Monday, March 30, 2015

What makes this week so holy?

Traditionally during Holy Week, we focus on the sufferings of Jesus. However, it is not suffering, not even the suffering of Jesus, that makes this week holy. Rather, it is holy because of the inexplicable and immeasurable love that prompted that suffering. Genuine love empowers, even transforms us. We know that love of family can engender unselfishness, and love of country can inspire heroism. This week we see that, driven by love for all, Jesus willingly accepted the consequences of his messianic role. 
This week is holy because of love, but it is love misunderstood. Jesus is a hero, but not in the traditional pattern of heroism. He actually looks more like a victim. He is not triumphant, as we understand triumph. Instead, he appears to be a failure. Judging by one set of standards, standards not unlike those of many people of his day, he has not met our expectations either. But according to another standard, the standard of unconditional love, he has far surpassed all of our expectations. 
 Parents, lovers, patriots, committed people of every kind often disregard their own desires and comfort for the sake of those they love. Are they heroes? Of course they are! Are they failures? Certainly not! Have they frustrated our expectations? Quite the contrary. Human sacrifice like this gives us an insight into the meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus. The love that prompts us to give of ourselves is but a reflection of the magnanimous love of God which, in the guise of suffering and death, unfolds before us this week. 
The conditions of our world may make us feel that this is a terrible week, not a holy one. However, we can change this, if only in some small way. We will make it holy if we can begin to realize the depth of God's magnanimous love. We will make it holy if we can bring unconditional love into the lives of those around us. We will make it holy if we live according to the paradoxical standards of Jesus who, though publicly disgraced, is still our hero.
-- Diane Bergant, CSA

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hosanna! Crucify him!

NOTE: Each week during Lent, I am posting a reflection on the Sunday Gospel--a little food for prayerful thought. -- Br. Francis.

As a child attending the Mass of the Lord’s Passion on Palm Sunday, I was struck by the remarkable dissonance of two things: At the beginning, the congregation holds palm branches and sings, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel. Hosanna in the highest,” while commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Perhaps 20 minutes later (more or less), the same congregation, with upheld fists (figuratively speaking), cries out in unison, “Crucify him!” during the Passion account.

As an adult, that still makes me uncomfortable—and it should.

Meditating on this year’s account of the Passion for Palm Sunday (Mark 14:1 – 15:47), one cannot help but notice the instances of outright cruelty to which Jesus is subjected by his enemies. Motivated by jealousy, fear, and ignorance, they testify falsely against him, strike him, scourge him, spit on him, mock him, and taunt him, before finally killing him. Such things, unfortunately, can be expected of enemies.

But what of Jesus’ friends and followers—how are they portrayed? Judas betrays him, hands Jesus over to his enemies, seemingly motivated by greed. He is “one of the Twelve,” as Mark tells us repeatedly, which means he was an apostle, hand-picked by Jesus to accompany and assist him in his mission. These Twelve spent a lot of time together with Jesus, and knew each other well. Judas was a member of the “inner circle,” and is described by Jesus as, “one of the Twelve, the one who dips with me into the dish.”

Led by Peter, the other eleven apostles vow that they will stand by Jesus come what may—even if it costs them their very lives. They are quite sincere in this resolution when they object to Jesus’ prediction that “all of you will have your faith shaken.” Almost immediately, Jesus’ words prove true. His three closest companions—Peter, James, and John—cannot stay awake in the garden of Gethsemane to console and comfort Jesus, who confides in them, “my soul is sorrowful even to death.” Three times, he asks them to keep watch with him, and three times they fail their sorrowful friend in his need.

After Judas leads Jesus’ enemies to him (betraying him with a kiss, no less), and Jesus is taken into custody, arises what I think is the most disheartening statement in the whole account: They all left him and fled. Surely, no one could expect Jesus’ followers to have taken on the armed mob in defense of their teacher. But true disciples, true friends, would surely at least remain by Jesus’ side during his ordeal, even if they were helpless to change his lot—wouldn’t they? And yet, out of fear for their own lives, and despite their earlier promises, they all abandoned Jesus when things got rough for him. I imagine this cut Jesus to the heart—all his friends and followers left him utterly alone in the grip of his tormentors (in human terms, at least; he was, of course, always in the Father’s hands).

