrated with them. Oswald was probably the most compelling, but they seemed to all tell me what I wanted to hear, not what I needed to hear. They seemed more interested in giving the reader a warm fuzzy than in changing lives. Then one day, as I was walking through the library of Nashotah, I came to the shelves of free books. Ones that were dated or worn out and students could take what they wanted. It was there that I picked up this very book, and although I now have multiple editions, I’ve never set it down. Thomas is a true companion of my soul. And, clearly, I’m not the only one who feels this way.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who’s book, Story of a Soul, we just finished in book club writes, “If I open a book composed by a spiritual author (even the most beautiful, the most touching book), I feel my heart contract immediately and I read without understanding, so to speak. Or if I do understand, my mind comes to a standstill without the capacity of meditating. In this helplessness, Holy Scripture and the Imitation [of Christ] come to my aid; in them I discover a solid and very pure nourishment.”
If Thomas à Kempis and the Imitation have had such widespread and lasting effect on so many, then why is he still not SAINT Thomas à Kempis. There have been two attempts at his canonization, 1655 and 1911, but both failed. One theory for the failure states that Thomas was buried alive—when they exhumed his body as part of the examination process, they found scratch marks on the inside of the lid of his coffin, with splinters in his hands. Rules say that it cannot be known if he died in a state of grace, because—obviously—no one was present at his death, therefore he cannot be sainted. However, there is further evidence that suggests this is only a myth that developed over the years. The second theory is that the Imitation was not written solely by Thomas, but was a compilation of several authors and Thomas was the editor of the work. In either case or none of the above, the church has not elevated Thomas, but those who read him have.
He is one of the medals on my rosary, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Michael the Archangel, and St. Josemaría Escrivá. With these three, Thomas, and the Lord Jesus walking with me, I figure I’m in pretty good hands.
My former bishop would give me a hard time for reading the Imitation—“Too morbid, John.”—and I’ve had friends suggest that I pick up something more inspiring, so I know he is not for everyone, but if you’ve never picked up this little book, I recommend it to you, with this one warning: you may never put it down.
When Boudreaux and Clotilde were first married, Boudreaux laid down the law. “I’m the MAN of the house! Starting tomorrow, I want you to have a hot, delicious meal ready for me the minute I walk through that door. Then, while I’m watching ESPN and relaxing in my lazy boy, you’ll bring me my slippers and then run my bath. And when I’m done with my bath, guess who’s going to dress me and comb my hair?”
Said Clotilde, “The funeral director.”
From our Gospel reading, it would seem that Mary has taken a few plays from Boudreaux’s play book. Sit and chat while Martha does all the work, which leads Martha to complain to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Yet, Jesus’ response indicates that he does not view Mary’s inaction as laziness: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Based on this response, we could say that Jesus is making a point about active and contemplative ministry. Martha, running around could point to the busy Christian, always taking part in various ministries, but never stopping to sit at the feet of Jesus, like Mary, who represents the contemplative Christian. That is one who sees the work of the Christian person residing in prayer and time with God. But, if we all sat around navel gazing, nothing would get done; and if we all ran about all the time, we would never really engage God in the work of the soul. So, if our Gospel is not about Mary being lazy or the debate over active and contemplative Christians, then what is it about?
Martha is complaining about Mary not helping, but the real problem—in the words of my granny—Mary is acting like a hussy. That girl is out of line. Make her get up and help with (Lord forgive and protect me for saying this out loud) make her get up and help with “women’s work.” The problem is that Mary is acting like a man. The only time a woman might sit at the feet of a man would be in the bedroom with her husband, but out in public… hussy. Mary has broken cultural and social barriers. And not only is she acting like a man, but she is also acting like a disciple. One who sits at the feet of the rabbi and learns. Yet, Jesus isn’t just a rabbi, he is the Son of God, so what has Mary done? Mary has boldly come before Jesus, knelt before him, and entered into the very presence of God, hence, she “has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Remember the Temple complex: the outer area was the Court of the Gentiles. This is the area that Jesus entered and demonstrated a little righteous indignation, flipping tables and throwing out money changers. Moving further in we come to the Court of the Women, then the Court of the Priests, where the sacrifices took place. Entering into the Temple itself you first come to the Holy Place and before you is a curtain. Behind the curtain is the Holiest of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant resides. With regard to the Holy Place and Holiest of Holies, Scripture says, “The priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.” Only once a year would someone enter into the presence of God, but when Jesus died: “There was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, she sat in the presence of God, and through his death, Jesus opened that same access to all who call on his name. As Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
Mary was not the one who broke the barriers by sitting at the feet of Jesus. Jesus broke the barriers through his Incarnation. Emmanuel—God with us. Therefore, like Mary, we too can be bold, we can come into the very presence of God and sit as his feet, speaking to him and learning from him. As Paul said in his letter to the Hebrews, “Let us then with confidence… with boldness draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
As my favorite passage of the Bible reads: “You have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.”
