In the second book of the Maccabees we read about the heroic martyrs of the Jewish people. “Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother who saw her seven sons perish in a single day, yet bore it courageously because of her hope in the Lord” (2 Macc 7:20). This mother was able to put her hope into words for her sons, thereby giving them encouragement to obey God’s laws rather than the laws of human beings. In her wisdom, she taught her children, giving them the best gifts: knowledge of God, hope in God’s promises, and courage in the face of God’s enemies.
With Thanksgiving tomorrow, and with the holiday season upon us, it is time to think about giving the best gifts to our friends and family members. It’s also time to think about obtaining the best gifts ourselves. Let’s add these gifts to our list: deeper knowledge of God, greater hope in God’s promises, and firmer courage in the face of God’s enemies.
These gifts come ultimately from God, but we can collaborate in the giving process. To collaborate in obtaining the first gift, read the Bible or a reputable work of theology. For the second gift: make a daily act of hope, such as an internet search might reveal. For the third gift, look for ways to mention God or the angels or the saints in conversations with people who might be hostile to the topic. And whenever you experience these gifts, be thankful.
The second book of Maccabees tells us about Eleazar, the scribe, a Jewish man of advanced age who was forced by his pagan enemies either to eat non-Kosher food or to be tortured to death. When they saw that he preferred death and torture, and when they saw that many young people looked up to him for an example, they offered him another option: to eat food that appeared to be non-Kosher, but which really was, in fact, Kosher, thereby both saving his life and keeping God’s commandments. Ah, but even this the great old man refused to do. So they tortured him to death. Before he died he said “I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to Him,” (2 Macc 6:30) namely, to God.
The great old man was noble, honest and devout: an admirable combination. And although most of us respect him, as we read his story, and many of us feel an urge to imitate him to some degree, chances are we have a long way to go before we reach his level of devotion. Can we even bear the suffering of a trip down the road, getting stuck in traffic and seeing unfair and unsafe driving maneuvers? Can we bear the suffering of an unkind word? Can we bear the suffering of our own illnesses and inadequacies? Where is the joy in our soul? Where is our devotion? Perhaps we no longer care what God is, or what God is doing for each one of us. Perhaps we ought to be more mindful of these things.
“On the fifteenth day of the month Chislev, in the year one hundred and forty-five, the king erected the horrible abomination upon the altar of burnt offerings” (1 Macc 1:54). Notice the detail in this verse around the date, but the lack of detail, both here and in adjacent verses, around the “horrible abomination.” What exactly was the horrible abomination? Scripture is vague on this point.
At the time of the Maccabees, Pre-Christian pagans had overrun Israel, and many Jews began to lapse from Judaism into some form of polytheism. In order to better fit in with the world around them, some decided to adapt pagan customs, thereby rejecting the God of Israel and His covenant. The real low point was that some sort of “horrible abomination” was set up in the temple in Jerusalem, even upon the altar of burnt offerings. Why doesn’t scripture detail exactly what that “horrible abomination” was?
Rejecting evil, it seems to me, is an important part of choosing good. This is why in the rite of baptism, the candidates are asked if they reject Satan. Now, rejecting Satan is not the same thing as ignoring Satan. Far from it. But it does mean refusing to spend all day sitting at his feet, listening attentively as he tells you his stories of evil in detail.
Give the Devil his due, but don’t give him the last word, or the first word, or even the majority of the words. Marginalize him. Keep Jesus Christ and his goodness front and center.
When you go to a museum or a church and you look at the depictions of Our Lord and of His saints and His angels, you tend to see them portrayed in a positive light. They tend to have beautiful proportions, handsome appearances and attractive attire. You do not tend to see skin blemishes or wrinkles, ungainly costumes or awkward expressions. This is not because the artist is trying to cover up the humanity of the saints and of Our Lord, but because he or she is trying to portray the beauty of sanctity using exterior forms, like proportion, color, shading, shape, etc. The idea is that the exterior forms are reflections of the interior forms: virtues, graces, gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. When we see the beautiful depiction of a saint, we should become inspired by the beauty of the spiritual life. Thus, the beautiful appearance is but a vehicle by which we are carried up to a higher good, a beautiful reality.
A note of caution is in order, though, to avoid confusing something that merely appears good with something that really is good. This is why we have Proverbs 31:30: “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”
Whether you are a woman or a man: how much time do you spend on your appearance and on your charm? How much time do you spend fearing the LORD? Which one of these is really more important to you: appearance or reality?
In today’s gospel (Lk 18:1-8), as in many of the gospels that we have heard throughout the past week, Jesus exhorts us to a true and genuine faith in God, especially in those times when it seems that our faith is without response on God’s part. In last Sunday’s gospel (Mt 25:1-13), the Bridegroom is delayed in his return. In Thursday’s gospel (Lk 17:20-25), we hear that the kingdom that the Lord brings is among us, but we do not recognize it, because in this age the Lord is rejected and suffers greatly.