A little later, Peter, the apostle whom Jesus had earlier called “the rock [upon which] I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18), denies even knowing Jesus—not once or twice, but three times.

Then, of course, there is the crowd before Pontius Pilate, pleading with the Roman governor to release a hardened criminal rather than Jesus. “Crucify him!” they shout. I can’t help but wonder how many people in this crowd on Good Friday, thirsting (for whatever reason) for the self-proclaimed Messiah’s blood, also were among those on Palm Sunday singing, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” More than a few, I’d wager.

And so the drama continues to this very day. It seems to me that even the “best” of Christians are studies in contradiction. We are Jesus’ present-day disciples, followers, and friends, all chosen by him. We profess Christ, we claim to adore Christ, and even preach Christ. And yet, with the same mouth with which we “bless the Lord and Father,”  “we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (James 3:9-10).

Motivated by various factors, just like those followers of Jesus 2,000 years ago, we choose evil over good, or fail to do the Christian thing in our actions and interactions with one another. We betray Christ in one another, we fail to “keep watch” with Christ for one another, we abandon Christ in one another. In multiple ways, given the choice, we deny even knowing Christ, and yes, at times, we even shout unconsciously, “Crucify him!” Even though we’ve vowed to follow Christ to the death, we’d really rather do things our own way, look out for Number One. We all do this, each and every day—and we are not Jesus’ enemies, but consider ourselves his friends!

Even so, at the foot of the Cross, hope springs from some unlikely sources after Jesus breathes his last. A centurion—i.e., a pagan, an “enemy”—has a revelation. “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” he proclaims. Several women, those who “had followed him” and “ministered to him,” remain present at the scene—one that Jesus’ male followers had long since abandoned. Then, Joseph of Arimathea—according to Mark’s Gospel, a member of the very Sanhedrin that had condemned Jesus—summons the courage to ask for Jesus’ body and has it laid in a tomb, where several women keep watch. According to the various gospel accounts, it is these women who, three days later, bring news of Jesus’ resurrection to the Eleven apostles (who require considerable convincing).

It is these tiny seeds of faith that are watered by Jesus’ blood shed on the Cross, the blood of which Jesus told his sincere but unfaithful friends at the Last Supper, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many. Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:24-25). And they all drank from the cup with Jesus—all those who would eventually betray him, fail him, abandon him, and deny him. All those, who through the power of the Holy Spirit, would later become fearless pillars of the church.

On this Palm Sunday, and as we begin Holy Week, let us gratefully reflect on this mystery of our faith—those of us who drink from the same cup, who call ourselves disciples, followers, and friends of Jesus. The tension of “Hosanna!” and “Crucify him!” will be there, to be sure. Yet, this only serves to remind us of our absolute need for salvation. Let us present that need to Jesus, as did Peter and the other apostles, and trust in God’s undying mercy. As St. Paul writes, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Mysteriously, the very blood Christ sheds on the Cross as a result of our sins is the blood that saves us. God gives his very life for ours. If we truly believe in this Love, we will be transformed by it as were Jesus’ very first friends and followers. What’s more, we will be transformed into it. The piercing thorns become lush palm branches on the Tree of Life.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Holy tools

NOTE: In honor of St. Benedict, whose solemnity we celebrate today, below is a reflection on the role of reverence in Benedict's Rule--for both everyday items, and for each human being. This is adapted from a conference I presented last year to several of our oblate chapters. A blessed feast of St. Benedict to all! -- Br. Francis

Human beings are tool-making and tool-using people, whether we’re talking about rocks and sticks or iPads and SUVs. The tools we use help us to get certain things done, to get somewhere we want to go, or to communicate with one another. Many have considerably improved the human condition.

