Barges Floating Towards Christ

The one who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will gather his wheat into his barn and burn the chaff. (Matthew 3:11-12)

In ancient times, our forefathers awaited the Messiah. God had promised to send a Savior, a holy prophet, a king, a high priest of all creation, Who would overcome the Fall of Man.

boris-pasternak-painted-by-his-father
Boris Pasternak, painted by his father

Justice shall be the band around his waist, faithfulness a belt upon his hips.” He shall judge. With justice. He will eliminate evil from the life of the world. And cows, bears, babies, and cobras will become frolicking friends. No harm, no ruin will then beset the glorious dwelling of the Christ.

The faithful souls of old patiently, earnestly awaited the fulfillment of these prophecies. They awaited the resolution of all history, the end of evil.

St. John the Baptist encountered the Christ while both of them still inhabited their mothers’ wombs. When John grew up, he awaited the Lord Jesus’ manifestation of His glory. Christ showed Himself the Messiah at His baptism in the River Jordan. Again Jesus showed Himself to be the divine Messiah when He glowed with transfigured light on Mt. Tabor. But, above all, Christ showed Himself the priest, prophet, and king of creation on the Cross.

If I might, I would like to share with you a couple stanzas of Boris Pasternak’s poem “Gethsemane.”

The field tailed off
Into the Milky Way.
Grey-haired olive trees tried to walk the air
Into the distance.

Unresisting he renounced
Like borrowed things
Omnipotence and the power to work miracles;
Now he was mortal like ourselves.

The night was a kingdom of annihilation…
The whole world seemed uninhabited…
He gazed into the black abyss…
Sweating blood, he prayed to his father.

Then the poem moves into Christ’s words to His disciples after He wakes them from sleep:

‘The book of life has reached the page
Which is the most precious of all holy things…

‘You see, the passage of the centuries is like a parable
And catches fire on its way.
In the name of its terrible majesty
I shall go freely, through torment, down to the grave.’

Whoa, Father. Heavy. Plus: You’re giving us a poem about the Garden of Gethsemane during Advent. Did you forget what month this is?

St. John declared that the Messiah will baptize with Spirit and fire, and He will separate the wheat from the chaff. St. John and all our holy ancestors lived their lives awaiting the true Judge, who would, by separating evil from good, fulfill the picture Isaiah painted: the paradise that God wills for us. That paradise stands outside time as we know it. It stands on the other side of a holy death.

Pasternak’s poem concludes with the Lord Jesus finishing His words to His disciples: ‘I shall go freely, through torment, down to the grave.

‘And on the third day I shall rise again.
Like rafts down a river, like a convoy of barges,
The centuries will float to me out of the darkness.
And I shall judge them.’

Our ancestors studied the books of Moses and the other prophets; they meditated endlessly on God fashioning the heavens and the earth out of nothing. They stilled their souls to such a silence that they could perceive God communicating as the rising sun began to distinguish the surrounding hillsides from the sky.

Today God may bring all of history to its fulfillment. Today God may show the fullness of His glory. And all yearning, striving, straining, and hoping will end.

Time floats toward Christ with terrible majesty, like barges on the river. But not towards a falls, over which everything topples into oblivion. No. Jesus stands there, at the end of the river, to judge. Life conquers death. And the picnic on the holy mountain begins, with frolicking cows, bears, babies, and cobras. And, please God, us.

The Christ will Winnow

Afghanistan-Winnowing

When the Christ comes, what will He do?

We read that the people were filled with expectation. They had no real doubt that the Christ would indeed come. But they did not exactly have a crystal-clear idea of what would happen when He did. In fact, as we read, they wondered if John the Baptist might be the Christ.

After all, the Christ might just do things like John the Baptist did: Tell people to deal honestly and fairly with each other. To share their largesse with those in need. To live decent, humble lives. God-fearing people live that way, after all. Always have.

Maybe the Christ would baptize people with water, when they repented of their sins– like John did.

We know that the Jews of that time had a number of different ideas about what the Messiah might be like. Maybe a great military man, a commander-in-chief, a liberator. Maybe an imperial ruler.

baptist-greco2Now, no one could mistake John the Baptist for the regal kind of Messiah, or the military kind. But John had the trappings of a third possible kind of Messiah. People easily mistook him for the austere kind of Messiah. The prophetic kind. The monkish kind.

