Dreams, now and again pleasant but usually not so much. Thoughts, the agitated kind, creep in and pile up extra misery to go with the eventual alarm clock. (How is it that we shift from childhood’s anxious anticipation of Santa to adulthood’s dreads?) Loneliness, it’s crushing pressure increased by immersion in darkness.
Sometimes I receive something else – a door that shuts on the intruders.
It might be the Lord’s Prayer, or mental wandering among the Beatitudes. Sometimes my heart and mind fill with tender thoughts of other people and their needs, and I find myself in a rich time of intercession.
I wish that I could boast in this. I would love to tell you that I keep late night vigils because I am a disciplined champion of prayer.
But these are moments that John of the Cross calls dichosa ventura – “happy chance” or, in more pious translations, “sheer grace.” They are God’s doing, not mine. They come without my effort.
The Psalmist starts out with a claim of active effort, but when all is said and done recognizes that it is God doing the heavy lifting through the night,
I think of you upon my bed, I remember you through the watches of the night
You indeed are my savior, and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.
My soul clings fast to you; your right hand upholds me.
Psalm 63:7-9 NAB
I pray this morning for all who suffer theft of rest by the world, the flesh and the devil. I pray that God will fill your soul with more than comforting thoughts and will set you to his life giving work – praising God, extolling his Word and lifting up other people – even as you sleep.
Those who worship in liturgical churches know that white is the festival color for Christmas.
I heard a sermon in which the preacher pointed out that the church calendar for the days after Christmas had “streaks of red” recognizing those who suffered and died for Christ,
December 26th is the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Martyr was a word that meant “witness,” but over time gained the meaning of shedding one’s blood in faithful proclamation of Christ.
December 28th (it will be on the 29th this year, as December 27th is the First Sunday after Christmas and will bump the Feast of St. John to the 28th) is the commemoration of the Holy Innocents, the male children of Bethlehem killed on order of King Herod in his fear of a newborn king.
It is not difficult to move in thought, prayer and anxiety from the pages of the Bible to the present day. There are many Stephens right now all around the world, choosing death or simply suffering it because they believe that the Word of God, the Son bearing the glory, grace and truth of the heavenly Father, was born to share and save our flesh and blood. (John 1:14)
There are many innocents right now, like those in Bethlehem too little to be evaluated for faith or virtue but suffering at the hands of a “grown up world” that rejects the good. Israel’s Yad Vashem Museum presently features the personal albums of children thrown into the Holocaust. The many children of diverse races and creeds killed or suffering deprivation in the world’s current conflicts and the millions of victims of the abortion culture, in some cultures targeting girls just as Herod sought out boys, stain our world with blood guilt.
The birth of Christ Jesus was one action in God’s strategic campaign to rescue our race from enslavement to sin and death. He enlists us in that active work, so let us pray for those who are suffering. Let us give and work to resist and heal the world’s violence. Like Stephen, let us shine the white and festive light of Christ on a red streaked world, even on those with bloody hands,
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. (Acts 7:59-60, NRSV)
Jesus and the Prophets and Apostles who announced him used the familiar experience of weddings to help us understand the relationship of God and our human race.
For example, the joy of finding God’s favor and help are celebrated with wedding imagery in Isaiah 61:10, offered as a morning canticle in The Liturgy of the Hours,
I will rejoice heartily in the LORD, my being exults in my God;
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation, and wrapped me in a robe of justice,
Like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (NAB)
Carmelite spirituality employs marital themes and images to delve into the union of God and humanity, especially emphasizing the great and costly love by which God takes our souls to Himself. Here is a beautiful example by St. John of the Cross, which also celebrates Christmas,
When the time had come
for him to be born,
he went forth like the bridegroom
from his bridal chamber,
embracing his bride,
holding her in his arms,
whom the gracious Mother
laid in a manger
among some animals
that were there at that time.
Men sang songs
and angels melodies
celebrating the marriage
of Two such as these.
But God there in the manger
cried and moaned;
and these tears were jewels
the bride brought to the wedding.
The Mother gazed in sheer wonder
on such an exchange:
in God, man’s weeping,
and in man, gladness,
to the one and the other
things usually so strange.
Romances pt. 9, “The Birth,” Kavanaugh/Rodriguez trans.
The English translation loses the rhymes of John’s Spanish. Here are the last four lines just for flavor,
…el llanto del hombre en Dios,
y en el hombre la alegría,
la cual del uno y del otro
tan ajeno ser solía.
The theology of the poem is rich – if you have thoughts or questions please comment and I’ll try to respond.
The birth of Jesus, in which the Word of God becomes flesh and lives among us, is celebrated in advance in Isaiah 11:2-3, one of the Advent prophecies with which the church waits for Christmas,
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, A spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD. (NAB)
St. Thomas Aquinas (who says Christianity doesn’t produce great intellects?) distilled this passage into what are known as The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1831 lists them as
wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
We first encounter the Spirit who gives these gifts in the beginning, initiating the seven days of creation,
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2 ESV)
Are there any correspondences between the Spirit’s original creative work and how the Spirit continues to visit the creation with gifts?