However, we tend to have a love-hate relationship with our tools. They can sometimes be taken for granted or ill-maintained, and then still become targets for abuse when they don’t perform up to expectations. The very device that makes life easier—although often treated carelessly—in one instant of hesitation is sometimes declared a “worthless piece of junk.” In other words, we expect tools—whatever they are—to instantly satisfy every demand. Any failure reduces the tool’s value (even if “user error” is involved!). It only remains useful as long as it fulfills our desires.

Now, we all do this from time to time (yours truly included), but does such an outlook really reflect a Christian understanding of creation? And if each human being is God’s chosen instrument created in the divine image in order to glorify his name (cf. Acts 9:15; 2 Timothy 2:20-22; 2 Corinthians 5:20), then what does our treatment of ordinary tools possibly indicate in terms of how we are treating one another?

Anselm Grün, a German Benedictine monk, writes that a person’s treatment of a tool or object of any type reveals a great deal about that person’s true inner attitude. “A violent handling of items expresses the inner disposition of a person,” he says.

So, if a person’s handling of a simple tool reveals his or her inner disposition, then how might that disposition show itself when another human being is involved? Is the other person “of value” only if his or her “performance” instantly meets expectations? We would deny this, of course, but in reality, we must honestly ask ourselves: How often do I view another person as only a means to an end—as a some sort of tool—rather than with care and consideration as another human being created—like ourselves—in the divine image?

There is spiritual connection between how we typically treat tools and how we usually treat people. Both objects and people are to be cared for out of reverence for God, something St. Benedict addresses in Chapter 31 of his Rule for monks. In his chapter on the qualifications of the monastery cellarer, Benedict writes that this person must “regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.” What is most significant about this extraordinary statement is that it is preceded by the words: “He must show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests and the poor.” At the beginning of the chapter, Benedict states that the cellarer must “take care of everything” and everyone.

The message being conveyed here—and throughout the Rule—is that every object, person, moment, place, encounter, etc., has sacramental significance. As Benedict states in Chapter 19, “the divine presence is everywhere.” Everything and everyone is to be treated as a sacred vessel entrusted to us by God and offered to God on the altar through Christ, who is all in all—as the New Testament emphasizes in several places (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:28 and Ephesians 1:23).

As St. Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (4:7): “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels.” We human beings are earthen vessels—fragile, clay jars—that contain the immense treasure of God’s glory. So, we must handle with care, and this goes not only for every thing, but also for every person. As St. John writes at the beginning of his Gospel, “all things came into being” through Christ, who is God’s eternal Word.

In a very broad sense, every external sign of internal divine blessing is a sacrament (Modern Catholic Dictionary, John A. Hardon, S.J.). In some way—often in a manner hidden from our limited human senses—every created person or thing expresses the glory of God. The deeper, Christian sense of a sacrament as instituted by Christ—such as baptism—is that it actually contains and confers the grace it signifies because it is Christ himself who works in it. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1084) states, “the sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, they make present [efficaciously] the grace that they signify.” And, in the Catholic tradition, of course, the sacrament of the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11, Catechism of the Catholic Church 1324).

As Christians—and especially as Benedictines—we profess and strive to live an incarnational spirituality. In Christ, we worship a God who is incarnate—the Word made flesh who took us to himself on the cross (cf. John 12:32) and raises us to the Father through his resurrection and ascension. All that we think, say, or do should radiate Christ, who “is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11). As Jesus stated, “Whatever you did for one these least brothers of mine [the poor, the alien, the sick, and the imprisoned], you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

The entire world, created by God and viewed by the Creator as “very good” (cf. Genesis 1:31), has a sacramental character, and should therefore be treated with due reverence. Every thing, every person, and every circumstance somehow fit together in God’s universal plan of salvation (cf. Romans 8:28)—though from a human perspective that is distorted by the Fall, many of these elements may appear to be broken, useless, or hopeless. The challenge of our faith is to trust that these fragile, clay jars hold the treasure that is God’s presence and promise among us.

