“Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb.” For some reason or other, Mary Magdalene woke up very early and went to the tomb of Jesus. The scriptures do not record for us the reason why she got up so early. Was it her custom to do so, or was it because of her grief at the loss of her “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher?
Contemplative monks and nuns rise very early, while it is still dark, to sing God’s praises. Were they not, perhaps, inspired to some degree by Mary Magdalene’s example? Whatever her reasons were, Mary Magdalene was given a great and special reward for seeking Jesus so early in the morning: she learned the good news of the resurrection before any of the apostles, she saw Jesus Christ in his resurrected state, and she was filled with the joy of Easter Sunday. In my opinion, St. Ignatius Loyola was also influenced by Mary Magdalene’s example, which is why he put various guidelines for sleeping in his Spiritual Exercises. One’s manner of sleeping and waking are important to the life of prayer.
Which divine laws admit of exceptions, and which don’t? In other words, which laws did God intend to be taken in the strictest, most literal sense, and which were meant more as general guideposts that could sometimes be improved upon, adapted, or maybe even set aside? The answers to this question have not always been clear, and debates have arisen over this question that have been divisive and even destructive.
For example, in Matthew 12:1-8, Jesus debates the Pharisees over the correct interpretation of the Biblical prohibitions against working on the Sabbath. According to the Pharisees, picking the heads off of grain and eating them while travelling on a Sabbath was a violation of a divine law that could never be set aside. According to Jesus, that law was meant to have exceptions. For example, the priests working in the temple still had to work in the temple on the Sabbath, as required by divine law elsewhere.
Then Jesus adds something that will be a key principle for all his disciples: “something greater than the temple is here… the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” This is why, if we wish to understand God’s laws, we must turn to Jesus Christ and to His Church.
Who is the true god of the sun? Is it Ra, as the ancient Egyptians believed? Or is it Helios, as the ancient Greeks would say? Or is it Apollo, according to the ancient Romans? Did Ra truly reveal himself as the god of the sun? Or was it Helios or even Apollo?
My point is not that we should believe that any of these pagan deities revealed themselves as sun gods, but that we should consider how such a revelation would have occurred. “Who are you?” “I am Ra, the god of the sun.” The identities of such pagan gods was tied to some amazing phenomenon: the sun, the moon, the earth, the ocean, death, birth, etc.
When Moses heard the voice of the Lord in the burning bush commanding him to return to Egypt to free the Israelites, he asked which god he should say was sending him to them. At that point a very mysterious name was revealed to Moses, together with a key identifying feature: “tell them: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me.”
Jews and Christians do not worship a “god of the sun” as such. We worship a God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus Christ was a descendent of those fathers according to the flesh, and all Christians are their descendants according to the Spirit. This is one reason why we read and even pray over the Old Testament: to know the God of our fathers.
“I would rather feel compunction than know its definition.” That’s an old saw from The Imitation of Christ, a book which is of greatest importance to Ignatian spirituality. Those of us who have made St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises, and have spent considerable time asking for the gift of sorrow for our sins, can appreciate the value of this little quip from the Imitation.
God has hidden some things from the wise and the learned but revealed them to the childlike (cf. Matthew 11:25). If you are wise and learned, you probably already know what the word “compunction” means without having to look up its definition, but you may find it harder to admit your own mistakes and to feel true compunction for them.
There are several childlike attitudes that are helpful in the Christian life. Of course, the ability to feel compunction and to say you are sorry and to mean it are big. Here is another childlike attitude: trust. It seems to be easier for children to trust other people. We must renew our trust in God the Father, and trust in Him like we were his children, for so we are.
“Moses” is not a Hebrew name. It’s Egyptian. Pharaoh’s daughter gave the name “Moses” to the child whom she found floating in the Nile river in a papyrus basket. It appears that “Moses” is a version of the Egyptian word “mes,” which means “son.” Thus, the Egyptian name “Rameses” means “Son of Ra,” Ra being the Egyptian god of the sun.
We don’t know what Moses’ own family called him. Recall that he lived with his mother for three months before she hid him in the basket on the Nile, and he lived with her again for some time after he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter. His Hebrew birth name is simply lost to history.
Many years later, when Moses turned aside to see the burning bush on Mt. Horeb, God called out to him: “Moses, Moses.” Even God Himself used the Egyptian name, and not the Hebrew name. It may seem strange that as Moses realized his true identity as a Hebrew and as the liberator of the Hebrews, he did not revert to his Hebrew name, but kept his Egyptian name. Such was the will of God for him.
If something has attached itself to you from some foreign source, and it feels alien and maybe even hostile to your identity, reconsider: could God be using this for His own greater glory?
