Feast of the Holy Cross

holy-sepulcher
Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Anyone know why we keep a Feast of the Holy Cross on September 14?  (Or on the Sunday closest to September 14, if it’s a Maronite parish?)*

On September 14, AD 335, they carried a piece of the cross of Christ in solemn procession into the newly dedicated Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Lord Jesus was crucified outside the ancient wall of the city, on the hill called…  Golgatha.  After He died, they laid Him in a nearby tomb, as we read in John 19:  “In the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden, a new tomb.  There they laid Him.”  Mount Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher stand only a few dozen yards apart from each other.

When the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited the Holy Land during the 130’s, he renamed Jerusalem after himself, and he ordered that the sites of our Lord’s crucifixion and burial be covered over with earth, and then a pagan temple built there.  Hadrian hated Judaism and Christianity.  St. Dimitry Rostov put it like this in his homily for this feast:

[The Roman emperor wanted] the remembrance of the name of Jesus Christ to vanish from the earth…  The place where he was crucified and buried was made a dwelling-place of demons, so that every nation would forget Christ, and the places where Christ had walked would never serve to remind anyone of Him.

Therefore, the Holy Cross and the tomb of Christ remained buried underground for almost two hundred years.

But: one thing we can certainly say is that the Christians of Jerusalem knew precisely where they were.  We can safely say that, from the first Easter Sunday onward, not a single day passed without a Christian going to pray at the holy site.

So when the Emperor Constantine finally legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in AD 313, and when the emperor’s mother St. Helena went to the Holy Land to find the cross and the holy sepulcher, there were still Christians there, and they knew where to tell her to look.

Tenth Station of the Cross

So let’s keep this anniversary feast as an occasion to rejoice in the genuinely amazing faithfulness of Christians through all the tumults of history.

And let’s focus especially on this:  our forefathers and foremothers in faith have held on through thick and thin not because they have had so much virtue—though many of them certainly have had great virtue.  The main reason, though, is this: it’s the truth.

Our ancestors who have handed our sacred tradition down to us have simply been faithful to what they knew to be true.  The great triumphant mystery of God-made-man involves facts.  And those facts have been remembered faithfully and handed down to us primarily because they are true.

After all, that’s the only reasonable explanation for us being here together right now, dear reader.

Let’s look at it this way.  A man regarded by the authorities as a delusional political nuisance was executed as a common criminal on the outskirts of a ramshackle city, which the Romans thought of as an outpost in the outer reaches of barbarian hell.  If CNN had existed to report the news of the Roman Empire at the time, the chances that Wolf Blitzer would have mentioned this particular execution:  zero.

The executed man was buried nearby, in a tomb that did not belong to his family–His family being altogether too poor to own any tombs.  The chances of anyone making a written record about the location of the grave:  zero.

little last supperIn other words, we really cannot even imagine anything more obscure and forgettable than the death and burial of this particular man.  Innumerable men and women have died, and been buried, and have been altogether forgotten.  And by all external trappings, the Nazarene carpenter would fit into that human category, the category of the altogether forgettable.

Except for one fact:  He is God.

He rose from the dead.  He poured out His Holy Spirit.  He unites us to Himself through the Holy Mass.  He is the hope and the joy of mankind.

This is what Christians have known from Day One.  So they prayed at the sites of his death and resurrection.  They prayed there even when the worldly powers did everything to try to make them forget.

At Holy Mass, we take our place with these forefathers and foremothers of ours.  The living memory of the living God-made-man survived the ravages of Hadrian and the other Roman emperors who hated Christianity.  The tradition endured to the day when they carried the relic of the true cross into the beautiful new Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, seventeen centuries ago.  And the living memory of the living God-made-man has endured through those seventeen centuries from then until now.

We take our place beside all our forebears, who have held the faith through all these hundreds of years, and we declare with them:  We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You…

Because by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world!

————–

* Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ, this Sunday I am substituting for the pastor of our local Maronite parish, while my beloved parochial vicars hold down the fort at home.

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Temple-Mount Chaos

Goofball on the horizon
Goofball on the horizon

Not sure if everyone knows that the city of Jerusalem sits on the brink of chaotic violence at this moment.