Benedict’s Rule expresses this incarnational, sacramental, and reverential spirituality quite well. The Rule is not a treatise on mystical theology. Rather, informed by the gospel’s incarnational emphasis, it concerns itself primarily with very practical, down-to-earth, and seemingly mundane things. There are long passages about the specific liturgical order of the psalms, the sleeping arrangement of the monks, the assignment of kitchen servers, and the distribution of food and drink. There’s even an entire chapter on clothing and footwear! (Ch. 55)

“Benedictine life is earthed essentially in its ordinariness and its littleness,” says Anglican author and Benedictine oblate Esther de Waal (Seeking God). “The physical is recognized; the material is accepted. Division into natural and supernatural, or into sacred and secular, is thoroughly alien to the understanding of the Rule.” Benedict “is trying to foster an attitude towards people and time and material things which sees them all as matter to be consecrated and offered up to God.”

This consecration of the ordinary is what St. Benedict is specifically speaking about in Chapter 31 of the Rule on the “Qualifications of the Monastery Cellarer.” The cellarer—and by extension, all monks and Christians—“will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected,” St. Benedict writes. Even the most ordinary garden tool is to be used and treated with care out of reverence for God, just as if it were a precious chalice on the altar in church—with sacred respect and care.

Benedict is saying that there should be no distinction between how we treat something in church and how we treat something outside of church. All are from God. All are to be treated as sacred vessels of the altar. In doing this, he is drawing on the tradition of Zechariah the prophet, who in his description of the last age, wrote:

On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, “Holy to the Lord.” And the cooking pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord. (Zechariah 14:20-21).

Our Holy Father Saint Benedict was a deeply spiritual man, and because he was deeply spiritual, he saw God’s goodness, God’s glorious treasure, in all ordinary things and people—even the most fragile clay jars. In his Life of St. Benedict, St. Gregory the Great describes a vision Benedict once had while praying one night by his window:

All at once, in the middle of the night, [Benedict] looked up and saw a light spreading from on high and completely repelling the darkness of the night. It shone with such splendor that is surpassed the light of day, even though it was shining in the midst of darkness. [Then] the whole world was brought before his eyes, gathered up, as it were, under a single ray of sun.

This account demonstrates how Benedict saw the world and all that is in it—gathered up in a single ray of God’s Light. “Benedict wants his monks to be reverent toward God, reverent toward the community and its possessions, reverent toward visitors,” says Hugh Feiss, a Benedictine monk in Idaho (Essential Monastic Wisdom). “Benedict seems to have found the world and all that it is in it sacred, worthy of care and cultivation… Benedict does not contrast the sacredness of church space and church time to the insignificance of secular places and secular activities. His inclination is to extend the reverence one should feel in liturgical settings to the whole of reality.”

I am also struck by a parallel between Benedict’s chapter in the Rule on the cellarer and a passage from John’s Gospel. As we’ve already heard, Benedict says in Chapter 31: “He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.” That last phrase—“nothing is to be neglected”—evokes an often-overlooked line from the beginning of the sixth chapter in John’s Gospel, where Jesus feeds 5,000 people with only five barley loaves and two fish. In verse 12, John writes: “When they had had their fill, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.’”

Why do you think Jesus cared about all the leftovers? Much more than a meal is going on here. Jesus provides more than mere food for the physically hungry. This act—this mystery—signifies something else, something much greater. God provides for those who are in need, for those who have nothing (which is really each one of us, in some respect). God gives us Himself. Jesus gathers us, feeds us, and fills us with bread from heaven. Then, when we are filled, Jesus instructs us as his Body: “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted” Like St. Benedict, Jesus says that nothing of God’s is to be wasted or neglected. In Christ, it all belongs to God.

We are fed by the very life of Jesus, the Bread of Life, and our lives as the collective Body of Christ are commissioned to feed the lives of others, to gather all the fragments of the broken human jars surrounding us, so that none will be neglected.