Out in the desert, separated from the nonsense of cosmopolitan life. Living on locusts and wild honey, in total contrast with the gluttonous hypocrites who ran Jerusalem. In a cynical world, John preached repentance and a fresh start at living a holy life.

We can understand the mistake, then, when people began to believe that John was the Christ. But John set them straight. He did not say, “You think I’m the Messiah? Well… I’m flattered…” No, John said, “You have mistaken me. I baptize with water. He will baptize with Spirit and fire.”

Now, literally baptizing people with fire? Could prove highly painful. So St. John must have meant something spiritual with these words of his. The Messiah will not simply preach a just and true doctrine, like the Baptist preached. The real Christ, Jesus, preached a doctrine that penetrates to the center of the human soul and purifies it.

If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other cheek as well. If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also. If someone asks you for money, give, and do not expect repayment. Your reward will be great in heaven. The poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure-hearted, the hungry, and the persecuted will inherit a Kingdom, a kingdom greater than any of the kingdoms of the earth.

Really? The people wondered. They wondered at the idea that the Messiah could be even more of a mind-blower than John the Baptist was. The doctrine of the Christ involved not just an exhortation to live a God-fearing life. It involved a promise about a completely new kind of life to come.

So they asked St. John a reasonable question: What will the Christ do?

The man of consummate gravity said: Look. I am nothing. I am a breath of air. I am a feather floating on the wind, compared to the One Who is to come. The Christ does not simply preach the truth. He is the Truth. He judges all. Christ wields the great winnowing fan, and He gathers His wheat into His barn.

Christ with winnowing fanWith this image, St. John the Baptist has given us one of the great keys for making sense out of life. This world, this pilgrim life, is a threshing floor.

What is “winnowing?” It’s so simple that the Wikipedia article about it has only one paragraph. Chaff has no real substance. It will blow away in the wind. When the winnowing fan beats the air, the chaff blows off, and only the meaty grain remains on the threshing floor.

The Christ of God comes with the winnowing fan of truth in His hand. The truth of divine love. He will judge everything according to the criterion of the Father’s love.

But that’s not the whole image. The Christ wields a winnowing fan for a reason. Because He has a barn. He has a place to put the meaty grain, after the chaff gets separated and burnt.

This pilgrim life involves one big separation. The omnipotent winnowing fan separates beauty from ugliness, good from evil, enduring life from fleeting ephemera. Every good choice we make adds to our substance. Every sin dissipates us more and more, towards the weightlessness of chaff. We don’t want to blow away, in the end. We want to have weight, the weight of God’s goodness. Because the winnowing process does not last forever. Eventually, Christ will completely separate good from evil…

Then: A barn, of a crisp evening. Raking the stables. The smell of the hearth fire burning in the house nearby. Peace. An end to striving, struggling, and fighting. Just home, the comfort of our true home, with God.

Worse 50 Year Later + the Gospel

baptismchristgrecoBirthday of John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Little baby John grew up and baptized repentant sinners with water. Clean, crisp Jordan-River water, flowing south from the Sea of Galilee.

One of the first facts that Pope Francis cites in his encyclical on Mother Earth: Millions of people do not have consistent access to potable water. The poor of the world often find themselves without water to drink.

This constitutes a serious physical problem. But I think we southerners feel also that an existential drought afflicts us as well. Because last week a white boy slaughtered nine innocent black Christians, in a church.

Who can disagree with everyone who has been saying since then: “Look! See! We still have racism in our country!”

Who can disagree? But what about this: “Look! See! This is actually worse. This is worse than any lynching that took place in 1915 in South Carolina, or anywhere else in the South. This is worse than any slave whipping that took place in South Carolina in 1815. This was an execution, in a church. In 1963, a racist planted a bomb in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Half a century later: a cold-blooded, face-to-face execution.

My generation of white boys and girls grew up going to school with black boys and girls. My white dad worked for a black boss, and my dad loved and respected him. Genuine friendships among people of different races truly have flowered throughout the land during the lifetime of my generation, because our fathers got rid of legal segregation.

But who can deny it? The “situation” is genuinely worse now than it was 50 years ago. We elected a black president, and still it’s worse. Worse, in the sense of less mutual understanding. During the hot summer of 1963, President Jack Kennedy, A. Phillip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr., came to an agreement about having a March on Washington. A long, hot summer, 52 years ago, when black and white believed, together, in a better future.

