JESUS MADE A WHIP FROM SOME ROPES AND DROVE ALL THE MERCHANTS OUT OF THE TEMPLE. (John 2: 15) These words from today's Gospel are part of the account given by St. John of an event in our Lord's ministry that came to be known as The Cleansing of the Temple. As the subsequent dialogue reveals, this action of our Lord was prophetic. Like all such acts by those inspired by the Spirit of God this one too envelops the precise message intended in mystery. Prophetic signs require to be interpreted, and the correct interpretation itself depends upon a grace of that same Holy Spirit. We are not surprised then that the persons who witnessed this cleansing of the Temple did not grasp its significance, nor the meaning of the sign Jesus offers them when they ask for a further sign that demonstrate his credentials beyond all doubt. It comes as more of a surprise that even his chosen disciples failed to appreciate at the time the significance of Jesus' action as well as the nature of the sign he refers to. Only after he rose from the dead and opened their hearts to understand the Scriptures concerning him did they recall this event and discern its meaning.
This dullness of mind is a reflection of a certain darkness of the spirit and a lack of purity of heart that can be remedied only by the grace of the Spirit. That grace is given to those who, with sincere repentance and desire, fast and pray for the mercy of God. If this prophetic act of Jesus was performed as a warning and instruction for those who did not show proper reverence for the Temple of God, it is also presented to us today to alert us to the need for worshiping God in spirit and in truth. Reverence for the House of God, St. Benedict affirms in his Rule, is to be shown at all times. His teaching rightly grasps that this reverence must be cultivated for all things and persons for the whole world is God's temple and all that is in it. Above all, the spirit of human beings resides in the temple of their body and due respect for all in their bodies and souls is demanded by the all holy God.
Lent is a season given us for purification of our heart through prayer, fasting and the practice of mercy to others. There evolved a radical conviction in the finest spirits that the individual is rendered pure through the domination of the purified heart. This conviction was expressed in a wide variety of insights and manners of speech. Some, such as Plato and his many followers, thought of purification as a liberation of the intelligence from the tomb of the body. Actually, if one considers this manner of conceiving purification as being a description of experience and not as an ontological statement, it has a certain validity. All the great mystics speak of growth in spiritual consciousness as a freedom from the compulsions of bodily desires. That in part accounts for its continuing popularity for some 2500 years. In order to adhere to the dictates of reason at times of temptation a person has to "lay aside" consideration for the body. Although our Lord was formed in the Jewish tradition that was not inclined to the dualism that thought of the body as a hindrance, yet he too fasted severely for a long period and inured himself to bodily hardship by difficult labor and wearying travels. This corporal discipline developed a more free submission of the whole person to the service of God and is a recognition that there is a hierarchy of established by nature of the levels of human function. Later, after the Lord had returned to the Father, his closest followers, even among the Jews treated the body more as an enemy at times than as a reliable companion. Saint Paul set the tone in this respect with his long list of physical sufferings that including beatings, hunger, cold, vigils and imprisonment with all the restrictions that entails. His case might seem exceptional, and due to his special mission and temperament which tended to extremes. However, someone as humane as St. Francis of Assisi, spoke of the body as "brother ass" and treated his fleshly nature harshly indeed. In fact, it is difficult to find a saint, man or woman, who did not subject the body to a discipline that was severely restrictive of bodily satisfactions. Even such a gentle saint as Francis de Sales who was naturally gifted with extraordinary physical grace and coordination, in his youth one of the best swordsmen and at court stood out as a graceful dancer, demanded of himself constant and strict discipline of his body.
The purpose of such corporal severity, however, was, as our Lord himself exemplified, to free the spirit from the tyranny of bodily desires and cravings. The aim was not to put aside the body but to subject it to the spirit, to direct our bodily activities to contribute to the cleansing of the heart. If the thoughts and imaginings that arise in the heart are purified then the body- indeed, the whole person- will be pure, that is to say, penetrated by the refined activities of the spirit. The body is not laid aside but spiritualized, and serves to sustain the activities of the mind and heart in their response to the truth and beauty of God that they are given to perceive. The resurrection of the body is the pledge of this integration of the corporal with the spiritual elements of our nature.
To establish an order of things in which this final integration is achieved, the great gap that had been torn open between the cravings of the body and the desires of the spirit by disobedience has to be mended. The initiative for this reparation of what had been damaged beyond human repair had to come from God himself. This was initiated through the Incarnation of the Son of God. It was to be a collaborative work, not only divine. While the initiative was from God the execution was to involve the free participation of humanity in the person of Mary of Nazareth. Her consent, freely given, was essential for this work of restoration of our nature.