Aquinata Böckmann, a German Benedictine sister, observes that Benedict purposely employs such Eucharistic imagery when he writes in his Rule that the cellarer should regard all things as “sacred vessels of the altar.” The altar is where a monk’s vow chart or profession document is placed (RB 58:20); the hand of the oblate is wrapped in the altar cloth (59:2); and the priest serves at the altar (62.6). Sacred vessels are placed on the altar during the celebration of the Eucharist. These vessels, she writes:

contain the bread and wine that will become Christ’s flesh and blood. They are not impressive externally but contain the mysterious presence of Christ! Thus all things can become the bearers of Christ’s presence. This is a powerful statement that touches the core of Benedictine spirituality, its Christ-centeredness and its effect on the whole of creation… The entire creation will shine in God’s light, “so that in all things God may be glorified.” This is a core statement of Benedictine spirituality. From the altar bread and wine are shared, and so the items of daily life should become a bond of love, forming community among all [the brothers], especially love for the sick and the poor, who are the special vessels of the Lord. (Around the Monastic Table)

There is, indeed, a spiritual connection between how we as Christians should treat tools or other everyday objects and how we should treat people. Both are to be cared for out of reverence for God, who is the Creator of all.

St. Benedict’s vision of ordinary, everyday life is a sacramental one in which everything in the world is gathered up under a single ray of light. In speaking of the proper use and care of tools, he also emphasizes what Christians today would call stewardship. But more than anything, in his chapter on the cellarer and indeed, throughout the Rule, Benedict is stressing reverence—or respect, if you will—in our relations with one another as human beings created by God.

Specifically, in Chapter 31, Benedict says the monastery cellarer must be wise, mature, and temperate, and that he should “take care of everything” and everyone. He is to be kind and humble and not annoy the brothers or cause them distress when he must turn down their requests. He is to be concerned, Benedict says, with the sick, children, guests, and the poor. He regards all utensils and goods as sacred vessels of the altar, neglecting nothing. He is moderate, not wasteful or extravagant. He is to provide the brothers what they need “so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God” (31:19).

When viewed as a whole, what emerges in this chapter is not only the care of things, but the care of people. As Terrence Kardong, a Benedictine monk of Assumption Abbey in North Dakota, states in his commentary on Chapter 31 of the Rule:

Benedict puts much less emphasis on the objective element of supply and demand than on the manner in which the cellarer treats the brothers. The very first verse begins with a list of the qualities requisite in this official, and when we examine them closely, we see that almost all of them concern personal relations.

Every object, person, and circumstance in our everyday lives has sacramental significance. Everything and everyone is to be treated as a sacred vessel entrusted to us by God and offered to God on the altar through Christ, who is all in all. Fragile clay jars that we are, we nonetheless have the treasure of God’s promise within us. Let us, then, out of reverence for Christ, take care of everything and everyone, regard all as sacred vessels of the altar, and allow nothing to be neglected. As the Letter to the Ephesians says:

Live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace: one Body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

Friday, March 20, 2015


NOTE: Each week during Lent, I am posting a reflection on the Sunday Gospel--a little food for prayerful thought. -- Br. Francis.

Spring always arrives early in southern Indiana—or so it seems to someone who, before coming to the monastery, spent 40-plus years living primarily in northern Ohio. In that region, winter usually lingers long past its welcome.

In any event, whatever time spring arrives, it is always welcome. Trees unfolding their fresh ensembles of leaves. Daytime temperatures sometimes stretching into the 70s and even 80s. Emerald carpets of fresh grass. Colorful blossoms everywhere, offering varying hues of hope for the once-dreary landscape and the often weary soul.

Hope, indeed, springs eternal.

What does this hope, this blossoming, spring from? Seemingly, it arises from lifelessness, which is why the season gives us an extra spring in our step. Everything is new and promising again. What was dead (or seemed so) has come back to life. A tiny seed planted many months ago in the dark, cold earth has decayed and fallen apart—to reveal a green sprout, then a stalk, and eventually branches, blossoms, and fruit held high above the ground. Whether spring is early or late, this happens every year. I always marvel at that.

