The Heavenly Mysteries of August

 

dormitio2The months of July and August were renamed in the last century before Christ.  They had been called “fifth month” and “sixth month” (like September, October, November, December; the year used to begin in March) but they were renamed for Julius Caesar and his adopted son Octavian, who was called Augustus.  Augustus is related to augment; Octavian expanded the Roman Empire, so he received that name as his honorific.

(March, May, and June were named for the Roman gods Mars, Maia, and Juno; January means doorway, or beginning; February is from a word for purification, or Spring cleaning; and I can’t find why it’s called April.)

So August is a month named for Empire.  And in this month the Church celebrates a kind of third set of high holy days.  There is the season of the Nativity in winter, the season of the Paschal mystery in spring – and the heavenly mysteries of August.  August reveals the awesome Empire of God.

We talk about a kind of tension about how you define Christianity.  We can call it the religion of the Incarnation: God has become man so that man can become God – and everything follows from that.  Or we can call it the religion of the Cross and Resurrection: by the divine power we pass through death to life.  Each of these is an almost complete way of thinking about Christianity – and each needs some help from the other, to keep its balance.  

But we can also think of Christianity in terms of the heavenly mysteries of August – and indeed, a large part of the tradition does so.  We can think about Christ – but we can also think about the Empire he builds.

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Earlier this month, we pondered the Transfiguration.  It is a kind of manifestation of the Incarnation.  But where divinity is hidden in weakness at Christmas, at the Transfiguration the divine light pours through Christ’s humanity.  The Incarnation is revealed.  The Transfiguration is a preparation for the Cross – a reminder that the one who goes to die is glorious in his divinity.  The Transfiguration is a kind of summary of the Christian faith, a promise of the greatness of Christ.

So too are the two Marian feasts that follow, the Assumption, which we celebrate today, and the Coronation, next week.

The Assumption reveals the true Empire of God.  I heard a fine homily today from a young priest about how the Assumption was “necessary.”  (Friends, Thomists will remind you that our piety gets a little ahead of itself when we talk about divine “necessities.”  God’s pretty powerful, and doesn’t have to do many things.  But it’s okay, amongst ourselves, with several grains of salt, to think about how there’s a kind of connection among the mysteries that makes things sort of seem “necessary.”)  The homilist said it was necessary that she whom God had preserved incorrupt through her life would be uncorrupted by death.  It was necessary that she who had shared so personally in the Crucifixion should share in the Resurrection.  It was necessary that she whose body was united to Christ should share bodily in his triumph.  This is nice.

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But it’s worth turning around the other way (and taking away the “necessity”).  You could say that God “had to” bring her body to heaven if he had involved it in the Incarnation.  But it’s more true to say the opposite: God wanted to bring her body to heaven, and so he involved it in the Incarnation.  Etc.

The Assumption isn’t an afterthought.  It’s more like God’s main thought: he wants to bring Mary – and all of us – body and soul to heaven.  He wants his Empire to extend that far, to save us in our entirety.  And that’s why he did all those other things.  That’s why he did the Incarnation and the Cross – so that we could reach the heavenly mysteries of August.  We mustn’t forget those other mysteries – but we understand all of them better if we know that this is the final destination, and Mary is the firstfruits.  

The Transfiguration, the Assumption, and the Coronation are our Christian destiny.  They are what it’s all about.  They are the glory God has in mind when he enters into all those other mysteries of our faith.

We should ponder these heavenly mysteries of August, dig deeper into them.  Each of them has a surface layer: Jesus is shiny, Mary’s body went up in the air, she gets a crown.  But each of these surfaces reveals the depths of the faith: Jesus’s humanity is filled with divinity; Mary participates fully, in every aspect of her person, in the glorious joys of heaven; everything is at the service of this mystery, everything comes together in the fulfillment prefigured in Mary’s coronation.  

Let us renew our dedication to these heavenly mysteries of August – to the uttermost glory of the Empire of God.

How could you focus your mind better on the August mysteries?  What do we lose when we forget them?

The Transfiguration

PFA83070Two points about the Transfiguration, our feast today – which in the East and the older tradition was viewed as in some ways the greatest feast of all, the feast of the true identity of Jesus.

First: His face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.

At the Transfiguration, Jesus appears for a moment as who he truly is.  “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev 21:3).  “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).  “The Word was made flesh and dwelt within us” (John 1:14).

Jesus is true God and true man, the presence of God within man.  What does that look like?  The Transfiguration is a glimpse.   A magnificent glimpse, because God is portrayed as pure light, and Jesus as a man full of that light.  

Like the burning bush, his humanity is not destroyed by the all-consuming fire of God’s presence.  God’s presence shines out in his humanity.

The word comes to confirm it: “This is my chosen Son.”  And yet the Transfiguration itself shows forth what that word means: true God and true man.

