The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Sunday, April 29, 2012

One flock, one shepherd

Christ the Good Shepherd fresco from the Catacombs
of Priscilla, Rome.
Dated in the early 3rd Century,
this is the earliest known depiction of Christ.

"I am the good shepherd,
and I know mine and mine know me,
just as the Father knows me
and I know the Father;
and I will lay down my life for the sheep."

John 10:14-15

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fishin' with Jesus

The Walleye

Third Sunday of Easter
Gospel—Luke 24:35-48

There is something fishy about today’s Gospel—literally. At one point, the Resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples and asks them for something to eat. They give him a piece of baked fish, we are told in Luke 24:42, and Jesus proceeds to eat it in front of them.

It seems to be a strange detail. After all, a lot was going on at the time. Who can eat at a time like this? Besides, Lent is over—why not a big hunk of beef? (OK, I might be projecting a bit on that last point; we get plenty of fish around here, but not a whole lot of Grade-A red meat.)

But I digress…

Jesus was simply trying to reassure his disciples, who were “startled and terrified” when he appeared to them. Who wouldn’t be? But Jesus is no ghost. He is real. He brings peace, is peace. “Why are you troubled? he asks. “It is I myself…touch me and see.” Then, to show them beyond any doubt that while he has risen from the dead, he is no ghost, he asks for something to eat and then gobbles up the fish. “See? I’m really here,” he is saying, and then he opens up their minds to understand the Scriptures, and what his dying and rising truly mean. “You are witnesses of these things.”

A modern-day Ichthys
What Jesus tells the disciples was foretold centuries earlier by the prophet Ezekiel (among others), who was shown a vision of the restoration of Jerusalem. He saw a temple with a life-giving river flowing from it:

Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea…It will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea…On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing. (Ezekiel 47:9-12)

Notice all the references to fish? I’d love to fish that river. I used to do a fair amount of fishing, mostly in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my family has often vacationed in pursuit of the grandest freshwater lake fish there is—the Walleye, or Wally, as we honorary Yoopers affectionately refer to them. Once, by the way, I caught a 24-inch Wally, with the help of my brother, who netted him. My moment in the sun. It didn’t last long. Debating whether or not to pay out the bucks to have it stuffed and mounted (rather than filleted and fried), I tied the prize fish’s stringer to the end of the dock. Later in the afternoon, when we returned in our boats from another outing on the lake, we discovered to our horror a flock of gulls pecking away at my lifeless catch. A decision was no longer necessary…I’ve done a little fishing around here, though not much. A few catfish, some bass, and bluegill, mostly. There are two whoppers of some sort in one of the lakes on campus here, who lazily part the surface of the water like miniature sea monsters, ignoring my vain attempts to lure them into chomping on my baited hook. They’re too smart for that, it seems. Walter and Wilma, I call them. They must each be at least 30 inches long. It’s frustrating to watch them swim along so nonchalantly without any interest in even giving me a shot at landing one of them. I would catch and release—I promise.

But I digress yet again…

Where were we? Oh yes, fish in Scripture. There are a lot of them! What’s the connection with Jesus’ Resurrection—with us? Good question.

Fish (along with bread) are mentioned frequently in the Gospels and are typically associated with Christ in a Eucharistic context. All four Gospels contain various accounts of the multiplication of loaves and fish by Jesus—twice in Mark and Matthew, and once in Luke and John. Fish are also eaten by Jesus and his disciples in the post-resurrection appearances recounted at the end of Luke (as we hear today) and John. Not coincidentally, several of the apostles were fishermen, to whom Jesus called, “I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19).

At the end of the Gospel of John (21:1-14), the Resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples, who have returned to their fishing boats but without any luck (I’ve had days like that!).

“Children, you have no fish, have you?” Jesus, whom the disciples do not yet recognize, calls from the shore.

“Yeah, rub it in. Thanks a lot, buddy. I suppose you could do better?” The Gospel doesn’t put those words in the disciples’ mouth, but that had to be what they were thinking.

Jesus—again, still unrecognizable, just some dude on shore seemingly making fun of them—tells them to try casting their net to the right of the boat where they are. This time, they get more than they bargained for, the net so full of fish that it is difficult to bring in. Finally, they recognize Jesus, and come ashore to find him tending a fire with fish and bread baking over it. “Bring some of the fish you just caught,” he tells them. They are large fish, and there were many, we are told, but the net did not tear. Then they all have breakfast together.

Clearly, this is a Eucharistic account of our inheritance with the Risen Christ, and the image of the apostles hauling a large amount of fish ashore at Jesus’ instructions—without losing any through a torn net—prefigures the identity and mission of the Church.