Kennedy Randolph MLK 1963

So: the existential question for the South—and, I daresay, for the world; the existential question for the human race in the hot summer of 2015: Where will the clean water come from? Where will the water come from, that can wash this place clean? The South, the US, the world? The poor by the millions need water for their bodies, and we all need water for our souls.

Now, we are church people; we spend a fair amount of our time in church. Just like the people killed last week. We are not such racists that we can’t see how much we have in common with them. To the contrary, we feel profoundly close to them. And we turn to God, to Christ, at a time like this.

There is a fountainhead—of love, of communion. A fresh start. John pointed Him out.

Elizabeth gave birth to St. John the Baptist during the brightest week of the year, the year when the day all but swallows up the night. Christ our Light dawns. John knew it; we know it. There is water to wash away all the innocent blood spilled since Abel, and to moisten the parched throats of the poor.

Church people! We have to be willing to lose everything for the sake of Christ. Because the world needs the Good News. The world needs the pure and unadulterated Good News of Jesus Christ like she has never needed anything before.

Solitude, Sin, and the Chalice

He walked ahead of the disciples, toward Jerusalem, and they were amazed and afraid. Why amazed and afraid?

They knew, but did not understand. They knew that the Lord, the Prince of Peace, full of unadulterated love and truth–they knew that He lived to fulfill His destiny. Doing the will of the Father inevitably would come to mean cruel suffering and death. An innocent lamb slaughtered.

The disciples knew all this, because He had told them. But they did not understand. Let’s try it on for size ourselves. He asks us, just as He asked James and John, “Can you drink the chalice that I must drink and undergo my baptism?”

High Priest Passion of the Christ

Now, the irony of what Jesus goes on to say in this exchange offers us perhaps the greatest insight into the tenderness of His fatherly love.

He speaks here, of course, not with strangers, but with most-intimate friends. He has shared countless tender moments with James and John, as He has shared countless tender moments with us. Can you drink My chalice? They answer His question, “Yes, we can!” He knows perfectly well that No, they can’t.

chaliceWhen the time comes, when the vise tightens, when the accuser from hell heaps empty charges of evil and darkness against the true Light of good, when the Holy Face gets pummeled by buffets and spitting–at that moment, as we know, the hearts of these two friends did not prove themselves firm. When Jesus faced death, when He had to chose the truth over eating a meal or waking up in the morning ever again–He chose truth. –Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Most-High God?

James and John were standing with the rest of us then. Standing among the doubters, who wonder whether the Kingdom of Christ is real. When God was condemned to death, He stood utterly alone and friendless, with the entire human race arrayed with the accuser–a race that can’t, won’t believe.

But what did Jesus say to James and John? He said, Yes, you will share my chalice. My Father has assigned your places. All that must be done for you to take them is for me to die in unimaginable solitude. Then we can come together again. You, too, will fulfill the will of My father–with Me filling your souls with Myself.

The mystery of Christ’s utter solitude in His Passion. The mystery of our own helpless struggle with the evil angels of our nature. Faith, redemption, hope, and the future open up before us when these two dark pits meet. Then we greet the crucified Christ with adoring gratitude, begging Him, “Lord, I do believe! Let me come into Your kingdom with You!”

The Christmas the Lord has Planned

Every year, at Holy Mass on December 19th, we read from Luke 1. And we confront the question: Why did Zechariah get punished for asking the Archangel Gabriel a question about John the Baptist’s birth, but Mary did not get punished for asking about how Jesus could be born?

And the answer is?…

–Zechariah—a wise, old priest—should have known better than to doubt.

–St. John the Baptist got conceived according to the traditional, birds-and-the-bees method, so Zechariah’s question was petulant. Whereas Mary asked a perfectly honest question.

–Zechariah was a chatterbox who talked too much anyway.

Remember how, two years ago, a lot of people worried about the Mayan apocalypse? And fifteen years ago, a lot of people worried that Y2K would crash everyone’s computer? 1,015 years ago, most of Western civilization sat waiting for the world to end at the turn of the first millennium.

New Agers Mayan templeI don’t mean to make fun of any of these people. In a way, they had the right idea. Zechariah failed to give God credit for being able to do something totally unexpected.

Do I know what Christmas is supposed to be like for me spiritually? Aren’t I supposed to have such-and-such feelings, such-and-such ‘faith experiences’ at Christmas? That’s the way it always is. It’s traditional. Christmas is a time for my traditional emotions.

