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From St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (iv.4-6):  “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

On page 37 of the Book of Common Prayer, we find the prayer For the Unity of God’s People.

O GOD, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Saviour, the Prince of Peace; Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly, union and concord: that as there is but one Body and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer takes the heart of its content from today’s Epistle lesson.  It seems different to our ears.  Poetical.  Liturgical.

 

1:  I THEREFORE, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,

“Vocation” speaks of being called.  Being called by God demands a response:  How we walk in the Lord and our life in the congregation.  Calling presumes God’s initiative and relates it to right behavior.

We Christians are called by God to a unity which is part of God’s spiritual design of a redeemed and holy cosmos.

Our individual walks with Christ, as well as our walk together with Him, must be done worthily as to the Lord.  We do not do this for ourselves.  We follow Christ in accordance with the vocation to which He called us.

 

2:  with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love;

As we are all called by God, so our response must be godly.  How we behave in our vocation is rooted in God’s divine plan for our lives individually, for our lives together, and for the entire redeemed cosmos.  Our Christian walk can be described through lowliness and meekness, long-suffering, and forbearing one another in love.

Long-suffering is a better translation than patience, because it not only means enduring provocations but refusing to give up hope for improved relations.  Patience can give the sense of only suffering for a bit until the problem goes away.  Long-suffering points towards the goal of good and holy relations between brethren through the firm practice of hope as that holy restoration is worked out.

Christians don’t just give up and walk away from difficult relationships.  Christians dig in deep and love like Christ loves until a good relationship flourishes.  Long-suffering means that we must not only endure but we must change into the image of Christ so that we may grow in loving-kindness.

Forbearing one another in love is the culmination of the holy virtues with which we live out our high calling.  We do not shrivel up so that others may flourish around us.  Rather, we live boldly in Christ-like loving-kindness, forgiving those who sin against us while striving with all our might not to sin against others, thereby building up godly relationships with our brother and with our neighbor.  Christ commands the disciples in St. John xiii:34:  “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.”

St. Paul writes previously in this epistle (i.10), “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him:”

This is the end to which we are heading.  This is what Christ has in store for us and for the entire cosmos.  Any impairment we suffer with regards to unity is an impairment of the whole world.  We work against Christ when we hold grudges, when we vaunt ourselves in front of others, when we work to silence others, when we work to politic our way into getting our peculiar lovely thing accepted by the group.  All those things are not even worthy of worldly relations.

 

3:  endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

We have unity in the Holy Ghost.  Our unity together as members of one Body is God’s work, not ours.  We must labor to maintain, to keep this unity.

And how?  “In the bond of peace”.  A bond can mean physical glue like ligaments and beams or ethical glue like loyalty or law.  This is a good, necessary, and wholesome thing, not a wicked thing weighing us down.  Indeed, in Colossians iii.14, the bond is love.

 

4:  There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling;

5:  one Lord, one faith, one baptism,

6:  one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

The “body” is a reference to Christ’s universal Church.  Through the Spirit, Christians gain access to the Father.  The Father calls the Christians through the Holy Ghost.  The “one hope of your calling” is eternal life in Christ, which believers have received from God.

“One Lord” reminds us that both Jews and Gentiles, indeed all Christians, have but one lord, and this when there were many earthly lords abounding.  In the first chapter of this epistle to the Ephesians (i.21), we read of the triumph of Christ over all other lords, both worldly and otherworldly.  The latter half of the second chapter of Ephesians (ii.11-22) tells of Jew and Gentile united “by one Spirit, unto the Father”.

One faith reminds us that there are not several faiths, but one faith, faith in Christ Jesus, the orthodox faith, eschewing all heretical and heterodox faiths.  We may struggle in darkness to find the right path, but doubt not that there is a right path.  We are not abandoned in the cosmos to make our way alone.  We have a savior, the God-become-Man, our Lord Christ.

If that seems rather epic or deep, that’s because it is.  St. Paul reflects this cosmic or universal understanding through this more poetical part.

St. Paul elaborates this in I Corinthians xii.12-13:

“For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.  For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.”

Our holy God teaches us that things are united in him, not divided.  Reading the Revelation, we see that those who divide themselves away from God will ultimately suffer a final and permanent separation from God.  God is one, and we are joined in God.

This extends to God’s relationship to all of the created order, the whole cosmos.  God is not only father of men, but the Father of the whole creation.  The Father is not Father by apparent relationship and called so by man, but is called so in Holy Scriptures as the proper address for the First Person of the Holy Trinity.