Because of famine, the Hebrew people fled from the land of Israel down to Egypt. They lived well there at first, because one of their own, Joseph, the son of Jacob, had acquired, by his wisdom and effort, the confidence of the king of Egypt. But a new king, who knew nothing of Joseph, came to power in Egypt, and life for the Hebrews took a distinct turn for the worse. The Hebrews became slaves and were forced to build the supply cities of Pithom and Rameses, and their newborn males were cast into the river.
See how valuable a good reputation is! And yet Christ, who calls us to take up our cross and follow him, asks many of us to set aside our good reputations. St. Ignatius knew this well, so he gave his retreatants an exercise to make them ready for such a sacrifice, if need be. He would invite retreatants, “in order to imitate and be in reality more like Christ our Lord… [to] desire and choose… insults with Christ loaded with them, rather than honors… to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ, rather than to be esteemed as wise and prudent in this world. So Christ was treated.” Most of us aren’t on retreat right now, making the Spiritual Exercises, but all of us can find some way to loosen our grip on our own reputation, with God’s help.
Chapter 55 of the prophet Isaiah compares God’s word to the rain and the snow that come down from heaven, bringing life and moisture to the earth. Elsewhere, Psalm 65 describes how, after receiving water from heaven, the earth shouts for joy and sings God’s praises. If you are reading this blog right now, you have probably had some kind of an experience like this: you have received something from God, perhaps only a word, and it gave you life and made you want to sing God’s praises. And it made you thirsty for more. “Like a parched land my soul thirsts for you” (Psalm 143).
We all have acquaintances who are parched land but don’t realize it. They thirst, but they don’t know where to find water. They build kingdoms of dust that one day must be blown away. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24). Our desire for them is that they receive God’s word and bear fruit that will remain. God’s desire for us is the same, according to Isaiah chapter 55: “Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” May you and your loved ones receive God’s word and may it bear abundant fruit.
In Acts 16:1-10, Paul and Timothy tried to proclaim the gospel throughout what we would now call Asia Minor. But they were stopped, according to the text, by the Holy Spirit, and after Paul had a vision, they decided to cross over into what we now call Europe. In other words, the initial intentions of the missionaries to work in Asia Minor were altered as a result of various prayer experiences, and they went to Europe instead.
Those of us who believe that it is possible to be guided by the Holy Spirit might do well to reflect further on this passage, especially if we believe that the Holy Spirit is much better at guiding things than we are. Were Paul and Timothy doing something special to make themselves attentive to the motions of the spirit? Are there some aspects of their behavior that we can imitate so that it will be easier for ourselves to receive guidance from God?
Perhaps there is one thing to note in this regard. As the text says: “they handed on to the people for observance the decisions reached by the Apostles and presbyters in Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4). In other words, they allowed the core of their message to shaped by Church leadership. Is this not the same reason St. Ignatius includes a chapter in his Spiritual Exercises called: “Rules for thinking with the Church?” Proper spiritual discernment takes place only in a context of promoting Church teaching.
Jesus said that “it was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you” (John 15:16). This means that when we compare our own actions to God’s actions, our deeds pale in comparison, like a candle beside the sun. What God is doing is of far greater impact than anything that we might choose to do. This teaching should not make us neglectful of our own actions, but rather see them in their proper context.
The first aspect of that context is gratitude. Since our discipleship is due more to the grace of God than to our own decisions, we feel a sense of gratitude for the gift that was freely given to us. The second aspect of that context is trust. If God has chosen to reach out to us, despite our unworthiness, and bring us into his friendship, then we can trust Him to act generously and mercifully with us in the future.
To live out of those feelings of gratitude and trust: that is the Christian vocation. Grateful for what we have been given, and trusting God and His Church to guide us, we will easily fulfill the second part of the verse quoted at the beginning of this reflection: “go and bear fruit that will remain” (John 15:16).
Jesus said “remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love” (John 15:9-10). The fact that Jesus used the word “if” (ἐὰν in Greek) must not be under-appreciated. It is part of Christianity’s inheritance from Judaism that the spiritual life cannot be divorced from the observation of divine laws. The love of God is inextricably united to obedience to God’s commandments. If we keep the commandments that Jesus taught us, we will remain in his love. If we don’t keep them, there is a problem that must be addressed.
Confronting the reality of what Jesus is saying should not lead us to see Jesus as a selfish child. A selfish child says: “you can be my friend, as long as you do whatever I tell you.” To perceive the difference, read the entirety of the verses that this reflection began with: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” Jesus is a gateway to the Father (unlike any other human being). He gives us commandments to help us remain not only in His love, but ultimately in the Father’s love. In doing this, he is far more than a helpful friend.