Beacons of Hope
by Fr. Gregory Dick, O.Praem.
Brothers and sisters, I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your nature.
Here the Apostle to the Gentiles summarizes perhaps the most basic principle of the theology of salvation: the condescension of love, the highest stooping down to the lowest, like a loving parent to a toddler, in order to make known the truth of love in a manner that can be grasped.
To be sure, St. Paul had tested the capacities of human language in his attempts to express what he had beheld in the Seventh Heaven, for example in his ecstatic run-on sentences in Ephesians describing “the riches of God’s glorious inheritance in the Saints and the immeasurable greatness of His power in us who believe…”
But because he knew well the depths of the woundedness in the human heart, he was moved out of shear compassion to pare down his expressions and his manners, indeed his very manner of living, in order to become all things to all men in his burning desire to bring at the very least as many as possible to salvation. St. Paul made every attempt to reach the minds and hearts of his listeners, no matter how far he must stoop. It is the genius of mercy, of love at its best. And he had experienced it firsthand.
St. Paul was not the author of this way. He learned it from God his Father, Who from the dawn of creation “spoke” in every least grain of sand bringing to the knowing light of mortal men the unfathomable depths of His Trinitarian Love. He learned it from the Word, stooping from the first moments after the cataclysm of the Original Sin to encounter man, first by words and gestures to be handed on through sinful memories in tradition, then to be committed to writing in the Scriptures, finally to be expressed in the fullness of time when He did the unthinkable: took on the likeness of His creatures in order to appear among them as one of them and to take on even the likeness of sin, there where the order of representation seemed to be turned on its head! Finally, St. Paul learned it from the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, Who in His maddened love plunges incessantly into the most precarious depths in all of creation, the human heart, there to keep the ceaseless vigil of love, so as to be “at hand” when the insensible soul at long last comes to its senses, at least long enough to cry out for mercy in its final gasping breath.
Jesus summarizes the ardor and the profundity of such a compelling love in the Gospel today with His seemingly exasperated exclamation: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”
He speaks this not alone. Therein the Father cries out. Therein too the Holy Spirit, Who is the Fire sent and burning in its fervor to give life and light and love. And this exclamation from the Heart of the Trinity resounds in the words and actions and lives of His Saints down through the ages, saints known and unknown, canonized and uncanonized, souls who allowed the Holy Spirit dwelling within them to have His Way and to pass through them into the minds and hearts and lives of others so that the Fire may be passed on—Tradition.
It is a glorious thing, comparable indeed to what takes place in the Seventh Heaven, unfolding in and from the heaven of souls. But it comes at a cost: the precious cost of self. I must decrease, so You may increase. Everyone, from the highest (God Almighty) to the lowest (the sinner) must follow the God-given pedagogy. And to do this we must surrender what St. Paul calls the slavery of sin.
Now this sounds like a no-brainer. Surrender the slavery of sin? Who wouldn’t?!
Well, I wouldn’t; and you wouldn’t; and none of us would, if we are not willing to accept healing. Because to be healed of sin, we must do more than repent. Or more correctly, to be healed of sin, we must truly repent, fully repent, invest our anger in the way anger is given to be invested: in the hatred of sin so as to be done with it and to humble ourselves to be healed of its bondage, which it wields over the flesh. Yes, humble ourselves even beyond the confessional door and seek healing to whatever extent God sends His healing agents, and He has generously spread them around in our wounded age. Humble ourselves and stop saving face, such a very silly thing to save, especially as it is so easy to contrive—even cheap makeup does the trick.
What keeps us away from healing and enslaved to sin, to its vicious cycle of dysfunctional behavior that spreads like wildfire and undoes the work of the Holy Spirit? More than anything else: fear, that putrid air in the galley of the empire of darkness. Oh, the evils that have been allowed to spread because of fear, loathsome fear, choking the life breath out of the children of God.
Begone, you diabolical spirit of fear, in the Name of Jesus Christ!
And what enables the bondage of fear? The unruly imagination. The power of wonder reinforced by representation, but fueled by fear that compulsively gravitates to… to wherever my wounded nature or the spirit of darkness inclines it to go to. Drama ensues, and fear is only intensified, and the vicious cycle spins wider and deeper and drags more victims into its grip.