I laid eyes on the Dome of the Rock myself, up close, on Feb. 24, 2008. I wanted to see the place where Abraham obeyed God unto the edge of utter darkness. But: having a Roman cassock on gets you waved off by the Jordanian guards right quick…

This evening, on the PBS Newshour, Judy Woodruff misidentified the Dome of the Rock, calling it the Al-Aksa Mosque (which sits 100 yards south of the site of the near-sacrifice of Isaac). An understandable mistake. But at the same time, quite telling–when it comes to our utter ignorance, as Americans, of what we are dealing with.

If I might, an amateur’s dime-store history for you:

Abraham climbed the mountain with Isaac, but God wound up providing the lamb for sacrifice. Centuries later, Solomon built on this site, and the sweet scent of burning oblations began to ascend at the appointed hours.

After Babylon leveled the Temple, the Israelites rebuilt. Half a millennium later, Herod the Great enlarged the humble Second Temple and made it a wonder of the world.

Zechariah (of the New Testament) found himself struck dumb here, because he didn’t believe he could father John the Baptist. Our Lord frequented this site often, as we read. But the sacrifice of the new and eternal covenant took place outside the then-walls of the city. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (which houses Golgatha also) lies west of the Temple Mount, a good twenty-minute walk through the maze of Old-City streets.

Thus, the journos’ claim that the Temple Mount is holy to Christians, just like Jews and Muslims: Not exactly, not exactly. It is exceedingly imprecise to refer to the Temple Mount as a Christian holy site. We have no particular designs on worshiping there.

Anyway, back to the dime-store history: Rome leveled Jerusalem in the first and second centuries of the Age of Grace. The western wall of Herod’s temple survived. After Constantine converted to Christianity, Jerusalem had a few centuries as a Christian city.

Mohammed consecrated the Temple-Mount site for his followers in some way that I neither know nor understand.

A millennium later, under Turkish rule, the Status Quo was established. I am in no way an expert on this, but I think I can safely summarize: On a certain date, about half a millennium ago, Jews of various kinds prayed in various places, and in various ways, and at various times of day (and week and year) in Jerusalem; Christians of different kinds did the same; Muslims of different kinds also. The way they prayed at that time was enshrined as the norm, and it cannot be changed.

The Status Quo enjoys the beautiful authority of having been established by none of the partisans, and–at this point in time–it also has history behind it. It is the delicate and precarious arrangement that keeps the peace in every holy place in the holiest city in the world.

If you have never visited, you cannot adequately imagine just how up-close-and-personal the realities of the Status Quo are. There is literally no elbow room, no room for error; the people on either side of the lines established by the Status Quo can smell each other, and I am not exaggerating. The first time I ever entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I wanted to pray in the Golgatha Chapel. For five minutes I could, but then I had to leave, since I am a Roman Catholic priest, and the Status Quo prohibits us being in that chapel when the Orthodox have their evening prayers. Muslims meditating among the trees between Al-Aksa and the Dome of the Rock literally stand on top of Jews praying at the Western Wall. “Cramped” does not even begin to describe the religious reality of Jerusalem.

To modern times… After the Holocaust, the Western world fully embraced the Zionist enterprise, and the nation-state of Israel received international approbation and support. But Jerusalem did not make up part of the original land. Jerusalem and environs remained in a unique category (I guess, like the Vatican). To this day, our official US policy does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the city. (Israel took control of Jerusalem in 1967.)

For some time now, Jerusalem has been a relatively safe place. No reasonable person would hesitate to travel there as a Christian pilgrim. That appears to be on the verge of changing. To read of an Israeli-Palestinian gunfight in the neighborhood that immediately abuts the site of the Last Supper (and the Assumption of our Lady; they are right around the corner from each other)–this is chilling news. The Israeli police disturbed the Status Quo by asserting authority (which, in fact, the sovereign of Jordan actually possesses) and shutting the Temple-Mount mosque today. Palestinians appear to be mustering for mischief.

Please, let’s pray.

Unswerving and Kind

First let’s try to understand some of the tricky aspects of the gospel reading for today’s Holy Mass.

“When the days for Jesus to be taken up were fulfilled…”

What does this mean? The time had come for the Lord’s…Passion, death, Resurrection, and Ascension—His Paschal Mystery.

