In this Sunday’s second reading (chapter three of the letter from Saint James), a great question is posed, one that we might be tempted to pose in the public square:
Who is wise and understanding among you?
Oh, how we need wisdom in our lives, in our homes, in our workplaces, in the public square.
Saint James speaks of wisdom from above, the unique understanding that comes from the Holy Spirit, joining our hearts and minds. Saint James gives us a few hints as to what characterizes such wisdom: “wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy”.
I want such wisdom! It is indeed a gift. If so, it must be sought and received. Who is wise and understanding? The one who asks.
One prayer seeking wisdom is the well-known serenity prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr (d. 1971), a United Church of Christ minister, professor, author, and 1964 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom:
give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Seeking wisdom with you,
Saint James asks, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (2:5). Some would call this revolutionary. Some would simply call this the mystery of divine love. God, who is love, sees what the naked eye does not: our inner beauty.
The words of Saint James remind me of the three years I spent in the L’Arche community (I was in a community in Brussels, Belgium. There are four communities in the greater Washington, DC area, for which our Parish Administrator, Mark Cosenza, was formerly Director or Operations and Finance). “The aim of L’Arche is to create communities, which welcome people who have intellectual disabilities. By this means, L’Arche seeks to respond to the distress of those who are too often rejected, and to give them a valid place in society.” (Charter of the Communities of L’Arche). At L’Arche, the “poor in the world” are recognized as “rich in faith”. And, those who choose to live with them are enriched in faith. The founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, in his book, “Becoming Human” says the following:
The belief in the inner beauty of each and every human being is at the heart of L’Arche…and at the heart of being human… We do not discover who we are, we do not reach true humanness, in a solitary state; we discover it through mutual dependency, in weakness, in learning through belonging.
We must ask God to see with “divine eyes”, eyes of faith, to see as God does.
Here is a morning prayer (attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi) asking this:
Lord, in the silence of this morning,
I ask You for peace, wisdom and strength.
I wish to see the world today only with eyes full of love,
to be patient, gentle and wise
to see Your beloved children as do You, beyond appearances,
and thus only see the good in them.
Close my eyes to all malice and keep my tongue from all malevolence.
May only thoughts that bless be in my mind,
that I be so kind and joyous that all those who approach me sense Your presence.
Clothe me with Your beauty, Lord, and may I reveal You all the day long.
You may have noticed that we have statues: Christ the King and Mary, as well as Saint Agnes, our Patroness and Saint Vincent the Deacon (both of whom died in 304) (It is unclear how Saint Vincent made his way here, but we welcome him nonetheless!) In front of all of them, we have votive candles. Why votive candles? Indeed, why statues? What is their meaning? Are they a helpful tradition? Are we, rather, engaging in a superstitious practice?
Let us consider what preceded and prepared our practice. In Judaism, a perpetual light was kept burning in the Temple (and in the synagogues) primarily to show the presence of God (cf. Exodus 27: 20-21 and Leviticus 24: 2-4). Later the Talmud prescribed a lit lamp at the Ark, where the Torah and other sacred writings were kept, to show reverence—a practice that probably influenced ours of having a lit candle to indicate the presence of Christ in Communion reserved in the Tabernacle.
There is evidence that lit candles (or oil lamps) were burned at the tombs of saints, particularly martyrs, by the 200s, and before sacred images and relics by the 300s. St. Jerome (d. 420), in his Contra Vigilantium, attested to this practice. And, the practice continued to develop.
Although a natural symbol, light has a special significance for us: Christ, “the true light” (John 1:9). Some Medieval spiritual writers expanded the imagery of the candle itself: beeswax symbolized the purity of Christ; the wick, the human soul of Christ; and the light, His divinity. Recall Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall ever walk in darkness; no, he shall possess the light of life” (John 8:12) and “I have come to the world as its light, to keep anyone who believes in me from remaining in the dark” (John 12:46).
Here, as in the early Church, as a gesture of honor, we light a candle before a statue of our Lord or of a saint. i.e., those whom our Lord has fully “conformed into his image” (cf. Romans 8:29). Of course, we do not honor the statue (or any image). We are not engaging in superstitious practice. It all depends on intention. These are but stepping stones in prayer. We make use of a visual representation and reminder to turn to Him Whom we worship without seeing. As far as Mary and the saints are concerned, we do not worship them; we venerate them because of what Jesus has done in them and because we believe them to be present by virtue of Jesus.
The light signifies that prayer is a “coming into” the light of Christ. And what is wonderful about a candle is that it continues to burn when we are gone, expressing our desire to remain present to the Lord in prayer even though we may depart and go about our daily business.
You are welcome to light a votive candle...
