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.”
Today’s gospel (Mt 25:1-13) ends with the admonition, “stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In some ways, our culture seems more awake than ever. We have chemical stimulants, such as sugars and coffees, which “get us going,” and “keep us going.” Our culture is filled with sensory stimulants as well, from the scintillation of photos and videos to the ostentation of lights and logos. Many of us could not sleep if we wanted to, since the lights glare so brightly. But might this wakefulness mask a deeper and more troubling somnolence? Once, drunken revelers at least ceased their imbibing once they passed out. Today, however, one can encounter more and more so-called “Red Bull Zombies,” who are no less impaired by alcohol, but who are impeded from sleep by having simultaneously consumed powerful energy drinks (See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/education/edlife/binge-drinking-students-penn-state.html). These people cannot sleep, but nor can they really be said to be awake.
Are we “awake” in the manner of a “Red Bull zombie,” or are we awake in the way that the Lord calls us to be? The wakefulness that Jesus calls us to is not properly opposed to sleep. In fact, all ten of the virgins, both the wise and the foolish ones, fall asleep. The Lord himself sleeps so soundly that even a storm buffeting the boat in which he sleeps cannot wake him (cf. Mk 4:38-40). Those who do not know how to give themselves over to the sleep that the Lord offers might not know how to hand themselves over to grace. Rather, the wakefulness that the Lord Jesus calls us to is one in which we abide in his love, ready to accomplish the greater mission of love which the Lord has entrusted to our care. The wise virgins do not bring with them merely the oil (i.e. the love) that they require for the task that they have been given. They bring with them all the oil that they can, and then they discover that the task that they were given has been expanded, for the Bridegroom is delayed, and that they will need all this oil in order in order to worthily receive their Lord.
The “wakefulness” that the Lord invites us to is a fundamental orientation towards the love that he offers, not the senseless frenetic activity that typifies our clickbait culture. If, like the foolish virgins, we stand ready to “do our part” but no more, then when the Lord should come to us in need of our help “beyond the call of duty,” then we will find ourselves lacking the charity to love the Lord in the least of our neighbors who are most in need of our love. In that moment, the foolish virgin will express outrage on social media and demand that the “powers that be” act to change an unjust situation. But the wise virgin will simply trim the lamp of her love, and light the way to the wedding feast for the Lord, who arrives under the guise of the poor and most in need.
Ex abundantia cordis os loquitur. “From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). This verse from today’s gospel has become one of the most profound criteria for discernment in the Christian spiritual tradition. People who are critical or bickering in their speech can betray a heart that is not rooted in the saving love of Jesus Christ—however much those people may protest that they are standing up for the Lord’s name—but rather is choked by brambles and thornbushes.
We should be especially attentive if we are prone to condemn others in our speech, for this may be a sign that we condemn people constantly in our thoughts. Satan is the accuser, from Genesis all the way to the book of Revelation. But Jesus says, “I did not come to condemn the world but to save the world” (John 3:17). When the woman at the well tells Jesus, “I have no husband” in John 4, Jesus does not respond by accusing the woman of a lie, but rather, finding the truth in her statement, he actually saves what she has to say instead of condemning it: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” (Jn 4:17-18). When we encounter such situations, do we accuse and condemn them in our words and in our hearts, as Satan does, or seek to save them and lift them up, as Jesus does?
“Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21; cf. Lk 6:46f). Let us ask for the grace to not merely confess the Lord with our lips, but also in our hearts, so that we may “produce good out of the store of goodness in our hearts” (Lk 6:45). Ex abundantia cordis os loquitur.
On the day after the Exaltation of the Cross, the Church celebrates “Our Lady of Sorrows.” This feast links Mary explicitly with the cross of the Lord, and invites us to enter more deeply into the mystery of Mary’s motherhood as the Theotokos, the “birther of God.” Mary does not merely “give birth to God” in a physical way, at Jesus’ birth. Mary is just as much a spiritual mother to her Son as she is a mother in the flesh. This reality is revealed in Luke 2:33-35, in which Simeon foretells, in the Holy Spirit, not only that Jesus will be a sign of contradiction, but that, together with this, Mary’s own soul would be “pierced by a sword” (Lk 2:35).
The alleluia verse for today’s feast proclaims, “Blessed are you, O Virgin Mary; without dying you won the martyr’s crown beneath the Cross of the Lord.” Alleluias are sung on this day! It is not a Lenten feast, but a cause for rejoicing! Why? Because as we celebrated yesterday the Exaltation of the Cross, which, in the light of the resurrection reveals the glory of the eternal Love that gives itself in Christ’s crucifixion, so also we see the glory of that purely human love of the maiden who gave birth to God and remains God’s mother, even as she stands underneath the cross. As he suffers for the salvation of all humankind on the cross, she suffers the birth-pangs of a mother in the most painful spiritual labor, even as she, too, is saved by her Son. Out of love, Mary would not trade the sorrow that she experiences under the cross for any lesser joy, for her greatest joy—one devoid of any superficial or felt happiness in this moment—is to suffer with the Son whom she so loves, who is dying for her and for the whole world. Just as the Son could, at any moment, call upon the Father and his passion would be over, but instead chooses, in every moment, to suffer to the end out of love (Cf. Mt 26:53), so also the Mother’s unique privilege is to suffer with the Son to his death, out of love, without for an instant ceasing to be the Theotokos, the one who gives birth to God. This is her unique privilege, by God’s grace, but through her it is one into which we are all called, one which manifests humanity as being called to a love that is the true created likeness of God’s own uncreated love.
Let us sing the “alleluia,” for the great glory of love that God reveals to us today in this sorrowful lady. Through her, we know that the glory of this love is indeed shared with all of humankind, and by God’s grace and through her intercession, we ask that we, too, might love in a way that triumphs over our mediocrity and finds its joy in accompanying the crucified body of Christ as far as he will permit us to go. May we so love Christ that we, too, may know the joy of this sorrow.
Today’s celebration of the Exaltation of the Cross offers a scriptural depth of meaning that far surpasses the feast’s historical origins. The fact that Christians exalt in the cross, indeed, that they “glory in the cross of our Lord” (Gal 6:14) can seem just as perplexing today as it did in the time of Saint Paul. Why would we glory in an instrument of torture and execution? Indeed, some critics of the Exaltation of the Cross suggest that it makes about as much sense as wearing a little electric chair around one’s neck. But the cross is not just an instrument of death and torture. Thanks to Christ, it has become the path through which we find salvation, the path that reveals that the Lordship of Christ will not be undone by our rebellion, and that, in the fullness of time, even those things through which we sought most to undermine God’s love can become the greatest symbol of that love itself.
When we contemplate the Lord on the cross—which, in obedience to his command, we should do frequently—we see the evil that we have laid upon the Lord. But if that were all that we saw, then this sight would not have the power to save. By God’s grace, we see far more. We see that the instrument through which we intended the greatest hatred in our greatest rebellion against God has become the instrument through which God in Christ has shown us the greatest love: so great that when we gaze at Christ on the cross, we no longer see the hatred that we had for Jesus but the love that he has for us. If we live from the cross and exalt it as Jesus commands us to do, then we have the hope that, in eternity, what will remain is not our sin, but the love that God made manifest in willingly bearing those sins for us on the cross: thanking us, even, for giving him the chance to let him show us that he truly does love us that much.