The Kingdom of God is at Hand

“After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:14-20)

In the Gospel reading for Mass on Monday this week, Jesus initiates his preaching ministry by focusing on the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. The Jewish people of Jesus’ day long awaited the coming of a Davidic King who would rule an everlasting kingdom. Naturally, Jesus did not quite meet the royal expectations of his Galilean listeners, but there was another major Jewish expectation that many readers of Jesus’ message miss. Jesus was indeed the Davidic fulfillment of the Scriptures, but he was also the long awaited new Moses, coming to lead his followers on a new Exodus. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses proclaimed to the Israelites:

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren–him you shall heed…And the LORD said to me, ‘They have rightly said all that they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak all that I command him” (Deut. 18:15-18).

Later Jewish tradition would connect this prophecy with that of the future Messiah, who would lead Israel in a great time of need:

“Rabbi Berekiah said in the name of Rabbi Isaac: “As the first redeemer [Moses] was, so shall the latter Redeemer [the Messiah] be. What is stated of the former redeemer? ‘And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass’ (Exod. 4:20). Similiarly will it be with the latter Redeemer, as it is stated, ‘Lowly and riding upon an ass’ (Zach. 9:9). As the former Redeemer  caused manna to descend, as it is stated, ‘Behold, I will cause to rain bread from heaven for you’ (Exod. 16:4), so will the latter Redeemer cause manna to descend, as it is stated, ‘May he be as a rich grainfield in the land’ (Ps. 72:16). (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:28, 3rd or 4th century A.D.)

Notice the parallels between Moses and Jesus as described in the New Testament. The Messiah will ride upon an ass, cause manna to descend from heaven, and be the Redeemer of the people of Israel. Just as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt for the purpose of creating a Covenant nation set apart for the worship of God, so Jesus begins a new Exodus made in the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-33) of His body and blood. By inaugurating the arrival of the Kingdom of God, a new Exodus, Jesus says to His listeners that He is not only the Davidic King, but he is also announcing the long awaited consumation of the eternal feasting and worship of God. 

“In the World to Come there is no eating or drinking…but the righteous sit with crowns on their heads feasting on the brightness of the divine presence, as it says, “And they beheld God, and did eat and drink” (Exod. 24:11). (Babylonian Talmud 17A).

Jesus is the bringer of salvation to the whole world, but he is also the heavenly manna or “bread of heaven” (John 6:51) who will sustain His people with eternal life through the Eucharist.

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world…Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him” (John 6:52, 54-57).

By participating in the new Passover of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross represented every Mass through the Eucharist, the coming of the Kingdom of God is not just a 1st century historical event or a future realization at the end of time, it is a daily ever-present reality offered to each and every one of us. The challenge is to have the faith to experience the reality of Christ in the Eucharist.

Happy are Those who Love – Part 2

Maximus Confessor

In our last segment of “Happy are Those who Love” part 1 (click here to read), we learned about the call of divine love begins a process of detachment from the our old way of life. This is not a form of escapism from the world but a call to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self” (Eph. 4:22, 24) as St. Paul exhorts the Ephesians. What are the qualities of the old & new self? St. Paul gets right to the core of this dynamic in his letter to the Ephesians:

“17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you”
(Eph. 4:17-25 ESV).

St. Paul claims that those who do not have Christ are dark in their understanding and hardened in their hearts to sin. However, when a Christian puts off the old self and puts on the new self in Christ, which is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness,” a new spiritual space opens up as we mentioned in the previous segment of this series. However, it is more than just a space, but a new way of being. Paul is not speaking metaphorically here. This “new self” now participates in the God through the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us as His new temple (1 Cor. 6:19). St. Peter will even go so far as to affirm that through Christ we become partakers in the very divine nature itself, which entails a new way of living in the world:

“3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:3-8, ESV).

St. Maximus the Confessor repeats the blessed Apostle’s exhortation by connecting knowledge + practicing the virtues as “assisting…in pursuit of divine love” (Chapters on Love, 1.11). The journey to divine love begins in detachment and putting on the new self, but Maximus then adds that “pure prayer” allows a Christian to fully let go of worldly attachments.