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As the great simple hymn says, “we hail your body glorified and our redemption see.”  One of the desert fathers said, “If you would, you could become all flame.”  This is our redemption, this is the promise.  Our humanity too will shine forth with the light of God. We will be the temple, the dwelling place of God.  

Here on Mount Tabor, for a moment, we get a glimpse.

Praying Morning Prayer for the feast, my children pointed out the parallel to the reading from Revelation in Sunday night prayer: “They shall see the Lord face to face, and bear his name on their foreheads.  The night shall be no more.  They shall need no light from lamps or the sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever.”  We hail your body glorified, and our redemption see.  This is the gospel.  This is heaven.  This what shall be written on our own foreheads.

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Second: And when the voice came, Jesus was found alone.  

That’s how Luke says it, and that’s our reading this year.  It makes even more simple the delicious simplicity of Matthew and Mark: and lifting up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus alone.

St. John Paul II wrote, in his testament for the new millennium, Novo millennio ineunte,

“It is not therefore a matter of inventing a ‘new programme’. The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a programme which does not change with shifts of times and cultures, even though it takes account of time and culture for the sake of true dialogue and effective communication. This programme for all times is our programme for the Third Millennium.”

Because all our hope is in Christ, because Christ transfigured is our hope – what we hope to be and the way we hope to reach that hope, the way the truth the life – the heart of the program must be, as John Paul II says, “contemplate the face of Christ.”

That means, too, “Listen to him.”  We must let his words, his Word, penetrate us, because no other words, no imaginings, can do anything like justice to the enormous truth of the transfigured Christ.  All our ideas fall short of his, of him.  We immerse ourselves in his Word because no other words express the wild reality of the Transfiguration.  We immerse ourselves in his Word because our whole redemption is to immerse ourselves in the transfigured Christ, the consuming fire and the burning bush.

How do your ideals fall short of the Transfiguration?

The Mountain of Lent

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

GN 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; PS 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; ROM 8:31b-34; MK 9:2-10

This Second Sunday in Lent, year B (that is, Mark’s year) presents us with an embarrassment of riches.  The Gospel is the Transfiguration, about which much should be said – but at least it has its own feast day.  The first reading is the Sacrifice of Isaac.  This reading needs really a lot of unpacking, and unfortunately the only other time we read it will be Easter Vigil, when there is too much else going on.

For now, however, let us just consider what these things have to do with Lent.

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The Lectionary, you know, was changed, mostly in good ways, after Vatican II.  But the Transfiguration has always been the reading for this Second Sunday.  Why?

There used to be readings in this first week of Lent (the Lenten “Ember Days”) that give some different models for the Forty Days.  We know of course about Noah in the Ark and Jesus in the wilderness.

But there is also Moses: “When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the LORD made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water” (Deut 9:9; cf. Ex 28:18, 34:28).

And then Elijah gets chased away by Queen Jezebel: “he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die” (as we might be starting to ask, ten days into Lent!).  “An angel touched him and said to him, ‘Arise and eat,’” and gave him bread and water.  “And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.’  And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”

Both of these characters are fasting for forty days – and going up a mountain.  Both of them are beyond their strength, sustained only by the Lord.  And both of them are going up to meet God.

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Although, interestingly, Jesus is talking precisely to Moses and Elijah in the Transfiguration, the Transfiguration isn’t about forty days.  But it is about climbing the mountain of God, and it is perhaps in that way that it it serves to frame our Lent.

Yes, Lent is a long difficult fast, a “journey too great for you.”  But in order to understand that struggle, we have to see its goal – just as, in order to understand the Israelites wandering forty years in the wilderness, we have to see the Promised Land at the end.  We are going up to meet the Lord.

A couple nice details: “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.”  A more literal translation would say, “no clothes maker could make them so white.”  We are on our journey to become clean – nay, not only clean, but dazzling, filled with the light of God.  No human power can do it.  But we go up to the mountain to meet Jesus, who can fill us with light.

The story ends with them “questioning what rising from the dead meant.”  But again: the journey is too long for us, but the power that raises Jesus from the dead will be our strength, too, our bread from heaven, our sustenance that “gives life to the world” (John 6:33).

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The sacrifice of Isaac is a complicated story.  But notice here, too, Abraham is going up the mountain.  He is asked to make a sacrifice too hard for him, a Lenten Cross no man can be expected to bear.  But God provides – Abraham in fact names the place “God provides.” Christ helps him carry his cross, so that he can offer perfect sacrifice.

And the story ends, like our Lent, not with the death of Isaac, but with the promise of life.  “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.”  It is the sign of God’s life-giving power.  It is worth climbing the mountain, starving and gasping for air, to meet the Lord, the giver of life, at the top.

And so our second reading, from Romans, gives the simple principle:  “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”  Why do we fear?  Why do we hoard for ourselves?  Why instead do we not go out to meet Christ in the wilderness, and let him be our bread from heaven?

Where do you secretly ask yourself whether God is worth the trouble?