Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Born anew from the womb of Mother Church

Yesterday, we heard Jesus tell Nicodemus and all of us that "unless a man be born anew, he cannot enter the kingdom."  And Jesus assured him that this didn't mean that we re-enter our mother's womb, but rather we are born through water and the spirit.  We come forth as it were from the womb of mother church; born again in baptism and nursed by her - fed upon that spiritual food - the milk of the sacraments - upon the body and blood of our Lord.
Nicodemus, certainly didn't understand this.  But in today's gospel Jesus seeks to initiate him into the mystery.  In response to Nicodemus' question, "How can this be?", Jesus tells him that the condition on which this new birth depended would be the Cross.  As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.  New life would come from His death.  

This, Jesus tells him, would be the act of consummation.  In love he would give himself to his bride the Church - impregnating her as he poured forth his life upon the Cross.  From her would be born sons and daughters of God.  This is the reality captured at the Easter Vigil when the Easter Candle, Christ, is plunged into the baptismal font, the womb of the Church, from which will be born sons and daughters of God.

Such is the glorious mystery that we continue to celebrate at this altar.  We come to the Church our Mother, through whom we have received life, that she may nourish us upon the food of salvation.     

The Executory Word - Behold I make all things New!

The Word of God permeates the whole of the Mass and can be found in nearly all the solemn moments of the liturgy; of particular note is the moment of Consecration.  Here the words spoken take on a special trait: they are spoke directly to God. Guardini notes, "the word becomes the living present. What was once spoken by Christ is spoken anew, not as a new word issuing from the hour and consequently passing away with it, but as the old, Christ-spoken word renewed and become part of this hour. The “memorial” does not consist in the congregation’s remembering what the Lord once spoke to His apostles, but in making His words alive and concretely effective."  What Christ accomplishes through these words, that differs from all the other prayers of the liturgy, is the laying of the foundation for a new creation!  "These words are the equals of those that once brought about the existence of the universe."  The priest utters the words but it is Christ who speaks. It is to this great Mystery that we must bring all the faith our hearts can muster.
THE WORD of God permeates the whole Mass, as it also fills the entire liturgy. Some of its parts, like the Epistle and Gospel or the Our Father, spoken at the most solemn moments, are larger unbroken passages taken bodily from Scripture. Introit, Offertory and Collects consist of sentences selected from various biblical books to highlight the significance of the day in question. The same is true of the Gradual and Tract, texts which link the Epistle and the Gospel. Finally, in the actual prayers, words from, or references to, the preceding scriptural quotations return again and again to fortify the whole with their sacred power.
At the heart of the Mass, the Consecration, the word of the Lord assumes a special character.
Following the Offertory, in which bread and wine are prepared for the sacred feast, is the most important prayer of all, the Canon of the Mass. After the Quam oblationem, the Church’s final prayer over the gift-offerings, we have the words: “Who the day before He suffered took bread into His holy and venerable hands, and with His eyes lifted up to heaven, unto Thee, God, His almighty Father, giving thanks to Thee, He blessed, broke and gave it to His disciples, saying: Take and eat ye all of this, for this is My Body. In like manner, after He had supped, taking also this excellent chalice into His holy and venerable hands, and giving thanks to Thee, He blessed and gave it to His disciples, saying: Take and drink ye all of this, for this is the Chalice of My Blood, of the new and eternal testament: the mystery of faith: which shall be shed for you and for many unto the remission of sins. As often as you shall do these things, ye shall do them in remembrance of Me.”
The words are taken from the Gospel reports and from the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Like the original Epistle and Gospel texts, they seem to repeat, only more impressively, what took place at that time. But when we look closely, we notice slight shifts in the wording. Not only does the priest, by reading the biblical account, relate what took place, he also does it himself. His words are no longer merely the biblical “and giving thanks”; they have become: “and with His eyes lifted up to heaven, unto Thee, God, His almighty Father, giving thanks to Thee . . .” God is actually being addressed. And while the priest says “took bread,” he actually picks up the host lying there, bowing his head at the word “thanks.” Thus the decisive sentences, “for this is my body” and “for this is the Chalice of My Blood, of the new and eternal testament: the mystery of faith: which shall be shed for you and for many unto the remission of sins,” acquire a new character. The whole passage moves from the past into the present, from the report to the act. It is no longer a pious memorial; it has become a living reality. At the consecration of the chalice we were being prepared for something extraordinary: mysterium fidei. In the early Church, while the priest softly spoke the words which established the Eucharist, the deacon raised his voice, and reverently called out: “Take heed! The mystery of faith!” It is in this sense that we must receive the Lord’s words. But the full significance of their springing into life is clearest in the final sentence: “As often as ye shall do these things, ye shall do them in remembrance of Me.”
Here again something happens to the scriptural word which does not happen to the Epistle or Gospel, to the Pater noster or the praises of the Gloria. There God’s biblical words are read, proclaimed and heard; priest and people make them their own and pass them back as prayer to God. Here the word becomes the living present. What was once spoken by Christ is spoken anew, not as a new word issuing from the hour and consequently passing away with it, but as the old, Christ-spoken word renewed and become part of this hour. The “memorial” does not consist in the congregation’s remembering what the Lord once spoke to His apostles, but in making His words alive and concretely effective.
We are about to anticipate, but the point to be discussed in detail later is so all-important that it can bear repetition. What Jesus accomplished by these words differed from all the other proofs of His divine omnipotence. Not only was He summoning the powers of creation to the service of the kingdom of God; here, as in the Incarnation and the Resurrection, He was laying the foundations of a new creation. These words are the equals of those which once brought the universe into existence. But it was the Lord’s pleasure to permit them their creative task not only once, the evening He spoke them, but from henceforth forever or as St. Paul says, “until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). They are meant to ring out ever and again in the course of history, accomplishing each time what they first effected. To this end Christ gave them to His followers with the command: “As often as ye shall do these things, ye shall do them in remembrance of Me.”
Therefore when the priest utters the words, they are not merely reported, they rise and create. Obviously, at this point, we do not simply hear a man talking. The priest pronounces the words, certainly; but they are not his. He is only their bearer; and he does not bear them by reason of his personal faith or piety or moral strength, but by means of his office, through which he executes the Lord’s directions. The true speaker remains Christ. He alone can speak thus. The priest merely lends the Lord his voice, mind, will, freedom, playing a role similar to that of the baptismal water, for the new birth is not brought about by its natural cleansing qualities, but by the power of Christ. It is Christ Who baptizes, just as here it is Christ Who speaks.
Our own attitude should be in keeping with this. It is not merely a question of pious listening and acceptance, nor is it one of consummation in the literal sense of the word. The first would be too little; the second definitely too much. The deacon’s interjection in the midst of the holy sentences gives us the right cue: Mysterium fidei! The call proclaims the unfolding of the inmost earnestness, the supreme love of God, summoning us to muster all the readiness and power of our faith in order to participate in them.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Ruthless and inexorably fixed?