 

Unity is one of the Notes of the Church.  In the Nicene Creed we say, “I believe in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”

We are all one in Christ.  Jesus Christ is the mediator between God and Man.  He is truly God, being the Son of the Father, the Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  He is truly Man, born of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Subsisting in Christ, we are one with God.  We do not become gods ourselves.  We do not become angels.  We do not wind up as disembodied spirits in the presence of God.  We are human.  We share the same nature.  Every human person you meet, whether profoundly mentally retarded, utterly lost in addiction, or entirely given over to wickedness, every person is human.  We share this with each other.  We share this with Christ.

We are not all the same person; we are not all in the same parish; we are not all of the same sex; we are not all of the same class; we are not all of the same ethnicity.  Becoming one in Christ has little to do with breaking down such barriers.  Our unity with each other and with God in Christ transcends these differences.

Christ demolishes these pale notions of human life.  Each soul stands before God on her own.  We are all equal in our humanity.  We are all beneath the holy dignity of divinity.  Each one of us must join with Christ, Who is God Incarnate, eternally begotten of God the Father before all worlds and born of Saint Mary the Mother of God in Bethlehem.  Only insofar as we unite in Christ are we saved.

 

“There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

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“For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

Today is the Autumnal Ember Friday, one of three Ember Days this week.  St. Matthew’s feast takes precedence, but the two have something essential in common.

Ember Days are days of fasting and abstinence, a special little time spaced every quarter year devoted to fasting and praying for the Sacred Ministry.  As early as the Fifth Century, a pope preached a series of sermons on the Ember Days, and ordinations were preferentially done on them.  The Book of Common Prayer includes them still, even though the Church of Rome, in her usual manner, has transformed them into something entirely unrecognizable.

This is the collect given in the Book of Common Prayer for all Ember Days:

O ALMIGHTY God, who hast committed to the hands of men the ministry of reconciliation; We humbly beseech thee, by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, to put it into the hearts of many to offer themselves for this ministry; that thereby mankind may be drawn to thy blessed kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We read in the Acts of the Apostles (xiii.47-49):

For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth.  And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.  And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region.

The Sacred Ministry serves as Christ’s Sacramental, teaching, and governing ministers participating in His ultimate ministry of reconciling God and Man.  So we teach and preach the Holy Scriptures.  We act in Christ’s stead in feeding His people with His Body and Blood.  We forgive your sins in His Name.  We witness marriages as He did at the wedding in Cana.

Priests have the cure of souls.  My favorite saints, a parish priest, is often called by his position and title, the Cure d’Ars.  Some priests hold positions called curacies and are called curates.  Our ministry, our Sacred Ministry, is nothing without Christ, His calling of disciples, and His curing of both our ailments and our fundamental illness, sin.

Saint Matthew, whose feast we celebrate today, was a Jewish tax collector for the Romans.  The Romans did not have an internal revenue service.  They farmed out the taxes to disreputable and tough men who would coerce locals to pay, and for which service they took a percentage.  No wonder the Pharisees found Matthew, also named Levi, and his associates unclean!  All decent Jews in Judaea would find them objectionable.

But, we read today’s Gospel and find Christ saying that

They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.  But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice:  for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

In his Gospel, St. Matthew wrote (xviii.12-14):

How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?  And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.  Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.

Think upon the author of the First Gospel.  Reflect upon Christ calling him as he sat taking money from his fellows.  See how Jesus called out to him, “Follow me”, and watch as Matthew gets up, leaves all behind, and follows his Lord, our Lord.

Christ calls us all to Him.  Pray for those whom the Lord has called to assist Him in His labor of love amongst us.  And St. Matthew:  Pray for us.

 

“For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

“And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

Leprosy remains an awful disease today, but it was a plague in ancient times.  Leprosy wrenched poor souls from the company of their families and neighbors, shunned into isolation.  Leprosy was, not only a lingering death of living decomposition, but, a social death.  Cleansing rituals and reëntrance into society were tightly regulated.  Samaritans and Jews notably lived apart, yet here lepers of both sorts found themselves bound together, joined as outcasts.

The Gospel lesson opens with ten lepers who keep their distance but entreat Christ to have mercy on them.  They are piteous, yet they seek more than His pity.  They pray for healing:  The restoration of their flesh and the return to the company of their peoples.

Christ does not heal them with a word.  Rather, he commands them to present themselves to the priests in accordance with the Law.  As I said last Sunday, Christ came to fulfill the Law, not to replace it.  “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.”  The priests would examine them and declare them clean, officially receiving them back into the community.

The ten are made clean when they leave Christ to obey His command.  Christ does not heal them where they were.  He does not heal them with a word or even spittle and mud.  They find restoration when they heed Christ’s direction.

“And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan.”  Like the publican who would not lift his eyes up to Heaven, the Samaritan leper fell down on his face.  He could not heal himself.  His heart brimmed with gratitude.