We’ve been given this tremendous access to the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, so how do we enter? The answer is prayer and our Gospel reading can also help us to understand the kind of prayer that is needed. It is easier to understand this by looking at different types of communication that we practice, specifically, the difference between a text message and a phone call.
What I’ve discovered is that if I’m asking for specific information or giving it, text messaging and emails work just fine. “Do this.” “I’ll take care of that.” “6:30 works great.” But when it comes to actually having a conversation with someone… Well, I eventually give up on trying to make a point and give the person a call. And that’s just it, there is more to communication than words. There are words, inflection, emotion, etc. There is engagement. Martha had a text messaging conversation with Jesus. “Hey, Jesus. Tell my sister to help me with the chores.” She gave instruction. Mary, on the other hand, “picked up the phone” and entered into the presence of God. She engaged.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux writes, “For me, prayer means launching out of the heart towards God; it means lifting up one’s eyes, quite simply, to Heaven, a cry of grateful love from the crest of joy or the trough of despair; it’s a vast, supernatural force which opens out my heart, and binds me close to Jesus.” Prayer is an engagement of her spirit with the Spirit of God and drawing close, entering into the mystical presence of God.
We enter into this presence of God through prayer, but so often, we are like Martha: Jesus, do this and that. Jesus says to ask for anything, so this type of interaction is OK, but when it comes time to truly speak to the Lord and to listen to his teachings, then we must be still and sit at his feet. We must become like a disciple. We must become like Mary.
Let us pray:
The light of God surrounds us,
The love of God enfolds us,
The power of God protects us,
The presence of God watches over us,
Wherever we are, God is,
And where God is, all is well.
Help us Lord to enter into your presence,
Where we might sit at your feet
And find nourishment for our souls.
This past Sunday we read in our Gospel the words of Jesus: “The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’”
In talking about this, we discovered that the Lord was appointing first generation assistants, apprentices or disciples, who would continue the work of the Gospel following his resurrection and ascension. Today, we celebrate, Aquila and Priscilla, husband and wife, who were second generation disciples.
Around 40 a.d., Claudius was the Emperor and at that time, disturbances broke out between the Christian-Jews and the nonChristian-Jews over the Messiahship of Jesus. The Roman historian Suetonius, lumping the two groups together, wrote, the Jews “were rioting on account of someone named Chrestus.” Emperor Claudius, caring nothing about the argument, settled it by expelling all the Jews from Rome, two of whom were Aquila and Priscilla. Following the expulsion, they made their way to Corinth (about 750 miles away) where they continued their trade of tent making.
Perhaps because they heard him preach or because they shared the same trade of tent making, Priscilla and Aquila came into contact with Paul and became close companions in the work of the Gospel. Eighteen months later, the three would travel to Ephesus to continue the work of God, and shortly afterwards, Paul would go onto Antioch, but the couple remained in Ephesus. In writing to the Church in Corinth, Paul says in his closing, “The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.” In mentioning them by name, Paul demonstrates how great esteem he held them, but also tells us that Priscilla and Aquila had started a church in their home. This would have been the norm, as the church did not begin meeting in church buildings until the third century.
The Acts of the Apostles tell us also of Aquila and Priscilla’s encounter with the Alexandrian Jew, Apollo. “He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.” So, after hearing him preach, Aquila and Priscilla “took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” Aquila and Priscilla were second generation Christians and through teaching Apollo, they participated in raising up and training the third generation.
President Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” Replace the word ‘Freedom’ with ‘Christianity’ and you’ll have another truth.
Aquila and Priscilla went back to Rome where they were eventually martyred for the faith, but they did not allow their faith to die with them. They are an example to us of what it means to be an apostolic church, a church that hands on the teachings and practices to the next generation, so that the faith of our fathers and mothers remains the faith of all the generations that follow.
On Sunday, I said that you are the seventy, those that Jesus sent out. Just as easily, I can say that you are Aquilas and Priscillas. Like them, pass on your faith so that the light of the Gospel may continue to shine in this dark world.