Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Mal 3:19-20a; 2 Thes 3:7-12; Lk 21:5-19
The church ends Luke’s gospel with a warning to resist the temptation of fear. Over this past year we have seen Jesus carrying out His mission to make the Father known. Those who follow Him are to continue that mission. Today He warns His disciples and others that continuing the mission will be costly. It will cost their will, the faculty by which they seek their own well-being. And consequently it will cost their pride. Those of us in the vowed life (marital or monastic) may have noticed. That is why Jesus’ answer is not to the question, but to the questioner. It is not an answer to the mind, but to the heart. The heart, also known as the conscience, is where we feel; it is where we know the value, the worth. We direct the will to what matters, and Jesus has been teaching us about what matters most. The heart is where love is and Jesus wants the questioner to love the Father with all of it. That’s His mission.
Jesus warms us today about temptation. Job 7:1 describes earthly life as an on-going temptation. Jesus begins by telling us, “See that you be not deceived…” Temptation is a deception. Temptation is not an occasional intrusion; it is our state in life. This is because we’ve been given free choice. We use it all day long and our character, our standing as disciples, depends on how we use it. Our character as disciples continuing Jesus’ mission can be secured by living up to a single simple choice criteria: What will make me useful to God and my fellows? Thus temptation is answered with humility.
An obstacle to this is fear…self-centered fear. Jesus clearly warns us about this today. “Do not be terrified!” Fear is thought to be the most powerful of motivators, but it is short-term in its negativity. Of the two aims of the heart—to unite with what it loves and to fear the upsetting—fear is the stronger, but love is more enduring. St. John and St. Benedict remind us that “perfect love casts out fear.” In other words, perfect love gives us freedom from the bondage of self and freedom for usefulness to God and neighbor.
Jesus warns about persecution from the state, but most experiences of persecution come from evil spirits who pepper our thoughts in a concerted effort to get through to our will. Indeed, monasteries are no longer being closed by the state; they are dying from the inside. So Jesus tells us to continue carrying on His mission because all religious life was founded for mission, not for survival. Survival is motivated by fear; mission is motivated by love. We carry out that mission by putting principles before personalities. That’s what the Rule of Life is for.
The Rule helps us live with the complementarity of moral conversion and spiritual conversion. Both are necessary in living with temptation. Moral conversion is detachment from egocentricity and sensual pleasure as an end in itself. Spiritual conversion is deepening our relationship with Christ. We replace thinking with our lower self (one’s own personality) with thinking with our higher self (our principles). In monastic life spiritual conversion often comes first because the closer we get to Jesus through prayer and way of life the more we want to imitate Him in thought, word and deed.
So when Jesus tells us “do not be terrified” He is warning us to resist the temptations of fear. He says, “You will be seized and persecuted…handed over by parents, relatives, friends…you will be hated…” So what is to be afraid of? It is not of our persecutors, but of guarding our heart against a break. To resist this temptation of infidelity to Christ and His Father, we must, as Andre Louf says, be content with a broken heart. “All your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute” this. A broken heart, set on Christ, will make humility our new state in life. Being a Follower of Christ has to constitute one’s identity… who she understands herself to be. This will make right choice easier.
Jesus promises this broken heart when he says, “I shall give you a wisdom…” It will all be His doing. He says it is only for us to “persevere.” Holiness is not achieved; it is allowed.
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Dan 12:1-3 Heb 10:11-14, 18; Mk 13:24-32
One day a Texan was visiting New Melleray. You know how Texans exaggerate. Well, after the abbot gave him a tour of Trappist Caskets and our nineteen hundred acre farm the visitor said, “In Texas we have front lawns larger than your whole farm.” Then, after seeing our beautiful Church he boasted, “We have telephone booths that are bigger.” Fr. Mark was getting annoyed with these exaggerations so he got a snapping turtle and put it under the covers of the Texan’s bed. When he showed the visitor his room for the night there was a large lump under the blankets. The Texan turned back the covers and exclaimed, “Good heavens! What’s that?” Fr. Mark said nonchalantly, “Why, that’s only an Iowa bedbug.” The Southerner looked again and replied, “Well, I guess it is. But it must be very young, it’s so tiny.”
Is Jesus’ description of the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven a Texan exaggeration? Will the sun and moon really be darkened, will stars actually fall from the sky? John the Baptist expected the Christ to come in power with an axe in his hand to cut down every fruitless tree. Instead, Jesus came in meekness with mercy, looking nothing like a king when he died on the cross. When Jesus comes the second time will he do it right, will he shake the heavens and scatter the stars? Or, is Jesus exaggerating, rather like a Texan?