It seems that what caused Nicodemus to stumble in our gospel was not so much that he did not understand what Jesus was saying, but the impracticality of His thought.  To be born again may sound good, but the practical implications of such a thought are far reaching. 

Nicodemus was old; he had lost heart; his fight seemed over; for him things had become ruthlessly and inexorably fixed.  There was no turning back to live things over again, and this time better.  What is once done cannot be undone and Nicodemus was painfully aware of that. 

Slowly, unconsciously, inevitably, act by act, thought by thought we, like Nicodemus, have built up a personality.  And now we are closely immured in it.   There is no escape.   We are left to muse with Nicodemus, "How can a man be born when he is old? - if not old in years, then old in sin?"  This is what I have made of life; and it cannot be changed now.

But the whole point of the gospel is that God can do just that for anyone; for you and me.  The gift of the Spirit shakes a person's life to its roots.  It overcomes all opposition; no matter how great a fortress we have built around ourselves; no matter how ingrained our habits and patterns of behavior may be.

We don't re-enter our mothers' wombs, but come forth from the womb of mother Church: born to new life through baptism and nursed by her - feeding upon the milk of the body and blood of our Lord.  We need not even wonder or be anxious about how this happens, Jesus tells us; no more than an infant wonders at the care his mother provides.  Ours is but to trust in the One who loves us and has given us new life. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Revelatory Word - An Encounter with the Living and True God

As an act, the Holy Mass speaks to us in a variety of ways.  First, Guardini tells us, God makes Himself known through His words of revelation and through this also reveals to us what the world is and who we are as human beings.  Through the readings and through the speaker - - God speaks.  But the mystery of God's word extends to the inspiration it gives rise to in the heart of those who listen.  The wisdom of God penetrates the individual and renews the soul.  What takes place, then, is not simply the transmission of information but rather a personal encounter with the Living and True God.  Thus, Guardini states, "It is not sufficient merely to accept ideas and understand commandments. We must lay bare our hearts and minds to the power that comes to us from beyond."  We must prepare the soil of our hearts to receive the seed of God's word.  It is a word that must be proclaimed, not simply read; heard and allowed to penetrate to the depths of a person's religiosity.  We must cultivate that soil through preparing ourselves by meditating upon the scriptures ahead of time, reading passages in their entirety and in their context and developing a love for the Word within our hearts. 
HOLY MASS is an act; it is not, however, enacted mutely, but combines doing and speaking. It includes several varieties of words, and it is helpful not only to our understanding but also to our effective participation in the liturgy to realize this multiplicity and learn to distinguish between the different kinds of words employed.
First of all, there are the words from revelation. With them God tells man who He is and what the world is in His eyes; He proclaims His will and gives us His promise. They are Biblical words, and in the celebration of the Lord’s memorial they confront us at every step. Indeed, the first part of the Mass consists almost entirely of speech; action is limited to the simplest movements, certain gestures and positions or the passing from one symbolical place to another.
Epistle and Gospel are readings taken directly from Scripture. The first, as the name suggests, from the letters of the apostles, but also from the Acts and from the Old Testament; the second, again indicated by the name, from the reports on the life of the Lord, the Gospels. The Biblical reading is continued in the sermon, which is intended to explain, enlarge upon, adopt and apply the direct words of God. It loses its intrinsic character in the degree that it expresses instead the personal, human conceptions of the speaker.
God’s word is a great mystery. Through it He Himself speaks, but in the speech of men. It appears that another form of communication also exists, a so-called “purely divine” form in which God enlightens and directs the soul not through the medium of words, but by a thought that stirs only from within, silent but immediately comprehended. Tidings of this kind can never be passed on to others; they apply solely to him who has received them. With revelation it is different. It is meant for all men at all times. Hence it takes the form in which the spiritual community of men asserts itself, that of the spoken word; like all speech, it is a purely human blend of idea and sound. God’s wisdom has been placed in this human means of communication and can be removed and examined by itself at any time, but in such wise that His wisdom and the word containing it are an organic unit. Even the natural word cannot be separated from its audible sound and taken solely by itself, for it clings to its sound as the soul to the body. This unit now becomes, as it were, the body for a new “soul,” the divine, much as a man already having body and soul is filled by grace, which makes of him a newer and higher being: the “new” or “spiritual” man described by St. Paul.
The divine words must be considered as whole words with shape and sound. To focus our attention only on the intelligible concept expressed by them would be folly; it would be rootless intellectual theory. A word is a wondrous reality: form and content, significance and love, intellect and heart, a full, round, vibrant whole. It is not barren information for us to consider and understand, but a reality for us to encounter personally. We must receive and store it in all its earthiness, its characteristic style and imagery. Then it proves its power. In the parable of the sower our Lord Himself compares it to a seed in search of good ground. It possesses the power of growth, the strength to start and develop life. Hence we must not receive it as we grasp an idea with our mind, but as earth receives a grain of wheat.
Revelation says that the world was created by the word of God. God spoke: “Let there be . . .” By it we also were made, beings capable of hearing the word God gives us in revelation, summoning us to the new beginning and the new life of grace. Wherever we encounter His word, we encounter God’s creative power. To receive His word means to step into the sphere of sacred possibility, where the new man, the new heaven and the new earth are coming into being.
It is not sufficient merely to accept ideas and understand commandments. We must lay bare our hearts and minds to the power that comes to us from beyond.
God’s word, then, is addressed not only to the intellect, but to the whole man. (It has a human quality that seeks to become a living unit with mind and blood, soul and body.) Man, the entire man, must receive God’s word in all its significance, in the totality of its form, tone, warmth, and power. That is what the parable of the seed implies. The sacred word must be heard, not read. It should reach us through the ear, not through the eye, as color and form should be seized by the eyes, and not transposed through description. The how cannot be separated from the what. The word that is written and read silently is different from the fresh, full word of sound. In the process of silent reading, words shrink, their resonant fullness but poorly substituted by print. If the divine service was meant to be a reading session, books would be distributed; and everyone, priest and faithful, would quietly lose himself in them. The result would be a community of readers. Often we have very little more at Mass. But this is not as it should be. The word is meant to rise from the sacred page to the reader’s lips, from there to swing out into the room, to be heard by attentive ears and received by eager hearts.
Admittedly, there is one great obstacle: the fact that the liturgy is celebrated in a foreign tongue, Latin. We try to overcome this by repeating Epistle and Gospel in English prior to the sermon. But this is a makeshift and usually done only on Sunday. On weekdays as well as on Sundays the faithful are almost entirely dependent on their books. The divine word ought to reach the hearers simultaneously with its entry into the ceremony of the Mass, but as the liturgy is arranged today, this is impossible.
We must make the best of what we have. Above all, when the English texts are read, we must listen with minds alert and hearts and souls receptive. Such listening is all the more necessary because we’ve heard the words countless times. We are so used to them that they do not easily impress us. We are convinced that we know all about the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ parables, or the Epistles, and when they are read we nod as if to say: All right, all right I know. We must overcome this tendency, or our souls will become like a dirt road over which countless feet and wheels have passed, hard-packed and incapable of receiving a single seed.
The daily changing texts of the Proper: Introit, Offertory, Communion, often say very little because of their brevity. They have been taken from longer passages (mainly from the psalms, but also from other parts of Scripture) and it is very helpful to look them up and read them in their entirety. We should read also the Epistle and Gospel more completely in the Bible so as to grasp the context and consult the notes on difficult passages. When they are read aloud in church, we should take great pains to listen attentively; the word of mouth is always more powerful than the word of ink.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Crisis of the Resurrection