The very tangible effects of this mystery beckon us to recall an even greater one—the flowering of eternal salvation for all of humanity from what was dead (or seemed so). In the Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (John 12:20-33), Jesus uses very tangible terms and familiar images to draw us into this mystery:
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me.”

With these words, of course, Jesus is indicating his approaching death and resurrection, by which he gives all baptized Christians life. However, he is doing much more than that. He is calling us to follow him in the same manner. He is not telling us to loathe our existence and abhor the world in which we live. Rather, he calls us to give new life to the world by dying to ourselves—to our prejudices and preconceived notions, our selfishness, pride, greed, lust, anger, desire to control and consume.

For instance, am I holding a grudge against someone? Jesus calls me to sink it into the ground, bury it like a seed, pray for the heavenly dew of mercy, fertilize it by extending forgiveness, and prune myself for reconciliation. Sooner or later, the Light of the Resurrected Christ will bring what was dead back to life, raise up a shoot, an olive branch of peace which bears fruit for many.

Through the death of one tiny such seed, life springs forth. Eternal salvation buds from what had seemed dark, hopeless, and lost.

Like all growing seasons, this is a gradual process requiring many laborers in the field. At the beginning of the passage from John’s Gospel, some Greeks (foreigners, not Jews, not the “chosen ones”) approach the Apostle Philip (who speaks their language) and say, “We would like to see Jesus.” In other words: “We, too, want to believe. Show us how.” Philip tells Andrew, and both tell Jesus. The Greeks—like all believers—needed help in coming to the Light, and it didn’t happen all at once.

Viewed from this perspective, Jesus’ “grain of wheat” analogy takes on universal significance. “It is for this reason that I have come to this hour,” Jesus says—the hour of his Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

All people means all people. But each person must allow himself or herself to be drawn up with Jesus--to accept the seed of faith planted in our hearts, and to cultivate and care for it in our everyday lives. Then, in due season, we can watch it spring to life and breathe deeply of the fragrance from its blossoms.
--Adapted from Grace in the Wilderness
by Br. Francis de Sales Wagner, O.S.B.
© 2013, Abbey Press Publications

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Spring chorus

In recent days, a sustained, swamp-like chorus has been—quite audibly—flowing up the Hill from the valley across IN-545 (across from the Saint Meinrad Archabbey Gift Shop). The area is wetland/woodland converted from farmland several years ago—part of a conservation effort for which Saint Meinrad received statewide recognition). This chorus continues day and night, day after day, and is quite loud (in a good way, I think).

After checking with a few knowledgeable sources, as well as discovering the unfortunate remains of several flattened suspects on the IN-545 pavement, my suspicions were confirmed. They are frogs (or toads—I’m not knowledgeable enough about the various species to identify the specific calls of each one). And by the sounds of it, there are many of them! Since coming to the monastery in the fall of 2006, this is the loudest, most numerous, and most vocally sustained they have been, in my view.

So, the other day, I went across the road to record the critters in concert. The (strictly amateur) video is above (you can’t actually see the frogs—only hear them). Remember to turn the volume up on your computer (although I have discovered that at extremely high volume, it can actually begin to hurt your ears!).

Amazingly, I recorded this video at around 3:30 in the afternoon, on a somewhat breezy day (you’ll hear the wind occasionally brushing into the microphone), a time at which the amphibian chorus is not really at its peak. They are at their best in the evenings and early mornings. Still, the result is distinct enough! Enjoy.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted the above, the frogs (or toads) took a break, and they have been quiet ever since. I think, perhaps, it got a little too cold for them. Once the temperatures start rising again (and as long as it remains mating season), I'm sure we'll here more from the spring chorus. For now, enjoy the video.-- Br. Francis

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Salvation in a snake?

NOTE: Each week during Lent, I am posting a reflection on the Sunday Gospel--a little food for prayerful thought. -- Br. Francis.

