March 23, 2013

The Blood of the Lamb and the Sign of the Cross

For Christians, the ancient rites of Passover and the Passion of Christ are deeply connected.   To deliver the People of God from slavery in Egypt, God sent an angel of death, a great power that stole from families the lives of those they deemed most precious.   To protect His own People from this destroying angel, He commanded the Hebrews to gather as families, slaughter a lamb and to sprinkle the blood of this lamb on the doorposts of their homes.  Seeing the blood, the angel of destruction passed over the homes of those who belonged to the Lord.  In the tradition of Christian prayer, this sprinkled blood foreshadows the power of the Blood of Christ signified by the Sign of the Cross.  So much did the early Christians connect their faith in the Blood of Christ with that of the saving events of the Passover, St. Paul explains, "Our Paschal Lamb, Christ has been Sacrificed" 1 Cor. 5:7.

Ecce Homo
By St. Albert Chmielowski of Krakow
The Gospels explicitly connect the sacred rites of the Last Supper of the Lord with the Passover celebration.  There are also other theological contexts connecting the sacrifice of the lamb with the Cross of Christ. (See Mark 15:25-37.)  In the Gospel of John, according to St. Augustine in Tractate 117, Jesus dies on the Day of Preparation for the Passover, the day on which lambs were slaughtered for the celebration of passover (See John 19:14).  The diversity of these Scriptural traditions is symphonic, speaking to the inexhaustible horizons of the Lord's saving work, a mystery so vast and beautiful the only proper response is thanksgiving (eucharist).

Whenever we prayerfully reflect on the beautiful connections of our salvation prefigured in Exodus and fulfilled in Christ, our hearts are made vulnerable to the vision of the early Christians.  Their vision was filled with wonder over the blood of the sacrificial lamb and what it revealed about the Mystery of the Cross.   They marveled over how the blood that was shed in ancients rites foreshadowed the Blood of Christ they received by faith and they rooted their worship in this contemplation.
"The Passion of the Christ was prefigured by the Jews when they received the command to mark the doors of their houses with blood.  It is by the sign of His Passion and Cross that you must be marked today on the forehead, as on a door, and that all Christians are marked."  St. Augustine, De catechizandis rudibus, as cited by Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, Ann Arbor: Servant Books (1979), 167.
St. Augustine is connecting the ancient rite of sprinkling the blood of the lamb, a saving sign for the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, with the cross that is given in the baptismal rites, a saving sign for those seeking freedom from sin.  Before baptism, the Church entrusts the Sign of the Cross to the chosen catechumen by tracing a cross on the forehead with the Oil of Catechumens.   This ancient Christian rite is continued in our Catholic practice today.   Those who receive the Sign of the Cross (sphargis)  through this anointing are safe from demonic attack in a manner similar to the way ancient Hebrew families were saved from the angel of death.   The blood of God, the life of God, is more powerful than evil.
"There is no other way to escape the destroying angel than by the blood of God, Who by love has poured out His blood for us.  And by this blood, we receive the Holy Spirit.  Indeed the Spirit and the blood are related in such a way that by the blood which is connatural to us, we receive the Spirit which is not con natural, and the gate of death is closed to our souls.  Such is the sphragis of the blood."  Paschal Homilies of Pseudo-Chrysostom as cited by Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, Ann Arbor: Servant Books (1979), 166. 
Making the Sign of the Cross is like covering ourselves in the Blood of Jesus.  Whenever we make the Sign of the Cross with devout faith, we are renewing our baptismal commitment and the Lord communicates His life to us in new and unimaginable ways.  This Sign of Victory plunges us into the saving power of God foreshadowed in the Exodus.  In a world of all kinds of slavery and death, this Sign of Freedom reminds us that God has intervened.

This Sign of Salvation proclaims to all principalities of destruction and powers of darkness that God Himself has implicated Himself in our plight and helps us remember that we are never alone -- no matter how difficult or dark the circumstances we must face.  This Sign of Hope renews our faith that the saving power of His Blood is such that no matter how intense the struggle, no irrational force in the heavens above or on the earth below is able to surmount the love of God.  Through renewing this Seal of our Hearts, the heart covers itself again with the Blood of the Lamb so that even in death it knows Eternal Life.