The Samaritan is not the only one who had faith.  Christ told the leper that “thy faith hath made thee whole”.  But the nine Jewish lepers had been cleansed too; they differ in that they did not return to give thanks.  They had also been cleansed by faith as they obeyed Christ and headed off to present themselves to the priests before they were healed.  But they did not respond with gratitude by returning “to give glory to God” for their cleansing.

 

Ingratitude is a leprosy of the spirit.  Ingratitude isolates us in selfishness.  It raises barriers between people due to hurt feelings.  It does not bind us together but teaches us not to care for others.  It teaches us not to trust.  It teaches us not to love.  It sullies the soul and rips asunder the innumerable connections forming the fabric of civilized society.  This social sin hurts us individually in our relationships with God and man and harms the social world we – and our neighbors – live in.

It is not a stretch to consider how we are lepers.  Leprosy is a disease of the flesh.  Our ingratitude at the good gift of Christ’s own self is a disease of the spirit.  Christ is “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”  He sees us in all our grotesque lesions.  Yet He embraces us still.  He loves us so much, He would see us whole.

If our neighbor could see us as Christ sees us, as monstrous lepers with putrid sores, failing limbs, rotting lips, and decaying skin, he would run from us in horror and disgust.  Perhaps this is why those reveling in the stench of their own sin often seek each other out for company.  Others who do not share their affliction cannot abide them.

The lepers approach Christ and pray Him for healing.  They know their flesh rots.  They cannot deceive themselves as we can.  Christ commands that, whilst sick, they present themselves to the priests to be declared clean.  This is a bold act of faith to leave the Lord and seek the priests to present themselves whilst still putrid.  As they obey in faith, they find themselves healed.

‘Show us a miracle’, the skeptics demand.  Christ says in St. Matthew (xvii.20), “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”  Lively faith, trust in and obedience to the Lord, is the path to holiness.

Restored from deadly sin, we are reunited in communion with Christ.  We confess and receive absolution from our sins before we receive the Holy Body and Blood of our Lord upon bended knee.  When you love people for a long time, you offend each other.  When you address these failures and offenses forthrightly, you open the way to restoring that which is broken.  That the one leper who best lived life in the Lord was a strange Samaritan from outside Israel shows us that everything broken can be healed in Christ.

 

If a friend was to forget a single gift once given, then we could forgive him.  But God gives us good gifts every day.  Withholding thanks, much less acknowledgement, is cruel return for such continual blessings.  Truly, God lacks nothing.  We can offer him nothing he needs.  Rather, we need all things from him.  Although God does not need our thanks, it is only “meet and right so to do”.

The age-old name of the Mass in Greek is the eucharist, the good gift.  This wondrous Sacrament commemorates the Lord’s gift of Himself to us for our salvation.  Being the mysterious recapitulation of Christ’s self, it signifies God’s grace and love to us.  He not only deigned among us to dwell.  He not only gave Himself up for our sins to overcome Hell and death.  He also gave us His Sacred Body to eat and His Precious Blood to drink in a spiritual feast and heavenly banquet.  Thus reminded and enlivened, how could we fail to thank Him by living lives worthy of His great gift?  Not only did God give Himself for His enemies, but He then gave Himself as their food.  God is great beyond comprehension.

As we thank God for the gift of himself and for the blessings he has given us, so too we also ought to thank God for the blessings given to others.  By thanking God for the gifts he has given our neighbor, we crucify envy and increase in loving-kindness.  Our gratitude detaches from self-interest and purifies, making it more genuine.  We in no wise can continue to envy those whom we heartily thank God for their blessings.

Likewise, we ought to recount and gratefully acknowledge even the smallest gifts God gives us.  All we have is his.  Even the smallest gift God gives is marvelous for being the gift of God.  Continual remembrance and thanksgiving for small gifts trains our hearts to pray without ceasing.  Nothing God has made is without importance.  Taking care to give thanks for his small gifts reminds us of God’s wonder and constancy.

Indeed, we ought to go beyond giving thanks for God’s small gifts and his gifts to others.  We ought to thank him for our indignities and sufferings.  Only pride tells us that we are, in ourselves, worthy of something.  All we have is from God.  We have nothing to call our own.  To say that we deserve something solely from our own effort is to err.  The contrite soul acknowledges both good and ill things worthy to be of thanks.  Dare we truly think we have not offended?  Nothing we endure is wholly undeserved.  God sees with his own light; indeed, all light is of God.  He sees everything, including the things we would rather hide in the darkness.

As one advances in spiritual direction, living in religious community, or hopefully even parish life, we learn to thank each other for admonitions and corrections.  One of the most painful experiences of my life involves a moment of truth-telling, wherein I was called on hypocrisy I had blissfully ignored.  This is yet more true of the Lord.  As we grow in virtue, the more we see our faults.  The holiest saints urgently insist of their own sinfulness and unworthiness.  With bad eyesight, we cannot tell how far away or how dirty those fuzzy things out there are.  The clearer we see, the better we ascertain our true deserts.