Snakes seem to arouse within us equal parts fear and fascination. They slither and slide through our collective consciousness as sinister symbols of all things dark and forbidden, creepy and cunning, dangerous and potentially deadly. Although humans are actually more of a threat to snakes than vice-versa, and their useful qualities notwithstanding (e.g., they prey on rodents), most of us loathe them and keep a respectful distance. Yet, it is difficult for many of us to look away from the scaly, fork-tongued, and (for some) elliptical-eyed creatures.

Few of us, perhaps, would attach any redeeming religious quality to serpents. After all, the Tempter is portrayed as a serpent in the Garden of Eden, seducing our first parents into believing themselves “like gods” (see Genesis 3), and tripping humanity into the woeful condition it finds itself in to this day. Religiously speaking, the serpent is notorious as a symbol of evil. The author of the Book of Revelation refers to “the Devil or Satan” as “the ancient serpent” (Revelation 20:2).

And yet, in the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (John 3:14-21), Jesus makes a peculiar statement regarding serpents. He says to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” What is that all about?

Window in Archabbey Church.
The short answer is that Jesus was referring to himself symbolically as a serpent offering salvation to all who believe. Strange…why is that?

First, we must take into account the Old Testament incident that Jesus alludes to in the passage. This is Numbers 21:4-9, in which the ancient Israelites in the desert complain bitterly about their lot and refuse to trust in God, who has brought them out of slavery in Egypt and provided for their every need. Serpents come among them, and many are bitten and die. When the people finally repent and cry out to God, Moses (at God’s command) makes a bronze serpent and mounts it on a pole, and “whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he recovered.” The people were saved through a symbol of the very thing that plagued them (of course, they were actually saved by turning back to God; cf. Wisdom 16:5-7). Their instrument of death became the means of salvation.

Although not specifically referred to by Jesus in the Gospel reading, at least one other Old Testament passage regarding snakes is worth mentioning here. In Exodus 7:8-13, God tells Moses and Aaron—who were still trying to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt—to “work a sign of wonder” with Aaron’s staff in the Egyptian leader’s presence. Accordingly, when the time came, Aaron threw his staff on the ground, where it changed into a snake. Not to be outdone, Pharaoh had his magicians do the same. However, something even more curious occurred: Aaron’s staff-turned-snake swallowed those of all Pharaoh’s magicians.

In Jesus’ day (recall that Israel was under Roman rule), the public execution of criminals on a cross—where the crucified suffered a painfully slow, tortuous demise from asphyxiation in front of crowds of onlookers—was the most terrifying instrument of death imaginable. Like the death-dealing serpent in Moses’ day, Jesus was fastened to a pole like a common criminal for everyone to look upon.

However, those Old Testament episodes mentioned above involving snakes take on fuller and deeper significance with the crucifixion of Jesus. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,” Jesus tells Nicodemus, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Here, Jesus foretells his manner of death, and declares that just as those who looked on the mounted serpent in Moses’ day were saved from death, so those who look to him on the cross (with the eyes of faith) will inherit something far greater—eternal life.
Window in Chapter Room.

To put it plainly, through the Incarnation, the Son of God becomes a human being, and though he is without sin himself, he figuratively becomes sin—your sin and mine—on the cross in order to save us. And he does this out of immeasurable love for his creation—you and me. Just like the pole in the desert with the bronze serpent, the crucifixion becomes the source of Life and Truth for all who are willing to believe. Just as the cunning serpent in the Garden of Eden entwined itself enticingly around the tree of knowledge of good and evil (imparting doom to those who partake of its fruit), so God’s Word made flesh hangs on a cross, the tree of life (imparting eternal salvation to those who believe and partake of its fruit). The curse of Eden is reversed (cf. Revelation 2:7) because Jesus, in effect, becomes the serpent of our sin and swallows death through his own death and resurrection. Evil’s cunning is outdone by God himself, far beyond anything we could possibly accomplish on our own.