March 19, 2013

A Letter to Governor HIckenlooper

Dear Governor John Hickenlooper, 

Since prayer in the Catholic Tradition is concerned about real life, as were the teachings of the ancient prophets, there are political events that have such spiritual significance they cannot be passed over.  In fact, the reality of Christian prayer extends to everything to which the dimensions of Christ's love extend - even the socio-politico.  I read Archbishop Aquila's statement in response to Senate Bill 11 which you plan to sign.  I have also read Bishop Sheridan's statement in the Colorado Catholic Herald.   It is disappointing that their concerns remain unaddressed. When my own local government seeks to impose inhumane values that are abusive of institutions so sacred as is marriage and the care of orphans and children in distress, I feel compelled to use this platform to make my voice heard in the public square and in the marketplace of ideas.   After having attempted to reach you by phone, I address you in this open letter today as we Catholics celebrate the solemnity of St. Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus Christ and protector of the Holy Family.

You plan to sign into law legislation, a so-called civil unions bill, that by design obscures the ancient meaning of marriage and penalizes those who are morally obliged to safe-guard sacred truths about humanity.  Indeed, those who have devoted themselves to works of mercy out of love for God must care for orphans and children in troubled family situations by divine decree.  By the action you are intending to carry out, you will rob them of the freedom they need to follow their consciences in trying to find good homes for those who do not have any.  

Those who have supported this bill have pitted themselves against people of good will, families, and children whose God given rights have already been brutally abused in this conversation.  Should you go through with what has been announced, more than catastrophically harming the very heart of our society (marriage and family life),  you will also define yourself as an enemy of the most fundamental liberties essential to the American experiment - including the religious rights of citizens to organize to provide orphans foster care or adoption into families that have both a mother and a father.   

As a life long student of the religious dimension to human existence, the legislation on your desk can only be seen as one more effort by government to seize divine power it simply does not have.   Whenever the politically powerful attempt to exercise such absolute tyranny over those whose rights they should protect, the dignity of humanity is always put at grave risk. In fact, should you make this legislation into law against the will of the people of Colorado who already rejected a similar referendum and amended our state's constitution to protect marriage, you will implicate yourself in a form of political idolatry that can only undermine our solidarity as a people and your credibility as a statesman.  This does not have to be the road you choose.  Appealing to your own desire that the citizens of our State might thrive, please remember that we come to enjoy the fullness of life when we make decisions mindful of that day of reckoning in whose merciful but exacting light your actions as governor and each one of us entrusted to your service will be scrutinized.


Anthony Lilles

March 17, 2013

Pope Francis: To follow, To Edify and To Confess

On March 14, following the conclave, Pope Francis gathered with the Cardinals to pray for the Church.   He exhorted his brothers with words that encourage me to pray, "After these days of grace I would like us all to have the courage, simply the courage, to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Cross of the Lord, to build up the Church in the Blood of the Lord, the blood shed on the Cross, and to confess the glory of Christ crucified."  (Click here to for his very first words as Pope to those gathered at St. Peter's square - via Sr. Lisa at Nunspeak.)

The tender but challenging truth suggested in these three simple ideas fills my soul: to prayerfully walk in Christ's presence whereever it leads, to build up the Church with the Blood of Christ no matter the price, to confess the glory of Christ crucified with every fiber of strength God has given us - this is life to the full!  There is so much more to say, but for now, this close to Easter, it is good to think about the essence of His message, his invitation to have courage together before the mystery of the Cross by the blood of Jesus.  This is the way forward for the Church and for each one of us personally.

The blood of Jesus - fountain of our salvation!  My heart goes here because it helps me realize how much the Lord has loved us and the power of the life He gives us.  Because Christ has loved us with a love that is stronger than death - we have hope even in the face of our failures.

But there is an implied challenge in these words - to the degree that our hearts remain hard, that we will not repent, that our lives are unconverted by the love revealed by Christ Jesus, we have not fully welcomed the gift of our redemption - and only those who welcome this gift can enter deep into its saving mystery.  As the Holy Father preached today, God is so merciful that the problem is not that He will ever stop extending His forgiveness to us - but we might stop asking if we allow our hearts to be hard to his Word.