Day 1/Gift 1: Light and Wisdom
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1:3 ESV) Human instinct equates wisdom with light. The word “enlighten” captures this. Ancient wisdom says, And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:13 NASB). Likewise we state the inverse, that darkness is deprivation of wisdom, You’re wrong, you madman. There’s no darkness except ignorance (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 4.2).
Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” (John 8:12 NKJV)
Day 2/Gift 2: Heaven and Understanding
And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so.(Genesis 1:7 ESV) Heaven is the “expanse” and separates the waters of the earth from the waters of the clouds. Yet we know that rain and snow will fall and evaporation will take place. The waters are in constant interplay as liquid, solid and gas.
The Spirit weaves the very nature of God into the creation here. Father, Son and Spirit are three distinct persons but are one substance, one God. The Christian revelation of God as a mysterious, always existing relationship is reflected in the fluid (sorry, but it’s the best word here) division of the waters.
Understanding is the gift that overcomes division. It’s more than our paltry “toleration” of difference; it is the establishment of unity, even compassion.
The Spirit prepares the creation for human beings, creatures separated from the Creator yet bearing His image and intended to enjoy the creation with Him for eternity.
Jesus is God and human being, and he works to restore lost understanding. As he told his followers after stooping to wash their feet,
“You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (John 13:7 NIV)
Day 3/Gift 3: Land, plant life and counsel.
The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:12 ESV)
Although humanity, rebellion and death have not warped the creation to this point, God brings forth life that will be tended by people and can be cultivated for greater abundance. Or wasted.
Counsel will emerge as generations pass on guidance as to which plants are good to eat, what is required for their growth and how to farm for plentiful harvests.
Counsel will be needed to warn about behavior that depletes the earth or hoards the bounty.
Jesus points to the fruit of the earth as he counsels gratitude toward God and generosity toward other people,
And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive.And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21 NASB)
Day 4/Gift 4: Heavenly Bodies and Fortitude
And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:14-15 ESV)
What does God hanging all those lights have to do with us exercising fortitude or enduring strength?
God reveals that the heavens will become a source of power and responsibility to humanity. We work in the light and rest in the dark. We recognize or ignore signs; we understand the demands and priorities of seasons; we tie our efforts and deadlines to calendars reflecting the patterns in the skies.
Navigating signs and seasons, days and years requires fortitude. Strength against cynicism when the same routines come and go. Endurance for work that must be maintained “in season and out.” The courage to cease work on an appointed day of rest and exercise faith that the cosmos depends upon God, not us.
In his season on the Earth, Jesus pointed to himself as the ultimate heavenly light, the sign that needs to be seen and followed in the fortitude of faith,
Jesus replied, “My light will shine for you just a little longer. Walk in the light while you can, so the darkness will not overtake you. Those who walk in the darkness cannot see where they are going.Put your trust in the light while there is still time; then you will become children of the light.” (John 12:35-36 NLT)
Day 5/Gift 5: Aquatic Life, Birds and Knowledge
And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:20-21 ESV)
After the plants, God creates more complex life. These creatures live in environments that the soon-to-be human race cannot naturally inhabit, the water and the sky.
Yet when humans come to be, we look at these creatures and categorize them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. (Genesis 2:19 ESV) Be it a scientific descriptor like chondrichthyes or the more common dubbing, these creatures take their names from our point of view; we relate to them based on our knowledge of the creation.
And by our knowledge we gain ability to inhabit their environments, at least for limited stretches. We observe that wood floats, so we build rafts. We know more of what makes for buoyancy, and we build vessels of other materials. We know we need air, so we devise snorkels, scuba gear, submarines and other means to visit the sea creatures where they live. We know the birds and how they stay aloft, and we fashion our own flying machines to keep us airborne for awhile.
But knowledge imparted by God is not limited to some dispassionate awareness.If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. (I Corinthians 13:2 NLT)
All creation is an expression of divine love. This is the height of knowledge. We exist because of God’s love, and we are given the high position to know and love all else that He’s made. So Jesus came to tell us,
Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds! (Luke 12:24 NAB)
Day 6/Gift 6: Terrestrial Life (including Humans) and Piety
There’s a dog at my feet as I ponder and try to express things. A loving companion of God’s own making.
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man… (Genesis 2:18-19 ESV)
But God went beyond this on the sixth day, imbuing the human race with more of the divine mystery, complete only as a relationship of persons,
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 ESV)
Upon this outward and visible expression of God’s image God sent an inward and spiritual reality,
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:28 ESV)
We not only bear a likeness to our Maker, we share God’s life-giving power and His rule over the creation.
This sets up two possible responses. Our dominion over the earth can be short sighted and self centered, or it can have an eternal point of view filled with the Creator’s love. We can practice piety, seeing the presence and purpose of God in all things and treating every bit of life as holy.
Piety is an identity and a way of life, not an occasional expression of “religion.” This is the offering of life that Jesus made and that Jesus offers for us and to us,
Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’ (John 6:37-40 NRSV)
Day 7/Gift 7: Rest and The Fear of the Lord
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 1:31; 2:1-3 ESV)
Rest and fear? Doesn’t make sense unless you’re having a nightmare.