That we celebrated the Annunciation of our Lord yesterday, during this season of Lent when the Liturgy focuses our attention on the events leading up to the great works of redemption in Holy Week, might seem at a first consideration, to be something of a distraction. Further reflection, however, reveals the intimate connection between this mystery and the passion and death of Jesus. Obviously, the Incarnation, which took place at the time of the Annunciation, is the essential condition for all else in Jesus' life. Only if God actually becomes man, taking flesh in the womb of Mary, can our race be redeemed by his death. What is not assumed by God is not redeemed, St. Athanasius taught.
The relevance of this Feast for Lent and specifically its close association with the passion and death of Jesus was appreciated early by the Fathers. Tertullian, writing around the year 200, had already maintained that Good Friday took place on the same day as the Annunciation, March 25th. (Adversus Judeos, 8 PL2: 656 cited in John Saward, The Mysteries of March, 3: I follow him in what follows in a number of salient points.) Interestingly, it occasionally happens that Good Friday falls on March 25th. That was the case in the year 1608 and the coincidence of the two events resulted in one of John Donne's best poems, intrigued as he was by the union of opposites, conception and death. "Th' Abridgement of Christ's story, which makes one/ (As in plaine Maps, the furthest West is East)/ Of the Angel's Ave and Consummatum est. " On those occasions when this concurrence takes place, either on Good Friday or Holy Saturday, in the Roman rite the Annunication is transferred to some near appropriate date so as to focus on The Passion of our Lord. The Byzantine liturgy, on the other hand, celebrates both together, understanding the two as complementary rather than competing with one another for attention. This practice stresses the connection betwen the mystery of the Incarnation and the Passion of Jesus, which, to be sure, is also appreciated by the Roman Church.
This manner of viewing the Annunciation and the Incarnation as intrinsically bound with the passion and death of Jesus illustrates the theological principle enunciated in the First Vatican Council that theology has as a proper task the presentation of the mysteries of redemption "in their mutual connectedness and in their intrinsic relation to the ultimate end of humanity." (DS 3016) Redemption in its various constitutive parts is a whole and all of the elements that immediately pertain to it are so interwoven as to be inseparable in their actuality. They should be presented as such. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites the decree Dei Verbum of Vatican II which states this fundamental principle as the proper manner to view the articles of faith. The Catechism underlines the necessity of following this norm in order to assure that Scripture be appropriately interpreted.
1. Be especially attentive "to the content and unity of the whole Scripture."(Dei Verbum 12.4) Different as the books which comprise it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God's plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover. (Par.112)
This notion that the heart of the Scriptures and its center is Christ Jesus is a profound insight that makes the interpretation of the inspired word a living encounter with the Savior. St. Thomas Aquinas is the one who had originally stated the principle of the unity of Scripture in these terms as the Catechism acknowledges in citing him.
The phrase "heart of Christ" can refer to Sacred Scripture, which makes known his heart, closed before the Passion, as the Scripture was obscure. But the Scripture has been opened since the Passion; since those who from then on have understood it, consider and discern in what way the prophecies must be interpreted. (Expositio in Ps. 21.11)
This truth brings out one of the meanings of the word Catholic The Church of Christ is truly Catholic not only because it is open to all peoples everywhere and at all ages, but also because it "teaches universally and completely all the dogmas which ought to come to men's knowledge." (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 18, 23 (cf. for these quotes: Saward,op. cit. xvi). Heresy is a term taken from the Greek word meaning to choose or select. It means that the revealed truth is diminished in its fullness though an arbitrary and mistaken selection from the totality. The word itself suggests incompleteness. The error envisaged by the term heresy is that of incompleteness. When any one refuses consent to some essential point of Catholic belief that person is making an heretical choice and ceases to believe according to Catholic faith. Of course, that does not yet make such a one a heretic formally in the canonical sense. For only the person who refuses to correct belief after warning, or who joins a Church that holds a non- Catholic creed, is legally a heretic. But there is only one Catholic faith and that includes belief in all the mysteries and truths affirmed as divinely revealed by the Church. They are so interwoven that to deny one alters the whole; they form, as it were, a constellation of which every element is necessary for the true form of the whole. Saward comments in this regard that Mary and Peter can never be regarded as "supplementary figures". The living Christ and the fully formed Church include these two as part of her essential make up.