What is it that we are celebrating at Easter?  And does our celebration express the reality?  For you see, the new life of the Resurrection is just that - a new life involving a decisive break with the old.  Death itself is not more final than the Christian's severance from the past.  We share in the wonder of the resurrection by entering a life wholly new both in moral quality and spiritual scope.  After the resurrection there is no going back to the ordinary patterns of life - to our familiar and comfortable ways.  

      St. Paul seeks to help us understand this in terms of baptism.  All of us, he writes, who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

We walk in newness of life.  No phrase could more fittingly express the nature of what takes place at the resurrection.  It is a crisis that is radically disruptive, rupturing not just the structure we want our lives to have, but the underlying attitude of our will and its demand that life conform to it.  The Crisis of the Resurrection calls into question our hearts deepest desire to have its own way.  To give up the control and direction of our own existence: this is, for us, the ultimate death, the crisis that undermines our being in the most radical way.  As those who profess to be Christians, as those who have been united with him, baptized into his death, we are no longer leading our own lives.  We are no longer "in control" but "in Christ".  

Jesus death on the Cross was but the final expression of his opposition to everything that was evil.  It was an absolute and conclusive breach with sin.  The same thing happens in the believer's case.  We too have decisively renounced our allegiance and servitude to sin.  The past and what it has meant to us has been destroyed.  Our old self has been crucified.   
No crisis exacts a higher price from us than an encounter with the Risen Christ.  

But the very thing we call crisis, the saints call grace and their joy comes from surrendering themselves to it.   Christianity is not a new way of organizing our lives; it is our way of abandoning ourselves to the crisis that is never resolved but always deepening.   True believers, we will never stop offering our self to that ordeal.  The rupturing of the heart, the crucifying of the self, is to be no one time or sometime thing; our whole life is to be a rending, a fissure.  Yet, standing before the empty tomb with the women, we begin to understand that the poverty and loss we experience in this death to self is inseparable from our richness in coming alive in Christ.

When we first hear this, we like the apostles believe it to be an idle tale, the babbling of a fevered and insane mind.  But when we experience it for ourselves, when we like Peter take the risk of faith and run to the tomb, we will discover a kind of joy which, although hidden in the recesses of suffering, surpasses all our pleasures and all our hopes for the fullness of life and love. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Do you believe?

As we reflect on the meaning of Easter in light of our gospel today, I would like to suspend theological considerations for a while and focus instead on a more personal question: Do you believe?  This may seem like a funny question to ask a group of people filling a chapel on Easter Sunday, but you see there are many Christians who believe with their heads but who in their heart of hearts are actually convinced that they are damned.  They are afraid to come out of or feel trapped in the tomb.  They are convinced that they don’t deserve to return to life.  Their hatred for themselves condemns them to their own hell.  The woman suffering tremendous guilt from an abortion, the man who has destroyed his family through infidelity, the college student fighting an addiction to internet pornography, are just a few who feel that they are excluded from salvation - that there is no hope.  They forget - we forget - that there is no one for whom Jesus did not die.  Jesus descends into their hell to bring them out of the tomb.  There is no one who he does not love.  There is no one for whom he will not descend to the dead to bring to a New Life. 
Christians through the centuries have focused a lot of reflection on that large stone laid to the mouth of the tomb - and for good reason.  When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb she found the stone removed.  That large material object – which was also the most convincing objection to faith – was gone; and she was the first witness to this.  The Risen Lord would show later on that he could no longer be restricted by material conditions: “When… the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them”.  And so, that stone could not have held him prisoner in the tomb.  Its removal was a sign of the resurrection, not a condition for it.  Bede the Venerable wrote, “The angel rolled back the stone not to throw open a way for our Lord to come forth, but to provide evidence to people that he had already come forth.”  
      No tomb on earth can hold the Lord; no material stone, however heavy, can imprison him.  But we should not imagine that material stones are the hardest and heaviest things in the world.  Who would have guessed that thoughts, which are made of nothing at all, could be heavier and harder than any stone?  But experience tells us it is so.  We are able to seal our minds and hearts with impenetrable stones of fear, anxiety and despair.  “To behold the resurrection, the stone must first be rolled away from our hearts.” 