There is a saying that there are no atheists in foxholes.  I have been reliably told by some atheist veterans that this is not true.  What is true is we tend to pray when in distress.  Avoiding death tops the charts.  But people also pray to find lost keys, fix computer printers, and meet next month’s rent.  The ten lepers in today’s Gospel certainly needed healing.  That they prayed Christ to save them is worthy.  It demonstrates faith.  Yet praying for things when we need them is not evidence of a habitual orientation of our hearts towards God.

 

Out of hundreds of possible examples throughout Holy Writ, I like Psalm xcii.1-2:  “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the LORD, and to sing praises unto thy Name, O Most Highest; To tell of thy loving-kindness early in the morning, and of thy truth in the night season;”

Gratitude is central to a living faith.  Gratitude flows from the heart full of God’s love.  We pray in thanksgiving after receiving the “good gift” of Holy Communion.  We sing God’s praise throughout our services.  In the Sacrament of Confession, we give thanks after God forgives us our sins.  In Morning and Evening Prayer, we cherish the General Thanksgiving:  “Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we, thine unworthy servants, do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and lovingkindness to us, and to all men;”

 

George Herbert’s poem, Gratefulness, begins:

 

Thou that hast given so much to me,

Give one thing more, a grateful heart.

 

After tears, sighing, and groaning, he concludes:

 

Wherefore I cry, and cry again;

And in no quiet canst thou be,

Till I a thankful heart obtain

Of thee:

 

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;

As if thy blessings had spare days:

But such a heart, whose pulse may be

Thy praise.

 

“And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

“If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.  But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

In Genesis (xvii.7), God promises Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.”

God made a promise to Abraham, a promise which was fulfilled in Christ.  Then why the Law?  The Law does not save.  It does not annul or replace the promise made to Abraham.  It was “a temporary expedient”; it prepared us for faith in Christ; it showed us the way of righteousness.  But the Law was powerless to lead us into righteousness.  At our best, we could avoid sin, but life with God is more than avoiding sin.  Ultimately, the Law taught us how helpless we are to condemnation.

Remember that the Jews were the Chosen People because they had something that the Gentiles did not:  The sure and certain knowledge of where they had violated God’s Law.  This did not make them holy.  This did not save them.  This did not bring them into communion with God.  But this did let them be schooled in righteousness.

The Gentiles did not have this.  The Law was not a remedy for sin, but it was a diagnostic guide.  It made you aware of the symptoms of sin, the presence of sin.  Thus, the Law was a gift, but Law was also a burden.

The Law could not grant the power to accomplish what it commanded.  It did not give people the means to overcome sin, but it made them aware of sin.  So, at least they could ask for forgiveness, which is a blessing.  As St. Paul says a few verses after this lesson:  “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”

Isaac Williams preached:

The Law was to convince them of sin, and bring them to Christ: thus John the Baptist preached repentance; for if they had believed Moses they would have believed in Christ. The Law was but the means, not the end; but the Jews were now making it the end; whereas the end of the Law is Christ, in Whom is the promise, and the blessing, and the covenant, and righteousness, and life; not for a time only, but for ever.

Christ’s Advent removed the need for the Law.  St. Paul had a clear sense of the historical demarcations of the usefulness of the Law:  From Sinai to Christ.  The Law had a transitional function until the seed of promise came to us in Christ.  Christ, unlike the Law, is able to redeem us from sin, grant us everlasting life, and cover us with His righteousness.

Christ says in St. Matthew (v.17-18):

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.  For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

The Law of Moses cannot be unwritten.  St. Paul does not dispute this.  He says, however, that the purpose for which the Law was written has been fulfilled in Christ our Lord.  It has not been made wrong.  It has been superseded.

The Law of Moses was a provisional kind of temporary:  Till the seed came.  Obedience to God is less than brotherhood with Christ and full communion with God.  With Abraham and in Christ, faith, not obedience, is the effectual element.  We still must do no murder, but if we leave murder be, we may be saved in Christ our Lord.

St. Paul writes in Philippians that as to righteousness under the Law as a Pharisee, he was blameless, yet that did not give him eternal life.  Christ gave him eternal life.  There is no life eternal in the Law of Moses.

Whereas the Law was given on Sinai from God through Moses to the Jews, Christ came for us all, both Jew and Gentile.  We are all under the power of sin.  We are all hemmed in, confined, and imprisoned by sin.  The virtue of the promise is given to those that believe.

John Wesley wrote:

Will it follow from hence that the law is against, opposite to, the promises of God? By no means. They are well consistent. But yet the law cannot give life, as the promise doth. If there had been a law which could have given life – Which could have entitled a sinner to life, God would have spared his own Son, and righteousness, or justification. with all the blessings consequent upon it, would have been by that law.