But look at God’s point of view, revealed by the Spirit in the Scriptures. God appreciated everything – it was good – so he stopped work to just let it be and to take it all in. But He wasn’t passive – he blessed the day, filling it with the Spirit. The day of wonder and appreciation became holy, God’s own.
Notice that he didn’t lean back and look at His infinitely complex masterpiece, full of upcoming disappointments, betrayals and calling for a massive divine sacrifice to restore it, and say, “Oh no, what have I done?” That’s not the “fear” that the Spirit delivers as a gift.
Rather, God entrusts the day to us. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8). Yes, that can be read as one more obligation to be kept with craven fear, to ward off the wrath of a selfish pagan god. But that’s not what Jesus came to reveal,
Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27 NASB)
The fear of the Lord we are meant to observe is to stand in awe and wonder of a love so great that it overwhelms us and, in doing so renews our lives. It is to sit back and delight in the creation and, more than that, the Creator who loves us and shares it with us forever. Jesus came and taught us,
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:9-12)
When I wish you a Merry Christmas, I express the hope – maybe even express the blessing – that the complete joy of the Heavenly Father, through the divine and human Son, in the creative and always gift-giving power of the Holy Spirit be yours now and for eternity. Amen.
I encountered the writings of St. John of the Cross (Dec. 14th is his Feast on the church calendar) in the library of a retreat house overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
I started reading The Ascent of Mount Carmel one evening and stayed up with it all night. I couldn’t put it down and I keep poking around in that book and his other writings today, decades later.
John posits that all things – sins, obviously, but also all “goods” – must be set aside to “ascend” to the summit where the glory and goodness of God are encountered and enjoyed. He labels all that is not God nada, Spanish for “nothing.” He advises spiritual guides to take away favorite devotional aides from those they counsel. A favorite prayer book, place to pray, rosary or other “good” thing is not God, so it must be set aside if one is to ascend the mountain.
In light of that, I should not have been surprised when that wonderful retreat house, a favorite place where I grew in prayer and bumped into John of the Cross, burned to the ground in a wildfire.
The morning prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours on John’s Feast pick up his image of ascent,
Many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the LORD’s mountain…” (Isaiah 2:3 NAB)
Although a Feast Day, I can’t help but think of it as just a picnic with Blessed John of the Cross. After all, the world’s richest fare is “nada”when it comes to the banquet to which he and I are invited.
But I do give thanks to God who gave me this spiritual companion from the Communion of Saints, and for John’s poetry, reminding me always that the climb up the mountain isn’t a grim business, but a romance initiated by God,
“How gently and lovingly
you wake in my heart,
where in secret you dwell alone;
and in your sweet breathing,
filled with good and glory,
how tenderly you swell my heart with love.”
(The Living Flame of Love, Stanza 4, Kavanaugh/Rodriguez trans.)
When we meet Elijah, he’s delivering God’s bad news of a drought.
The rain stops, so Elijah is validated as the real deal. God provides for him despite the affliction on the land, and even gives him a big victory over the bad guys. (I Kings 17:1-18:40)
When God decides to open the heavens and water the land, Elijah goes up Mt. Carmel, which looks out over the Mediterranean. Watching for rain clouds to rise over the sea, he assumes a strange position,
And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” (1 Kings 18:42-43 ESV)
Commentaries don’t agree on what Elijah is doing or why he does it that way. Some assume a position of prayer, which seems to be what the New Testament sees; others keep it simpler and suggest that he’s exhausted from all of his exertions and the ascent of the mountain.
Whatever he is or isn’t doing, he’s down in that position and he isn’t moving. Head on the ground, he growls at a servant to go look for clouds. And when they are sighted, he sends the servant to announce it. Only later is “the hand of the LORD on Elijah,” and he gets up to run with the next message.
When our older son was small, he liked to do pratfalls. When he met new people, he wasn’t into all the conventional pleasantries. He’d throw his hands in the air and swoon to the ground. My wife and I called it “Going Uhhhhhh…” because he would sometimes accompany the act with that sound for emphasis.
So Elijah goes “Uhhhh” before the LORD on Mt. Carmel. I feel some affinity these days. I’m in a place of dark comfort, if that makes any sense. Not happy clappy, but not bummed. I just paid bills, which usually raises my anxiety, and I was calm and content. Again, not “up,” but aware of God’s reality and care.
I know, I know. To the upright and pious, God’s reality and care should make me perky. But I’m not there. Some commentaries point out that the spot on Mt. Carmel with the best ocean view is not the summit, but a place somewhere down the western slope. So I’m not on a mountain top, I’m going”Uhhhhh” somewhere down the slope, letting the LORD do His stuff while I stay still.
I won’t presume to name this territory I inhabit. Maybe I’m mental. But I like being off of the last several months of ups and (mostly) downs. And I wonder if God’s grace is taking me to the place celebrated in the mystical poetry of St. John of the Cross,
I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
(One Dark Night, stanza 8, Kavanaugh & Rodriguez trans.)