Lord Jesus went to what city in order to complete the Paschal Mystery? Jerusalem!

El Greco Christ“On the way, they entered a Samaritan village.” On the way from where? Galilee. The land of Samaria lies between Galilee and Jerusalem.

“But the Samaritans would not welcome him.”

Why wouldn’t they? This one is difficult.

The Jews who lived in Jerusalem practiced which religion? Judaism, of course. And the Jews in Galilee? Also, Jewish. What about the Samaritans? Jewish also!

Problem is, the Samaritans had their own version of Judaism. According to the Samaritans, the Temple of God was not located in Jerusalem. Where was it located, according to the Samaritans? Trick question! Nowhere—it used to be in the city of Shechem, but it had been destroyed hundreds of years earlier. The Samaritans thought that the temple in Jerusalem was only a counterfeit temple.

“Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy the Samaritans?”

The disciples thought, “These enemies are being mean to us, even though we are making the most important journey ever made. Therefore, let’s destroy ‘em.”

Lord Jesus did not even deign to reply. No fire from heaven. We journey on.

Now, we sometimes encounter people who seem to wander without a good, clear path to God, people whose path “is hidden from them,” as Job puts it in the first reading at today’s Mass.

Let’s always remember both aspects of the Lord Jesus’ demeanor during His trip to Samaria. On the one hand, He would not swerve from the path which the Father had laid out for Him. He must go to Jerusalem. The Samaritans were wrong to reject Christ’s pilgrimage to the holy city.

On the other hand, Jesus would not give a thought to violence towards anyone. He would not let Himself be distracted by self-righteous meanness, even towards people who were self-righteously mean to Him.

Jeremiah 26:6

jerusalem-sunriseProphet Jeremiah declared to the insincere pilgrims at the temple in Jerusalem:

‘Unless you listen to the Lord, this city will fall into ruins like Shiloh, and throughout the world people will use the name of this city to curse each other.’

Two points to note.

1. Shiloh. The Ark of the Covenant had remained in the ancient city of Shiloh for 300 years+. The Hebrew people had gathered there for generations, singing and dancing on their feast-day pilgrimages. But then King David moved the Ark to Jerusalem. Shiloh wound up abandoned, a ruin, a ghost-town. Sic transit gloria mundi. So passes the glory of the world.

2. Curse and blessing. At a Passover Seder, Jews use the word ‘Jerusalem’ to bless each other in the most hopeful, cheerful way, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

As the New Testament was written, the Romans burned the city of Jerusalem, and its walls fell to the ground. But the books of the New Covenant invoke the name of the city to mean ‘heaven.’ ‘Jerusalem’ is heaven.

The contrasts could not be more stark, and, therefore, illuminating. In the cruel world, ravished by sin and its consequences, the name of the city can serve as a by-word for violence, discord, and suffering.

But, by faith, we see the city over the horizon, the goal of the the pilgrimage, which is life. Blessed Jerusalem, the city of music and dancing, will welcome us, the shining capital of the realm of eternal peace and harmony, the Kingdom of God.

Jerusalem, Presentation of our Lady, Wings

The Lord longed to gather the city to Himself like a hen gathers her young under her wings. Christ the great king, the universal king, the omnipotent king—He rules the world like a mother hen, with a feathery embrace, rank with the smell of warm love.

bl-virg-detailThe Lord wept over the city, because the chicks just wanted to zig and zag their own way, cheep-cheep-cheeping after whatever caught their fleeting fancy. The mother hen knows and laments: little chicks cannot long survive alone in this strange, cold world without the canopy of warm wings.

In this very same city, Saints Joachim and Ann had taken their young daughter to the Temple, so that she could learn the ways of God. She opened her heart and mind altogether to the truth, never swerving from the path of learning.

Truth is, the wings of God always cover us. The hen has an infinite wingspan: the sway of divine wisdom reaches everywhere, forming and guiding everything according to the magnificent provident plan.

Isn’t that the great truth that our Lady learned and took to her immaculate heart? Namely, that this whole cosmos is a great, warm nest?

Sure, I can’t always feel the warm wings, because I am a goofy little chick, just getting used to using my senses. But the one thing I always know, the one thing I do not doubt: the Hen will take care of me.