All of us in some way or other find ourselves in a tomb.  All of us suffer an inner chaos as our worldly lives fight our spiritual lives, as doubt contends with faith, and our personal integrity is torn apart.  In many ways we are all afraid to let go of our dependence on the things of this world, afraid to let go of our selfishness, afraid to trust in God and the promise of his love.  Christ descends into the chaos of each of our lives and says “Come out of the tomb with me and into a new life.  Be not afraid.” 


Enter into the Joy of the Lord

“Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day; you who have kept the fast and you who have not, rejoice today. The table is richly loaded: enjoy its royal banquet. The calf is a fatted one: let no one go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of faith; all of you receive the riches of his goodness. Let no one grieve over his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed; let no one weep over his sins, for pardon has shone from the grave; let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free: He has destroyed it by enduring it, He has despoiled Hades by going down into its kingdom, He has angered it by allowing it to taste of his flesh.” 

St. John Chrysostom

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Together we are one undivided person

"What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam's son.
The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: 'My Lord be with you all.' And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.
'See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.
`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

"The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages."
A reading from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday

Friday, April 18, 2014

They returned home beating their breasts

The blood of Jesus gives our hearts the grace of compunction, which is the emotion of penitence.  Those who remained near the cross and watched him breath his final breath, "returned home beating their breasts" (Luke 23:48).  Jesus Christ, dying a cruel death and spilling his innocent blood, poured out a spirit of compunction and penitence upon the whole of Mount Calvary.  We must not let our hearts be hardened.  Let us make Calvary echo with the sound of our sobbing.  Let us weep bitter tears for our sins and turn against ourselves with a holy anger.  Let us break all our unworthy habits and leave behind our worldly lives.  Let us carry in ourselves the death of Jesus Christ.

"Meditations for Lent"
Jacques Bossuet

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Our sins alone, without the executioner's help - could have brought about his death

In his desire to expiate our crimes, Jesus voluntarily abandoned himself to an infinite sorrow for all our excesses.  He saw them all, one by one, and was afflicted by them beyond measure, as if he himself had committed them, for he was charged with them before God.  Yes, our iniquities poured upon him from every direction, so that he could say with David, "the torrents of iniquity troubled me."  This is why he said, "Now is my soul trouble."  This was the cause of the inexplicable anguish that brought him to pronounce these words: "My soul is very sorrowful, even unto death."  The immensity of sorrow could, in fact, have dealt the death blow itself, if Jesus had not restrained his soul, preserving it to endure greater evils and to drink the whole cup of his Passion.  He nevertheless allowed his blood to overflow in the Garden of Olives to convince us that our sins - yes, our sins alone, without the executioner's help - could have brought about his death.  Can you believe that sin could have such great and evil power?  If we only saw Jesus fall into the hands of the soldiers who scourged, tormented, and crucified him, we would blame his death only upon this torture.  Now that we see him succumb in the Garden of Olives, where he has only our sins to persecute him, we may accuse ourselves.  Let us weep, beat our breasts, and tremble in the very depths of our conscience.  How could we not be seized with fright, having ourselves, in our very hearts, so certain a cause of death?  If sin alone sufficed to kill God, how can mortal men survive with such a poison in their bodies?  No.  We exist only by a continuous miracle of mercy.  The same divine power that miraculously sustained the soul of the Savior, that he might endure the whole punishment, sustains ours that we might accomplish our penance, or at least begin it.

"Meditations for Lent"
Jacques Bossuet

Judas' Communion

By his betrayal Judas has excluded himself from communion with the Lord.  He becomes poorer still by rejecting not only the Lord but also the community.  Though the rest of the disciples give now a pitiful impression with their denials and their flight, the Lord nevertheless lives in them, and they are somehow on his side in spite of everything.  The Lord feels in himself that he is in communion with them.  The disciples are unaware that in every Communion they also contribute a share to the miracle.  The miracle that the Lord implants in them is at the same time a miracle they obtain in the Lord.  The miracle of that faith that moves mountains through them in the Lord.  The miracle draws strength also from them.  They are for the Lord what the Lord was for the woman with the issue of blood who touched him.  A power goes out from them into the Lord.  Even though this power can scarcely be a real, positive factor.

When a Christian receives Communion, an intimate relationship is formed between him and the Lord: the Lord lives in him, something of him lives in the Lord.  But no one communicates privately; the Church communicates in him.   Something new of the Lord begins to live in the Church, and something of the Church lives newly in him.  And at the same time: when a person communicates and the Lord gives and receives in him communion with the Church, something of this comes alive in every fellow communicant, even every fellow believer.  With every individual Communion, a strong pulsation goes through the communion of saints to the Lord and returns from him again.

When a person separates himself from the Church, therefore, there are unforeseeable consequences.  Judas' Communion was not only an "unworthy Communion", it was a desecration, a sacrilege, because he rejected faith in Christ's presence in the bread, faith in the power of his love.  Exteriorly receiving like the others, he rejects what he receives.  The miracle of the Eucharist consists not only in the transformation of the bread but also in the Lord's giving the recipient a faith enabling him to receive him.  A faith that submits to the word of the Eucharist.  Judas' betrayal, however, kills the miracle of the word in himself.  It is not true to say that nothing happened when he received.  The fact is that what would take place in the immeasurable grace of union if he had faith now takes place in the immeasurable estrangement of evil.

"The Passion from within"
Adrienne Von Speyr

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sacred Act: Divinely Instituted and Renewed in the Obedience of Faith

Before going on to consider the Mass in detail, Guardini prefaces the second part of his book with a brief discussion of the nature of its action.  Religious acts have various origins. They arise out of immediate experience that calls for a response of reverence or gratitude.  Some acknowledge regularly occurring events in our daily experience as human beings wherein we are conscious of God as our Creator or as He who sustains us.  Finally, religious acts may be instituted by God Himself as a means of commerating His saving acts, such as the Passover.  
The institution of the Mass, however, is unique. Guardini writes: "It is an act of God springing as incomprehensibly from His love and omnipotence as the acts of Creation or the Incarnation. And such an act He entrusts to men! He does not say: “Pray God to do thus,” but simply “do.” Thus He places in human hands an act which can be fulfilled only by the divine."  God puts into our hands to execute what He makes possible and fulfills.  This we do in obedience to His will.  In the undertaking we find our truest self emerge and divine aid given in every state of life. 