For me personally, Christmas is traditionally a time to be tired and out-of-sorts. Because I have a cold. Because Our Lady decided to appear to St. Juan Diego in December instead of July. Thereby turning Advent from difficult to practically impossible for the Martinsville/Rocky Mount/Roanoke-Catholic priest to manage.

Traditional spiritual experiences.

But what if these are not what the Lord has planned for us for Christmas AD 2014? What if this Christmas will involve spiritual graces for me unlike any I have ever received before?

Lord, help us open ourselves up to the future that You have planned for us! Open us up to the Christmas that You have planned for us! We don’t know how to plan like You do. What You have in mind is much better, much more interesting, and much more wonderful than anything we have ever thought of.

A Torch for the Ignorant

“One is coming after me who will baptize not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)

Who said that? I guess the Lord Jesus could have announced Himself, well enough, if He wanted to. He could have said, “Check it out, people! Son of God in the house!” But we know that (if we might put it this way): That’s not His style.

El Greco NativityChrist gave John the Baptist the mission of heralding His coming. He gave the Church that mission, too. He gave the mission to each of us. Announcing, proclaiming: The Christ has come! The God-man, the Redeemer, the key of all knowledge, and the everlasting mountain of true happiness—He has come to us! He is Jesus, Son of Mary, born in Bethlehem during the reign of Caesar Augustus.

Now, we know that our beloved Knights of Columbus have an admirable ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’ campaign. And I, for one, love wishing people a Merry Christmas. Even if they’re wearing a yarmulke, or phylacteries, or a Sikh turban, or a burka.

But, at the same time, we have to face facts. It’s not as if our culture has just momentarily forgotten about Jesus and the true, glorious mystery of Christmas. It’s not like everyone will suddenly wake up from the nightmare of Black Fridays, and Santa Clause dispatching teams of Mercedes, and Wal-Mart ads insisting that you can have as many wise men as you want! It’s not like the Western world will snap out of this nonsense and remember Jesus and His peace and His good news for the poor. Then everyone will sing Silent Night in unison.

We might think that the President of the United States, or the head of the UN, or the President of the European Union, or someone like that, ought to issue an official apology to Christ. It would say something like, “Dear Son of God, on behalf of all the members of this confused, self-centered modern culture, we want to tell you that we are really sorry for turning your birthday into a joke. Thank God, we have now remembered that you are the Light of the World and the Prince of Peace. We promise to be quiet now, and to pray from now until December 25, with fasting and penance, so that we can welcome you properly when you come.”

We might think that the CEO’s of all the Fortune 500 companies should issue their own statement, declaring that Christmas really is not about money. And all the cable channels and radio stations would announce their plan to give us some peace and knock off all the schmaltzy music and cheesy commercials.

cant-wait-for-christmas1But the facts do not support the idea that any of this is going to happen. The facts are starker and simpler.

As Christians in the USA in 2014, we do not face a culture in willful denial of the reality of Christmas. No, we face widespread ignorance of the reality of Christmas. The world is not intentionally ignoring the Person Whose birthday it is. The Western world of AD 2014 really just doesn’t know who He is.

After all, how is it that we know? How do we know that Jesus is the reason for the season? Everyone else thinks that ‘The Holidays’ means: Extra under-compensated work, so that the rich get richer and everyone else goes deeper and deeper into debt. How is it that we know different? How do we know that this time of year actually means true and profound joy?

We know what Christmas really means because generous souls before us found a way to build up the Church and give us a home in Her. We know Jesus, and the light of God’s holy incarnation, because we belong to the great family called the Catholic Church.

There was a time when some people claimed they could have their own personal Jesus, without the Church. But, of course, all those people got the faith they had in the first place from the Church. And they are all pretty much dead of old age now anyway.

There was a time when it took courage to “take on” the “established Church,” pointing out things like: even popes sometimes commit sins! True enough. But the Church, fundamentally, is the Mother from whom we receive Jesus. And it’s not like the world is made up of the people who receive Jesus from good priests and bishops and the people who receive Him from bad priests and bishops. The world is made up of people who, like us, have blessedly received the Good News of salvation from the Church. And people who haven’t.

Jesus Christ Himself, the real Person, Who the Blessed Virgin held in her womb, ready to give birth, 2,014 years ago—He is the most beautiful, the most wonderful, the most liberating, the most hopeful, the most thoroughly ravishing thing ever. He is the true and everlasting God, and the source and strength of all human goodness. We find Him in the Church, which He Himself founded, so that everyone could know Him and find salvation and true life in Him.