 

From Adam and Eve in the Garden, sin and death have been ever with us.  God did not create us to suffer and die – our sin so corrupted us – but it is our fallen estate.

In the Burial Office, we read at the graveside:

Man, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.

In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?

Sin and death have an existential hold over us.  We stand condemned by our sins and estranged from our good God.  We have no escape by clawing our way out of the pit.

I am fascinated by H. P Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Cosmic Horror stories.  You see, I read Nietzsche (übermensch and all that) and Dylan Thomas (“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”) before I read H. P. Lovecraft.  This notion of this eternal emptiness, this absolute death, this coldness, this gaping maw that will devour each of us has been with me for a long time.

Thomas and Nietzsche and Lovecraft seem so different with poetry and philosophy and fiction, but raging against the dying of the light does not lead to death having no dominion over us.  The exaltation of will does not overcome the hollowness left by the retreat of God’s morality.  And no human effort avails against monsters so ancient and immense as to ignore us completely whilst driving us incurably mad.  Yet these men touched something in our souls, in our fears.  As a very young child, I had occasional nightmares which taught me dread.  Dread is reasonable, for death calls us all.  But fervently steeling ourselves to hurl ego at the emptiness we feel, whether through embracing chaos and destruction or obeying inflexible rules, does not save us from our mortal predicament.

The great perplexity of emptiness and death, the coldness and void of the tomb, can be overcome neither by valiant effort nor exertion of will nor by righteousness according to the Law, but only by one who can defeat such ill things.  And that One, of course, is Christ.

It makes perfect sense that we gain eternal life through being Baptized into the death and Resurrection of Christ.  Our life that lives eternally in us is from God alone, as our own life is temporary and dies.  Likewise, our righteousness is from God alone because we are flawed and finite.  God’s righteousness is natural to who God is.  It is perfect, infinite, and holy:  All the things that we are not.

Our only salvation is from God, whom as the existentialist theologian I heartily love to hate calls, “the ground of all being”.  All that is, is contingent upon God.  All the preaching in the world, all the rituals of the Church, all the mumbled prayers of the faithful, and all the songs of exaltation do not raise Christ from the dead.  Christ defeated death, and Christ loves us.  He was won the victory.

 

You cannot outrun dread.  You cannot physically hold onto righteousness.  These are not subjects of work.  We cannot earn ourselves salvation, eternal life, the beatific vision, or that deep and living connection with our Creator and Redeemer.  There is none of that.  I can do things to damage my relationship with God, but I cannot fix my relationship with him.

It is as if the Promised Land is on the other side of a river broad, swift, and deep.  I can keep myself from straying too far inland on my side so I that can no longer see the Promised Land, but I cannot build a bridge or swim the fast current to get there.  I cannot get across on my own.  No matter how athletic and healthy I am.  I am crippled, I’m feeble, I’m weak.  However, I can work to avoid following every pretty distraction that’s on my side further away from the shore until I forget all about the Promised Land.  I can work at that.  I would rather look across the swift river and torture myself beholding unattainable bliss.  I can see home, like Moses did from the mountain.  But I cannot get there myself.  I need a savior.

We are not capable in our fallen, mortal, and limited state to fulfill the Law and earn righteousness for ourselves.  The mightiest hero, the holiest saint, the wisest philosopher can no more earn his own righteousness before God than the weakest of us.  We are all under sin; not one of us can save himself from everlasting death.  Only by faith in Christ are we saved.

 

We are called to believe in Christ, to follow Him, and to love like He loves.  If we think that He did not follow the Law correctly, we are the ones who are incorrect, not the Son of God.  We are in no wise capable of challenging God on his own terms.  We must love Christ and conform our lives to His holy life.  Railing against the universe, or as Christ tells St. Paul, “it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks”, gains us nothing.  We ought not futilely concern ourselves with earning our reward, instead following Him in the way which leads to everlasting life.

 

“If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.  But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

Let us love our Lord God, let us love His Church: Him as a Father, Her as a Mother: Him as a Lord, Her as His Handmaid, as we are ourselves the Handmaid’s sons. But this marriage is held together by a bond of great love: no man offends the one, and wins favour of the other. Let no man say, “I go indeed to the idols, I consult possessed ones and fortune-tellers: yet I abandon not God’s Church; I am a Catholic.” While thou holdest to thy Mother, thou hast offended thy Father. Another says, Far be it from me; I consult no sorcerer, I seek out no possessed one, I never ask advice by sacrilegious divination, I go not to worship idols, I bow not before stones; though I am in the party of Donatus. What does it profit you not to have offended your Father, if he avenges your offended Mother? what does it serve you, if you acknowledge the Lord, honour God, preach His name, acknowledge His Son, confess that He sitteth by His right hand; while you blaspheme His Church?