 If we want to be disciples of the Son of God, those who hear the word and keep it, we must deny ourselves and pick up our cross and follow our Crucified master. In order to be the disciple of the Lord, in order to listen to the Word in our heart, we must make space - a movement of self-denial, not only a denial of sin but a denial also of those things that dispose us to sin.

We can only be filled with the riches of Christ if we are empty of ourselves.  Filled with ourselves, drunk on materialism, caught up our cleverness, tied down to our need for control or riches or security or reputation - there is no space for God to give us His Word or freedom to welcome this gift of love.  And His Word laid open on the Cross is the true life of our hearts and only hope of this dying world. 

With the Word of the Father, the Word made flesh, we have everything. Without this Word of Hope living in our hearts and in our actions, we live without the meaning or purpose the Father created us to know.  Indeed, without the Word who was from the beginning, all else is loss and can only end poorly.

Our lives must begin and end in the Word entrusted to us by the Father, the Word who proceeds from His Heart, the Word who knows the way into our hearts, the Word who knows the only pathway into the Heart of the Trinity.  To live by the Word of the Father, to live by the Truth Himself, means, in addition to self-denial, the acceptance of suffering for the sake of love - this is a life covered and filled with the blood of Christ.  Love suffers the hardships of others - our spouse, our children, our parents, our neighbors, even our enemies - because love cannot stand for the beloved to suffer alone.   Love raised up by the blood of Christ suffers rejection and being misunderstood because it is more powerful than persecution.

Love never gives up hope because the blood of Christ is its strength.  But for a Christian to try to love without Christ, for a Christian to try to live without the Cross- love unsurrendered to God leads to disaster. As Pope Francis explained in his first mass with the Cardinals who elected Him:  "When we walk without the Cross, when one builds without the Cross, and when we confess Christ without the Cross, we are not the disciples of the Lord by the servants of the world."

March 13, 2013

Pope Francis and the Pathway to Easter

 "Rend your hearts and not your garments.  Return to the Lord your God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy."  Joel 2:13

Pope Francis I was just elected.  It is as if God just gave us the bishop from Les Miserables as pope.   A member of the Society of Jesus, a man of deep prayer and a priest of profound concern for the poor.  At the beginning of Lent, preaching on a text from the Prophet Joel, he made an impassioned plea to the clergy and religious of Argentina, "The Kingdom of God may need our hearts torn by the desire for conversion and for the love, the breaking forth of grace and the effective gesture to ease the pain of our brothers and sister who walk together with us."

His message is poignant against indifference to sin and the social evils that choke out the life of prayer.   No one can pray very deeply if they are callous to those God has entrusted to us, especially the most vulnerable.   At the same time, this wound of sin is too deep to be addressed by merely external actions and gestures.   Our hearts must be torn by the fact that we are not effectively protecting and loving the most vulnerable in our society.  The love of God heals sin and wakes us up out of our spiritual slumber.  This is the threshold to deep intimacy with Christ who is also concerned for the plight of the most vulnerable and identifies Himself with them.   I have offered some further reflections over at Dan Burke's Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction blog.

In the meantime, here is a report from a seminarian in Rome.  

March 9, 2013

He Came to His Senses - The Beginning of Prayer

The parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15:12ff stands out for those struggling in the life of prayer.  As we read the story, we find ourselves putting ourselves in the place of the different characters, measuring our actions against theirs: the merciful father, the prodigal son, the elder son, even the servants.  I also love to think about the father's house and how it serves as a fitting image for the ultimate end of the divine economy, the fundamental purpose of our creation and salvation: that joyful communion of love, of perfect unity with one another in the bosom of the Holy Trinity.

Jesus tells this parable on his way to Jerusalem from Galilee.  He too is going to His Father's House, the Temple where he was presented as a child and where he was found at the threshold of his teenage years.  He knows the Father of Mercy.  In the mystery of such exceeding love, how could His heart not be broken over the plight of His sons and daughters?  Where there was no hope, the Father sent His Son to be hope.  Christ, like the prodigal son, lost everything He had - except not in disobedience but obedience, not on destitute living but rather out of love for the destitute.  Spiritual poverty, misery, suffering- this is the horizon of our humanity that God has chosen to share with us.