But it doesn’t need to. Look about you, and see that our gracious Father has planted, all around us in this world of His, countless beacons of hope. You will know them by their authenticity, their faithfully following the way of condescending love, the love that gives hope. Hope, not wishful thinking, not fantasy which is but dreaming, but rock solid hope, the hope of Christ and of the Trinity. These beacons of hope are the witnesses of His mercy, like St. Paul, following the divine example of condescending love, making itself known to the children of a crooked generation—in the 21st century, the children of a whole succession of crooked generations, offspring of a culture of fear-run-rampant, the logical result of the modern global version of Babel. These giants of hope come in very simple attire, the children of God living the spirituality of childhood. They trust in the invincible power of the goodness of their Father over the empire of evil, in the triumph of His light piercing the through the tunnel of darkness to scatter the demons of fear and bring the passage to freedom to the children of God.
Pope Saint John Paul II was one such giant of Hope, and a mighty one indeed. And like every true prophet, he was widely misunderstood, underappreciated, indeed especially by the very ones who should have recognized his message. But alas, fear poisons the reasoning mind and blinds the heart and even leads men to crucify their Savior. But the likes of John Paul and his namesake popes John and Paul, like their namesakes, St. John and St. Paul, grasp the divine way. And they carry the divine pedagogy to its logical conclusion: sacrifice of self to make love known to a wounded age. Yes, people even took them for fools, but they were glad to be thought so if only to make known Christ to a people groping in darkness.
Brothers and sisters, hear once more the words of Pope St. John Paul II at the dawn of his pontificate: “Do not be afraid! Open, open wide the doors to Christ!” With his pontifical motto, he added the definitive way of this trustful opening: Totus Tuus! Mary, the most merciful of all God’s instruments, pray for us.
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Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). My whole life has in one way or another revolved around the desires that make up the very core of this single verse. Sometimes intentionally, but most times unknowingly, I found that the direction of my life was set by the principles which form the bold application of this verse.
Even as his health declined, Fr. Leo continued to orient his life to the service of the altar, recognizing in the Holy Eucharist the source of every grace and heavenly blessing. At that moment, I knew that I, too, wanted to be a Norbertine priest, “lifting high the Holy Eucharist over the miseries and errors of this world.”
The Gospel passage we just heard comprises the entire fifteenth chapter of Luke, all thirty-two verses. It reminds me of St. Justin Martyr’s second century description of the Mass: “On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members,” he says. “The recollections of the Apostles are read, as long as there is time.”
Fortunately the three parables are fairly clear in their literal meaning; let us examine but some few points for their spiritual import. In the parable of the lost sheep, notice how our Lord even phrases the question: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” The scribes and Pharisees may not have been shepherds, but they weren’t stupid. Not one of them would have left the ninety-nine to find the one because that’s the best way of losing the ninety-nine and still not finding the one.
But in this they did not understand the deeper contrast Christ Jesus was drawing between God and man. Man has to leave one place to go to another. God remains with the ninety-nine even as He goes off to find the one. The life of grace is not lost in the ninety-nine while He seeks by grace to draw back the heart of the one. And the only way man can have a glimpse at how much God wants a sinner’s heart is by realizing He is so crazy with love as to leave the sure thing in favor of the impossible risk.
The other side of this perspective is the father in the parable of the prodigal son. Without ever leaving his house, his vision extends to his son who is “still a long way off,” which implies not only that he was looking for him but that also his sight sees him where he is. Put the two parables together, and we see that only if the Good Shepherd goes in search of the stray can the squalid son lift his head from the pig sty to dream of happiness at home. Only then does the Father see his wretched son afar off and in mercy run out to meet him.
The reaction of son and father are perfect. The son resolves to confess, and in his shame to accept a dignity lower than is truly his. He does confess, but the father does not let him even ask for what is beneath him, let alone allow him to ask and then deny it to him, and instead enriches his son with tokens of love and esteem: the finest robe, a ring, sandals to wear, and the fattened calf to feast upon.
When in our sins we can no longer hide from the Good Shepherd and so we confess our sins to the Father’s representative, we are never lowered beneath our dignity as sons and daughters of God. Rather, every mark of honor we threw away is returned to us in love. We are again clothed with the finest robe of sanctifying grace and charity which we received at baptism. The ring is the signet whose seal of the Holy Spirit we received at confirmation. Sandals are mortification from worldliness by separating us from the earth and keeping us from getting dirty as we tread the paths of this life; they also prepare our feet to run with the truths of the Gospel. “How beautiful upon the mountains,” says Isaiah, “are the feet of him who brings glad tidings.” In such a state, the full Catholic life in all its majesty, we are ready to feast on the fattened calf, Christ Jesus Himself sacrificed for our sins and given to us as food in the Holy Eucharist.
This is the happiness of our eternal Father. His food is our salvation. His joy is our redemption from sin. As St. John Chrysostom says, “He feasts on the fruit of His mercy by the sacrifice of His Son.” This is the festivity of the household ministers, the harmony of the angels, the symphony of the saints. And it is for us every time we go to confession.
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