FOLLOWING our discussion of the sacred order of time and space, it would now be interesting to turn to that which takes place in them: the act of the Mass itself. But since we are going to consider the Mass in detail in Part II of this book, only one aspect of it need to be mentioned here: the nature of its action.
A religious act can have various origins. What we desire most today is immediate experience. Let us suppose that a group of people has just been rescued from mortal danger. It is not difficult to imagine that in response to some inner urge they grow still, remove their hats, or make some other earnest gesture of reverence and gratitude to God. Their act would be a direct expression of their experience, possible only at that moment and for those particular people. Were it to be repeated, it would at once become artificial and embarrassing.
The act could also spring from the consciousness of a significant, regularly recurring hour: for instance, after the labor, encounters, and providential experiences of the day, before man enters upon the darkness of sleep, which heralds death’s long night. At this moment his impulse is to pause, to collect and place himself in the hands of his Maker, and if he has learned to heed such inner promptings, he will do so. With the beginning of the day comes a similar impulse. Then too man is conscious of the need to do something religious, to become established in himself and turn to face what God expects of him during the coming day. At the close of the old year, the opening of the new, such an impulse, intensified, also makes itself felt. Acts of this kind are repeatable, even under varying circumstances and by different people; for they spring, not from a unique experience, but from the recurrent rhythms of existence.
Finally, a religious act can also be instituted, that is, some act can be made valid and obligatory. Only he who possesses authority can institute with genuine validity. God did so during the Exodus from Egypt, when He commanded that the liberation be annually commemorated in the feast of the Passover. It was during this commemoration, at the Last Supper, that Christ instituted a second commemoration, that of His death. His oneness with the Father’s will, His life and salutary destiny, His living, messianic reality all are expressed in the words spoken over the bread and wine and in the common partaking of the sacred food. And He instructed His followers to repeat it forever: “As often as you shall do these things, in memory of Me shall you do them.” This is institution par excellence, the core of Christian divine service. When God established the law of the Passover, He instructed the people to offer sacrifice on a certain day, celebrating together a feast commemorating their former liberation from Egypt. This act, which emerged from the humanly possible, received its real significance from divine direction. The act Christ instituted is different. He did not say: “On a certain day of the year you are to come together and share a meal in friendship. Then shall the eldest bless bread and wine and invoke My memory.” Such an act would be similar to the Passover, issuing from the humanly possible; only the event it was celebrating would be divine. Christ spoke differently. His “do these things” implies “things I have just done”; yet what He did surpasses human possibility. It is an act of God springing as incomprehensibly from His love and omnipotence as the acts of Creation or the Incarnation. And such an act He entrusts to men! He does not say: “Pray God to do thus,” but simply “do.” Thus He places in human hands an act which can be fulfilled only by the divine. Its mystery is similar to that of sacred time and place, already discussed. Man acts; but in his human action is the act of God. And not only in the general sense that God is present in all human endeavor because all our reality and strength, wisdom and will come from Him. This is a specific, historical act; here the word “institution” has a special, unique significance. God determined, proclaimed and instituted; man is to execute the act. When he does so, God makes of it something of which He alone is capable.
Subject to the divine nature of the act is a certain human attitude, a certain indispensable bearing. If something of the origin and freshness of the experience is to be transmitted, the individual must be aware of what is happening and have the vigor to express it. Its expression must be credible, vital, genuine, powerful in word and gesture. If the act is to be related significantly to regularly returning hours or seasons, the participant must feel the truth of the relation and of the mystery behind it. He must have an expression for it that remains valid through all the variations of the hours. For the institutional act one other thing is necessary: not creative experience and repeatable expression, not the constantly renewed realization of its existential significance in our lives, but obedience to the will of the Institutor. It is for men to “hear” the Lord and to do as He commands. It is service, as independent of personal experience as of comprehension of its natural significance. It is service in faith and obedience. It is not an independent human act, but acceptance of a divine undertaking that prepares a place for it, shapes for it a body of earthly cooperation. In the profoundest sense of the word it is a selfless act whereby man arrives at his true self. That is why the act of the Mass can be renewed time and again under the most varied circumstances of general as well as personal history, in hours of spiritual abundance and of spiritual need, in affliction and mourning or in freedom and joy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

He was troubled in spirit

"When Jesus had thus spoken, he was troubled in spirit," and he confessed it, saying: 'One of you will betray me.'"

The trouble that Jesus here feels in his soul is the horror that affects him when considering sin, which is what causes the internal suffering that manifests itself as a shudder.  If we may be allowed to peer into his intimate feelings, what caused him the greatest pain on this occasion was that he saw not simply the crime of Judas and of all those who would cooperate with his death.  Rather, he saw the evil effect that his death would produce in sinners, by being for them an occasion to abandon themselves to sin through the hope that his merits would obtain pardon for them.  This is what is most horrid in sin, when God's goodness and the grace of redemption are put in its service.  If this is what is most horrid about sin, it is also, consequently, what brought the Savior his greatest horror, his deepest shudders, and his troubled spirit.

Jesus had to suffer death as the just punishment of all the sins whose weight he bore, in a certain sense as one guilty.  Thus the horror of sin took hold of him.  He saw himself surrounded by it and even penetrated by it.  What a cruel spectacle for the Savior of mankind!  He saw sin increase by the ill use to which his death would be put.  It would make many say that he was not the Son of God and that all of his miracles had been so many illusions.  It was scandal to the Jews, follow to the Greeks, and even at times to the faithful themselves.  What an occasion of vengeance: for all those who would not profit from his death would become only more guilty, more worthy of punishment, and more subject to damnation.  How touched by their misery was this good Savior, who so tenderly loves all men and who became man only to save us!  O Jesus!  This is what troubled your holy soul.  This is what caused you to be moved.  Let us then be horrified by sin, and let us see, in the troubles of Jesus, how greatly troubled our own conscience should be.