St. Augustine, exposition of Psalm lxxxix

From the 24th chapter of The Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus:

“With all these I sought rest: and in whose inheritance shall I abide?  So the Creator of all things gave me a commandment, and he that made me caused my tabernacle to rest….”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

We teach what Holy Church teaches whilst we only hold that doctrines provable from Scripture are necessary for salvation.  Holy Church has taught for at least fifteen centuries that our Lady was carried off into Heaven upon her death.  Believing this, too, is not considered necessary for salvation, but it makes a great deal of sense and has been taught by Holy Church.

St. John of Damascus preached:

This day the Ark of the living God even the holy and living Ark, wherein once its own Maker had been held, is borne to its resting place in that Temple of the Lord which is not made with hands.

This day the spotless Virgin, who had been defiled by no earthly lust, but rather was enobled by heavenly desires, died only to live without returning to dust.  For being a living heaven, she took her place today among the heavenly mansions.

This is the great lesson of the Feast of the Assumption.  Our place is with God.  The one person who was not also God who set the most excellent example of obedience and devotion is the Blessed Virgin Mary.  God calls us to him.  Christ has opened Heaven to all believers.  St. Stephen the Proto-Martyr followed thereafter by dying for his faith in Christ.  Made regenerate in Holy Baptism, nurtured in the Blessed Sacrament, and living lives of love and obedience, we will live with God forever.

He Who condescended to be born of the Blessed Virgin is “the only-begotten Son of God; Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father;”  Her son, the son she bore in Bethlehem, is the Son of God.  To protect against the Arian and other heretics who denied that Christ was God, Holy Church for ages has called the Blessed Virgin Mary the Theotokos, or Bearer of God.  The Latin and English appellations Mater Dei and Mother of God are not exactly similar in meaning, but they cannot be denied without doubting our Lord’s divinity.

The Virgin’s motherhood is imminently human.  She was and remains fully human.  Her carrying, bearing, nurturing, and loving her Son is deeply human.  Her motherhood is of her human nature.  Christ has two natures, the one from His Father, and the other from His mother.  Both are necessary for Christ to be one Person, both human and divine.

But when we speak to St. Mary, we speak to her as a saint in her own right.  Her authority over her Son ended when He came of age two thousand years ago.  The tender bonds of love between mother and child no doubt still carry on for them, but her sanctity was won by the merits of Christ in His life, death, and Resurrection, just like they are for the rest of us.  Yet we may still ask for her prayers, for as we read in St. James’ Epistle, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

If the power of a soul’s prayer depends upon her relationship with God, her participation in the divine worship of Heaven, and her increase in grace upon grace, then we may very well think that the prayers of the Blessed Mother are more effectual than those of other saints.  She is the exemplar of the faithful human soul’s loving giving of herself to God.  We read in St. Luke (xi.27-28):

And it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked.  But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.

The Blessed Virgin is not the preëminent of saints because she is Christ’s mama.  She is the preëminent example of faithfulness and grace amongst all men.  Likewise, she possesses a purity and innocence exceeding all others.  St. John Chrysostom preached:

… If her kinship in itself could have profited Mary, it would also have profited the Jews, . . .  Yet, as long as his brethren cared only for their own interests, their relationship to Christ profited them nothing, but they were condemned with the rest of the world.

She is the greatest of saints because she shows us the fullness of the sanctified response of the soul of man to our loving and holy God:  “My soul doth magnify the Lord….”

We cannot give her too much respect and honor, so long as we remember that worship alone belongs to God.  We do well to remember that her holiness is the reflection of the burning and brilliant divinity rather than of herself.  So it is that by honoring her, we honor her Son, Whose grace alone made her this mirror of perfection.

The highest honor paid to our Lady is only dangerous when confused with the worship given only to our Lord.  The Seventeenth-Century Bishop of Chester, John Pearson, wrote:

We cannot bear too revered a regard unto the ‘Mother of our Lord,’ so long as we give her not that worship which is due unto the Lord Himself . . . .  Let her be honored and esteemed, let Him be worshipped and adored.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is more pious and ancient belief than article of faith.  But we know that when we die, Christ judges us, and if invited, we go to Heaven.  That our Lady died and went to Heaven is undeniable.  How and when she went to Heaven can be argued.  The Assumption highly honors our Lady and ought greatly to inspire us.  We, too, ought to increase in Christ, die in Christ, and then live with Him forever!

 

“With all these I sought rest: and in whose inheritance shall I abide?  So the Creator of all things gave me a commandment, and he that made me caused my tabernacle to rest….”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

St. Matthew xxv.41:  “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

I read an anonymous quote this week which seemed appropriate to share with you this Sunday, the fourth of the Four Last Things, Hell:  “Everyone will live forever. Not everyone will enjoy it.”