Funerary stele of Licinia Amias with Christian motto
in Greek: 'Fish of the living.'

Museo Nazionale Romano
So it is no surprise that fish became a primary symbol for the early Christians, who apparently used it from the beginning, particularly in artwork and funerary slabs, until the Constantinian era, according to the Encyclopedia of the Early Church. “It almost always clearly represents Christ, though sometimes standing for the Christian, and its history can be traced from its appearance in the [early] second century down to the fourth, when it begins gradually to disappear on Christian monuments,” writes C.R. Morey in a 1910 article in the Princeton Theological Review.

The symbol of the fish represented Christ, and signified not only the Eucharist, but Baptism, the Last Supper, the Resurrection, and eternal life, and “as the cross denoted the ever-present danger of persecution until the middle of the fourth century, the fish identified individuals as Christians,” writes Diane Apostolos-Cappadonia in the Dictionary of Christian Art.

In this light, its popularity among the early Christians, who sometimes needed to be careful about how they identified themselves, is due to the acrostic formed by the ancient Greek word for fish, ichthys. The word is formed with the initial letters of the five Greek words for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour” (Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter) and the acrostic is recognized as “ΙΧΘΥC”. As such, the acrostic, or the image of a fish, or both, comprised a profession of faith in the divinity of Christ, the Redeemer of mankind, states The Catholic Encyclopedia.

Believers, then, became “little fishes,” sharing in Christ’s Baptism and Resurrection through the Eucharist. Just as a fish cannot live out of water, the Christian cannot live outside of Christ.

These images are often combined in some writings of the early fathers, and particularly in artwork and inscriptions contained within the Roman catacombs. One of the most famous examples of this is from the early Christian writer Tertullian (b.150), who in his treatise On Baptism wrote: “We little fishes are born in water, after the example of our Ichthys Jesus Christ. And we have safety in no other way than by permanently abiding in water.”

This type of representation also appears in the ancient epitaph of Abercius, a second-century bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, which Joannes Quasten, in his four-volume work Patrology, calls “the queen of all ancient Christian inscriptions.” Written in a metaphorical, mystical style common to its day, it is a good text for meditation in any age. In part it reads:

Everywhere faith led the way
And set before me for food the fish from the spring
Mighty and pure, whom a spotless Virgin caught,
And gave this to friends to eat, always
Having sweet wine and giving the mixed cup with bread.

This is the oldest monument of stone mentioning the Eucharist, and as Quasten explains, Abercius is describing a journey on which he shared the Eucharist with fellow Christians: “The fish from the spring, mighty and pure, is Christ, according to the acrostic ΙΧΘΥC. The spotless Virgin who caught the fish is, according to the language of the time, the Virgin Mary, who conceived the Savior.”

May all “little fishes” share in this Resurrection feast!

“Peace be with you.” Nothing at all fishy about that.

Perhaps I’ll go pay Walter and Wilma a visit … Sometimes, it’s good to digress.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Faith seeking understanding

"I do not seek to understand that I may believe,
but I believe in order to understand."

Saint Anselm (1033-1109)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Lord and my God!

"Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe."

John 20:27

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Anchor of hope

We have this hope,
a sure and certain anchor of the soul.
Hebrews 6:19

From the writings of Cardinal Jean Danielou, S.J. (1905-1974)

Addressing all Christians through the mouth of Saint Paul, the Spirit cries out: "If you have risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" (Colossians 3:1).

For all its brevity, that sentence contains the most amazing assertion. In effect, it signifies not only that Christ has risen and that we ourselves shall one day rise with him, but that we have already risen with Christ through our baptism. The whole mystery of what it is to be a Christian subsists in that statement. Apparently, our human condition remains unchanged; yet Christ's resurrection has already accomplished its transforming work in the hidden world of our souls. Christians are now only waiting for the outward manisfestation of what has already been achieved in Christ. Saint Paul, in fact, goes on to say: "Your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you too will be revealed with him in glory" (Colossians 3:3-4).

The resurrection, therefore, means that here and now our humanity is elevated to the inaccessible realm of the divine. The resurrection is the Good News par excellence, the glorious destiny, far above its own nature, to which the Father's love has called the human race in his only Son through the gift of the Spirit.

All this only possible through the action of God. In Christ, God comes down to us, takes our carnal nature, and raises it above itself in order to carry it into the intimate presence of the Father, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.