These are not just pretty theories, or the personal opinions of preachers and adherents. These are the facts of God’s plan. Christ is the source of joy for all mankind.

Mankind is not willfully ignoring all this, and choosing to watch commercials and play video games instead. Mankind is wasting its time with a lot of nonsense these days because, actually, without Jesus, mankind tends to become cruelly boring.

Now, are we going to curse the darkness, when we have matches in our pocket? When we have a torch in our pocket? 2,014 years ago, only a few people knew about Jesus Christ. They pretty much all died in a blaze of glory, spending everything they had to share the Good News of His coming. Let’s do that, too.

St. John the Baptist Society

We call ourselves the Holy Roman Catholic Church, the People of God, the Body of Christ. We have some exalted titles for ourselves. Another one we might have to adopt: The St. John the Baptist Society.

“The marriage is not lawful.” (Mark 6:18)

St. John said these words to the tetrarch of Galilee because his putative wife Herodias had another living husband, namely Herod’s half-brother, who was the tetrarch of Judea. And marriage is for life. That’s what people who marry each other say: “Till death do us part.”

head-platterWe know that St. John the Baptist preached a lot of spirited sermons. He bellowed with passion about Judgment Day and the coming of the Savior. But it would appear that his message to Herod came quietly, unobtrusively– but firmly: Your marriage is not lawful.

The Church follows John in the message and the approach. “Lawful” marriage means: faithful, fruitful, committed, irrevocable. Anything else is not lawful. We quietly deliver that message.

And the powers rage. The Church, supposedly, is mean to people by insisting on the divine laws of marriage. Better just to have mass weddings of whoever shows up at the Grammys. Now, even the UN has officially declared our teachings to be mean.

But the St. John the Baptist Society will persevere. No matter what it costs, even if it costs us our lives.

The Lord made something exquisitely beautiful, exquisitely wonderful, and exquisitely challenging when he made marriage.

It is not lawful to try to tamper with the handiwork of God.

Faith of the Holy Remnant

Gimli what are we waiting for

I imagine everyone knows that one of the disputed theological questions of the 20th cenury was: Who exactly belongs to the Church?

The Lord Jesus founded one Church and gave specific instructions about what to do and how to do it. Pope Pius XII explained how the Mystical Body of Christ is the visible Roman Catholic Church, governed by St. Peter’s successor in office. The invisible life of this visible Church is the Holy Spirit, given to us through the sacraments of faith.

But what about the holy fathers of old–and the holy mothers of old, too? What about Abraham and the prophets? What about Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist? St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the faithful citizens of ancient Israel, called the “holy remnant”–St. Thomas says that they made it to heaven by holding the faith of the Church, our faith.

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Changing Garments and Straightening Out

nativityThe “cloak of misery.”The Word of God orders us to take it off.

What exactly is this dark and dingy cloak? And which exactly are the crooked and rough ways which we must straighten and smooth?

Maybe the prophet means the robe of a shallow, scattershot, and discombobulated life. A life without a fundamental commitment to give it meaning.

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council considered many of the problems of our age. They identified one of them like this:

Many of our contemporaries never get to the point of raising questions about God, since they seem to experience no religious stirrings, nor do they see why they should trouble themselves about religion. (Gaudium et Spes 19)

Never get to the point of raising questions about God? Can we live a consistent life, a steady life, a unified life, without raising questions about God? Can we really even know ourselves at all without religion? Without genuine, faithful religious practice? Regular practice based on solid foundations and not just emotions and sentiments, or my own self-interested preferences?

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Inconvenient and Uneasy

At first, St. John’s father Zechariah did not believe that his elderly wife could bear a son. But then, when Zechariah showed his faith and named the boy John as the angel had told him to do, the Lord loosened Zechariah’s tongue. The old priest had the privilege of singing one of the original Gospel canticles.

Zechariah sang that his son would be the herald of the Savior. And that the Lord would come to His people and set them free. The Lord will set us free to “worship Him without fear, holy and righteous in His sight, all the days of our lives.”

For freedom Christ has set us free. Every morning, to greet the dawn, the Church sings Zechariah’s canticle. But we sing it louder and prouder now, during our Fortnight for Freedom.

Independence Day draws near, and our thoughts turn to the Founding Fathers of our nation. When we hear the phrase in Zechariah’s canticle about God “setting us free from our enemies,” an echo sounds in our minds. We think of the war against the British which our forefathers fought and won.

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