“When through love the mind is ravished by divine knowledge and in going outside of creatures has a perception of divine transcendence, then, according to the divine Isaiah, it comes in consternation to a realization of its own lowliness and says with conviction the words of the prophet: Woe is me for I am stricken at heart; because being a man having unclean lips, I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips and I have seen with my eyes the King, the Lord of hosts” (Chapters on Love, 1.12).

The closer to holiness one gets through divine love, the clearer the need of grace and the clearer one sees the “darkened minds” and “hardened hearts” of the world. However, this does mean that Christians are to respond to this darkened and hardened world with hate. Maximus states that “the one who loves God cannot help but love also every man as himself even though he is displeased by the passions of those who are not yet purified…The one who sees a trace of hatred in his own heart through any fault at all toward any man whoever he may be makes himself completely foreign to the love for God, because love for God in no way admits of hatred for man” (Chapters on Love, 1.13, 15). Because God is love, and because Christians are partakers in the divine nature, we must only have love for other people. Maximus asserts that the command of our Lord to love our enemies was meant to “free [us] from hate, sadness, anger, and grudges, and might grant [us] the greatest possession of all, perfect love, which is impossible to possess except by the one who loves all men equally in imitation of God, who loves all men equally and ‘wills that they be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth'” (Chapters on Love 1.61).

So why does the Bible speak of hate in many places, for example in Proverbs 8:13, “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.”? Our culture today makes it very difficult to make a distinction between hatred of people and a hatred of sin, between godly and sinful hatred as presented in the Bible. The world frequently wishes to love others by affirming everything they do or identify with in their personhood, but this is not a Christian perspective. Divine love is what Christians embody and share with the world, even with their enemies (Matt. 5:44); so there is no room for hated against anyone in the sharing of divine love, but this does not mean that sinful actions should be affirmed. How can these two poles be reconciled?

In his other writings, Maximus makes a distinction between human nature, what he calls its logos (word, reason, divine plan or will for, intention, principle of existence, etc.), and its tropos, which refers to human nature when it is put into action in the world. A good analogy is that God created humans to be walking creatures (that is a logos), but that principle that God instilled in human nature to be walking creatures is only a potential until a person actually gets up and walks (their tropos). There is a difference between what God created humans to be and how we use that gift in our lives through our actions. God created humans for virtue, but through their free-will, they chose vice instead. Their mode of acting in the world gets corrupted, not their essential nature (who God created them to be). The reverse is true as well. For example, when humans chose truth telling instead of lying, they are living like the “new self” that St. Paul describes because they are living in a new mode of being, a Holy Spirit-infused new life in Christ.

The problem of divine love in our times is two-fold: (1) hearts and minds are given over to sinful actions with attachment and a habit of living is developed to the extent that one’s very identity as a person is often wrapped up with those sinful attachments and habits, and to not affirm those elements of a person is perceived to deny them love and show them hatred; (2) Christians often treat people themselves with hatred or judgment instead of fully loving them as persons created and loved by God while not affirming what God does not affirm in all of us. It is a clash of worldviews without much charity, and it is difficult to navigate this clash without a lot of wounds and scars.

However, Maximus reminds us to pursue “perfect love” and allow God to transform the disunity in our lives. He says that “perfect love does not split up the one nature of men on the various dispositions but every looking steadfastly at it, it loves all men equally, those who are zealous as friends, those who are negligent as enemies…It does not think evil at all but rather suffers for them, if occasion requires, in order that it may even make friends if possible. If not, it does not fall away from its own intentions as if ever manifests the fruits of love equally for all men. In this way also our Lord and God Jesus Christ, manifesting his love for us, suffered for all mankind and granted to all equally the hope of resurrection, though each one renders himself worthy either of glory or of punishment” (Chapters on Love, 1.71).

Just as pursuing divine love involves the process of detachment from the treasures of the world, which paradoxically sets us free and makes us joyful and happy, so does imitating our Lord in loving others through sacrificial love. Love is the willing of the good for the other person as other, and this even means being willing to deny yourself for the sake of the other. Sacrificial love for our neighbor also, paradoxical, gives us joy and makes us therefore happy.

How do we engage in love in a modern world flipped upside down and confused about love. First we must model it in our own lives through self-denial and seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33). Then we must seek perfect love through loving our neighbors as ourselves, even sacrificing for the good of our neighbors. The Companions of The Way seek after the divine love of Jesus through discipleship. In that pursuit of divine love, we are called beyond ourselves to be Companions with all people on The Way.