Today, Jesus calls us to hold on to God as insistently as a woman hounding an unjust judge who does not wish to deliver the justice that she seeks. This image can be a bit disconcerting, since God is not an unjust judge but the source and origin of justice itself. However, the image also holds great power, and Jesus would not offer it to us if it were not useful to the life of faith that he offers us. In fact, Jesus wants us to “call out to God night and day,” asking him to “secure the rights of his chosen ones.” To be faithful means to endure in the relationship God offers us, to remain faithful “for better and for worse,” always depending on God’s grace in the messiness of this created world and what we have made of it. So God also endures faithfully in his promises to the fickle, beloved creatures that we are. Likewise, the Son endures abandonment in his passion and descent into hell.
“But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” There may well be people with doctorates in theology and spiritual gurus when the Son of Man comes, but will there be anyone who truly looks to God for the grace which can only come from him? Will there be anyone who endures in faith in the Bridegroom who is delayed, whose justice seems to be just a pipe dream? Do not lose heart! The Son of Man will come in his glory, and he calls us to endure in faith until that day as he has endured out of love for us. When he comes, he hopes to find faith on earth. Let us pray that we do not disappoint him.
Ignatius of Loyola teaches that that all things on earth exist to help human beings to live the life of praise, reverence, and service that God’s love offers them (SpEx 23). In light of this, Ignatius says one is in consolation “when there is some interior movement in the soul which causes it to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, such that it can love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself, but only in its Creator” (SpEx 316). But what does it mean to “love no created thing in itself, but only in its Creator?” To make sense of this statement, we need to enter into the mystery of God’s love and the faith that it offers us.
An analogy from human love can help us. If a man wishes to surprise a friend experiencing a difficult period in her life by making her a favorite dish from scratch—a blueberry pie, say—then this dish is clearly intended as an instrument of love so that joy might enter into a difficult situation. Let us imagine the cook surprising his friend with the pie at the door to her home. If she “lets herself go” and “loves the pie in itself,” then she might dispense with formalities and “pig out” right there at the door, eating the pie straight out of the pie tin. That would clearly be an awkward situation. But let us imagine the opposite: the friend realizes what a great symbol of love this pie is, and so decides not to eat it at all, but instead puts it in a display case so that anytime she is down, she can look at it and remember how much she is loved. This would, likewise, be disappointing to the cook, who lovingly made the pie so that his friend would enjoy it. The proper way to actually receive the gift might be for the friend to invite the cook inside, cut and serve two pieces, and then enjoy the pie together with the one who made it for her out of love. She would actually be delighting in the pie—that is why the cook offered it to her, after all—but she would not be loving it in itself, but in the love conveyed through the gift by its creator, the cook. This is an example of consolation.
God is the Creator, and he offers us all things that he has created as a gift of love, so that we might make use of them to live out the life of love that he offers us. God wishes us to love and delight in the beautiful and good and true things of this world, but not in themselves. Rather, we should delight in them in the way that the Creator wishes, being drawn into the ever-greater Love that is their source, such that we, too, join in this life of love. This is the reality that today’s first reading (Wis 13:1-9) indicates. Let us ask God for the grace to truly delight in the beauty of created things, not in an idolatrous way, but in the way that God intends, so that we might receive the gifts that God offers us and share these gifts with others in the same love.
“Just as lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.” So we hear towards the end of today’s gospel (Lk 17:20-25). Charles Wesley indicates something of this awesome reality, in his beautiful hymn “Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending,” whose verses draw liberally from John’s visions in the book of Revelation (listen to it at https://goo.gl/EU8yhS). Jesus assures us that his coming will not be something that we can point to or indicate in any external way. When we await people who say, “‘look, there he is,’ or ‘look, here he is,’” we repeat the mistake of the Israelites who did not recognize the Christ because they were awaiting an earthly, political savior. Instead, the true Christ, the true savior, was in their midst, and not only did they not recognize him, but—together with the rest of the world—they crucified him.
The one who is to come—and the Kingdom that he bears—also stands in our midst, but we do not recognize him. Yes, in the fullness of time, the Son of Man will be known as surely as lightning flashes light up the sky from one side to another, but in this age, “he must suffer greatly and be rejected by this generation.” And so, following Revelation, Charles Wesley gets this right in this hymn. On that day, “Ev’ry eye shall now behold Him, robed in dreadful majesty; those who set at naught and sold Him, pierced, and nailed Him to the tree: deeply wailing, deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see.”
The cross where we crucify Jesus, most often through our treatment of the least among us, will be the place from which will shine the glory of God’s love. Blessed are those who wail at this revelation, for at the very least they will realize that all for which they have striven to gain for themselves in this life has been for naught. Perhaps they might finally surrender to the true life and love that Jesus brings. The Lord comes not to save our property, or secure our political or civil rights, or to help us win battles or wars. He comes to save us in the truest, fullest sense. He comes to offer us the only life that will endure as worthy of that name, a sharing in his own life of love. His love is not the superficial, feel-good love of nice sentiments, catchy jingles, and words emptied of meaning, but the magnificently omnipotent Love that reveals its power through powerlessness, in its suffering to save a generation that rejects it.