Yours in the light of Christ,,
(Thanks to a July 1994 issue of “The Arlington Catholic Herald” for inspiration for this reflection.)
Pray in the Spirit at all times
in every prayer and supplication.
To that end keep alert
and always persevere
in supplication for all the saints.
These two encouraging verses are from the letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians(6:18). To “pray at all times” is a tall order, however! At all times?!? What about sleep? What about all of the people and daily responsibilities that demand my attention? I’ll never get anything done!
Well, Saint Paul speaks of prayer in the Spirit. And, the same Saint Paul tells us elsewhere that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words”. (Romans 8:26)
“At all times” is thus perhaps less a reference to a continuous act of prayer in time—which is impossible—and more a reference to a constant intention to be open to the Holy Spirit, Who indwells us and helps us to pray. Indeed, although the Holy Spirit is active in us and wishes to teach us to pray (wishes to pray in us), we must do our part. We must intend, want, choose: “Come Holy Spirit, enkindle in us the fire of Your love”.
Our prayer is a mysterious act of faith, hope and love, and is both the work of the Holy Spirit in us and our act. And, per this and other exhortations from Saint Paul, our prayer must dare include all aspects of our life (“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Our prayer must be humble and not presumptuous. Our prayer must be full of hope and persevere. Who makes this possible? The Holy Spirit—if we want…
pupil with you of the Holy Spirit
I mean, really. It can be such a hassle. Getting out of bed the only day we have for deserved extra sleep before resuming the rat race of the week. And, for some, the drive. Oh, the drive! Even if less crazy than during the week, it is still a drive. And, for some, kids. Oh, the kids! Not always cooperative. The deck seems stacked against going to church. And, can’t I just pray at home and essentially be fine?
Well, in this Sunday’s gospel (John 6:51-58), Jesus’ words are powerful and give us a powerful reason to go to church:
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you have no life in you.”
In our church, we believe in the Eucharist, Communion. We believe that Jesus, the Bread of Life, gives Himself in a very particular, perhaps even in an “unsettling” way. Jesus gives a simple bread that communicates to us His flesh and thus His Self. (This, of course, requires a huge leap of faith!) This gift we cannot give to ourselves at home.
“No life in you” seems a little strong, however!! Where does this leave me if I don’t go to church? Where does this leave Christians who don’t believe in this gift? Well, “the Lord is gracious and merciful” (Psalm 145:8). This gift is not the only way in which God loves us. But, it is a special way, and perhaps we can say that we are missing something in our relationship with Jesus without this intimate gift. Jesus speaks strongly when He is sharing His heart. Jesus is adamant because He is the Bread of Life, and He wants us to have life, to come to life, to taste everlasting life.
So, why go to Church? For incredible, incredibly uplifting music, a (hopefully!) decent sermon, the faces of sisters and brothers in Christ, but, above all, this gift, which gives meaning to all the rest. We go to church to be loved and, in that love, to go forth to love, “to do all such good works as God has prepared for us to walk in” (Eucharistic Prayer, Rite I)
In Christ’s love,
Member of the Body of Christ
This is what the “one seated on the throne says” (Revelation 21:5). The newness promised by the King is, of course, primarily that of our hearts. But, there can be other forms of newness, which complement and serve as metaphors for what God is doing in us and in our midst. Our church aisles are adorned with beautiful, hand laid, marble mosaic. Over the years, the layers of wax covering the tiles have formed a dark brown haze, concealing the intricate detail and craftsmanship of the mosaic. Well, the one seated on the throne in our parish office, our administrator, Mark Cosenza, is making all things (aisle) new. In addition to his administrative tasks, he has been painstakingly removing the layers of wax and uncovering the beauty that lay hidden.
This is not unlike the work of the Holy Spirit in us, by Whom we “put on the new self” (Ephesians 4:24). And, how fitting this is, as we are more deliberately praying for the renewal of our parish: may the beauty hidden be revealed, and may we grow spiritually and in number. Below you will find a prayer that has been composed with this intention in mind. Details about how, as a parish, we will pray this over the coming year, are forthcoming from the Vestry sub-committee on Evangelization. In the meantime, let us pray:
We, your disciples and friends,
ask for the grace to grow in faith, hope and love
and to grow in membership in our part of the Body of Christ,
Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes.
Help us always to heed the words of the Letter to the Hebrews(13:2):
to “let mutual love continue”
and “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers”,
believing that, “by doing so,
some have entertained angels without knowing it”.
Lead us into our neighborhoods to be agents of holy transformation,
and with apostolic zeal, to bring back new parishioners
with whom we may worship you as an awesome God.