 

Satan hates us so very much.  For all the rebellion and hatred he bears to God, he cannot hurt God directly, for God is all powerful.  Even when he thought he could hurt Christ, he could not tempt Him into sin.  He could not break Christ on the Cross.  Instead, Christ broke the power of Satan and Hell on the Cross.

However, Satan can hurt God’s creatures.  Unlike the angels, we men are made in the image of God.  Satan seeks to destroy us like a ravening lion. So when Old Scratch and his demons get their filthy claws on us in Hell, they torture for all eternity.

Both man and angel are created, are designed, are built to bask in the presence of the great giver of life, the Lord God Almighty.  As much as man and angel may hate God and seek to flee from his presence, so both are horribly distressed by great longing for God.  That impure corrupted longing turned long ago into distorted loathing and hatred and contempt for the erstwhile object of love.

As Fr. Von Cochem says about the Devil:

Of all the fallen spirits, not one is so abominable as the chief of all, the haughty Lucifer, whose cruelty, malice and spite render him an object of dread not merely to the damned, but also to the devils subject to him. This Lucifer is called by various names in Holy Scriptures, all indicating his malignity. On account of his repulsiveness he is called a dragon; on account of his ferocity, a lion; on account of his malice, the old serpent; on account of his deceitfulness, the father of lies; on account of his haughtiness, king over all the children of pride; and on account of his great power and might, the prince of this world.

The other devils and demons are fallen angels who are not as mighty or created as perfectly good as Lucifer, and therefore are not so evil and ugly as him.  Just as men often in Scripture behold angels and attempt to worship them because of their beauty and goodness, so we would hardly be able to abide the presence of demons in their unhidden form because of their ugliness and wickedness.  That we can scarcely contemplate how miserable in appearance devils are is why they are often portrayed in a gruesome and grotesque manner.

Immediately after making my confession on retreat at Holy Spirit monastery in Conyers, I was visited in a nightmare by a creature so horrible in countenance that I could only barely describe it.  I was immensely terrified and would have been frightened away from spiritual matters entirely – thus acquiescing to the damning of my soul – were I not fortified in the Holy Sacraments and prayer.  The Sacraments are the grace of God the Son and prayer is ultimately of God the Father – when mediated by God the Holy Ghost, we are invincible to all demonic spiritual attack.

Hell is the place reserved for Satan, his demons, and cursed men.  It is a place of everlasting fire.  St. Matthew xxv.41:  “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:”  Hell is real and everlasting, as is Heaven.  The wicked and damned go to Hell forever, and the righteous and saved go to Heaven forever.  St. Matthew xxv.46:  “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”

The Roman Christians in antiquity would stand prayerfully together as they would be mauled to death by wild animals in the Coliseum.  They could die heroically at peace in our Lord while vicious beasts, deranged by hunger, would pounce upon them, pull them down, and tear their flesh with fang and claw.  They could die this way because they had victory in Christ and knew that Hell had worse to offer.  Think upon that, dear souls!  How ruthlessly did the lions rip into their flesh!  Would the angry hungry evil angels be more merciful than a brutalized innocent animal?  Our brethren knew that the feasting of demons upon their Resurrection bodies would go on for eternity – and the demons would never eat their fill or satisfy their lust for flesh.

Oftentimes I have heard that the company would be better in Hell than in Heaven, as if Hell would be some great party that would never end.  Perhaps the companionship would not be near as boring as would be the squares in Heaven.  But loving-kindness is entirely missing in Hell.  There is no camaraderie amongst the damned.  Hell is the realm where all are embittered against each other, mocking and cursing with enmity for all.

 

St. Mark ix.43-4

And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:  Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

Christ says this not to injure our bodies.  Sin does not work in our hands and feet and eyes.  Sin works in our hearts.  But indeed we should be counted among the blessed if we were to lose our hands and feet and eyes in this world and flourish in Heaven above for all eternity!  The holy martyrs certainly thought so.  St. Lawrence the Deacon was roasted alive.  Yet knowing that Christ was his redeemer, he famously said to his executioners to turn him over, for this side was done!  How could he be so bold as he died a death of torture?  Because His savior lived!  And St. Lawrence was about to join Him in Heaven.  Truly the slings and insults of this world are nothing compared to the agonies of Hell.

So Christ says it is better to cut off your own body parts and live maimed than to go to Hell intact.  And three times here in St. Mark’s Gospel Christ tells us why:  “Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”  The filthy, rotten, tormenting, grotesque demons of Hell do not die in Hellfire.  They gnaw on your soul for eternity.  And the fire never wanes or dies either.  For age unto age the blast furnace heat far exceeds the fire into which King Nebuchadnezzar threw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  That pagan king heated up that furnace seven times beyond its regular blaze.  So very hot was it that the men who threw the three Jewish lads into it died from exposure to the heat.  Yet God sent his angel to protect the young men in there.  But Hellfire is profoundly hotter than the furnaces of Babylon, and God keeps his holy angels far from pits of Hell.