Thus the resurrection of Christ constitutes the firstfruits of our own resurrection. With Christ, part of our humanity is already taken up into the abyss of the Godhead. According to the metaphor employed by the writer to the Hebrews, Christ is like an anchor, which instead of being let down in the depths of the sea, is cast up into the heights of heaven (cf. Hebrews 6:19). He is the guarantee of our hope, because that hope has already been fulfilled in him.

-- Cardinal Jean Danielou, S.J. (1905-1974)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The third eye of Resurrection

Easter Vigil of the Lord's Resurrection

Homily by Saint Meinrad Archabbot Justin DuVall, O.S.B.

Genesis 1:1-2:2
Romans 6:3-11
Mark 16:1-7[8]

On that night of his Sabbath rest that first stood between the darkness of the cross and the light of Easter, our Lord Jesus Christ passed over from death to life. We, too, make that passage with him in our Great Vigil. Year after year we repeat these rites and renew our own Passover. The routine has become familiar to us, so much so that it can veil what the mystery of Easter has done for us.

Easter has reversed our misfortune. Of course, we hardly think of ourselves as being in need of a change in fortune. If anything, we lead a fairly comfortable life, notwithstanding the usual problems that occasionally trouble the best of us. Yet in truth, our misfortune as flawed human beings has been reversed, and Easter has made all the difference. It takes some getting used to, this reversal, to adjust our eyes to the light, and to learn exactly how the power of this Easter reversal of misfortune has changed everything.

The women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning offer us an entry into reversal of fortune. For them the experience of resurrection began with a troubled question straight from their own hearts: “Who will roll back the stone for us?” Well aware of their shattered hopes, they felt the weight of their terrible misfortune. We ought not to dismiss lightly their sad mood. Conventional wisdom tells us that in the end, death wins. As the saying goes, two things are certain: death and taxes—and for those who file returns, the appropriately named “deadline” is 10 days away. Our temptation is to avoid the very things that make us sad in this life, either by denying them or by turning them into occasions for a false happiness. The realism of those women arriving at the tomb offers a strong corrective about the misfortune that, for the present time, does infect life in this world. The one whose tomb those women went to visit did not escape the deepest of misfortunes, having been betrayed, mocked, paraded before his enemies, and finally publicly executed as a common criminal.

Even if we ourselves are spared terrible sufferings, others are not. The world knows all too well the extent to which human malice can go. The stone of misfortune seals the fate of too many lives. Like the women who went to the tomb, we, too, ought to ask the realistic question: “Who will roll back the stone for us?” Their experience of Easter began with the painful truth of their own mortality.

But when they arrived, expecting to breathe in the stink of death, they instead found Life itself, untethered from the grave. What began with a question from their mortality progressed to a shock that awakened them—frightened them, actually—into a world that went way beyond their shattered hopes. When those three unsuspecting women visited the tomb, they had their world reversed, like the empty tomb that they discovered. Tombs tame death and keep it caged so that mourners can safely visit it without being swallowed up by it.

But the tomb the women found had been vacated of any remnant of safety, and instead had grown wild with life that left them wide-eyed at the sight. Their honest question was answered by the young man who met them at the tomb: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He’s been raised; he’s not here!” No wonder the women were dumbfounded. That tomb had literally been reversed, turned inside out.

How true is this Easter reversal for us as well? We may have come to church because that’s what we always do, or it’s what good monks do on Easter. But the words of St. Paul reverse those expectations. “Are you unaware,” he writes, “that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? … Consequently you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.”

Unless we take seriously our state of misfortune, we have nothing from which to be changed; Easter is then merely a lovely holiday for which a tasty ham and a cute little bunny would do just fine, thank you. But Resurrection is something else altogether. It is the shock of our life and the reversal of our fortune. But before we can grasp abundant life, we have to loosen our grip on limited life. That was the message to the women. Jesus was no longer in the tomb, the realm of death, but in the territory of Galilee, the world, that teemed with new possibilities. The empty tomb changed everything.

The women left the tomb under a mission, to go and tell the others what they had seen—not merely emptiness, but newness. The resurrection had opened for them, as it were, a third eye that would see the whole world in a different light. The third eye of Resurrection is ours, too, and with it comes the ability to see the true joy of life.

In difficult times we expect resurrection to bring unrestrained happiness, relief from every sorrow, the end of sadness, the death of restraint—anything and everything, except the radical scandal that shocks us. But the third eye, opened within us by the absurdity of the empty tomb, gives us the ability to see the world as it should be seen, and so to see the glory of God reflected in it.