Jacques Bossuet
"Meditations for Lent"

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Holy Day and the Sacred Hour - The Divine Repose Perfected and Eternity Entering Time

It is the Paschal Mystery that becomes the cypher through which we understand the Divine Repose of the Sabbath.  The Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord unfolds the deepest meaning of God's rest.  Guardini writes: "The divine repose of the Sabbath now mingles with the triumph of the Resurrection. Into the hum of peace breaks the fanfare of victory. Promise and fulfillment have become one! For the Sabbath looked back in eternity to the beginning. Sunday looks forward in eternity to the end, to what is to come."  

And this Divine Repose finds its expression in time in the Holy Mass.  Eternity enters time!  "This entry is the holy hour, the constantly recurring “now.” It is not as though there existed one hour which man reserves for his God; God Himself, bearing His salutary destiny, enters into the hour, which attains self-realization through Him. It now becomes part of the new creation. Through such an hour time contains eternity, and eternity embraces time." 

For a brief moment, time enfolds eternity.  Even in our adoration of the Blessed Sacrament when the Host is exposed to our gaze during Mass and one might say even when exposed for our worship during Adoration, we must not lose sight of this reality and allow it to become something banal!  Rather we must let this reality permeate us and take this seed of eternity back into the  world with us. 

SO THE heavens and the earth were finished, and all the furniture of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. And he blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made” (Gen. 2:1-3). The seventh day, the Sabbath. The holy day of the New Testament, however, is Sunday, the first day of the week. Here again some thing typical of the New Testament has occurred.
Jesus Christ was the Executant of the Old Testament but its Lord as well. In Him the promise of the coming Messiah, which gleams throughout the Old Testament, is fulfilled. All the former things moved toward Him, their Perfector; He gave them a new significance and brought them to a close so conclusive that their representatives regarded Him as an enemy of God and killed Him, an act which but executed the institution of His redeeming love. With Christ’s death and Resurrection the new order began. The evening before His death, while establishing the Eucharist, Jesus spoke with divine simplicity of the “new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). The day Easter, on which He rose again, crowning His mission, now becomes the new day of completion. Again God “rests” from His work of creation this time the creation from which the new man, the new heaven and earth are supposed to emerge. This day returns every week as Sunday, memorial of the first creation’s wedding with the second.. It has an eschatological character. It proclaims Christ’s new creation, the new world born of His deed and one day to be revealed in eternity.
We asked whether it is possible to speak of God’s resting, since He is “He who is” the Omnipotent One, eternal, unchanging; revelation replies that He truly makes decisions, creates, and rests from creating. This double aspect of the all-pervasive, all-governing God who is yet personally free to come and go and act in a specific instance is proclaimed throughout Scripture. The Bible recounts His selection of a particular person, His sealing a covenant of loyalty with him, His consolidation of that covenant with the nation which grew from the chosen man’s descendants, His divine guidance and support in their constant struggles against their own inertia and stubbornness, His never-failing loyalty, His rescuing them from repeated apostasy.
Again and again God experiences the lot of magnanimity betrayed. The account goes on to tell how He then revealed Himself in all His reality: the Father sends His eternal Son into the world as the long-awaited Messiah. The Holy Spirit governs that entire life, and everyone is aware of its unheard-of power. Finally, God’s Son, accepting with supreme readiness the fate prepared for Him among men, allows the storm-clouds of centuries-old opposition to the divine to gather and break over His head and slay Him. The completion of this act on Calvary, the victory of the Resurrection, is expressed in the day of the Lord. But God’s lot among men finds another expression in time, namely, in the Mass itself.
The Gottesschicksal, or divine fate, took place in time. As divine act and fate, however, it issued from the divine will. It took place once as an earthly event with beginning and end. Simultaneously it is an unchanging reality in eternity. There Christ stands with His passion and death before the Father. Before He died He willed that this salutary fulfilment be constantly remembered. At the Last Supper He gave His friends the bread of His body and the wine of His blood, exhorting them to “do this” in His memory. As often as those authorized to do so obey this command, what occurred then occurs again in the present. The “memorial” is no mere recollection; it is a return to actual being. Through the act of the Lord’s memorial the eternal reality of God’s earthly destiny, renewed ever and again, steps into time. 
When the eternal God took upon Himself our human transitoriness, sacred time in the real sense of the words came into being. At first that was the time that lay between the angel’s annunciation and the Lord’s departure. Within those years the incarnate Son of God lived, worked, and suffered among us then and only then. During the reign of Caesar Augustus God really became man, and while Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea He really died, not sooner, not later. Between those two events the eternal Logos existed as a man. This earthly sojourn is renewed in the Mass. When the priest, empowered by the Lord Himself, speaks the I words over the bread and the wine, Christ walks alive and real among His congregation until He gives Himself as nourishment in the sacred Supper. Again a definite span of time with beginning and end; the “Passover of the Lord” in the most literal sense of the phrase.
To participate properly in the Mass it is essential that we be aware of its temporalness: of its beginning, continuation, and end. This brief portion of time enfolds eternity. Customs like that of exposing the Blessed Sacrament during the Mass are inclined to obscure this. They are a concession to the congregation’s desire to have the Lord present in the mystery of the Eucharist as openly, as intimately, and as long as possible. There is something very vital in this desire and in the Church’s response to it. Upon closer examination, however, we notice that the privilege is not granted without specific limitations. All too easily the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament can blur the sense of sacred temporalness in the Mass. The constant figure of the host, starlike above the altar, cancels the sense of the Lord’s coming, pausing and departing.
It is very important to experience the pass-over of the sacred moment emerging from eternity. It catches us up into itself, and while it lasts we are different from what we are at all other times. Then it dismisses us, and we fall back into the transitoriness of day-to-day existence. But if we have vitally participated in it, we take with us the seed of that holy eternity which comes from the Resurrection, and our life in the transitory world is changed.