The Lord wept because the chicks zigged and zagged, and soon destruction would befall the city made of stone. They killed the Messiah, and then the Romans leveled the whole town to the ground.

But the birds had taken flight by then. Mary our Queen reigns over the indestructible Jerusalem above. The day had long since come for her to fly, when the angel beckoned her to test her own wings: ‘See, you will bear the Messiah as your only son.’

Mary couldn’t see over the edge; she had no idea what was coming. But she leapt out, because she knew how big the mother hen’s wings are. Infinitely big.

His Dwelling with Us

raiders nazi_officers_ark_of_the_covenant_chase

Let’s start with an antithesis. On the one hand, God dwells everywhere. Nothing could exist at all if it were not upheld immediately by God’s power. On the other hand: We cannot see; we cannot grasp; we cannot know God.

See? Antithesis. Both true. God everywhere. But everything we see, know, conceive: not God. Human beings search constantly for God, Who is everywhere.

Then: God began to work with us to help us deal with this problem. He drew close to the ancient Israelites. He gave them His holy name to invoke. He led them out of slavery to their homeland. He established a dwelling place with them. The Ark of the Covenant.

Continue reading “His Dwelling with Us”

God’s Obscure Burial

Today a solemn procession carrying the relic of the Cross of Christ entered the newly dedicated Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, almost seventeen centuries ago.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher
The site of our Lord’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection had been covered over by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who hated Judaism and Christianity. He had built a pagan shrine on the site.

But the Cross, as well as the tomb of Christ, remained buried underground for almost two hundred years. The Christians of Jerusalem knew precisely where the holy sites were located. We can safely say that, from the first Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday on, not a single day passed without a Christian going to pray at these locations.

So we can keep today’s feast as an occasion to rejoice in the genuinely amazing faithfulness of the Christian faithful through all the tumults of history. And our forefathers and foremothers in faith have been faithful not necessarily because they had so much virtue—though many of them certainly have had great virtue. The main reason, though, is that it’s all true. All of it has been remembered faithfully and handed down to us because it’s true.

Let’s look at it this way. A man regarded by the authorities as a delusional political nuisance was executed as a common criminal on the outskirts of a ramshackle city which the Romans thought of as an outpost in Barbaria. If CNN had been reporting world events at the time, the chances of this execution getting mentioned by Wolf Blitzer was zero.

The executed man was buried nearby, in a tomb that did not belong to his family, His family being altogether too poor to own any tombs. The chances that the location of this grave would have been recorded in any written form: zero.

In other words, it is hard to imagine anything more obscure and forgettable than the death and burial of this man.

Except for one thing: He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and poured out the Holy Spirit.

Jeremiah, Temples, and Solid Ground

If this earthly tent is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. (II Corinthians 5:1)

When the prophet Jeremiah preached in the ancient Temple, the building had stood on its foundations for more than three centuries.

But the people had dwelt in the Holy Land much longer than that. They did not originally conquer Mt. Zion and Jerusalem. Instead, they built the first long-term home for the Ark of the Covenant in Shiloh, near the Jordan River. For centuries they worshipped in Shiloh. They sacrificed, sang, prayed. They consecrated themselves there, as if they stood on the firmest foundation of the world.

Then the Philistines destroyed Shiloh.

And not long after Jeremiah preached in the Temple in Jerusalem, declaring that the place would molder in ruins because of the sins of the people—not long after that sermon, the Babylonians destroyed the city and the Temple.

…Where can we stand on absolutely unshakable ground? Where do the tumults and tragedies of history not wreak their havoc? Where can we dwell in peace, a peace that no war could ever threaten?

It’s a small place, and yet it has infinite capacity. It is a place that has been crushed by violence in exquisite agony, and yet suffered no permanent damage at all. It is a temple, an ocean, a furnace, a sun:

The Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Numbers, Hosea, and the Non-Contradictory Contradiction of Sabbath Sacrifice

The Pharisees accused Christ’s disciples of breaking the Sabbath by “reaping” grain on the day of rest.

The Lord’s rebuttal makes two points. The second point follows what might at first seem like an odd, if not self-contradictory, line of reasoning. The conclusion exonerates the disciples completely. They are innocent men.