St. Paul refers to this incredible mystery when he says, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” and "Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, 'Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree'" (2 Corinthians 5:21 and Galatians 3:13; cf. Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

Having Christ referred to as a serpent representing—and “swallowing up”—human sin through the sacrifice of his own life is not something we hear too often, although the imagery is firmly rooted in our tradition. For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-395) comments:
The serpent may seem an incongruous symbol for [the mystery of the Incarnation], and yet it is an image Truth himself does not repudiate, since he says in the gospel: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. And the meaning is clear. Holy Scripture calls the father of sin a serpent, so what is born of him must be a serpent too; sin must have the same name as its father. Now since the Apostle [Paul] asserts that the Lord was made sin for our sake by clothing himself in our sinful nature, it cannot be in appropriate to apply this symbol to him. If sin is a serpent and the Lord became sin, it must be obvious to all that in becoming sin he became a serpent, which is simply another name for sin.
He became a serpent for our sake, so that he could consume and destroy the serpents of Egypt brought to life by the sorcerers. Once he had done this he was changed into a staff again, and by this staff [the Cross], sinners are chastised and those who are climbing the difficult ascent of virtue are supported.
Likewise, St. Augustine (c.354-430) writes:
Christ's death and our sin were foreshadowed long ago in the desert, when Moses fastened a serpent to a wooden stake and held it on high. We must remember that it was through heeding the voice of a serpent that the human race had incurred the penalty of death, and so it was appropriate that a serpent, fastened to a wooden standard and raised aloft, should prefigure the death of Christ. In that symbol we have an image of the Lord's death by hanging [on a cross].
Christ overcame [the curse of sin and death] by taking it upon his own person. He vanquished death by undergoing death himself, sin by identifying himself with sin, and the ancient serpent by means of another serpent. Death, sin, and the serpent were all included in God's curse, but the cross has triumphed over each of them. And so there is profound truth in that word of Scripture: Cursed be all that hang on a tree [cf. Deuteronomy 21:22-23]. 
Despite the constant cycle of birth and death, the cross continues to be held high above the earth for the healing of all who gaze upon it.
This imagery is often found in Christian art, although not so much in recent times. We have a couple examples right here at Saint Meinrad Archabbey.  In one of the stained glass windows of our church, the “tree of death” in the Garden of Eden (entwined with a snake) depicted in the lower panel of the window is transformed in the upper panel into the Tree of Life, the cross of Jesus. The two trees are fused into one, becoming part of the same reality.

Likewise, in our Chapter Room (where the monks vote on important matters), a large, fierce-looking serpent with an apple in its mouth is shown superimposed over a black cross. Along with these images is the Latin inscription Conversionem morum, one of the Benedictine vows meaning conversion of life (which is an essential response asked of all Christian disciples).

This, I think, strikes at the essence of what the serpent image on the cross has to say to each one of us. Through his crucifixion, Christ turned into a snake (sin), so that by his resurrection, we may shed our sinful ways and turn toward God, in whose image we were created. Christ gives us his life, so that we may be saved from death by becoming his Body, offered up for the entire world.

This Lent, let us all look deep within our hearts at whatever entices us away from God, whatever has snake-bitten us and filled us with venom, whatever makes us serpent-like to one another. Then, let us look to the cross for healing, “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2), so that Christ may live in us (cf. Galatians 2:20) and crush the head of the ancient serpent.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him
might not perish but might have eternal life."
John 3:16

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The power of prayer

Prayer is the one thing that can conquer God. But Christ has willed that it should work no evil, and has given it all power over good.

Its only art is to call back the souls of the dead from the very journey into death, to give strength to the weak, to heal the sick, to exorcise the possessed, to open prison cells, to free the innocent from their chains. Prayer cleanses from sin, drives away temptations, stamps out persecutions, comforts the fainthearted, gives new strength to the courageous, brings travellers safely home, calms the waves, confounds robbers, feeds the poor, overrules the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports those who are falling, sustains those who stand firm.

All the angels pray. Every creature prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray and bend the knee. As they come from their barns and caves they look out to heaven and call out, lifting up their spirit in their own fashion. The birds, too, rise and lift themselves up to heaven: they open out their wings, instead of hands, in the form of a cross, and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.

What more need be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed. To him be honor and power for ever and ever. Amen.

--Tertullian, On Prayer