Romano Guardini
Meditations Before Mass

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Mystery of Divine Repose - the holiness of the sabbath

Guardini begins, in this segment, to introduce us to the notion of  "holy time"; a specific moment in time made sacred by God not unlike a specific sacred space which we have already discussed.  This mystery of the divine repose is something that often eludes our grasp because it has its origin not in human experience but the Divine.  God as it were is He who "acts" but also He who "rests".  What that means is beyond understand and made known only through revelation.
It is not what we often make it out to be - a day of self-centered amusement, boredom or sloth.  Guardini warns us that we must "understand what is at stake and realize its value for us . . ."  Does our understanding of it go beyond the natural rest and slumber that renews life and rise to the Divine Repose of Love and become truly a response to the invitation  "Come to Me . . . and I will give you rest"?

THE HOLY place, set apart from the rest of the world, came into being when God’s Son appeared on earth: when He was conceived in Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, lived among us in Palestine and in such a manner that it could be said: “There He is; there He goes.” Is there perhaps a holy time as well?
Again it is a question of a time not of man’s making. There exists no deed, no experience, no dedication by which man of himself can so sanctify a day or an hour that it becomes holy in God’s sight. God alone can sanctify a period of time by personally entering into it. I am “in time” because I live and unfold in time, act in it, experience destiny; but are such things conceivable of God? Our answer is spontaneous; it is “No.” God lives not only forever, but eternally; His life has nothing to do with time. He neither grows nor declines. develops nor changes all that would involve time but realizes His infinite essence wholly and perfectly in purest actuality. He did create time, as He created everything else that exists; more correctly, He created the world, which exists in time. Thus He is present in all time, in its smallest as in its largest fraction: in the day, hour, minute; in the infinitesimally brief flashes known to physicists, as well as in years, centuries, millennia and those no longer conceivable masses of time in which astronomers reckon. God fills them all, and no one period is holier than another. What is decisive is whether the universally governing sanctity of God is able to step to the fore in a specific instance, moving men and engraving itself into the historical memory.
We are not concerned here with the problem just stated. Such a “holy hour” could appear at any time: in the evolution of nature; in the relations between members of a family; in history. When the liturgy speaks of sacred time it means something specific, similar to the specificity of the sacred place. What it is, however, only revelation can say. And it does say, with all clarity: one of the seven days of the week is sacred to God, the day on which He “rested” after creating the universe.
The message given us by revelation is meant to be taken realistically. It signifies something mysterious, yes, but also something explicit. In the Book of Genesis God’s handiwork is described as being completed in the course of a week. Six days long God creates; on the seventh He rests. The biblical report has nothing to do with the question: when, in what period did the stars, plants, animals come into existence? “Week” does not signify a period of time in the ordinary sense of the word; it is rather a symbol for the wise, humanly intelligible order in which creation took place. But over and above this, the word “week” means something very precise: from the earliest beginnings of the world God arranged its seven days in such a fashion as to allow man six for his work; the seventh, however, He reserved for Himself, setting it apart because “on this day,” having completed creation, He entered into His rest.
The holiness of the Sabbath does not stem, then, from man’s repose. It is not a natural part of the rhythm of life: the idea, for instance, that man is bound, oppressed by his duties and objectives for six days and that on the seventh he is free to devote himself to holy acts. This is also true; in the rhythm of work and relaxation a mystery of religious repose really can be experienced. But what faith and the liturgy have in mind is something quite different: the sacredness of the Lord’s Day is due not to any experience of man, however holy, but to God and to His resting on that day. Or to put it more precisely, there exists for God in connection with creation a mystery known as “divine repose.” We cannot understand it what could it possibly mean, rest for the Omnipotent? When we accept this mystery on faith, however, we do sense the presence of something very profound. God is not only the eternal Spirit who is spoken of in philosophical absolutes; He is also the Acting One, of whom it may be said that He decides, that He rises, creates, forms, arranges, and that He rests. (See Gen. 2:2.)
It is this mystery of God’s rest which permeates the seventh day of the week, as the others are permeated by the mystery of divine activity. The whole week is a mystery; in fact, all time is. Not essentially, in itself; not through human life, but through divine creativeness. Hence it is a mystery which cannot be plumbed by geological or anthropological research. It can only be known through revelation.
Sunday has an almost sacramental character. In the sacrament, a natural process, like that of bathing or of confessing one’s guilt is related to the governing of grace. During the natural act, supernatural grace becomes effective, much as the movements of the soul activate the body. Something similar is to be found in the mystery of the Sabbath.
The natural tension caused by six days of work and its slackening on the day of rest create the form into which God has sunk the mystery of His repose in order to convey it to us. To keep the Sabbath is to become aware of the mystery of divine rest, to revere it and to express it in our arrangement of the day.
The thought is as beautiful as its realization is difficult. If discussed at all, it should not be distorted by day-dreams, but should be considered realistically.
Precisely because Sunday is not a product of the natural life-rhythm, it is vulnerable. The merely natural somehow manages to assert itself; the roots of Sunday, however, lie in revelation. Thus it is easily destroyed, in spite of the important natural need which it also meets. Other considerations economic, social or what have you constantly shove it aside. Work gnaws at it; amusement elbows its way into it, crowding out holiness; the significance of “keeping holy” is itself misunderstood and rest is imposed with a resultant boredom that is worse than if work had continued. Thus Sunday poses a real problem, which each of us must solve according to his own particular circumstances.
The day is important for the individual, but above all for the family. We must understand what is at stake, realize its value for us, and tackle the problem as energetically and wholeheartedly as we do other matters important to us.
One more point. From the liturgy it is clear that the day does not begin with the morning, nor with midnight, but on the evening before, with the vigil. There is a profound insight in this. It is not a question of the astronomical, but of the living day. The one is a mathematically exact fraction of time, which begins with a certain second, regardless of what takes place in it; whereas the other, living day, is a continuously renewed life-form. Then when does it begin? We could say at the moment of our deepest sleep, when life is at its stillest, on condition that our sleep itself begins and moves and ends properly. Then the day would stretch from this moment to a corresponding moment in the following night. That moment is unknown. We do not “accomplish” sleep; it is something that happens to us. Hence we must place the beginning we sought somewhere before the moment of falling asleep. Sleep is profoundly influenced by the hours that immediately precede it; therefore the problem of Sunday begins on Saturday evening, and it is up to each of us to see how he can meet its sacred challenge.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Mystery of the Altar

Guardini next invites us to plumb the depths of the image and mystery of the altar - the "frontier, the border where God comes to us and we go to Him in a special manner."  However, he notes that in our tendency to be over conceptualistic we have lost the ability to read images and symbols; in this case the altar as "table."  