With the third eye we are able to see two realities at once, one world within another, as the theologian David Bentley Hart has described it. It “sees the world as we know it, in all its beauty and terror, in its delight and its anguish; and it also sees the world in its first truth, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence,” as the book of Genesis describes it in the story of Creation, which we heard tonight.

The third eye sees the world “as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it sees creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days.” And this sight is the cause of truest joy that does not turn a blind eye to sadness and failure and death, but at the same time sees beyond their limits, because it sees life from the heart of God. Baruch, from whom we heard tonight [3:9-15, 32-4:4], foresaw this joy when he prophesied, “Learn where prudence is, where strength, where understanding; that you may also know where are length of days and life, where light of the eyes and peace.” This joy sent the women on their mission to tell others what they had seen. With both eyes dimmed by sadness they had peered into the empty tomb; with the third eye of resurrection, they looked beyond the emptiness and directly into the heart of God, even in the midst of their sorrow and fear. What they saw reversed, not only their misfortune, but their whole lives.

Brothers and sisters, this night of Resurrection has made all things new for us. Our misfortune of sin has been reversed, so let us speak of peace to any who hate us, and let us forgive everything—for Christ is raised from the dead.

The question that this Easter day puts to us is not what we are to make of resurrection, but rather, what does Resurrection make of us?

Archabbot Justin DuVall, O.S.B.
Saint Meinrad Archabbey Church
April 8, 2012


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Holy Week rejoicing

Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion,
shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!

See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he,
Meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.
Zechariah 9:9

Two weeks ago, for Laetare (or Rejoice) Sunday, we took a mid-season pause amid our Lenten observances to recall that Christ not only died for our sins, but rose from the dead, ascended to the Father in heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to assist us in following him. Though we are saddened by our sins which crucified Christ, and reflecting on them, we resolve by God’s grace to increase in virtue, we are abundantly joyful because we are a Resurrection people. In Christ, the redeeming victory of salvation has already been gained for all those who believe and follow him in faith.

For this reason, we herald the Savior's humble arrival into our hearts on Palm Sunday. As the Gospel proclaimed before the procession of palms at Mass today (Mark 11:1-10) fufills Zechariah's prophecy (Zechariah 9:9), we join our voices in proclaiming: "Hosanna!" The Gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News, and proclaiming it with joy by how we live our lives—even in the midst of life’s undeniable and inevitable trials—is the absolute best witness any Christian can provide. So, as we enter this most Holy Week of the year, we do well, as St. Benedict says in his Rule for monks, to “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.”

On this note, Pope Benedict XVI, who took the monastic founder’s name, offers far more eloquent and substantial words of wisdom in his annual message for World Youth Day, celebrated on Palm Sunday. "God wants us to be happy," he says, in the truest sense of the word. Although addressed to young people, his remarks have relevance for all the children of God. An excerpt appears below, but you may read the entire address by clicking here.


In a world of sorrow and anxiety, joy is an important witness to the beauty and reliability of the Christian faith…. The Church’s vocation is to bring joy to the world, a joy that is authentic and enduring, the joy proclaimed by the angels to the shepherds on the night Jesus was born (cf. Lk 2:10). Not only did God speak, not only did he accomplish great signs throughout the history of humankind, but he drew so near to us that he became one of us and lived our life completely….

A yearning for joy lurks within the heart of every man and woman. Far more than immediate and fleeting feelings of satisfaction, our hearts seek a perfect, full and lasting joy capable of giving “flavor” to our existence. Whatever brings us true joy, whether the small joys of each day or the greatest joys in life, has its source in God, even if this does not seem immediately obvious. This is because God is a communion of eternal love; he is infinite joy that does not remain closed in on itself, but expands to embrace all whom God loves and who love him.

God created us in his image out of love, in order to shower his love upon us and to fill us with his presence and grace. God wants us to share in his own divine and eternal joy, and he helps us to see that the deepest meaning and value of our lives lie in being accepted, welcomed and loved by him….

The cause of all this joy is the closeness of God who became one of us. This is what Saint Paul means when he writes to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5). Our first reason for joy is the closeness of the Lord, who welcomes me and loves me….

To have lasting joy we need to live in love and truth. We need to live in God. God wants us to be happy. That is why he gave us specific directions for the journey of life: the commandments. If we observe them, we will find the path to life and happiness…I would encourage you to be missionaries of joy. We cannot be happy if others are not. Joy has to be shared. Go and tell other young people about your joy at finding the precious treasure which is Jesus himself. We cannot keep the joy of faith to ourselves. If we are to keep it, we must give it away….

The Gospel is the “good news” that God loves us and that each of us is important to him. Show the world that this is true!