Give us hearts wide open to welcome them
and all those who come through our doors.
And, by the power of your Spirit,
may we, together,
“go and make disciples of all nations”(Matthew 28:19)
In this Sunday’s gospel (John 6:1-21), after the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus quickly and quietly withdraws to the mountain. Such withdrawal could seem a little unusual. Why not stay and fellowship with the crowd? Why does Jesus leave? Is it that He was exhausted? Or, perhaps, He does not do crowds after all? Or, maybe, He hates to be touched?
I would venture to say that Jesus withdraws for at least three other reasons:
The crowd’s motives were not pure. The attempt to enthrone Jesus was about them, not really Him. Saint Thomas Aquinas notes (in his commentary on this passage) that “People often want as their ruler someone who will provide them with temporal things.” Jesus wants us to approach Him out of love, not just so to get things. Jesus is not the big PEZ candy dispenser in the sky. No one makes Jesus king. He is already king, the divine king. He is king because He is God. There is no possessing Jesus. There is only surrendering to Him, and letting Him freely fill us.
In all of this, there is an invitation for us to examine our hearts regarding Jesus, regarding God:
Grateful with you,
“Quo Vadis?”, Latin for “Where are you going?” A question of direction and destiny. Where are we going? What is our end and purpose?
I would venture to say that, humanly speaking, we have one primary end: close, loving relationships with significant others. Of course, very important and often satisfying in our lives are our activities of creativity and productivity as well as our communal involvement. But, as Aristotle said back in 350 BC, and as human experience still seems to confirm, “Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods.” (Nichomachean Ethics, chapter 7).
As Christians, we have another destiny, in addition to this. We are called to relationship with the Significant Other, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. All humanity is called to this, but we who call ourselves Christians have the privilege of more deliberately and consciously entering into it. It is indeed a privilege, not a right. It does not make us humanly better than other people; it makes of us servants who know that they are loved.
In the Letter to the Ephesians, dated approximately 62 AD, St. Paul articulates our divine destiny is as Christians. It is unbelievable—or, better, believable, thanks to the gift of faith! Below are excerpts from this Sunday’s incredibly rich second reading, the opening to the Letter to the Ephesians (1:3-14), a flood of luminous insight:
God…has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…to be holy and blameless before him in love.
He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
In him we have…the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.
He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure.
In Christ we have obtained an inheritance…so that we…might live for the praise of his glory.
In him you also…were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people.
Let us happily embrace our divine destiny, thanking God for His mercy.
Yours in mercy,
July 15, 2018
At a time when there is much conversation about national sovereignty and borders and legal vs. illegal immigration, it is interesting that we have a Scripture passage (Ephesians 2:19-22) in which St. Paul speaks ofcitizenship: “you are citizens with the saints”. It is a metaphor, of course (which, obviously, entails a passing acknowledgement of the fact that there are nations comprised of citizens).
St. Paul makes use of this along with another metaphor, that of household: “you are members of the household of God”, to speak of belonging. Add to these, the metaphor of temple: “a holy temple in the Lord”, and we begin to understand how unified we as Church are to be and how much all of this is the gratuitous work of God in us. There is no test for this belonging. There is only the gift of God and our choice to receive and cooperate with it.
Beyond the reality of nations, beyond all human relationships and endeavors, we have been lovingly incorporated into something much bigger than us, that will last forever, in which God delights to dwell. Perhaps, it is best simply to let this passage speak:
You are citizens with the saints
and also members of the household of God,
built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
In him the whole structure is joined together
and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;
in whom you also are built together spiritually
into a dwelling place for God.
Together with you as holy temple,
fellow pupil of Jesus
St. Paul makes what appears to be a terribly nonsensical statement: “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10). This defies human logic. I know that, as far as my experience goes, whenever I am weak, then I am, well, weak. When I feel helpless to assist a friend who is grieving the loss of a parent, I am weak. When I have been battling insomnia, I am weak. When I lack the magnanimity of heart to reach out to a family member in need because I have yet to forgive them a past hurt, I am weak. And, weakness is trying and discouraging.
How can St. Paul speak of strength in weakness? Is he a stubbornly naïve optimist? No. He speaks of a power not his own. He speaks of the power of Christ. He tells of Jesus’ response to his request to be relieved of particular, particularly humiliating weakness (what exactly it is we do not know).
Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
St. Paul discovered that Christ comes mysteriously to meet us in our weakness. How wonderful! I am not alone in my weakness. What freedom. What strength. My weakness need not have the last word. Indeed, St. Paul goes on to say, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me”.
Let us dare hope-fully to welcome Christ in our weakness and know the freedom of the children of God.
Yours in Him,
From the desk of the Rector