Once an old man with a long white beard stood on the shoulder of a country road with his elderly wife holding up a sign that said: “Stop before it’s too late! Turn around, the end is near.” A car full of teenagers slowed down just enough to wave and laugh at them, and then sped around the next corner. A moment later there was a screech of tires, a bit of silence and then a loud splash of water. The old man’s wife said to him, “Maybe we should write, ‘Stop, the bridge is out.'” What does today’s gospel really mean?
The images of universal chaos and destruction are not Texan exaggerations. They are symbols like those in the story of the Patriarch Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph dreamed that the sun, the moon and eleven stars, fell prostrate to the ground before him. And so it happened when his brothers came to Egypt and bowed down before him, powerless and greatly afraid. But the Patriarch Joseph, who is a Christ figure, used his royal power not to crush them but to forgive his brothers. So also, the image of stars falling from heaven is symbolic of sinners collapsing before the Son of Man coming in glory. This was foreshadowed in the Garden of Gethsemani when a crowd came to arrest Jesus and he identified himself by using the divine name, “I AM.” When the crowd heard him say, “I AM,” they stumbled backwards and fell to the ground. The darkening of sun and moon and the falling stars are symbols for the terrible, terrible darkness of sin in the last days and for the falling away of so many sinners.
In other places Jesus speaks more plainly, saying: “Many will fall away … and because wickedness is multiplied most people’s love will grow cold,” (Mt. 24:10-12). “When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:8). The spiritual darkening of a world without faith, where love grows cold is far more catastrophic than a physical darkening of sun and moon and falling stars. So, how can we avoid roads where the bridge is out, where faith is lost and love grows cold?
First, Jesus commands us to, “Watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man,” (Lk 21:34). Here Jesus not only teaches us what to pray for, but he commands it: “Watch and pray at all times—that is every day—for strength to endure and escape all these things that will take place, so that you may stand—not fall prostrate in fear—but stand with joy before the Son of Man when he comes in his glory.” This should be a daily prayer for the gift of perseverance, for strength to bear all that is going to happen, so that we can stand radiant with joy when Christ comes.
A second way to keep love from growing cold was taught by the Patriarch Joseph, who is a Christ figure. He commanded his brothers to bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, with them when they came back again. He solemnly warned them, “You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you,” (Gen. 43:3). We cannot stand alone. If we want the joy of seeing the face of God, we must work to bring our brother and sister with us. Then we will experience mercy and forgiveness and we will be as radiant as the sun when Christ comes. And that’s not a Texan exaggeration!
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Mal 4:1-2a; 2 Thess 3:7-12; Lk 21:5-19
American Naval commander Jeremiah Denton Jr. was a POW in North Vietnam for eight years. He was often tortured. For four of those years he was in solitary confinement. For two of those four years he was confined in a cell the size of a refrigerator.
His secret to survival, he said later, was the rosary and repeating the simple phrase, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give myself to you.” He reported that he was given great consolation and even joy. He said miraculous things happened.
After his release he served the Navy until retirement. In 1981 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, the first Catholic ever to be elected to a statewide office in Alabama.
Imagine, if you will, what those years of torture and confinement might have been like if he had not had his faith. What if he had gone through that experience with a thoroughly secular mindset, with a heart set on pleasure, possessions, and status? His heart’s union with the Sacred Heart of Jesus and its consolations are what we call “Mercy.”
We are coming to the end of an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. That we are not abandoned to merely managing well, that we can live confident in ultimate reality, truth, and love is what we call Mercy.
In proclaiming this Jubilee Year, Pope Francis called us to “be merciful like the Father.” I just finished giving another week-long and weekend retreat on that theme. The prime example of the Father’s mercy is the story of the Prodigal. The Father is merciful to those who return to Him. Today Jesus promises this mercy to those “who will be hated because of my name.” The mercy will be from Him; it is for us to persevere.
What we must notice in this gospel is that Jesus appears to be responding to a question: Teacher, when will the destruction of the Temple happen? What sign will there be? He does not give a date. In fact, he does not really answer the question. He answers the questioner.
Answers to questions are addressed to the mind. Answers to the questioner are addressed to the heart. The heart is where we feel; it is where we know the value, the worth. The heart is where love is and Jesus wants the questioner to love the Father with all of it.
So, St. Benedict in the opening sentence in the prologue to the Rule calls us to “Listen with the ear of the heart.”
Responding to the heart of the questioner—a response the questioner didn’t know enough to want—is an act of Jesus, the face of the Fathers mercy.
We have all put questions to God—in a few minutes we’ll call them “petitions”—and come away feeling they weren’t answered. We were looking for the satisfaction of reason and the senses. Reason and the senses cannot see the sufficiency of grace. Only the heart can feel that. In His wisdom the Father pours treasures into the heart, while impoverishing reason and the senses. That is why we do not achieve holiness; we allow it. Any questions?