The best Catholic and Orthodox theologians have understood this principle of fullness by an instinct of the spirit, and were guided by it in the style of their presentation of the mysteries of redemption. St. Augustine and St. Bernard are two outstanding examples of such Catholic authors whose preaching and writing presents Catholic truth by means of an abundance of images and allegories. Their reason is guided by the heart and the Spirit not the logic of science and abstraction. Von Balthasar whose writings exemplify the same Catholicity of style, stated the principle explicitly: Theology can only perform its task by circular repetitions of that which is ever-greater. Parcelling it out in isolated individual tracts is its certain death. (Op. cit. xvii)
The Annunciation is the occasion when, for the first time, the Blessed Trinity is revealed. One rarely finds this aspect of the Feast mentioned and yet it is a momentous fact which the same Swiss theologian pointedly notes. The angel Gabriel is sent by the Father to announce that the Son will be conceived by the Spirit who overshadows Mary, making her fertile while remaining a virgin. Only the Son becomes incarnate, yet all three persons of the Trinity are engaged in the process and committed in it. Since Mary has a special role in the Incarnation, she also is a unique witness to the revelation of the inner life of the Trinity as such. In Medieval times this Trinitarian involvement in the Annunciation was depicted by certain artists who, in their painting of the angel's greeting to Mary, display a dove, carrying the infant Son who holds a cross, as it descends from the Father to the Virginal womb. This tableau manages to unite what Saward refers to as the Mysteries of March, that is to say, the Incarnation and the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Savior.
As St. John especially emphasizes in his Gospel, the Word made flesh in the person of Jesus is in his very person a revelation of the Trinity. He always sees what the Father is doing, and he disposes of the Holy Spirit whom he promises to send to his disciples after his own departure at his Ascension to the Father. What he says is does belongs totally to the Father in the first place; indeed, he receives it from the Father and returns it to him enhanced by his loving submission and full obedience in the Spirit. Accordingly, in the words and actions of our Lord we are introduced into the inner life of God in our limited measure.
The meaning of these revelations and the events that are the vehicle of this opening of the veils to reveal some glimpse into the inner life of the eternal Triune Godhead to human understanding is generous, self-giving love. Because God is love in Himself it is His nature to share, to lavish His gift of life on His creatures. This life is in its substance a participation in His eternal Being, freely given. This is the gift which alone can match the most profound cravings of our person for He has so constituted us in our personal being that nothing less than He can correspond to our most intimate aspirations. Behind the sufferings of our Savior there is this hidden motivation of effecting the restoration of proper order to creation through opening the way for human persons to attain to that life in God that is the fulfillment of all we are and long for. As St. Augustine put it:
Let Him who defends us in the place of this life be himself our place after this life....Purify your heart that he may enlighten you and he whom you invoke will enter it. Be his home and He will be your home; let Him dwell in you and you will dwell in Him. If you receive Him in your heart during this life, He will receive you in His countenance after this world. (Enarrationes in Psalmos 30. 8- PL 36: 252)
This place that is God himself is now accessible to us, though we must each discover the way that leads to it by searching our own depths. Lent is a time given for us to prepare our self, through more strenuous training, to discover and enter this place. It is to be found within, in the inmost recesses of our heart, in an abyss that is dark and hidden except to the eyes enlightened by the Holy Spirit.
At the Liturgy in the Divine Office we heard last week the passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews that describes the mysterious workings of the Word within the inner sanctum of the believer. Although this passage refers to the inspired word of Scripture yet the powers of discernment and insight he ascribes to it are possessed by God alone. In particular in the second sentence the author seems to have in mind the penetrating knowledge of the Word of God in his person acting upon those who receive him in faith to purify and strengthen the inner self.
The word of God is living and full of energy. It is sharper than a two-edged sword, able to search out the division between the psyche and the spirit, the joints and the marrow. It judges the thoughts and ideas of the heart. There is no creature hidden before him. All things are naked and clear before his eyes. Our present discourse will treat of him. (4: 12, 13)
These days we are more occupied with reading and meditating the word of God and with various commentaries that treat of it. Each of us, according to the grace and special gifts we have received, is invited to discern what our response to this word inspired by the Spirit of God can best be. As St. Gregory the Great once wrote,Scripture grows with the one who reads it. Each year as we return to readings familiar to us from previous exposure, we can discover fresh significance for our own condition which has changed and presumably grown. We never outgrow the message of Scripture; it offers new depths, reveals fresh perspectives and presents us with challenges we have not encountered in the past. For the word that confronts us in Scripture is ultimately the Word made flesh, Jesus, Son of Mary. The measure of its truth is, in the last consideration, infinite, for the Spirit of God stands behind it, and continues to speak through the words He once inspired. May our contact with the Scriptures in the liturgy and in our reading and meditating be a channel of grace given to us by that same Spirit of Jesus. It is He who purifies and elevates the hearts of those who approach the word with faith and put it into practice with love.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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