Like a servant, a suffering servant, accomplishing the Father's will with signs and wonders, the Son liberates those He encounters along the way.  He wants to help them come to their senses so that He might free them from serving the pigsty in which they are trapped.   This redemption is won at great price.  Like the Merciful Father, the Image of the invisible God is misunderstood, rejected, threatened, betrayed and denied by those He most relies on.  It is by passing through this misery that the Word made flesh enters into the heart of humanity, the Father's House where the Chosen People worshipped God in the shadow of history - where we too can begin to worship Him now in mystery.

When we listen to the parable of the prodigal son, it is important to remember that Christ Himself is telling us this story.  The Word of the Father journeys through our hearts just as He journeyed through the misery of Galilee and Judah.  Everything He says and does has inexhaustible meaning in relation to His destination, the Father's house to which He leads us.

When He tells us the prodigal son came to senses, this means something for our life of prayer.  To hear the voice of the Father's Word in our hearts compels us to deny our false judgments about life and to make a new judgment about the Father: this is to come to our senses.  It is a moment of humility, a moment of trust, and a moment of compunction.  It is the moment in which the Father finds us.  If, in our righteous indignation, we play the elder brother and refuse this moment, how will we enter the Father's House?  Embracing this moment with gratitude and allowing oneself to be embraced by the Father: this is what it means to begin to pray.

March 4, 2013

The Mysterious Prayer of Gethsemane

There are stories about great saints who struggled to pray in the face of great difficulty.   This can be baffling until we try to enter into the Passion of Christ and consider the movements of His Heart before the merciful love of the Father.  Until we contemplate the prayer of the Word of the Father, this struggle to pray is often deemed to be merely a stage through which we pass.   Yet, in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Luke 22:35ff), the bloody sweat of the Son of God reveals this struggle as a supreme moment of Christian contemplation, a terrifying standard against which the truth of all our other prayers can be discerned.

The hymn of praise learned with the Suffering Servant on the Mount of Olives is shrouded in a mystery.  It is against this mystery that therapeutic approaches to prayer should be discerned.  Psychological or physical tantrums are silenced before the authentic cry of heart offered by the Son of Man.  His love for his disciples and devotion to the Father challenges any consumerist attitude toward the things of God.   His sorrow and spiritual poverty helps us feel the appropriate shame we ought to have over any gluttonous expectation for mental relief or euphoric experience.  Against the dark terror Jesus confronts in prayer, spiritual consumerism can only be seen as limiting the freedom that our conversation with the Lord requires.   

The Word made flesh baptized every moment of his earthly life in this kind of prayer.   Every heart beat and every breath was so filled with zeal for the Father and those the Father gave Him, divine love ever exploded in His sacred humanity with resounding silence, astonishing signs, heart-aching wonders and words of wisdom which even after two thousand years still give the world pause.  Each verse of the Gospels attempts to show us His self-emptying divinity boldly hurling His prayerful humanity with the invincible force of love to the Cross.  

In Gethsemane we glimpse how the Son of Man availed Himself to these mysterious promptings of the Father's love, an unfathomable love that is not comfortable to our limited humanity.   Unaided human reason cannot penetrate the divine passion that compelled Him into the solitude hidden mountains and secret gardens.   His vigil on the Mount of Olives can only be understood as the culmination of the ongoing conversation to which He eagerly made His humanity vulnerable.   

If, in this culminating movement of heart, Christ sweat blood, we who have decided to follow in the footsteps of our Crucified Master should not be surprised by moments of great anguish in our own conversation with God.  In the face of this mystery, we must allow the Risen Lord to give us His courage.   What is revealed on the Mount of Olives helps us see why Christian prayer can mature into a beautiful surrender, a movement of love which gives glory to the Father and extends the redemptive work of the Redeemer in the world.   What Christian contemplation sees with the Son of God can involve very difficult struggle, through the strength that comes from the Savior even the terrifying moments of such prayer can resolve themselves in trustful surrender: "Not my will... Yours be done."  

A vision of prayer that contemplates in the midst of terror and anguish is probably not a popular subject, but I think a very important one today.   For further reflection on this I refer you to "Blessings that are Difficult to Receive" on Dan Burke's Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction blog.