The sacred table is that place where gifts are offered - a place of sacrifice where union is established between the Divine and human.  The union established in the Eucharist however comes through the true offering of God the Son:  Life and Person are given to us as Gift and we are made through it sons and daughters of God.  Not only are we reconciled with God through such a sacrifice but drawn into the very life of the Trinity.  Thus, the communion that is realized and exists at this altar not only nourishes us but is an expression of God's hunger and thirst  - his longing for men and to draw them close to Him.

THE ALTAR is the threshold to God’s immanence. Through Christ, God ceased to be the Unknown, the Inaccessible One; He turned to us, came to us, and became one of us in order that we might go to Him and become one with Him. The altar is the frontier, the border where God comes to us and we go to Him in a most special manner.
At this point a few remarks about the images used to express sacred mysteries are in order. The images unlock the storehouse of God’s riches, and they help us to concentrate on particular aspects of divine reality with all our power. When we consider the altar as a threshold, we see one particular trait, leaving out of consideration any other, such as that expressed by the concept “table.” The images used are necessarily taken from objects of our own experience. But, since we are not cut off from God and His life as is one room in a house from another, we must not put too much emphasis on the inability of images adequately to express divine realities. If we do, we lose something precious, something essential. Images are not makeshifts handy for children and the vulgar crowd, which the cultured elite, wrestling with “pure” concepts, should despise. When Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, woke from his great dream, he cried: “How terrible is this place! This is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:17). And St. John writes: “. . . and behold, a door standing open in heaven, and the former voice, which I had heard as of a trumpet speaking with me, said, ‘come up hither, and I will show thee the things that must come to pass hereafter’” (Apoc. 4:1). Now if we were to say that “door” is here only a figure of speech suggesting that God is invisible yet near, that no one can reach Him, but that He can draw us to Himself, we would be correct but we would fail to grasp the basic meaning of John’s words. St. John wrote “door” because he meant door and not only poetically. The intellect may attempt to express in concepts and sentences all that the image “door” implies; but such concepts are mere props to the essential, not more. The truth is the other way around: it is the image that is the reality; the mind can only attempt to plumb it. The image is richer than the thought; hence the act by which we comprehend an image, gazing, is richer, more profound, vital and storeyed than the thought. People today are, if the word may be permitted, over-conceptualistic. We have lost the art of reading images and parables, of enacting symbols. We could relearn some of this by encouraging and practicing the power of vision, a power which has been neglected for too long.
But to return to our subject: the mystery of the altar is only partially suggested by the image of the threshold; altar is also table. The presentiment of a sacred table at which not only man but also divinity takes its place is to be found in the religions of all peoples. Everywhere the pious believer places gifts upon an altar so that the godhead may accept them. The idea that these gifts belong to the godhead and no longer to men is conveyed by their destruction or withdrawal from human use. The body of the sacrificial animal is burned, the drink poured out upon the ground. This immolation symbolizes what is contained in the process of death: the “passing over” to the other side, to the realm of the divine. A second process is often related to the first. Not everything is “given over”; part is retained or rather returned, for what was destroyed represented the whole now to be enjoyed by the offerers. Thus godhead and man are nourished by the same sacred food. Indeed, behind this concept lies one still more profound: man’s offering stands for himself, is really himself; the true offering is human sacrifice. Again, the offering stands for the godhead itself; true nourishment is divine life. From a certain standpoint these conceptions are very profound, though closer examination reveals that they have sunk into gloom, worldliness, and animalism. The godhead, then, lives from the life of man of a tribe, a people; on the other hand, man sees in his godhead the spiritual mainspring of his own life and that of his clan, tribe, people. Divinity has need of man and man of divinity, for in the final analysis they are the same; sacrifice is the constantly renewed process of this union.
Such conceptions are totally absent from the Old Testament. The God to whose altar offerings are brought is neither the vital principle of a people nor the secret of the world’s vitality, but Creator and Lord of all that is. The offering is an acknowledgment of His lordship; it in no way affects His potency, but is simply a recognition that all things are His, and that man may dispose of them only with His permission. Strictly speaking, the animal from the flock should be slaughtered only before the altar, not because God has any need of its blood, but because all life is His property; the harvest should be consumed only before the altar, since everything that bears its seed “within itself” belongs to God. This idea is expressed in the sacrifice of livestock and in the offering of the fields’ first fruits. Only then does man receive herd and harvest back from the altar for his own use.
The altar is the table to which the heavenly Father invites us. Through salvation we have become sons and daughters of God, and His house is ours. At the altar we enjoy the intimate community of His sacred table. From His hand we receive the “bread of heaven,” the word of truth, and, far excelling all imaginable gifts, His own incarnate Son, the living Christ (See John 6). What is given us, then, is at once corporal reality and sentient truth, Life and Person, in short Gift.
But if we ask whether at the sacred table God too receives something, whether the age-old presentiment of a real community of table between God and man is not also fulfilled in the clean air of Christian faith, the answer is not easy. Fear of being irreverent makes us cautious. However, we can point to a mystery that fills the letters of St. Paul and appears also in the farewell speeches of St. John’s gospel. The fruit of the divine sojourn on earth is salvation. This means not only our forgiveness and justification but also that the world is “brought home” to the Father. And again not only in the sense that we return to God in love and obedience but that men and through men the world in all its reality is received into divine life. God desires this. When we are told that He loves us, this does not mean that He is merely benevolent toward us; the word is meant in all its abundance.
God longs for men. He wants to have His creatures close to Him. When Christ cried from the cross, “I thirst,” a dying man’s bodily torment was indeed expressed, but much more besides (John 19:28). Similarly at Jacob’s well, when the disciples encouraged Jesus to eat the food they had brought, He replied: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, to accomplish his work” (John 4: 34). Mysterious hungering and thirsting this the hunger and thirst of God! St. Augustine writes that the receiving of the Eucharist does not mean so much that we partake of the divine life offered us, as that divine life draws us into itself. These thoughts should not be pressed too far, for they are holy. It is important, however, to know that a mystery of divine-human love and communion does exist and that it is realized at the altar.