The rich man asked Father Abraham to send Lazarus with his finger dipped in water so to cool his burnt parched lips.  But Father Abraham told that wicked soul that he had enjoyed his good things in his life and not done justice.  There was no relief for him who had ignored the righteous soul starving at the gate, stepping over the poor man on his way about town.  There is no relief in Hell, there is no companionship in Hell, there is no clean air to breathe in Hell, there is no rest from torment in Hell, and there is no peace and quiet in Hell.

The unforgiving oven of Hell continuously burns all flesh therein.  And since all the cursed souls in Hell possess their eternal bodies, the stench of burning flesh does not abate over the millennia.  The cries of the cursed, the stench of the damned, the torments of the devils, the separation from God, and the sheer inescapability of it all are too gruesome for us to understand but in the extremes of our language.  For we still possess our frail bodies of our mortality.  We still live our lives of decision.  We may yet turn to God.  We may yet spurn Satan and embrace Christ.  Our judgement is still yet to come, for we mortal men remain alive … today.  But as death and judgement await us, so does either Heaven or Hell.

 

St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians ii.9, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”  Wonderful bounteous beauties await those who follow Christ unto the end.  There, in Heaven, we will eternally witness and experience the dynamic loving-kindness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  But those in Hell are denied this, the Beatific Vision.  The damned do not behold God, for they lived without God; they lived for themselves, and so they remain tortured by the lack of God for which they were made in the company of all the foul spirits who rejected God for themselves.  Thus, those in perdition suffer the company of the most selfish wicked souls ever created while those in bliss enjoy the great love of those who put you above themselves.

We were made by God to enjoy God.  To be denied God for eternity is the greatest sorrow man can know.  Now we are on the earth in our mortal life, and so we can only barely glimpse what the damned miss.  For we ourselves are yet getting to know God.  We still foolishly believe that something other than God may bring us greater joy than our Creator.  St. Bonaventure said, “The most terrible penalty of the damned is being shut out forever from the blissful and joyous contemplation of the Blessed Trinity.”  St. John Chrysostom said, “I know many persons only fear Hell because of its pains, but I assert that the loss of the celestial glory is a source of more bitter pain than all the torments of Hell.”  Every moment we feel loss or long for something we cannot have, we are touched by the lack of God in our lives.  So we try to fill up our emptiness with the delights of the flesh and the world, with passions, honors, riches, sensual gratifications, and all the vain and fleeting pleasures of this realm.  But all of these things are hollow and empty.  God alone is the one true source of the soul’s happiness.  To be finally denied the only source of happiness is logically to live in eternal despair and agony.

The eternal sorrow of the damned will recall their many occasions to turn from the way of wickedness, all the wrongs committed against God and neighbor, and all the many times their friends and family urged them to amend their ways.  Thus their conscience will pain them beyond measure, along with the stench, the heat, the cries of the lost, and the torments of demons.  They will forever know that they could have avoided such an unbearable fate had they only responded truthfully to the Lord of life instead of making their own way according to their own perverse and peculiar thoughts.  Alas, the presence of their own minds, will, conscience, and memory, cause the damned everlasting torment so unspeakable that our stomachs quiver in disgust.

 

Dear children of God, do not listen to the whispers of this world, which are either the hushed tones of sinful men or fallen angels.  David said (Psalm xiv.1):  “THE fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.”  You will hear that there is no God, no punishment, and no Hell.  You will be told that you may live your life however selfishly you wish and will never have to answer for your crimes.  But those words tempt you away from Christ and straight into the maw of Satan.

 

To avoid Hell, you must believe in Jesus Christ and give your heart to Him, you must be Baptized into His Death and Resurrection, and you must repent of your sins.

To grow in Christ as a living branch of his Body, you must obey the Six Precepts or Duties of Churchmen.  That is, worship every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation.  Receive the Body and Blood of Christ frequently.  Give our Lord the first tenth of your income in the tithe.  Seek after righteousness by keeping your conscience clean of all sin and confess your sins if you fall.  Fast like our Lord did when directed to by His Body.  And keep the marriage laws of the Church, witnessing to the holiness of Christ.

If you are doing all these things, then seriously attend to prayer, good works, and studying the Holy Scripture.  It is possible and not all that difficult to live such a life.  Besides avoiding Hell, the soul who carefully lives a Christian life will grow closer and closer to our Lord while you still draw breath on this earth, after which He will not forget you in the world to come.

 

St. Matthew xxv.41:  “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.