The Lord first establishes their innocence on the basis of their being hungry. According to the precedent of King David himself, hunger trumped legal considerations.

Christ could have left it at that. St. Mark, in fact, only recorded this first point which the Lord made. But Matthew gives us the second point, the one that seems so mystifying.

The Law of Moses not only allows, but in fact requires priests in the Temple to double their labor on the day of rest, since an extra sacrifice is ordered for the Sabbath.

Then Jesus cites the words of the prophet Hosea. The Lord declares that He does not desire the sacrifice of burnt offerings.

Okay.

But we can resolve this apparent contradiction by the other assertion that Christ made: “There is something greater than the Temple here.”

In the Temple, priests offered sacrifices to please God. Jews who loved God made pilgrimages to the Temple and offered animals to the priests to sacrifice. To say you are greater than the Temple is to say that you yourself constitute a pleasing offering to God.

A presumptuous thing to say? Certainly would be presumptuous for any humble sinner to say this. Would that I could claim to be a Temple where a pleasing sacrifice is offered to God! But, alas, I am selfish and disobedient, so my soul does not emit a pleasing aroma to heaven.

But the innocent Lamb, Who was never anything other than a Temple of perfect love and obedience, Who offered at every moment of His pilgrim life the sacrifice of undivided devotion: He could claim to be greater than the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Lord did not, in fact, contradict Himself in this second point. God desires mercy. Whose mercy? Well, first and foremost, His own. Mercy begins with God. He was the first to be aggrieved, so He must be the first to forgive. In fact, even before the first act of injustice, the Creator had already shown His infinite mercy by making us out of nothing for no benefit of His, but only for our benefit.

This infinite mercy of God is the perfect sacrifice of His Son. The Son offered Himself on the cross, in an odor of infinite sweetness, not for His sake, but for ours.

We sinners have no worthy sacrifice of our own to offer. We do much better to worry about begging pardon of those we have aggrieved and forgiving and forgetting the offenses we have suffered.

But that doesn’t mean that there is no more Temple, no more priests, no more holy bread, and no more Lord’s Day. No. The Temple is in heaven–and here on earth, wherever people believe in Jesus. The priests offer Christ’s Body and Blood, which is the bread by which we live forever. And the Lord’s Day is the eternal Sabbath that will never end.

King Josiah and the Right Perspective

Today in church we read a beautiful episode from the second book of Kings. King Josiah had the Law of Moses read aloud to all the people of Jerusalem, none of whom had heard it before. They kept the Passover properly that year, for the first time in centuries.

This episode inspires us all the more when we consider that King Josiah succeeded King Manasseh, who had fallen so deeply into paganism that he sacrificed his own son on the altar of Moloch and turned the Jerusalem Temple into a pagan shrine. And when we consider that, by this time, all the northern tribes had forgotten about God and the truth. Instead, they worshipped Ba’al and lived for pleasure. Because of this, they had fallen into the hands of the Assyrians and had been taken into exile, never to return.

So the picture of the people of Jerusalem gathered together with the king and priests; the Temple rededicated to the obedient worship of the true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Passover kept, as Moses commanded—this picture inspires us with a vision of faithfulness and harmony. God’s kingdom at work on earth. May we worship God together, too, with humble love, at peace and living in the truth.

But before we get too maudlin about this beautiful episode from the Old Testament, let’s remember that as this scene unfolded, the prophetess Huldah meanwhile declared that the punishments which the book of Moses promised would indeed be carried out. The people had been unfaithful for many generations, and God’s justice would not be flouted. King Josiah and his contemporaries kept the Passover faithfully in peace. But their children were carried off in chains to Babylon, and Jerusalem was reduced to ruins.

In the world, but not of it. The message of Christ, the grace of Christ, the kingdom of Christ—only from the perspective of Jesus Christ can we understand our role on earth. We want to worship in spirit and truth. But we cannot stand before God in peace if we do not face honestly the problems of our times. All is not as it should be.

Which means we have a job to do: to seek the truth, to stand up for what’s right, to confess our sins, to offer our resources for the good of others. And to hope for heaven.

The good tree bears fruit for heaven. In this world we will have trouble. But Christ has overcome the world.