“Stand up and go: your faith has saved you.” Jesus offers this valediction to the leper who returns in today’s gospel (Lk 17:11-19), but through it, he also holds up this healed leper as a sign that indicates the reality of both faith and salvation. Etymologically, the word “salvation” is derived from a root that indicates health and wholeness, especially when one is preserved from some danger. The idea behind this word can be conveyed by the expression “safe and sound.” A lifeguard has the task of “saving” a person from drowning, and some become doctors in order to “save lives.” But what is the sort of “salvation” that Jesus indicates in this gospel?
The reality of the salvation that Jesus offers is revealed, superficially, in the healing of the ten lepers. Jesus hears their cry and has mercy upon them, and they are cleansed. By healing the lepers of their physical ailments, Jesus opens the way for their reintegration into a community that traditionally shunned them out of fear of illness and ritual contamination. If this healing and reconciliation is what faith were all about, then Jesus would simply rejoice at the transformation that occurs when the former lepers go off and begin new lives at the heart of communities transformed by their renewed presence. Instead, Jesus is disappointed when they do not return.
It is only the leper who returns who is a witness to true faith, and therefore, who is open to receiving the salvation that Jesus truly wishes to offer. Faith does not refer so much to a body of teachings as it does to a relationship with the God who reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ. Among the ten who were healed, the foreigner who does not even belong to the chosen people (and therefore would be a bit like an unbaptized person, in relation to the Church) is the only one who actually returns and gratefully submits to Jesus’ Lordship. Perhaps the others don’t think they have to do so because they are going to their priests, as Jesus told them to. But our faith is not merely communal, but requires a personal relationship with the one who alone is Lord, and who is the source of all good things. From the personal relationship that is the heart of this faith, one receives the fullness of salvation that Jesus offers: a sharing in his very life. This sharing is what we call grace: through our (Marian) “yes” to God, we give God permission to expand and stretch our lives so that they become a sharing in God’s own life. Yes, salvation involves healing and reconciliation, but if we walk away from Jesus once this has taken place, then we turn our backs on the fullness of salvation that Jesus offers: a genuine sharing in his life and love, through the faith that we have in Him.
Today’s first reading (Wis 2:2-3:9) offers us a magnificent image of the faith that Jesus offers us. Upon reflection, it should be obvious that the one who is “faithful” is not so because of a stubborn holding-on-to this or that position, but rather because of the fidelity that one demonstrates to a person to whom one is attached. God, himself, is a model of faith. The God of Israel is faithful: he is a Father who keeps his promises. All the other gods deceive us, and we will always be disappointed if we place our faith in human beings. But “those who trust in God shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with him in love” (Wis 3:9).
Even if human beings disappoint us when we place our trust in them, our faith in God calls us into relationship with others as well. Where others show themselves unfaithful in their relations with us, we are, by God’s grace, to show ourselves faithful, as God has shown himself faithful to us, even where we were unfaithful to God. This is hard, even impossible, without God’s grace. But where we receive this grace, we manifest the miracle of God’s grace at work in the world through our lives.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though. This is not an easy grace. In the sight of those who taunt us, we may appear to be “afflicted” and “passing away” (Wis 3:2-3). But so Christ seemed when his tormentors thought that they were getting the better of him. But the truth is that it is not the tormentors who have the upper hand, but the love of God that triumphs when, by God’s grace, we do not succumb to hatred, but continue to love even when we are not loved. “If before men, indeed, [we] be punished, yet [our] hope is full of immortality,” (Wis 3:4) for the grace and hope from which we live is not in the passing things of this world, but in the glory and love of God that is revealed through it. Those who live from the life that Jesus offers may seem to be worth no more than straw, fit only for burning, but “in the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble” (Wis 3:7).
Some people, reading today’s gospel (Lk 17:1-6), think that they have discovered some secret formula by which they can exert some sort of magical control over God. They think that if they would just figure out the right way of thinking—which they call “faith”—then God would do what they want. This makes faith into something like a skill that one can, work on, master, and control. But as “love,” on its own, is an absurdity, an impossibility, so, also, faith, “on its own” is an absurdity, an impossibility. Many people make the mistake of thinking that “the faith” refers to some body of doctrine, that it is something that can be systematized, written down, memorized, and applied. But true Faith is actually a grace, a relationship with the living and true God, who offers us his very life. The faith that God offers us invites us, through the Holy Spirit, into the very life that the Son shares with the Father from all eternity.
And what does that divine life look like in the life of one of us? It looks like the life of Jesus, who is the full revelation of God in his life as man. “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (Jn 15:15). “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished” (John 5:19-20). The one who has faith is not the one who has memorized the catechism or who has a doctorate in theology. One can accomplish these things and have no faith at all. Rather, the one who has faith abides in Christ as a branch upon a vine (Jn 15). And, as the Son does nothing except what he sees the Father doing, so also the one with faith in Christ will do nothing other that what he sees Christ doing. Today’s gospel offers not the secret to a magical power over God, but rather invites us into the very relationship between the Son and the Father. Where we receive this faith, even if it be as small as a mustard seed, we can and must, in obedience to what God prompts within us, “say to this mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey.”